April showers in Brown County (umbrellas included)

Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

The arrival of spring might be described as lenient, merciful and mild. These terms are also the definition of the word clement, Theodore Steele’s middle name.

I’ve never lived in a city, but I expect that city dwellers also have budding expectations as the end of winter becomes more than just wishful thinking. We all await signs of spring — snowdrops, short sleeves — even rain! A bluebird’s trill one day, a drift of daffodils the next. Spring is cumulative.

Actually spring is more of a dance — two steps forward, one step back. After being teased by temps in the low 70s, it’s back to barely above freezing — but great weather for clearing out the flower beds in Selma Steele’s historic gardens. For you, T.C. Steele’s studio and the country home he shared with his wife Selma offer a glimpse into the past and the arrival of a new season, while sheltered from inclement weather.

T.C. Steele staff member Mary Ann Woerner captured this cheery April scene, despite the drizzle.

Although the site has much to offer on sunny days, (a hike along our wooded trails, a meditative moment at the cemetery, or a stroll through the historic gardens) it’s just as inspiring when the forecast turns gray. Sure, you could remain comfortable and cozy at home, but why not experience a bit of life in the early 1900s — and feel even more comfy in comparison?

Just as 40 degree temperatures feel cool in April but warm in January, comfort is relative. The Steele’s lifestyle (a term yet to be invented in their day) was opulent compared to that of their new Brown County neighbors, but mainstream in Indianapolis, where they usually wintered until 1916.

Eventually, Nature’s attractions overcame convenience, and T.C. and Selma decided to stay in Brown County year-round. Our schedule now coincides with theirs — we’re open year-round — whatever the weather. Don’t let the rain stop you from visiting. We’re high and dry on Bracken Hill.*

Experience spring in both 1907 and 2011. Let your expectations rise along with the waters of Salt Creek. Next time it rains, take a trek to Brown County and enjoy art, history and nature on 211 acres. Leave your umbrellas at home — we have plenty to spare.

*If spring floods leave the road underwater, call 812.988.2785 for detour directions.

The birds of Belmont and Bracken Hill

 Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

All winter long, pileated woodpeckers and their smaller cousins, the red-headed, red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers hammered away, echoing the carpenters working on the Sunroom Restoration at the House of the Singing Winds. Lately, eastern bluebirds have added to the human and avian percussion section with their warbling melodies.

Birdsong is such a welcome and spirit-lifting sound, bringing relief from winter’s cold and snow. “Real birders” can identify individual voices of these spring arrivals, but nature’s music — like art — can be enjoyed without specialized knowledge.

Both birds and art-lovers flock to T.C. Steele State Historic Site, but for different reasons. As a flower and shrub covered clearing amidst deep hardwood forests, the site’s ridgetop setting provides the edge habitat needed by birds, and scenic views enjoyed by humans. Where there are hills, there must be valleys, and Salt Creek and Hunnicutt Valleys, depicted in many of Steele’s paintings, are a fine prelude to what awaits above.

Last week’s heavy rains caused Salt Creek to overflow onto the fallow fields bordering T.C. Steele Road. I was concerned, since a flooded road could mean a long detour, but all was fine — even more than fine as I spotted several migrating sandhill cranes feeding in the cornfield stubble transformed into a temporary wetland.

As I stopped to watch, I wondered about their diet. Had the floodwaters washed up fish or frogs into the fields? That’s what’s on the menu for great blue herons, which are similar in size to cranes and prefer the same marshy areas. Time for some research.

It turns out that the sandhills feed on corn, left from last year’s harvest, with perhaps an insect or two as an appetizer. But they may have been attracted by the water, since they were gone in two days, along with the puddles. This year, the rains coincided with their migration, and it was the first time I’d seen them there.

I also learned that the herons’ arrival comes a week or two after the cranes pass through — but they stick around. In summer, these large herons can often be seen flying over or wading in Salt Creek’s shallows. I’ll be glad to welcome them back.

Passing by the same field earlier in the week, a large shape in a tree caught my eye. A resident bald eagle was eyeing the field for a possible meal. What a treat to see! Even though Selma Steele found the Belmont grocery lacking when she moved here in 1907, the area wildlife isn’t complaining.

Soon daffodils will add color to the drab winter landscape, but for now, birds are on the move. So bring your binoculars to Brown County for some birding on what was in the Steele’s time known as Bracken Hill.

Chasin’ Away the Blues

great-blue-heronToday was the third morning I sighted a Great Blue Heron on my drive to work, in the same area as before. About a mile north of T.C. Steele State Historic Site, Salt Creek runs westward on its way to Lake Monroe. The turn-off onto T.C. Steele Road is at the little town of Belmont, about halfway between Nashville (Indiana) and Bloomington. Ahead of me was the bridge that crosses Salt Creek, and over the creek, flying parallel to it, was the heron.

These herons are large birds, deserving of the name great. How you’d describe them further would depend on whether you saw them flying, or ‘at rest’. When they are hunting (for fish, frogs, reptiles and crayfish) they appear to be resting, until they use their spear-like beaks to jab their prey. Blink, and you’ll miss it.

Flying is another matter. If they were walking, they’d be sauntering — with an occasional stagger thrown in. The only bird I know that looks more awkward in flight is the Wild Turkey. I’ve never seen a Great Blue Heron at rest, on the nest, but I hope to someday.

They prefer tall trees, (usually near water) often nesting with other herons in ‘rookeries’. Apparently they don’t watch Home Improvement, but maybe they should. Their nests have been described as piles of sticks, added to over the years without benefit of Planning and Zoning.

This statue represents either a heron or a crane — people often confuse the two.

This statue represents either a heron or a crane — people often confuse the two.

Selma Steele placed this garden sculpture by her lily ponds. Today,  it is stored away — out of sight due to damage. I hope it can be restored soon and returned to its former spot. The Koi swimming in the ponds won’t need to worry about this heron (or crane). I’ll do more research, but meanwhile I’m calling it a Great Blue Heron.

I have learned that Great Blue Herons were more prevalent in the Steele’s day, just as Belmont was more of a town then than it is now. The road that the Steeles took on their way home was much rougher too, but there were compensations. Likely, they saw even more herons than I have and were just as uplifted by the sight, as they began the steep climb to The House of the Singing Winds. It’s hard to have the blues when you’ve just seen a Great Blue Heron.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.