In Agate’s continuing series highlighting the writing of Paul Gruchow, we share this excerpt from his book Journal of a Prairie Year, with permission of its publisher Milkweed Editions. Who better than Paul Gruchow to take us from spring into summer?
There seems in late spring to be an openness, a frankness, a guilelessness that is missing at other times of the year. I do not suppose that there is more to this than an impression. Life is never innocent.
But there is in spring the openness of the landscape itself. The trees, although green, are not yet in full leaf. One can still see sky through the canopy of a tree. In the grasslands, the vegetation has begun to green, the earliest flowers are in bloom, the insects are about, the spiders are on their webs, the music of the birds is in the air. Everywhere there is the motion of life as it has not been evident for months. But the grasses are just sprouting, and even the fastest growing of the forbs is yet a diminutive thing. The dense thicket of prairie growth has not yet been formed in late spring. One can still see through the shoots of things to the surprisingly bare prairie floor.
Young birds are in the shell or on the nest or they are fledgling. Despite the cleverness with which they have been domiciled, the persistent wanderer cannot help but stumble upon them. The same is true for the young of the mammals. It takes time and attention to catch a fox in action at any other time of the year, but in the spring, even a modestly observant dilettante can find the occupied den of one and stake it out. There is too much youthfulness about life in the spring to keep it long hidden.
So it was that while wandering along a prairie lane one late spring evening, I came to spend a quarter of an hour in the company of a badger. I was minding my own business. I was tired and on my own time. I was not about to get into communion with anything. I simply wanted quiet and the relaxation of being aimlessly in motion.
I had gone a mile or a little more. I was beyond sight and sound of the prairie village in which I lived. The night was springishly free from pollen and insect pests. I was caught up in the absence of my own thoughts. The fact of a world beyond the extremities of my own body had entirely escaped me.
And then it aroused me—as if it were a bar of music to which I was awakening—a loud rustling in the grass at my side. It frightened me. It was such a strange, disembodied, improbably loud rustling. I stood at roadside listening for the noise in the grass again, mildly annoyed to have been interrupted so.
The rustling came again, the same loud, strange, ominous sound. It came from the bottom of the road ditch not more than ten feet away. A ripple of young grass ran up to the edge of the gravel road like a wave of water released somehow from the bondage of gravity.
From it emerged in a moment a young badger. The badger has a reputation for meanness. When it is confronted by a human, it will sometimes bare its big carnassials and begin to hiss and snarl in a most convincing manner, and it will lunge at the intruder as if to kill. A badger is not a tiny creature—an adult weighs about twenty-five pounds—and it comes low-slung, broad-skulled, pug-nosed. It is as muscled as a boxer, and it is decorated with a white racing stripe down the center of its head. It looks like a fat little bomb.
Those who have stood their ground (I am not among them) report that the badger is more bluff than bite, however. It might not stop until it is an inch and three quarters from your ankles, but it will stop.
What looks menacing in an adult often seems merely amusing in a youngster. So it was with the infant badger I was now confronting toe to toe. Its funny black and white face, its short little ears, its short little legs, its enormous, bright, black eyes—all made it seem amusing, vulnerable, appealing.
The badger took no notice of me, although once or twice it almost bumped into me. It would come to the top of the road, flop onto its belly, tuck in its legs, and slide down the young grass into the ditch. When it had reached the bottom, it would flop about until it had found its balance again, right itself, scramble back up the bank and slide down all over again. It looked as if it was having a wonderful time.
We humans, in our thirst for exotica, like to imagine that we alone have contrived aesthetic pleasures. But it is impossible to listen to a coyote singing at moonrise or to watch a flock of swallows on the wing or to encounter a young badger at play without believing that joy is as much a biological fact of life as any other.
I, at any rate, catching the mood of the badger, went on my way again with a skip and a hop.
Essay from “Spring” in Journal of a Prairie Year by Paul Gruchow (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1985). Copyright ©1985 by Paul Gruchow. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. milkweed.org
Agate wishes to thank Milkweed Editions and Lou Martinelli of the Paul Gruchow Foundation for their continuing support of this series, and Trish Carney for sharing her terrific photographs. Check out more of her work!