Prairie Tayles: More Than A Thorn

Nov 3, 2017

As I mulled writing about devil’s claw plants for this column, my thoughts skittered across a dozen bunny trails. So, hang with me. Folks who grow up on the plains frequently re-purpose seemingly unrelated items into functional uses. Stephen Ambrose noted this ability in his book Band of Brothers. He praised the ingenuity of American farm boys who welded metal to fronts and undercarriages of tanks and other military vehicles, permitting them to plow open centuries-old hedgerows. Their problem-solving saved lives and permitted the U.S. front to advance across Europe.

Though nowhere as dramatic as Ambrose’s story, I’ve watched friends and relatives turn what seems unusable into functional objects.

Consider those nasty stickers that thrive at the edges of corn and milo fields. Once they dry, they split into two wicked hooks that attack intruding humans and beasts. Like Norman hedgerows, this natural armament prevents hunters and farmers from getting where they want to go easily. When one embeds itself in the calf, ankle, or foot of you, your hunting dog, or livestock, it’s difficult to imagine them as anything but excruciating torture.

This did not hold true for Grandmother’s creative friend. Southwest Kansas has as many of these evil thorns as we have in Northwest Kansas, so this woman transformed them into art. She’d wander borders of fields carefully collecting them. Somehow, I never thought to ask how often they tore holes in her flesh. She’d dry them further and shake out their seeds so they didn’t expand territory before she turned them into magical creatures.

Following the summer molt, this artisan explored near the artesian well and other springs where a large flock of Meade Lake peacocks quenched their thirst. The noisy, attractive males dropped iridescent tail feathers. Instead of collecting them in a pretty container, Grandma’s friend recognized their potential for combining with her collection of devil’s claws to create tiny replicas of exotic birds.

Somehow, this craftsperson stabilized each massive thorn so it stood on its own. Then she trimmed blue, turquoise, and green feather eyes to fit inside the now dry claws. Satisfied with their fit, she glued each one in place. I know she spent time on this because they survived each of us grandkids’ close and frequent inspection. I’m guessing more than one adult handled them as well. When she finished, she had folk art renditions of courtly birds who dance prettily with fanned tails.

I looked forward to visiting Grandma and Grandpa’s each year for many reasons, and one was to see what new peacocks perched on Lottie’s shelf dispaly. Granddad had already introduced the grands to his favorite birds and entertained them with his imitation of the males’ obnoxious call. This combination made it easy to fall under such a beautiful creature’s spell.

The carefully crafted peafowl imitations in Gram’s house changed my perspective about thorns. This local artist’s imagination and skill increased my appreciation for beleaguered farm boys’ ability to adapt equipment and win WW 2. Funny how something as simple as creating folk whimsies out of what most consider trash connects dots across time. Head down the hole, bunny. Don’t come out until next week!