Threshold of a Spring Forthcoming

Initially my reasoning for applying for memberships to birding social media sites from Missouri and Iowa was to enjoy photographs birders presented, and in particularly for Missouri Birders. A few years ago we had just visited the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge in Northwest Missouri where we saw hundreds of thousands of Snow Geese, hundreds of swans and enough eagles to grab your attention. Compared to our home Big Stone NWR, or even the nearby Sand Lake NWR in South Dakota, there was no comparison in the number of birds to see in this slough-ish backwater of the Missouri River near Forest City.

Last spring I added the Iowa Birding, also found on the social media site. Now, though, those two sites are adding something I simply hadn’t anticipated … a threshold of a coming of Spring. This began about a month ago near the calendar page of February as we were buried deeply beneath another blizzard. Images coming from Loess Bluffs and other areas of the Show Me state were offering a semblance of hope as the Snow Geese were offering blizzards of promises that in time this long winter would become the tales of woe for years to come.

Now a month later, similar images are being posted in Iowa Birding. We’ll be next.

So, yes, they’re coming. Spring is on the way even as we face another dismal forecast of snow and wind! 

Sandhill Cranes descending on a central Nebraska plan.

In anticipation, a few weeks ago I was able to secure a three day special package with Crane Trust in central Nebraska to once again photograph the Sandhill Crane migration. I simply couldn’t wait to see bare ground. Moving waters. Birds in migration. We’ll be guided in a special grouping of photographers around the Platte both before dawn and after sunset in search of pleasing imagery. 

This will be my third Sandhill migration. The first was truly an out of mind experience when the birds by the thousands landed in the shallow waters less than half a football field away from our plywood box of a blind. It  hadn’t begun that way for it seemed the birds were intent to fly downriver for another mile or so. My companion cautioned patience, figuring there were many more birds to the east that would most likely glide from the heavens to land in front of us. She was right, and the music they sang through the night was straight out of a distant  geological past. I count that night as one of three other-worldly experiences of my lifetime … the jungle-like sounds at the Sabine NWR in western Louisiana and the waling grunts of walruses at “haul out” rookery in the sea north of  Juneau, Alaska. All sounds you can’t forget.

With any luck with weather and migratory patterns, I may return home a little over a week from now just in time to see the huge Snow Geese migration right here in the western Minnesota prairie. A couple of years ago thousands claimed a near week-long stop over in the wetland just over the rise from my Listening Stones prairie to offer all sorts of wonderful imagery. There were a couple of promising attractions offered the huge flock at the time; that the wetland was thawed and the corn stubble my neighboring farmer had left standing to offer a promise of food.

Getting up close and personal is among the joys of the Sandhill migration. Especially in their courting jestures.

If not here, though, other nearby areas offer promise. About an hour north is a Red River Valley flood control project called North Ottawa Impoundment in Grant County, a bit southwest of Fergus Falls, where the Snows  and other migrating birds seem to congregate every spring. A point for accuracy: I’ve actually never made it to the impoundment for the Snows because typically a massive flock will congregate closer to home. Someone described the ascent and/or descent of the huge flocks of Snows as a feeling of standing inside a snow globe, all with the cacophony of their special music. More trumpet like than of violins.

Back in February my nephew in NE Missouri posted photos of a huge flock in one of his harvested grain fields. A few years ago  he made prints of an early migration that hang in our family’s old farmhouse kitchen. I can only imagine how happy this would have made my mother, a lover of nature and wild things, and who is perhaps the one most responsible for my own appreciation of nature. 

A sunrise from my Listening Stones prairie of the Snow Geese in flight.

We’ve had a long, hard winter, and having the pheasants, deer and wild turkeys nearby in and near Big Stone Lake State Park have created a deep appreciation of their hardships and survival skills. One warm and sunny afternoon of late we drove up the hill from Bonanza onto the flat prairie to find a several deer lazing on a snowy meadow before we passed an enclave of wild turkeys meandering along, and just as we neared the state highway, a half dozen pheasants were hovering around a patch of grass in the roadway ditch. What a revered moment in the middle of February, a reprieve from a month of tremendous stress for all three species. And, it seemed as if on this one warm afternoon there was hardly a care in the world. Even our drive by barely caused a ripple of concern. It seemed for them, and for us, a prelude of seasonal change. It turned out to be little more than a cruel hint!

Now in the midst of March I can look back through my years of nature photography and find Wood Ducks scouting through the Listening Stones woodland in search of a nesting tree, and of seeing murmurations of Redwing Blackbirds causing red blurs on the wing. Thanks, though, to the birder sites in the states due south, there is ample evidence that Spring and the birds are on the way. The images of the Snows have mostly departed from the Missouri site and has moved north into Iowa. Hopefully in a few days or weeks the incredible bird photographer Wayne Perala, of Fergus Falls, and many others of us will be adding to the national birder’s collage of Snow Geese moments.

Ah, yes … taken in my backyard of the Snows flushing from the wetland.

As special as seeing the Sandhills in Nebraska, the inner umbrella sketchings of Snow Geese skeins will stretch across the heavens in all directions like a child’s drawing, and it all happens right here on our own backyard. All of it is wonderful, from the Nebraska Sandhills to the Snows and Redwings; all those species that simply drop in for a momentary stop at the feeder on their way through. Each, and all, are truly special and welcomed. 

As much as watching the sprouting of wildflowers in the Spring is thoroughly appreciated, migrating birds offer us both a special mystery and blessings with their arrivals. We’ll embrace them as much as hearing those first sounds of a trickling stream …  all sounds of life moving forward as our winter vanishes into a storied past. Joy rests on our threshold of a Spring forthcoming.

Hooking Arms With Gnomes

The “warnings” came early. Before 8 a.m., actually. All of which happened moments after a surprising visit in the grove while making my morning tea. A significant flash of red crossed the big plate glass window above the sink that caught my eye — my very first sighting of a Piliated Woodpecker here on my little prairie farm. Binoculars quickly substantiated the identity as the huge woodpecker bounced up first one tree trunk then another before skittering off into the deeper woods. It wouldn’t be my last “flash” of red before I returned to my bed!

How can a day begin even better? And, it would. With my tea steeped, it was off to the computer to read the online morning newspapers, which usually happens after a quick glance through my Facebook feeds. This is where I found my warning. It was in a personal message from my son, Aaron, living in Bergen, Norway, who had captured his very first images of the northern lights in his backyard, glistening high above in midst of city lights. 

This wasn’t all, for there were numerous postings of this incredible display from Scotland, Ireland and Norway as well as from friends in Ely and Nevis here in Minnesota. Now on heightened alert I quickly checked the NOAA Aurora Forecast site and watched as the circular donut of a forecast roamed over the northern hemisphere. As it came over Nova Scotia and eased over the Great Lakes region the greenish blob quickly went straight to red. Granted, we were early in the morning. Would we still have a chance sighting a dozen hours later?

My Labor Day image at the Marsh Lake Dam.

For me, this is almost as wonderful as awaiting Christmas as a child. Now in my seventh decade I still can’t use all my fingers to count the number of times I’ve seen the aurora borealis, let alone photographed them. Back in the 1940s, before our family moved up the road to what had been my grandparent’s house, there was such a display even as far south as Missouri that our mother woke us up so we could see the low lying magic in the sky. I couldn’t comprehend the specialness nor the rarity of the strange lights. That, though, took my first finger.

The next four “fingers” were not particularly spectacular, more of an undulating whiteness in the sky. And all here in the western Minnesota prairie. Two of those events were discovered when I ventured away from a group to find a tree to “relieve” myself. The first of those was well after midnight in Watson Lion’s Park on the banks of the Chippewa River when artist Franz Richter held campfire court with tales of Norwegian devilish trolls and gentle gnomes. That those lights, as unspectacular as they were that night, appeared in the midst of Richter’s tales was purely magical. And now my son, Aaron, who sat through the first of the tales back in the 1990s, lives now in Norway and photographed them makes the memory all the more special.

We now know the science behind the northern lights and have various ways of receiving accurate forecasts on our computers and cell phones, yet we can’t forsake the natural wonder shrouded in mysteries from the past; of how the auroras inspired myths, legends and folklore throughout the nations of the far north, from Norway to Sweden, from Finland to Iceland. They held special meanings to the marauding Vikings, too. In Norse mythology, we’re told the aurora borealis was believed to be Bifrost, the burning bridge connecting Åsgard (the realm of the gods) to Midgard (Earth). Popular myths and folklore also suggested that the lights were reflections of the bright shields of the mythical Valkyrie who would lead those who had fallen in battle to Valhalla.

A few nights ago on the wetland at the top of my prairie. After the “warning” from my son in Bergen, Norway.

Aurora borealis is actually derived from the Greek words with “aurora” meaning “sunrise” and “boreas” meaning “wind”. There must have been some incredibly strong solar activity for the ancient Greeks to have seen the lights because sightings so far south are almost unheard of. The Greeks held that Aurora was the sister of Helios and Seline, the sun and moon respectively, and that she raced across the early morning sky in her multi-colored chariot to alert her siblings to the dawning of a new day. The Romans also associated the northern lights with a new day believing them to be Aurora, the goddess of dawn. And so it goes.

Then came the night in the BWCA, where we had rented a cabin at Kawishiwi Lodge and Outfitters on the shoreline of Lake One after my late wife, Sharon’s, knee operation. One night after darkness had fully settled in, the two teenage boys who worked at the lodge came knocking to see if I would join them for some night walleye fishing. Sharon said, “Go on. I’ll be fine.”

Having placed me in the middle of the canoe, they paddled out of the frontal bay through the narrow passage into the main lake and anchored us between two islands facing north. Yes, they brought a cooler of beer, and we leisurely jigged over the gunwales killing time and stringing fish. Sometime after midnight, Michael said, “Guys! Look up!” The lights, again minus those waving curtains and towering flares, entertained us for quite some time. 

Now we’re up to three fingers. Another night happened on the banks of Mound Lake near Gray Eagle. Number four.

While I missed the height of the display, the streaking star made up for it.

Since moving to Listening Stones Farm I’ve added another four sightings. This doesn’t count the week I spent with a former exchange student in Tromso, considered one of the best place in Norway to see the lights, when for nearly a week we headed into the surrounding coal black countryside reading the skies. On the next to last night we caught about a 15 minute sighting through tiny holes in the clouds. That didn’t count. And, twice now I’ve been up on the Gunflint Trail for special Northern Lights adventures and have seen nothing but dense Tromso-like clouds.

There is a small network of folks around Minnesota who sound the alert on Facebook should there be a possibility. Unfortunately my house is too far below the northern horizon to see the lights, although at the wetland at the top of my prairie there is a decent view. Here the display whispers along the edge of the horizon, something those in the more northern exposures would surely sleep through. Perhaps a view the Greeks saw back in time.

One night after an alert we had an incredible display plainly visible to the naked eye dancing cross the horizon. Several images were recorded with glee only to find out moments later when downloading that I had cranked the aperture on the lens completely opposite of the infinity setting so all I had were colorful blurs. I immediately rushed back but the moment had passed. A neat streaking star helped alleviate my pain.

My best effort came last Labor Day after being told by outdoors writer, Tom Watson, that he often headed to the Twin Bridges on Lac qui Parle Lake southwest of Appleton to capture the lights. Which prompted me to check NOAA, and we had a possible event. There, though, the traffic caused too much light pollution so we took a minimum maintenance shortcut gravel to the Marsh Lake Dam where I finally had a decent image of the lights. Finally, and it was wonderful. A Christmas-like morning, in fact!

My colossal error with my lens on what could have been a beautiful image.

Oh, a note about the warning from a day or so ago? Both NOAA and AuroraAlert were showing red, so we headed to the wetland above the farm to check the skies, and made a few images before heading to a site I had scouted earlier for a possible image on a small hillside oak savanna about three miles away. Unfortunately the oaks were too distant for my lens and the image I visualized, and we were too far below the horizon.

I now have my eighth sighting over my seven decades despite an almost daily check on the two forecasts. I simply cannot escape this much stronger and more mystical draw than the science behind the lights. I surely hope I never lose my love of such mystical magic, of standing in the universal darkness along with the trolls while scanning the northern skies for dancing lights in the heavens above. How could one live without that?

For the Love of Rivers

William Kent Krueger has informed us of his new novel, “The River We Remember”. that will hit the shelves come September. Another of his non-Cork O’Connor books. For you see I have a thing about river books dating all the way back to growing up on a Missouri farm some 50 miles west of Mark Twain’s beloved Mississippi. Rivers are moving waters, and moving waters are the sources of dreams. 

I seemed to have grown up fascinated by watching the moving waters of what we called Billy Branch, an offshoot of the Salt River, of visualizing those waters eventually joining those from Montana in the Missouri River, then the Mississippi to eventually enter the Gulf of Mexico. Strong stuff for a kid growing up on a farm in the 1940s and 50s, time when imagination fueled the soul rather than cell phones and instant, worldwide visuals via Google and 24-hour network news.

Then there was my mother, Mary Laurele White, the first college educated woman of our family who called herself a “river rat” having grown up on the Chariton River about another 20 or so miles due west. When I was a boy, going to the Chariton to set banklines for overnight catfishing with my uncles was a thorough joy. Where she grew up, and where a cousin still lives, the nearby Chariton was “ditched” back when she was a child, straightened and deepened to help with flood control, for the river valley is flatter than our prairie here at Listening Stone Farm. It continues to flood, though, because the reshaping of the river only goes so far before it melds back into the old river channel complete with its more natural twists and turns. This causes a backup of the coursing waters which means, of course, the valley still floods. Deeply into the basement of the heirloom house.

Catfishermen on a bend of the Minnesota River as the sun sets. Another outing with friends Tom Cherveny and Tom Kallahar, long time paddling and fishing buddies.

Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer entered my youth early on, and those moving waters of the Mississippi became quite a haven for my childhood cloud gazing. “Life on the Mississippi” by Twain took me as step deeper in high school, and years later Norman Maclean continued the odyssey with “A River Runs Through It.” I still have a well worn early edition. And the books, of every genre just keep on coming. “Course,” a beautiful book of poetry by a dear friend, Athena Kildegaard, “marries” the grief she experienced with her mother’s death with her mother’s love of her home along the Minnesota River. 

From prose to poetry, fiction to non-fiction, from fly fishing to canoeing, my home library contains a fine mixture of river-based books. Per Petterson’s “I Curse the River of Time” takes me from Norway to Iowa’s author John Madson, whose “Up on the River”, is a long time favorite. Eric Sevareid’s “Canoeing with the Cree” is a few books away from Natalie Warren’s “Hudson Bay Bound”, the chronicling of her canoe trip with Ann Raiho as the first two women to do Sevareid’s “Cree” journey. Natalie’s book blends their paddling journey with the pratfalls and joys of friendship, and does so beautifully. 

A group of canoers on the Lac qui Parle.

Then there’s Thomas Water’s “Streams and Rivers of Minnesota” and Darby Nelson’s “For Love of a River … The Minnesota.” Both are nonfiction and beautifully written. The former a college course book, the later a remembrance. Darby came through doing research, and several of us Minnesota “River Rats” were called into Java River Coffee Shop in Montevideo by his co-author and friend, John Hickman. We were to share our love and joys of paddling Darby’s home river, a story that he begins around Franklin, downriver a couple of hours of drive time and chronicles his and his wife, Geri’s, paddling the length of the river.

Now in the “autumn” of my life, those moving waters of streams and rivers still put me in the same circle as Maclean in that I, too, am “haunted by waters.” A few years back I was fly fishing with two wonderful friends, Joe Jost and Jack Griffin, on Maclean’s Big Blackfoot in Montana. Driving the two-lane highways, in a valley surrounded by towering mountains, his writing came to “haunt” me. A couple of years later I found “Home Waters” written by Norman’s son, John N. Maclean, that brought more clarity of the Maclean family and their home river, places I could now visualize from our meandering about looking for fishing entry points. Both books made catching three trout on flies I had purchased in a fly shop in Orvanda, just a bit east of the Clearwater Junction, really special. 

The Chippewa River from the Lentz Landing Bridge.

Yet, being here in our own home waters is heavenly. Oddly enough, when we moved to the prairie back in 1992 we debated on whether to bring our canoe. Living outside of Hastings on the near banks of the Little Vermilion River, we launched our canoe almost weekly. Paddling didn’t look promising moving to our little town where Hawk Creek, right in our backyard, was designated as a “Federal Ditch” back in the late 1960s. This was a long shot from the wild rivers on the eastern side of the state, where I had canoed almost all the major tributaries of the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers. And we were buying a house on a federal ditch? 

Little did I know that we were moving into Darby Nelson’s home country, although it would be years later before I would meet him. Not long after moving to the prairie Patrick Moore encouraged me to join the CURE (Clean Up the River Environment) board which introduced us to the Minnesota River. For the first few years we would paddle from Skalbakken County Park down to Vicksburg County Park, through the Patterson Rapids and past Big Eddy to our pullout. It was a beautiful river, cut through miles of gneiss outcrops and timbered the entire route. It was nearly unbelievable. Since I’ve paddled the Minnesota from the Churchill Dam to the near border of Nelson’s old hometown of Franklin.

Fly fishers on Montana’s Big Blackfoot River, the home waters of the Maclean clan.

Then came the tributaries. Even Hawk Creek, which we found was almost continual white water from the US 212 Bridge to the confluence of the Minnesota. Once past the highway the little river was in basically enclosed within a timbered deciduous canyon, a stretch of wild water that thankfully survived efforts to dam it to create a lake. 

Lac qui Parle River came next with put in outside of Dawson. High walls of  prairie till caused a bit of neck bend with just enough small rapids to give a small thrill. This led us to the Chippewa, Pomme de Terre (Terror) and Yellow Medicine rivers, all different in both scenery and individual challenges. All with the coursing of moving waters. All rivers I remember. 

So thank you Twain, Madson, Sevareid, Maclean and the dozens of others, as well as my mother’s side of the family and eventually CURE and all the friends who shared those rivers with me. Rivers so full of stories and adventures, and more of each are added every year. In reality and from the writings of valued authors. Now we await Krueger’s next novel. I can hardly wait.

Our Weather ‘Up Top’

For awhile after the New Year I began to wonder about how to encourage my creative soul; if venturing out into the depths of a challenging winter would be worth my time. Typically I follow various seasons through the year, such as the beginning of the migrations to the pasque flowers popping up on a near barren hillside, of the easing into the delicate blossoming beauty within the woodlands … and so forth through the various wildflower appearances through to the vibrant colors of autumn. But winter? A winter like this one we’re experiencing?

Seasonal changes are among the joys of “flyover” living, and I’m usually seeing various seasons through to the end. Our winter, though, is beginning to test my resolve. This past week had us hovering around minus ten with intermittent staunch prairie winds that chilled to the bone. There seemed to be no end. Just walking from the house to the studio wrapped completely in sweaters and down outerwear was a continual test to that resolve. 

In case anyone should ask, I’m now officially tired of winter despite the knowledge that we’ve now moved into February and there is seemingly hope for more humane weather in the near future. We’re now about 40 degrees warmer today than we were at this time last week.

Wild turkeys few to safety on the edge of a frost covered ravine.

We’ve had a though winter. Those chilling days where we rarely were over zero, then about two weeks of hoarfrost, foggy snow after blowing snow, and eventually an uncharacteristic icy rain that turned all of that snow into crusted ice. The winds have taken us to an entirely different level. When we have “weather” a dear friend who lives along Big Stone Lake will often send a message: “How are things up on top?” She is about 11 miles due west of Listening Stones, and yes, her home and silver-smithing studio sits along the shores in a wooded hollow beside the big lake while “up top” we’re in the flattened prairie. Recently I received a lesson on the differences in our diverse ecosystems.

On that day of friendly conversation we were shrouded in a frozen dense fog here “up top,” which in these frigid temperatures means a hoarfrost, so my mind wandered to the Bonanza Education Center and its beautiful mix of an oak savanna and hillside prairie, all of which is located about a mile up that “coast” from her studio. My wandering imagination visualized the savanna deep in fog with tunnels of snow and icy frosted limbs and sticky branches of the majestic oaks being silhouetted against an endless and deep whiteness. As my car closed in on the edge of the prairie the denseness of fog began to dissipate. In another mile to the turnoff into Bonanza I was suddenly driving in clear blue skies. So yes, her “down below” is often much different than my “up top.”

For more than two weeks a hoarfrost seemed to cover every possible surface.

Before the hoarfrosts, blizzards fueled by staunch winds have reminded one of a freight train with blowing snow blanketing the ground. One of the blizzards was a three day affair with no interlude. White nothingness just past the mailbox at the end of the driveway. A deep drift was created across the edge of the woodland that blocked any possible traffic, a drift nearly five feet tall and about twice as wide. When the winds finally died down and the snow ceased, I tried to cross over the drift on foot to reach the mailbox and overturned garbage container. Those initial steps were across glazed, hardened snow and held my weight. Near the crest the snow gave way to drop me thigh deep into the powdery dune. By the time I had finally stomped and worked my way out I was famished.

After being bladed we had a day of possible “freedom” had there been a need to go somewhere, and sometimes just the going is therapeutic. Then the winds returned, and when they came they did so with a vengeance, hurling and tumbling snow crystals across the prairie; movement of snow like a desert sand. Over the years of living in the prairie I sensed there might be some natural art created by the wind, much like you would see along the sea coast or in an inland sandy dunescape. Yes! Dozens of interesting and beautiful snow waves awaited. Later hoarfrosts provided feelings of being surrounded by a whitewashed, frosty landscape. We were mired in a winter wonderland … if you cared to look. And, I did.

One of the images of the “dunes of winter … “

The other morning while laying under the deep comforting pile of blankets, I listened to the wind rumble outside with health advisories from Weather Bug concerning the ominous and intense and unbearable chill. At moments like these, among the possible positive vibes is knowing we’re protected, that we’re not homeless and trying to survive beneath a thin nylon wall of a camper’s tent in some wretched neighborhood. I can’t imagine how one would survive under such conditions and I’m forever grateful not to be in that situation. 

Then the aspects of art came to mind. Discovering beauty created by such horrid conditions filled the mind. Snow dunes and whispery formations, both of which can become even more pronounced and interesting when bathed by sunlight, and especially in the ambient light of a colorful sunrise or sunset. Hoarfrosts can coat everything in deep frosty ice crystals, and there were ample opportunities to capture many images here in the Listening Stones prairie and beyond. One of my favorite images from the hoarfrosts was of a flock of wild turkeys that flew off away from the roadside to safely land at the edge of a hazy, snowy savanna. 

Beyond the art some idle moments are spent at the computer dream-watching of trips to island beaches or another trip to central Nebraska in March to once again experience the sandhill crane migration. Will I find accommodations for an open blind to spend another night in what seems like a touch of prehistoric magical dawn along the Platte River; that drifting to sleep deep in a sleeping bag surrounded by the unique sounds from another age-old era? One must dream, for this is the other side of a deep winter when the conditions are such that you dream not so much of art as of escape. 

One of the rare occasions when we had a sunrise, this over the Listening Stones prairie.

In a few weeks the pitchers and catchers of the big league baseball teams will gather in Florida and Arizona, and the snowbirds will be abandoning their card games and margaritas to head back home with partial tans. They may wonder why some of us have stayed behind, thoughts we may suffer to find an appropriate response. Then, there’s this: come summer, when heat waves make us think of cooler times, I’ll search through the files of the snow dunes, the random icicles and come across the image of those turkeys seeking safety on a thoroughly frosty afternoon. I was there, here “up top,” and captured that image forevermore!

A Place of His Own

Penderyn, a fine Welch whiskey, awaited. Outside on a frosty afternoon a hint of wind ruffled the few blades of prairie grasses poking through the snow dunes. Painting the pane of plate-glass just below a beautiful, antique stained glass motif was the frozen wetland known here as Olson Lake. We were in the warmed environs of author Brent Olson’s new writer’s shack.

And warmed it was, though “glistening” might be a stretch. This small shack was hidden from the circular driveway and yard just a few meters up the rise, and will remain unsuspecting come the warming of summer thanks to a roof of prairie sod and grasses. The Penderyn, a gift from Mrs. Olson, was poured and congratulatory toasts were about to be served. Olson’s writer’s shack would soon be christened.

Dutifully impressed, as this will likely be the only writer’s shack in Big Stone County. For the brief time when we didn’t have chickens in the coop here at Listening Stones Farm, there were moments, and brief moments at that, when there was a consideration of transitioning my cool little red building into my writer’s shack. There on the edge of the woodland, and a short walk from the house and already wired for electricity, it was indeed inviting. 

A thorough cleaning would have been necessary from all angles and levels, from floor to ceiling and in every nook and cranny. Plus there were “minor” issues with vermin from all those years of feeding the hens, roosters and the one wood duck that somehow lost its identity and could never quite figure out how he alone could actually fly but not stab at the scatterings of food scraps as gleefully as his coopmates. Other than the vermin, there was also the challenge of internet access which conveniently graces my studio and house.

The beautiful antique stained glass window give Olson added cheer when he looks up from the marble slab to gaze at the wetland his family has saved through three generations.

Like I said, the thoughts came only in moments. Meaning, those were put aside nearly as quickly as they arose.

These zany memories came to mind this past summer when Olson ( walked me out to a flattened space in a dip along the shore of the wetland his immigrant great-grandfather (and ensuing generations, himself included) decided not to ditch and drain to add another several dozens of acres of corn. “This,” said Olson, “is where I will build it” of his writing shack. His very own space.

Not long after that initial conversation I came across a book by author Michael Pollan called “A Place of My Own,” a book detailing his efforts of building his writer’s shack on a piece of Connecticut hillside a short drive  from New York City. It’s a book an Amazon critic claimed “doesn’t overwhelm you exactly; it beats you down until you nearly give up.” Every angle, wall, window and desk seemed a particular puzzle. Placement was a major issue for Pollan and seemed to capture the first third of the book and involved a huge remnant glacial rock found on the property. Plus he had this desire to align views of the finished mini-castle from both his garden and the picture window of the nearby home just down the rise. 

No, the tree doesn’t extrude from the roof his writer’s shack, although come summer the roof will be of prairie sod and grasses.

Pollan worked with an architect and a neighboring handyman, who of course were at odds with one another, and he consulted research from many odd stalwarts including Frank Lloyd Wright and Michelangelo. Pollan, if you’ve read any of his works, is an excessive and exhaustive researcher, and it was nearly comical to see where he went with it for the construction of a shack about the size of Olson’s here on the Minnesota prairie.

Olson? He merely wished some privacy and a view of his valued wetland that once encouraged his dear wife, Robyn, to gift him with a sailboat to play with in his heritage prairie waters. This for a man who prided himself for all those many years of raising pigs and corn, a man who became immersed in local politics, boards and community affairs, and even ran the Inadvertent Cafe in his hometown of Clinton. That experience led him to pen a wonderful book of essays bearing the same title. Last summer, though, his little place of his own was rather deep in his mental planning stages. His didn’t consult with an architect and there was only one handyman, one Olson could see in his morning mirror. 

It did involve a Bobcat and a concrete mixer, among other assorted and necessary tools, along with some help from a nearby sawmill operator who seemed to operate on an unpredictable schedule. And a wide array of materials collected and stored over time. The ceiling joists, for example, were crafted at the sawmill from a batch of discarded power poles he’d rescued. His anchoring beautiful stone wall, built into the wall-like bank of the wetland, was constructed with huge glacial rocks Olson had saved from the foundation of the barn his great-grandfather had built back in the late 1800s. Centering the wall is the corner stone of that barn, proudly dated with by his great-grandfather’s chisel. His featured window facing the lake was captured from a house scheduled for demolition and was saved at the last minute by his brother-in-law. A slab of marble will serve as his writing desk.

Moments before the informal “christening” of his writer’s shack, Olson holds the thimble glasses and the Welch whiskey, Penderyn, as gifted by his wife, Robyn.

Olson would be the first to tell you that those ceiling joists and the final look hadn’t come by inspirations from Michelangelo. Nope, for his goal was simply to have the necessary strength to safely hold his roof covering of prairie sod. And the closest he came to Wright’s “Falling Waters” that seemed to capture Pollan’s interest is that adjacent picturesque wetland sometimes populated by Canada and Snow Geese and Blue Wing Teal along with a muskrat or two. 

Olson is almost there. His computer used to create his weekly published column, Independently Speaking, remains in the house for now as does an his easy chair. He’s a stovepipe connection away from the end, although he has installed floor heat in the slab that keeps his shack around 50 degrees. Fortunately he was close enough to being done to pull out some thimble glasses and that bottle of Penderyn. An informal prairie-like congratulatory toast was made, and in tune with his half-heritage of proud Norwegian stock, none of our glasses crashed against that incredible rock wall! 

Chasing the Light

When the alarm went off I was deep in the warm comfort of my bed as I peered through a hole in the covers to search for the time on the distant alarm clock. With the Solstice sunrise expected at 8:02 a.m. eastern prairie time, I would need at least a half hour to reach my preferred destination, the inward passage of the Little Minnesota River as it crossed the South Dakota border just past Browns Valley. That was my chosen spot for my annual portrayal of the Winter Solstice. 

When I finally made my half roll and groan to get onto my feet there was about am hour before I would need to arrive for some choice ambient light that comes as a prelude to an actual sunrise. My favorite time of the morning. Of course, the drive would depend on how much snow and or ice had accumulated overnight. A glance out my window quickly dashed my spirits, for it appeared we would have a solidly grayish sky.

This wouldn’t be my first chasing of Solstice light, lasting until the darkness of night settled in a mere eight hours away. This would be my annual effort of sighting and capturing an artful image of dear Sol on this my favorite Pagan holiday. 

No sun, no problem. My chosen Solstice image for 2022.

Being “ever hopeful”, there was some venturing out onto the roads seeking something with the eternal hope of having a break in the dense cloud cover. A handful of pheasants working a harvested field now frozen over with wind crusted snow for some semblance of grain greeted me, as did a pair of deer in the ravine, rushing off in fear, bounding over bush and clumps of grass. Trees glistened with poetic remnants of the overnight blizzard. A lake barren of ice fishers was a sheet of gray ice with gusty “waves” of windblown snow.

My image from last winter’s Solstice was made on a somewhat eerie day as well, when the sun eventually broke early before the clouds came in before blessing us with a poetic sunset that was extremely beautiful. Would I be so lucky? As the “golden” moment approached on this Solstice evening I stood at my kitchen window hopefully eyeing the western sky as darkness eased in over the grayness of a nondescript day. My chasing of the light had been rather uneventful.

This quest of an “eventful” Solstice image began years ago when I ran a small country weekly. Perhaps it was just me, for my colleagues at other prairie papers seemed to ignore what for me was a significant moment in the year, our shortest day of daylight along with, of course, our longest night; that Pagan moment in lore that suggests a leading into some significant religious and cultural celebrations such as Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. As challenging as it was this year, it wasn’t the first sunless Solstice over those many years.

A quick review of my captures of Solstice pasts showed similar cloud covered days in 2015 and 2018 without even a peek of the sun. I was hopeful of years like 2010, 2014, 2016, 2020 and even last year when there would be a brief break especially near sunset when some ambient color would appear in the skies. In 2014 my chasing the light concluded with a breakthrough just moments before dusk at a wetland just east of the Ortonville junction, and again two years later when I caught a last minute gasp peaking through the split rock, an almost timeless image linking our geological past with that day’s setting sun. 

Each Solstice seems to have an adventure or story into themselves. On some I was chasing the light. On others there was barely a challenge. In 2009 the roads were ice packed with chilling temperatures, and my image was of a field across Hawk Creek taken in my backyard in Clara City. The sun was barely showing through a snow-hazed sky on a far southeastern arc — a sky with almost a magical Arctic hue.

A year later the Solstice was dark and gloomy, although a hint of nearly a rainbowish color graced a picturesque field in the blue hour. In 2011 we faced another horribly cold day with bright sunshine when I caught a grouping of pigeons in flight against the arc of a sun dog. It was a moment that suggested a hint of flight and freedom in the heart of a beastly winter.

In 2012, the year my wife died, my image was taken in the moonlight during my first drive through Bonanza Education Center. My mind wasn’t on the Solstice, so it was a coincidental moment of magic and personal change. A year later my image came from a momentary stop at the spillway dam on the east pool of the Refuge of wintering gulls in flight over a cover of snowy ice. A “white on white” capture, one that also spoke of freedom, of a personal breakthrough. Once again, a hint of flight and freedom in the heart of winter, of a forthcoming move into both a new relationship and area of the prairie.

The image from 2018 spoke of an interesting late December warmth that produced a fog stretching across the landscape from Benson west creating a magical hoarfrost, a winterish wonderland where a reflection of frosty branches in the open stilled waters on a bend of the Pomme de Terra River caught the eye. 

Some years there simply was no chasing of the light. No real challenge. Thankfully I’ve been blessed with some interesting cloudy sunsets that provided interesting a hint of flight and freedom in the heart of winter. This was even true last year when I chose as my image one that came on the dune of a windblown snowdrift in the basin of a former pothole lake within the Steen Wildlife Management Area a couple of miles east of Listening Stones. It was an image that seemed mysterious and rather fitting for the Pagan celebration.

My chasing of the light on this Solstice was joyful in that despite the snow and the ominous forecast, the roads were reasonably manageable. As the blue hour approached I watched in the warmth of my kitchen with hopes of catching a last minute capture of dear Sol. For many of those past years, Audrey Arner and Richard Handeen would host a Solstice gathering on their Moonstone Farm near Montevideo, complete with a couple of bonfires and strips of venison we would sear over the coals on freshly cut willow sprouts. It wasn’t happening this year because of the weather and roads, so capturing a hint of the sun was my last grasp of holding onto my personal Solstice traditions.

It didn’t happen. So I scanned my imagery of the many past Solstices, recalling memories I’d forgotten of some of those sunless, socked in days. As I looked through my captures I decided that despite my shivering grasp of the camera, that the plight of the pheasants on a wind-chilled frigid, frozen-over prairie field would serve as my new Solstice image, for it seemed to accurately portray the essence of a wintry moment on a pagan celebration. 

Hopefully your Solstice was special, and that the rest of these celebratory religious and cultural seasons are fine as well. 

Joys of ‘Forced Nothingness’

My ever-hopeful and joyous “hound” Joe Pye found the blizzard much to his liking, leaping in bounds through snow as deep as his legs and digging his snout deep into the drifting. We were out for a short hike, me with a camera, he with his joy. Truthfully, this blizzard this week was a joy for us both. His was of a playful nature, of actually tracking down one of the sunflower thieves he can’t catch on bare ground, and me for the utter standstill of life, a time of “forced” nothingness, of reading, of conjuring up interesting dinners for a dear old friend “stuck” here with me, of us being able to concentrate on knowing one another much deeper, and really, just stopping.

That, in essence, is a blizzard. Just stopping.

It’s beyond beautiful here at Listening Stones with a deep coating of snow covering nearly every possible surface. Let’s call it what it is, a winter wonderland. We were caught in this two day (going on three) with the constant blowing) blizzard that began with a strong easterly wind that brought a coating mix of rain and snow four days before. 

My south lawn is a winter wonderland, a beauty only a blizzard can create!

True blizzards are somewhat unique to the prairie, and while it closes you off from the outside world I find it preferable to tornadoes that struck the southern portion of the country and included one of my favorite areas, New Iberia, LA. This town, a little ways south of I-10, has been a settling point for me for years of travels both professionally and personally. My late wife, Sharon, and I tent camped there in a small city park along the Bayou Teche in the 1980s, and I’ve been there several times since. Just a bit southwest of New Iberia is the home of Tabasco’s Avery Island, a 2,200 acre picturesque park where Snowy Egrets were given sanctuary in the early 1900s, back when the beautiful birds were near extinction due to the love of their “finery” feathers.

Here, and throughout the range and prairie regions of the “north country,” blizzards are somewhat frequent … with perhaps one or two of the “show stoppers” arriving each winter. Oh, there were times before moving to the “high, wide and lonesome” where we received what the television forecasters had called “blizzards.” Nope, those were snowstorms. And, sometimes, big ones. Dumpings, if you will. Although as a child I read stories and books that seemed to have a plotting moment concerning a blizzard. As a boy those mental images of blizzards were based solely on imagination. 

Joe Pye was beside himself with joy.

My first real experience on the frightening effects of a blizzard was when I drove from Denver across Nebraska to Des Moines in January of 1982 en route to St. Paul and an editorial position with Webb Publishing. I was fortunate, or perhaps extremely lucky, to reach a Holiday Inn in Des Moines, for once past Omaha I could barely see where I was going on the four lane interstate. Blowing snow came like waves, one after another, constantly whipping the small foreign made car as I tried keeping on the road. Eventually I “hooked” onto to the taillights of a slow crawling semi and stayed just safely enough behind it until I finally reached the outskirts of the capitol city and pulled off to find the motel. I was stuck for two days.

Ten years later we moved to a small prairie town where I would run a country weekly. It was there I learned both the beauty and full fury of blizzards.

With one forecast the following February I ventured into the local grocery store to find it uncommonly packed with anxious customers stocking up on milk and what the grocer called “blizzard meat.” When I asked Roger, the owner, what that meant, he simply said, “Ham. People buy ham because it won’t go bad if they lose electricity.”

I also quickly learned that “blizzard” also meant completely closing down. Like on my trip from Omaha to Des Moines, blowing snow meant no visibility on roads leading nowhere. City hall, school gyms, church basements and the town’s only truck stop were crammed full of snow bound “refugees” from as nearby as a dozen miles or less to far flung places found in an atlas. People who just couldn’t get home. Local churches would gear up their kitchens to feed those stuck in town. Prayers were uttered for those who might have been caught stranded on the highways.

Wind blown snow on the first hours of the blizzard cut across the prairie.

January of 1997 was particularly rough. Our local school was open for students all of five days. Some of those were partial days. Winds drifted snow into town from the “black desert” with no barriers and completely buried the house of the local baker. Drifts were house high on the northwest side of town with nothing to curtail a constant blowing northwesterly wind. On US 23 a single lane was eventually cut through such a drift that dwarfed semis that had closed both the highway and the adjacent rail line for much of a week. I was soon learning the truths of blizzards, facts rather different than the poetic plot lines of juvenile novels.

Now in retirement here on my small prairie “farm,” there is no going anywhere any time soon. Despite the physical beauty the storm has created and left behind, it has also contained us for the time being. Although I’ve had deeper drifts here, I couldn’t start my snow blower and I’m beginning to feel somewhat “antsy” in our isolation. Today is fine for we have no plans. This all changes over the weekend. 

Everything including this wind vein was covered deep in snow.

Yet, there is time to write and time to read. Chili is being readied for dinner, the principal ingredients were canned late in the summer for just such a moment. We call it “saving summer” and there is no better time to enjoy such savory treats. Hopefully we two can find as much joy and contentment as Joe Pye finds in his thrashing about in the deep snow … where his tracks from even this morning have already been erased by the prairie winds carrying ever more snow.

With freezers full and shelves of canned goods from the garden and farmer’s markets, we are in fine shape. Survival isn’t a worry. I’m halfway through the reading of two very long novels, and with the fireplace ablaze those winds beyond the walls seem rather distant despite their fierce roar. Hopefully we’ll be plowed out before noon tomorrow. By then we’ll likely be as pleased to find mobility as we were to face our “forced” isolation due to this  first blizzard of the season. 

Back in the years, back in our first prairie blizzard, the townsfolk called it “a shortened world.” And that has been so true here where for most of the week we haven’t seen the lower edge of the Listening Stones prairie. Those distant tree lines a half mile or so in the distance were oblivious thanks to the blowing white out. An ever compassing white out. Yes, we’ve occasionally seen the “snow globe” drifting flakes, although more common are these horizontal, wind-blown flakes so mindful of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s take so many years ago when she wrote, “… you can count the first three flakes, and the fourth. Then, language fails, and you have to settle in and try to survive the blizzard.”


Honestly I wasn’t trying to be Maya Andelou’s “rainbow in someone’s cloud.” It was just another gray and somber day. Damp. Humid. Decidedly gray. A November day. Then she asked, “What do you find interesting about November?” At that point the snow had yet to arrive although is was seemingly forever in ominous forecasts. Days of impending gloom.

“Color,” I replied, looking out over the acres of Big Stone Lake State Park. “I just want to find color.”

I suppose you could diagnose this as my own form of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), although I feel my quest  had more to do with breaking up this bland grayness than of being a rainbow. There below us was a small grouping of leafless trees, with patches of yellow-ish, orange prairie grasses. There was a shroud of grayness in the air, especially closer to the shore of the long lake.

We were on a foray, as I call these odd little field trips made into the “wildness” of nearby pockets of nature. Hopping into a car and cruising through Big Store National Wildlife Refuge or the two decidedly different venues offered by the state park have become almost routine. Especially now, in November, as I search for requisite color.

Nuthatches are so common here and my other nature haunts.

Thus far the treatment has been subtle though effective. Tonal differences in the prairie grasses have come through to replace a blazing and colorful sunset, for this blanket of seasonal … November … grayness has eliminated sunsets for most of the month. Later we sat on the couch watching a football game with an eye on the western sky ever hopeful for a break in the cloud cover. A hint of orange-ish light gave momentary hope. It was not to be.

“This seems like a normal November,” she said. For several moments I thought about her comment. I thought of something bold and beautiful, something that might be memorable and perhaps even profound. We were then on the long loop of the Refuge with our windows down as we slowly traversed the roadways with the frigid air chilling us to the bone. On the forays I keep the windows lowered as I scan for pictures. “I realize we’re on the cusp of winter,” I said, “and how cold, damp and gray if feels. Everything seems gray. I seek color. Subtle colors. Any color.”

A clump of trees are accented by prairie grasses in the November foggish gray.

There were few birds, for most have migrated. On our drive I captured a rare bird of prey launching from a tree, and on the drive down we had passed fleeting snow buntings along the highway. Nuthatches are rather common and basically matched the terrain … white and blueish gray with a band of black. We saw numerous nuthatches and not much else.

Same with chickadees. We watched as they dodged our danger, diving deep into the grasses as we passed by. So far our avian color has mainly come from the various woodpeckers at the feeders here at Listening Stones Farm. Red Bellies, Downys, Hairys and Flickers. Sometimes skeins of geese can be seen flying over, as one did as we eyed the band of orange in the late afternoon sky. Juncos have migrated into the area and they keep giving me a stink eye. Or so it seems. As if all this November grayness is my fault!

Without the various species of bird life my forays have been more in search for an antlered buck along with the search for color. For several years I’ve scored a beautiful buck in the state park. So far I’ve been “skunked.” Both portions of the state park have yielded numerous images of does, and seem to on every pass through either Meadowbrook or Bonanza. 

A doe is surrounded by the colors of November in the Meadowbrook meadow.

Then the snows came. A light dusting, followed the next day with an inch … then overnight another inch. Over the gray came the whiteness. Usually I welcome the first snow. This time, though, the snow snuck in overnight in the midst of sleep. Awakening to an overnight dusting is missing the magic.

Fifty some years ago just before moving from Dubuque, my girlfriend at the time and I decided to walk through the fluffy flakes of a first snow as they drifted from the evening sky, painting the old river town with movie-like magic. We were on a sidewalk on the edge of the bluff overlooking the roofs of the mansions and the downtown all the way to the Mississippi. A few weeks later I would leave to move to Denver and a new job, yet still today that first snowstorm on a late November evening, along with the magic we felt, is still a vivid memory.

On the edge of the Bonanza savanna, staghorn sumac seed heads add color.

I love those moments when the snow seems to simply evolve as puffy flakes from a gray sky, coming lightly as Sandburg suggests of fog, on little cat’s feet. Silently, before moving on.

We’ve now made it to mid-November, nearly a month from the Winter Solstice. The light of our days will be constantly squeezed until then, that light along with subtle prairie colors. She asked if darkness was a bother, and I wondered for a few moments before saying that it wasn’t the darkness so much as the drab grayness of the days  ….  when I scan the prairie and woodlands for color. Where I find both hopefulness and a sense of joy. 


Was it me that startled the deer? I had stopped on the crest of the hill that was no doubt formed over time as perhaps an island eddy of the Glacial River Warren. Over the years I’ve stopped here numerous times to take in the long view of the mile or so long ravine. That is how it is known around here. The Ravine.

Ravines are huge features of the Minnesota River Valley, which was created by the long ago glacial river. Streams from gurgling trickles to actual rivers have cut through the depths of the prairie all along the river, from the headwaters to the confluence with the Mississippi. We have many right here in the headwaters and it seems they all have a unique characteristics about them. Like this one with the startled deer.

At the foot of the ravine is a huge wetland, held steady by a man-made, rock-filled earthen dam. This is where I saw the deer. As I crested the road at the top of the hill for a view I’ve loved since moving just up the road, I watched as the deer bounded toward what had been a sheet of ice throughout the winter. A stilled grayish surface still looked like ice then in early April, and the frightened deer quickly sank from view through the grayed slush. Only momentarily, for an instant later it’s head broke through the surface. 

Startled, the deer leapt onto what it possibly thought was ice, then swam to the distant shore.

Perhaps the saving grace was the hollowed body hair that provided buoyancy as the deer kicked itself forward in swimming gestures. I made several shots as it struggled toward the distant bank, eventually gaining traction as it reached an underwater foothold to push itself forward to eventually pull itself from the icy waters to the shore. Once afoot it bounded up the steep slope of the ravine and away from its perceived danger. An early morning drama so totally unexpected.

While this ravine is closest to Listening Stones Farm, being about two miles due south, it is also one of the longer ones in this area. On it’s southern bank are at least two small oak savannas, subjects of dozens of images. It stretches through the prairie for more than a mile further east, where another gravel road was bermed across its depths. 

The Ravine … a rising sun meets a seasonal fog.

Due west about five miles from my land is another favorite ravine, though more densely covered with trees. It’s a prime jewel of beauty come autumn as the deciduous trees explode with colors of the season. At the bottom is an abandoned farm site, for the remnant house and outbuildings are collapsed and weathered. From various positions above the ravine I’ve made some nice images through the years across the seasons. 

One Sunday afternoon a friend whose eyes gleam at the sight of a minimum maintenance road drove me and our dogs into the depth of this ravine where besides the remains of the long abandoned farm site is a meandering stream flowing from springs and runoff from an enclosed and perhaps self-contained watershed. An absentee landowner comes up for the deer season to camp and hunt, but otherwise the old farm site is like the buildings. Abandoned. 

One of the nice oak savannas at The Ravine …

Up the “river road” a few miles is the Bonanza Education Center, the northern “half” of Big Stone Lake State Park. Among the beautiful features are at least two trails, although there is an interconnecting path between the two. The northern trail meanders down a steep hillside into a beautiful wooded ravine with once again, a rivulet of a stream fed by spring waters. I often come here to sit on a boardwalk bridge to do some forest bathing, a meditative exercise that is enhanced by the sounds of water bubbling over and through the rocks and stones. One can easily become mentally “lost” in a matter of moments.

The other major trail is alongside Big Stone Lake, and by my count offers several deep, wooded ravines, few of which trickles through thanks to springs higher up the slope. Bonanza offers two differing ecosystems … a hillside prairie that covers the long ago left behind bank of the Glacial River Warren which hosts more than a dozen ravines of varying depths, each cutting through the steep bank and each sporting small oak savannas in the shaded areas. These drain across the divisionary gravel road into the lakeside wooded savanna, a dense woodland that stretches along the lake for miles beyond the park boundaries in either direction. 

A ravine just west of me in its autumn glory. Big Stone Lake is in the distance.

Further downriver, once you’ve passed the “chain of lakes” of the Minnesota River below the Churchill Dam at the foot of Lac qui Parle Lake, the wooded banks of the glacial and current rivers contain countless ravines. Some cut by small creeks along with others formed by actual tributaries of the Minnesota. One of my favorite and most picturesque was created by Hawk Creek once it passes through the densely farmed, three-county prairie land where it’s an official “government ditch” and remains “wild” just before US 212. After the bridge, though, it becomes a deep and lonesome canyon of a ravine stretching for miles and features a rock strewn river than meanders through a deep, enclosed ravine down to the confluence of the Minnesota River. 

The same ravine in winter …

What a beautiful paddling river, with nearly continuous paddable rapids with either steep earthen walls or deep woods on either side for the full ride. It reminds one of a box canyon, and years ago there was an political effort to place a dam near the foot of Hawk Creek that would have created a long and deep lake. Fortunately those efforts died after awhile. With the long history of ignoring soil-saving farming practices, such a lake would be shallowed by now thanks to erosive siltation which has already affected and altered the flow of the Minnesota River just past the confluence … siltation that has already blocked some of the more minor streams coming off the highland prairie. 

Indeed, this erosive action over the years have created all of the ravines, action that began with the melting of the glacier and continues now some 10,000 or so years later. 

A spring-fed “stream” in one of the ravines at Bonanza.

I sort of look at natural history development here in the prairie much as I do the incredible formations in the Utah Canyonlands, for example, and wonder what is going on now in our world (besides our planet’s own death due to wanton global warming issues) that will show up a millennia or two from now. Those minute increments of change happening a millimeter or less per year, accumulatively year after year.

In this short passage of time I have on earth I’ll likely be stopping on the hill near The Ravine in the dawnish mornings, or take a hike or forest bath in the ravines over in Bonanza, fulfilling my quest for beauty be it in God’s great colorful skies or with internal meditation. I find myself addicted to both. Easing back with my eyes closed in the depth of that far north ravine, listening to the water trickle through the rocks and stones, I sometimes think of Keats, who may have said it best: “ … the moving waters at their priestlike task … “

Ravines. What is there not to like? 

An upland ravine with its oak savanna at Bonanza.

A Forager I’m Not

Don’t count me as much of a forager. A Nicole Zempel, the budding PBS television forager star, I’m not. Nevertheless, as I was leaving Listening Stones Farm for a luncheon date I happened to glance into my timbered land and spied what appeared to be chicken of the woods mushrooms. For those unaware, or too fearful, these beautiful orangish fungi make delightful cuisine. Sautéed in garlicky butter, and even included in a saucy dish, these mushrooms have a hint to the taste of the thigh meat of a roasted chicken.

All of which makes those of us who share such pleasures usually pretty excited upon finding one. Since I had a scheduled lunch, I made note of it and promised myself when I returned home I would go gather the feast. Perhaps my lips were even moist just in imagining a meal. 

As soon as I returned, Joe Pye and I headed into the woods looking for the chickens. They were nowhere in sight. When I initially spotted them there were on the eastern side of a tree, so I went from tree to tree in search of the pair of chickens. While it was nice being in the woody portion of my land, it was frustrating not finding the mushrooms. Could the “oranginess” actually been squirrels? There are plenty of those tree- and sunflower-loving rodents in the woods to suggest such a possible sighting. Literally, the mushroom bearing tree could not be found … until I went for my morning walk the following morning.

With sunlight from the east the chicken of the woods were noticed in the woods.

Yes! The sun was highlighting the trees with the eastern sunlight and once again the gilded chickens glistened against the grayness of bark. When I returned from my two mile hike my trusty hound and I headed back into the woods … through cockleburs and other clingy plants to the tree right in the area where I had been looking the day before. It was a bit deeper and just off the trail I try to keep open through the grove for walks and cross country skiing once the snow flies.

While I don’t know “squirrel talk” for chicken of the woods, it appears they may have been just as excited to find the delicious orbs as we humans, for the upper portion of both fungi clumps were severely gnawed. And, perhaps as disheartening, the chickens had been there long enough that they were past their prime for being edible, let alone cook-able. There was simply no “give” on a pinch.

This wasn’t the first chickens of the wood I’ve found here, and I know there must be other mushrooms hidden in the grove. A few years ago an ash tree next to the garden suddenly spouted a clump of the chickens which were immediately harvested. The following year the same ash once again bore a chicken clump although it was so high that  I needed a ladder to gather it. And, before my neighbors started penning their horses here I found a bountiful patch of shaggy manes in the land previously converted to a hopeful orchard that never took hold. Nor did the shaggy manes, for that matter. Unfortunately this seemed to be a one time bonanza.

Perhaps the squirrels got to them first …

I love chopping shaggy manes to have with steaks or chops, although chickens of the woods simmered in garlic and butter are a special delight. Sometimes I’ll add some chicken broth whisked into a gravy then ladled over wild or long grained rice. Salmon and chicken thighs are both perfect complements to the mushrooms. Once again, it seems, I’ve missed out.

Oh to have the eye and persistence as my foraging friend, Nicole. She’s a joy to forage with as she ambles through the woods or prairie, especially when you hear her shouts of a delightful “Oh!” and realize she’s spied another fabulous forb or fungi. She would have surely spied my chickens way ahead of the squirrels!

As much as I’ve tried over the years to entice her up to forage in my woods, her own woods on the edge of Granite Falls seems too much of a magnet. Several years ago she had a come-to-life moment and entered her nearby woods along with other wildness haunts along the gneiss outcrops along the Minnesota River, which has since resulted in several art exhibits of her mushroom photography and spore prints, a Facebook page and website she calls Wild Roots MN, and was a “fill in” forager featured in a PBS production of Prairie Sportsman last spring. This has since led to featuring her in five minute “Fast Forage” segments for the upcoming season.

Sauteed in butter and garlic …

“A foragers basket is always full,” she said. “Over the past several months of filming we’ve covered cottonwood buds, giant chickweed, ground cherries, wild prairie onion and garlic, milkweed, wild grapes, chanterelle and chicken of the woods mushrooms, sumac and acorns.” Her foraging segments will be spliced into the 13 PBS Prairie Sportsman half hour shows beginning in January. With her charm and eye for natural edibles you can almost image Thoreau blushing, Euell Gibbons smiling and her being on Michael Pollan’s radar. The woman has no ceiling!

Personally I’ve had a long interest in mushrooming that dates back to my life in Colorado and my first marriage. As the summer ebbed into autumn Marilyn Greb Binkley and I would often go mushroom foraging in the foothills and lower mountain woodlands in search of mushrooms, and for awhile we belonged to the Colorado Mycology Society. When I was freelancing I would often jog through Denver’s City Park where I would find meadow mushrooms and shaggy manes. In the alley behind our house was a stump that seemed to constantly produce oyster mushrooms in season. My only complaint of those long ago forays was that my eyes were seemingly always glued to the ground searching for fungi rather than on the nearby mountainous landscapes.

I haven’t been so lucky since moving to Minnesota where the attitude seems that if it isn’t a morel it isn’t worth finding or eating. There is such an array of tsste treats! Chantrellas. Puffballs. Oysters. Shaggy manes. A neighbor in the small town where I ran a country weekly newspaper had a spot along his sidewalk that grew some very bountiful and beautiful shaggy manes. He was more than happy for me to come to harvest them. His “toadstools” were my “side dish” for steaks and chops for several years. “I’ve tried poisoning the damned things,” he told me early on. “Nothing seems to kill ‘em.”

… then served as a side to baked salmon! Wow!

Thanks goodness. I’m sure both Nicole and Marilyn would be horrified. When I suggested letting me harvest them rather than spraying them, he gladly backed off. 

So here I am once again compelled to searching my five acres of timber and eight acres of prairie for edible mushrooms, although I now have competition from the squirrels. Apparently my sunflower seeds in the bird feeders aren’t enough. Perhaps I need to up my game. Perhaps that’s long overdue for my foraging is seemingly more luck than awareness.