Into the Whiteness …

Once again Listening Stones Farm is enveloped in a shroud of whiteness hiding all but the muted yellow of the few strands of big bluestem that somehow refuses to yield under the depths of previous snows, adding a stiff defiance while bending only to staunch prairie winds.

This curtain of a white, supposed secrecy has draped itself to shorten the world beyond, a world that would likely be a mystery if not for those days when it is not. Days when the now unseen silo of the distant farm to the west pokes through a tree line, or to the tree line to the east that so resembles the one back home on our Missouri farm when I was yet a child, and before my mother’s last great garden was buried beneath a huge pole barn for her husband’s farm machinery.

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“Lone Tree” was an image made after a snow when a hoarfrost and fog encompassed the prairie.

My sister, here for a visit a few years back, noticed the similarity of views when I pointed it out to her. And when the weather is conducive to having a steaming cup of morning tea on the deck, I can look at that tree line and think of my youth: Of the oddly placed farm pond on the hilltop that always seemed full even in the driest of summers, that  yielded plump bluegill and aggressive bass to at least three generations of family fishers; of the tall, lone and statuesque cottonwood adjacent to the pond, just to the south, though now long gone with latent buried, deadened strands of roots plowed over for the switched crops of corn and soybeans. The pond remains as does the aged tree line a half mile distant. Even the old pole shed is gone, victim to deep, wet snows of this same winter.

So now, in a grip of winter many are ready to see yield to the greening of spring, that view of a similar but distant tree line two states north is presently hidden by a blizzard.

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Forester Terns rise from an ice sheet on a Winter Solstice afternoon.

Which brings me to this, on a day when wind-blown snow is making travel impossible ­­­­­…

Not so long ago a friend from the past, with whom we reconnected after nearly 50 years this past October, wondered if I would do a “white on white” posting of my images. As I ponder the evasiveness, guile and drive of the lone wolf that braved the ice of Lake Superior to return to her homeland from Isle Royale, and look at that impenetrable wall of whiteness, I wonder if I can find beauty, or even perhaps a sense of peace, within this overwhelming whiteness?

What draws us (or me) to whiteness? Is it an uncluttering in a vastly and increasing turbulent world? Is it a need for simplicity? A search for minimalism? Purity, if there is indeed such a thing? Or, is it a contrast, and as we sometimes hear, a choice between good and evil? Purity and evil aside, that there is contrast is a given.

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Simplicity of a White Egret at a nearby wetland …

Recently I was in an art class where we were to pour paint on a blank canvas. Like many of the others I chose and toyed with various colors of poured paints. My neighboring artist who shared the same table used but two vials of paint … one black, the other white, and created an incredibly interesting piece. So interesting I could barely keep from staring at it in wonder. I believe the reason was because of both the contrast and complex patterns she created. She first poured a large pool of white onto the canvas, then a small pool of black in the center of the white paint. Then she swirled a sharpened stick along with canvas itself to create a contrasting fluid pattern that included a hinting blend of gray … just enough to give it an overall wow factor.

Uncluttered? Yes. Simplistic? Yes. Minimalistic? Yes. Good or evil? Get a life!

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White Pelicans circling above Big Stone Lake on an overcast, rather gloomy day.

Since there isn’t such luxury with a camera, unless perhaps you have a talent for “photo-shopping” (which I decidedly don’t), I must rely on using traditional photojournalistic camera techniques. Most of which is simply recognizing natural patterns of composition in nature and knowing where to monitor the light for the type of exposure for the image I want.

There’s that, yet it has more to do with simply being there. Venturing out in hoarfrosts and fogs, into snowy prairie fields and even taking advantage of dull, overcast skies are certainly as important as learning to meter and use composition and light for the image you want. How can you secure an image if you’re not there?

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Swans on the Ottertail River near Fergus Falls.

Back in my early career years one of my true joys was the freedom afforded to what newspaper editor’s called “weather art.”  Leave the office and head to the streets, parks and nature areas. The key for me, at least, was to avoid clichés while capturing the cold, the heat of a summer day, or even the “whiteness” of the weather. Public areas were great because they were “public,” meaning you could capture nature as well as people.

What I do today is not so much different from capturing weather art. My focus is now on the declining nature of the native prairies. This encompasses forbs and grasses as well as the oak savannas, wetlands, birds and other wild animals that frequent them. Like before, I don’t use filters, and depend on ambient color, natural light and whatever nature puts before me while using an eye for composition and knowledge of photographic technique.

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“Crow” was a minimalist image made after I was left alone in a sudden and unexpected departure.

A few years ago I fashioned a series of blue images, and now, in light of the surrounding curtain of whiteness on a cold and blustery winter day, and a friendly challenge, with blown snow clinging to the windows, and with tree limbs and swards of bluestem dancing in this brutal prairie wind, here are my images where white is the defining element.

Are they images of purity, peace and/or minimalism? Perhaps, yet for me what I wish to feel most is a sense of comfort. Comfort along with a feeling of warmth … especially on a day of blizzard-plastered windows, purple highway travel advisories, and such a remote sense of snowy isolation.

A Winter Haunting

Some 20 or so years ago Margreet was seated “shotgun” as we traversed the prairie en route to the small town where I ran a weekly newspaper. As we edged along on the brutally cold winter afternoon with the heater at full blast, I was becoming rather self conscious since it seemed my Dutch friend was intent at staring at me. Finally in complete self consciousness I asked, “So what’s up?” as I brushed imaginary crumbs off my down vest.

Margreet smiled in apology. “I’ve just never seen anything quite like that,” she said, bending forward to point past me and off to the southwest. It was then that I noticed the sundog hanging in the sky. After years of winter prairie living, sundogs seemed to hang in winter skies like pictures on a living room wall. You took them for granted knowing they’re likely there, and that you can look up in appreciation when reminded.

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A late afternoon sundog appears above an granite outcrop at the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.

After a short, layman’s explanation, I asked if I should pull over so she could some photos. If I would have stated something like, “Oh, sundogs are simply hexagonal ice crystals suspended in cirrostratus clouds that refract sunlight to create a halo effect. Sometimes they’re called an icebow, nimbus, or gloriole” I might have lost the magic of the moment for Margreet.

Margreet is an artist and photographer, as well as a practitioner of wholistic wellness practices for women back in her hometown north and west of Amsterdam. She quickly reached into her travel bag for her camera and we pulled off onto the shoulder of the highway where she proceeded to burn a roll of film … some with her in the foreground, and a few of her host. A recent visit to her home in Holland indicated how impressed she was of the sundog, for an old print of it was framed and still on display.

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Taken during a brutal, windy day when the Parhelic Circle cuts through the snow.

Sundogs are indeed a phenomenon of brutal, icy skies. The previous and somewhat scientific explanation is what creates these icy halos which can form what are called “Parhelic Circles” of which we rarely see the bottom third. These circles occur when “sun” pillars reach high into the sky above the sun. On the “right days” when it all comes together you have a rather special and magical sight.

Sundogs are most visible when the sun is near a horizon either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Apparently there is no historical reference on why the name, although according to various sources the name “sundog” has existed in language since the early 1600s.

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A left arc of the sundog on the prairie near my Listening Stone farm.

Here in the North Country we may be over our limit of sundogs for this winter. At dawn you’ll first see the tip of the sun, then to the side rainbow-ish arcs begin to emerge to foretell of a day of frigid, Arctic temperatures. Hours later those arcs are the first to disappear, then the sun lowers below the horizon. Hopefully we will have found warmth within those bookends of time.

Strangely I am now captive of their existence. This winter alone I suspect nearly a dozen sundogs have begun their rise in the Eastern sky across from my Listening Stones prairie. Some mornings they appear as rainbow colored arcs complete with vivid colors, while on other mornings they are nearly as bright as the blinding sun. On some mornings sun pillars rise into the sky above the sun to form that apex of a Parhelic Circle. Years ago I photographed such a Circle somehow poking through a prairie blizzard.

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A snow crusted coneflower head against a sundog arc here at the farm taken on a day when I needed to seek a different image of a sundog.

Of late I have greeted morning visitors of a social media site with images of the numerous sundogs prompting one friend to ask if my next exhibit would be titled “Being Haunted by Sundogs.” After another such posting I “promised” I was done picturing them, yet a few days later I posted yet another image (now three sundogs ago) when another friend chided me. “I thought you were done with sundogs,” she wrote, quite possibly in jest. Maybe they’re harder to give up than smoking.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m simply overwhelmed by the dearth of winter color, of all the typical grayness or snow-blown whiteouts. Yet there are times when the magic of winter provides immense joy. Capturing the color of a sunrise or sunset in ice formations, or the ambient colors painted on snow dunes created by prairie winds can do that. So does the absolute freshness of a world turned frosty white with the crystals of a hoarfrost. Those rainbow colors of a sundog affects me just as deeply.

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At a recent dawn, a sun pillar rises into the sky above the sun to form the apex of a Parhelic Circle. This was on the edge of my home prairie.

So, yes, I suppose I am haunted by sundogs in much the same way Norman Maclean was haunted by trout stream waters. And for which I can offer no apology

In the Context of Winter

As the prairie winds whip the upper third of the big bluestem stalks on the native prairie outside my windows … for the lower two thirds are encapsulated in thigh-high drifts of wind-blown snow … I wonder of winter. Specifically I wonder if I like winter.

Notice I use “like” rather than “love.” Those two words are often interchanged as are “need” and “want.” People seem driven to pin you down over some object of desire, momentarily or not. Is it a “want” or a “need?” Such a nebulous argument! Similarly, you can like someone and not love them, just as normally as you can love but not necessarily like them.

So we look at winter. Our ecosystem probably needs winter more so than we want one as humans. With rare exceptions, and I’ve met folks who absolutely love winter, most of the desire for a cold winter day comes in the midst of a hot and humid summer day, especially if you’re portaging a canoe through a bog or wetland with halos of mosquitoes buzzing around. Even I’ve been known to shout: “Bring on winter!”

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Some people love winter, the simplicity, the isolation, the pure beauty.

 

Now it’s here. We’re in the midst of an old fashioned, weather-defined kind of snow-bound winter. The day following Christmas I drove my adult son quickly across the prairie to his group home to beat a predicted blizzard. Later that afternoon the snows came, and with nightfall, the wind. Between the snow and wind I could make out the swinging bird feeders about sixty feet from my office window. Beyond that there remained a white curtain for most of  three days. On the fourth the skies cleared, yet there was too much snow to move. And my country road has one resident in a five mile stretch … me. Blading my road isn’t high on the priority list. On the fifth day a second blizzard arrived, and the skies didn’t clear until New Year’s day.

This is actually pure torture for an extrovert like myself. My dear friend, Mary, on the other hand was in absolute heaven an hour or so east of here. “I read three books,” she said, happily. I survived by talking with friends and family on social media, and watching televised sports and a movie or two. Yes, I also read. Sporadically. “Like” and certainly “love” of winter never crossed my mind.

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Forays have been made into the prairies and  oak savannas searching for images.

While we rarely face such extremes for such an extended time, this weekend was of more winter. I had been accepted for an arts show at a winery about two hours east of here as part of a community winter celebration only to discover that my water lines to the upstairs bathroom had frozen overnight. After contacting the winery I spent most of the day working to free the lines. By evening the water was finally coursing through the lines. I could have taken off for the second of the two day event on Saturday and simply didn’t have the heart to go. One of my artist friends had given me a dire report on the previous day’s attendance. And, there would be no music on the second day. It was a lot of driving for such a short time. On icy, snow packed roads.

After all of this perhaps you may suspect I have a far different feeling toward winter, bordering on “dislike” or even “hate.” Perhaps in another month or two …

There are aspects of winter, though, I thoroughly love. A first snow, especially one that seems to magically drift from the heavens. Hoarfrosts that create a special winter wonderland of an ice encrusted universe. And there is the crystalline beauty of sun dogs, hanging two rainbow-ish arcs in a deep blue skies. Certainly I love the scent of a Winter Solstice bonfire, and of sitting on bales of straw with friends as the Milky Way drifts into deepened celestial depths.

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Winter often offers as much beauty as challenge, physically as well as mentally.

I get the “time out” aspect. My ex as well as many others cherish this downtime to dream and plan their gardens, and in a few weeks will be pushing smooth seeds into dirt and activating grow lights. Those with passive solar winter greenhouses sit amongst cozy, warmed green plants munching on pinched leaves with smiles on their faces. Others, like my friends Greg Lockwood and Dan Angelo, are nursing along new wines, dipping hydrometers into carboys to measure alcohol content.

Despite all the cuddling with Joe Pye, my time hasn’t really gone to waste. So far this month I’ve read three books and am nearly through my fourth. And while I haven’t rinsed my carboy or toyed with a seed catalog, I have made forays into the nearby prairies and oak savannas looking for images. I’m holding up rather well mentally despite the weather-forced isolation.

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There are aspects of winter, though, I thoroughly love. A first snow, especially one that seems to magically drift from the heavens.

One of the beauties of my life was in returning to the Midwest for an editorial position with a large publishing firm, the part of the country with four distinct season. Yes, sometimes I feel spring and autumn seem way too confined, and that summer drags long into hot Septembers. Winters often offer as much beauty as challenge … physically as well as mentally. Especially a long, drawn out winter.

I’ve learned that sometimes you can like a winter and not love it, and other times you can love it without liking it. Maybe winter is there for us to learn how to balance our souls, which we sometimes both want and need.

Releasing Our Inner Pagan

Unfortunately I’ve not seen the sun’s celebratory blast through the pivotal stone at Stone Hinge come dawn on a Winter Solstice. If my luck was to hold true, it is highly possible that if I even made a trek to England for a Solstice, clouds would probably dim the magical moment.

It’s like an older woman told me years ago while celebrating what seemed the first cloudless night in her lifetime of a highly anticipated cosmic event, this time a meteor shower: “Looking back through the years, that I would actually experience something of this magnitude is unreal. I mean, really? No clouds?”

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White tails in the Solstice hoarfrost.

 

So once again we ventured into our annual celebration of light without the sun. We did, however, between two vastly different Winter Solstice parties, have an incredible hoarfrost, so our actual Winter Solstice day was full of wondrous winter magic after all.

Sadly I’m a late comer to the celebration of Solstices. Most of my years were spent simply reading the calendar notation noting it as the “First Day of Winter.” Conversations were no less convincing nor exciting since we labeled it as our “the shortest day of the year” … which came roughly six months after the “longest day of the year.” This certainly leaves you with a certain kind of ultimate optimism to find some valid reason for celebration.

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My first Winter Solstice images.

 

Interestingly, two obscurely different events happened almost concurrently … providing “concurrently” may be used to describe events basically six months apart and half a country away. This is, after all, less than a blink of an eye in eon time. The first was an annual Summer Solstice celebration a Swedish friend had in Boston that included incredibly delightful cuisine made by her husband chef, served in a small fairly formal garden in their Cambridge yard. The wine flowed freely along with good cheer and conversation. As a native Swede, though, Asa called it “Midsummer” rather than a “Summer Solstice” celebration.

Half a year later, and halfway across the country, another dear friend, Audrey Arner, invited me to one of her long running Winter Solstice parties at their Moonstone Farm outside of Montevideo. Venison strips soaking in a marinade were placed in vessels next to two bonfires … one fire seemingly for us older “old hippies and river rats,” another for our long-suffering children (who are now showing signs of grayness, too) … where whittled pointed sticks were placed for roasting the meat strips over glowing coals.

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This set of images captured after moving to Listening Stones Farm in Big Stone County.

Inside a chummy summer kitchen nearby simmered a pot of wassail. On the island counter were both commercial and homemade wines, stews and chilies, and any number of sweet and salty treats. As much as the Boston area Midsummer was celebrated, so was the Winter Solstice here in the prairie where, amazingly, stars glowed like distant coals from the heavens above even on the grayest of days. While nestled warmly inside furry hooded outerwear, longjons, mittens, Sorels and Mukluks, with tee-peed bonfires blazing into the contrasted darkness, a sense of community, cheer and celebration filled an otherwise frigid air.

At one of the Moonstone Solstice parties, my venture inside for a restroom break brought me to Queen Colleen, a bluesy, blustery prairie fiddle player who was deep in her battle with a severe cancer. She was in great spirits, smiling and expressing confidence in a new experimental treatment from Mayo’s … so confident, she said, that she was going on tour, even down to Florida and back. Within months we had lost Colleen, and since a few others, and now some of our community of artists, organic farmers and friends are likewise facing aging and health issues. Yet, we move ever onward celebrating both light and life, toasting those we’ve known and know.

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On our latest Solstice we were greeted with a wondrous winter wonderland!

There is a certain solemness to the “shortest day of the year,” and not much promise in the “first day of winter.” And if I may be so bold, Midsummer and the Summer Solstice foretells of a sun path that leads to the darkening of the skies. You hardly thought of such things when Rufus appeared with another plated creation into Asa’s garden, and you raised a glass again and again to celebrate this annual apex of a now settling sun … the celebration you so look forward to in the wooded confines of Moonstone farm a half country to the west in the deepest part of a dark winter’s night.

Years ago, when the realization of the meanings of the Solstices came to bear, I began to make images that would celebrate the light … seeking a photojournalistic recording in even the most overcast of days. Yes, there were Solstice days of sunshine, and there were days when we would get a short peak of the sun just as it was nearing the horizon.

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If I were to choose one from our most recent Winter Solstice, this reflection of a tree in hoarfrost would be my favorite.

This year we were greeted with an incredible hoarfrost … and, once again, no sun. Yet, in all ways the celebration continued in time counted by the eon rather than on printed pages of calendars segregating time — our one day of the year when we can release our inner pagan for all to see!

Buck Fever

He’s there, somewhere. Stately, with a pointed rack as wide as Wyoming. He’s shy, and hides well, blending into the brush and thickets in both color and antler. Yesterday he eased quietly from the prairie meadow into nearby thickets and low hanging oak branches, the leaves still clasp to the mother trees. This morning he was distant from the herd, and the black rim edging the white of its tail barely gave him away … through the trees, half a football field away, his eyes focused intently on my every move.

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This morning, about a half football field away, the buck eyed me warily.

There are other whitetail bucks around. A younger, smaller one was near the big buck this morning. Much less shy and much closer. Another one darted across the “lake road” the other morning with beautiful antlers, but a thin body. Not bold and beautiful like the buck at the foot of the ravine near and within the state park. Not the one I’m hunting.

While I like venison, I’m not a hunter. I don’t even own a gun. My hunting is with my eyes and a camera.

Like my hunter friends, I suffer with buck fever. Mine is of a different variety. Mine derives from this quest to freeze this majesty into an image, and is far from being frozen in anticipation of a kill. My quest is to capture life, not to end it.

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My quest is to capture life, not to end it.

My Listening Stones Farm is about three miles from Big Stone Lake State Park, and like the park, the abandoned groves between here and the park create nice edge for seemingly dozens of whitetail deer. Less than a year ago I came across this stately buck in the park. For the past several mornings and late afternoons I’ve driven to the park in search of the big bruiser. Long story short, I’m still looking for a decent shot. There my hunter friends and I share a commonality.

Often I hear there are too many deer. Maybe. Who am I to judge. I can, however, look back to my youth in the rolling hills of Missouri and remember when there were no deer. None. People look at me with marvel when I say this. It’s true. When I was a teenager in the 1950s the Missouri Department of Conservation backed a stock trailer into the woods near to my father’s farm and released a buck and a handful of does. There were a few witnesses, though no celebration that I can recall. A photograph of the release was in the Macon Chronicle Herald. Now Macon County is often recognized as one of the ten best deer hunting counties in the nation by the hook and bullet magazines. My nephew claims it is a rare venture into his fields when he doesn’t see a deer.

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I do remember what it is like when there were no deer. Translated to mean no magic. No graceful leaps over fences and downed logs. No doe-eyed stares. No fawns. No animals of freedom and the wild.

So I do remember what it is like when there were no deer. Translated to mean no magic. No graceful leaps over fences and downed logs. No doe-eyed stares. No fawns. No animals of freedom and the wild.

Sometimes I smile when remembering the books on whitetail deer by Leonard Lee Rue III. It was like he owned a deer farm. An old friend now living in Maine, who was once a photographer for the New York Times, recently asked if I owned a deer farm because of my sharing images on social media. No, and it’s not something I would want. I’ve seen a few deer and elk farms with their 12 ft. high fences, and I find them as sad statements on our commerce. And, sometimes at my exhibits at art festivals someone will say, “You must live near deer.” The first time I was surprised, then I took inventory and realized that, yes, I did have a number of deer images. This seemed more natural than unique.

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A younger, smaller one was near the big buck this morning. Much less shy and much closer.

Equally sad are the tales. A friend was telling of his dismay of listening to a hunter describe the beauty of a frosty  mountainous area where he was hunting, and of a bull elk that had appeared suddenly to bugle classically on a nearby ridge … just moments before he raised a high powered rifle and put a bullet through its chest from a thousand feet away. The hunter’s description was an understandable admiration, yet with a troubling conclusion. If the moment is so magical, why put a bullet through it? I’ve heard deer hunters tell similar stories. I mean no offense to hunters. I simply have no understanding of such reasoning; no more of an understanding than I have of safari hunters who pose proudly beside an elephant, lion or pathetically, a zebra they have shot.

My brief glimpses of the majestic buck down the hill has given me hope of another year of his survival. This was the first of the two weekends of deer season. Hunters drive slowly by the groves, including mine, eying the edge. Unlike the predator hunters, they exhibit sportsmanship and exit their pickups to stalk their prey.

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Last December I captured my first image of the buck of my quest. I’m still looking for an image this fall.

Yet, the Boone and Crockett mentality in search of the trophy rack … the spread of ten to twelve antler points … like the buck of my quest so proudly wears, often proves fatal; an animal of freedom and the wild that will so shyly and covertly slip quietly into natural camouflage for simple survival.