Missing the Party

Oops, I was late to the party … and didn’t realize it until a week or so later. Here’s my story: Long time friend, Terri Dinesen, the DNR Park Manager for Upper Sioux Agency, Lac qui Parle and Big Stone Lake State Parks, posted a picture of a beautiful bloom of the rare ball cactus in the nearby outcrops. The blossom was expressively pink, billowing out in an expression of vivid color so common among cacti species, with a set of yellow stamens rising from the center with a small pinkish “hand” seemingly reaching out in greeting.

Finding any cacti blooming in the wild is a rare treat, and back in my “writing with willful whims” stage of my career for various magazines in the 1970s, a report came from various friends of a very rare cacti bloom across the Arizona desert around and north of Tuscon. It was termed a once in a lifetime event, so after calling my then girlfriend, I packed enough clothes for us both, picked her up at the rehabilitation center where she worked and off we went on overnight drive from Denver to reach the bloom the following morning. Yes, the desert was alive with color, and incredibly, that was my last cacti blooming party, and so far a “once in a lifetime” event. So having ball cacti in bloom right in the neighborhood was exciting and enticing.

Since I was near the secretive location awaiting cross-nation paddler, Madison Eklund, I stopped to see if I could find the little bloomers. Terri had given me a hint of the location, and about all I can say is that the cacti were in Big Stone NWR. Not much of a secret, for several websites and guide books will tell you as much. Then you must find them.

Thanks to DNR park manager, Terri Dinesen, here is a bloom I missed finding of the ball cactus.

Barely as large as the clinched fist of a child, the extremely rare and fragile ball cactus (Escobaria vivipara) hangs on precariously within a small, two-county range that is growing progressively smaller. Experts claim the small cactus resides only in the exposed bedrock along the Minnesota River in Big Stone and Lac qui Parle Counties, and there aren’t so many outcrops remaining either. Rock mining is a major threat as are cactus hunters and prairie fires. Who can speak of the goats that the Refuge has been employing to eradicate unwanted invasive species such as buckthorn.

This rare and endangered species is one of only three native Minnesota cacti, with plains prickly pear (Opuntia macrorhiza) and brittle prickly pear (Opuntia fragilis) being the others. Only a few inches in height, the brittle prickly pear seemingly surrounds the ball as miniature fortresses rimming the Refuge outcrops in goodly numbers. I’ve seen them on outcrops as far south as Vicksburg County Park in Renville County. Compared to the ball, the brittle prickly pear seems to be relatively thriving.

Records show that the ball was discovered in Minnesota in 1898 by Lycurgus Moyer, and the species was described as being rather abundant at favorable sites in the Minnesota River Valley within the two counties. Less than 80 years later the ball cactus was listed as “threatened”, and by 1996 the species was placed in the state’s “endangered” status.  By then the only known surviving plants were in small remnants of the original population close to thin-soiled prairies being converted to agricultural use, or on outcrops being mined for gravel. Some were harvested with well intended but illegal collecting. 

Rising from the ball cactus plant are bulbs where the process of seeds within the fruit are germinating into actual young developing cactus plants that will be released when the bulb breaks open next spring. That unseen magic of nature is happening now on the shelves, a process hidden from the naked and curious eye,

The remaining plants are now scattered infrequently among granite outcrops within a small, two to three mile area, and only a portion of the entire population lives within protected NWR public lands. The vast majority of the remaining population exists on adjacent private lands now apparently in the hands of a huge gravel quarrying company. The original plans for the mine would have destroyed more than an estimated 3,500 ball cactus along with another 14,000 specimens of another eight rare plants of this unique and fragile ecosystem existing only in cracks of the bedrock found on the site. Thankfully the DNR threw at least a temporary wrench into the works by not allowing a permit due to the amount of destruction of rare plants at the site, establishing a rare plant protection area to save the most threatened and diverse plant habitat on the property. 

That said, this is a rare and rather mysterious ecosystem seemingly found only on the cracks and edges of the bedrock exposed 10,000 years ago by the Glacial River Warren, itself created with a break in the ice dam of the upper continent ice sheet of Lake Agassiz — bedrock exposed from the headwaters of the now Minnesota River in Ortonville downriver through to New Ulm. 

A rather typical clump of ball cactus found on one of flatter shelves in the Refuge.

Those small clumps of ball cactus appear on the flatter outcrops, structures often described as “shelves” rather than the massive exposed mound of gneiss or granite. Rarely will you find a singular ball, and like morels in the leafy woods, once you’ve found one your eyes will begin finding scattered clumps nearby. 

Presently, though, those very brilliant red or purplish flowers I was seeking have now matured into fleshy fruit stems that are secured tightly and point upwards from the roundish plant. We’re now closing in on the scientific “species” part of its official Latin name, “vivipara.” This describes the process of those seeds within the fruit germinating into actual young developing cactus plants that will be released when the bulb breaks open next spring. That unseen magic of nature is happening now on the shelves, a process hidden from the naked and curious eye.

Feel free to color me inexperienced or ignorant, or both, for I kept thinking those mysterious bulbs were the actual flowers just waiting to magically blossom out in all their splendor. For several days I drove down, sneaking through the grasses to “hide” my paths with hopes of catching and portraying the balls in bloom. Over those seven to ten days nothing changed. No blooms, no change. Just those tight, red-streaked elongated brownish bulbs poking skyward on many of the balls. 

In the frustration of my research on the “life cycle” of the small cactus going nowhere, I sent Terri Dinesen an email with an attachment of two of the ball clumps complete with the red-streaked, brownish bulbs.

“You were too late,” she responded. “Those have already bloomed.”

Whoops! I had missed the party, although as a rebound of personal forgiveness I took solace in realizing that at least the trips to the Refuge weren’t as far as Tuscon! 

Not One of Those People …

Madison Eklund doesn’t want to be one of those people. People like many of us, and she set out several weeks ago in her 17-foot kayak heading for an Arctic bay to prove that she isn’t.

On Monday she finished the “uphill” near fourth of the Eric Sevareid and Walter C. Port “Canoeing with the Cree” trip taken in the 1930s, starting at the mouth of the Minnesota River near Fort Snelling. It concludes some 1,700 miles later after paddling through the rapids-rich Hayes River into Hudson Bay at York Factory. If river lore and pieced together history is proven true, Eklund will be the third woman and apparently the first of either gender to complete a solo trip through the numerous rivers, lakes and the oft dangerous Lake Winnipeg to the bay. And, perhaps, the first kayaker.

On two of her last four days on this lower stretch she paddled her sea-worthy kayak 20 plus miles in white capped waves and high temperatures to conclude the Minnesota River portion of her voyage. That stretch included nearly 300 against-the-current miles from the start to the Churchill Dam at the foot of Lac qui Parle Lake. Up next is crossing the Continental Divide at Browns Valley, MN, to push off into Lake Traverse en route toward the Red River of the North and Lake Winnipeg before jutting off into the two river descent to York Factory.

Madison Eklund begins her 26 mile paddle up Big Stone Lake early Sunday morning in calm waters, and ended up several hours later paddling through rolling white caps to reach her access point.

Oh, and about “those people” … people like many of us … and her quest of a journey? “It seems I’m always running into people who say they wish they had done this or that in their life, and now have regrets they never followed through. Maybe it was a marriage or their job. Time. Whatever, and now they regret that time has passed them by; that now it’s perhaps too late. I didn’t want to be like that. Sure, I could be sitting in an office or working a job somewhere, but why? This is my goal and I plan on being done and in the Hudson Bay by mid-to late August,” she said.

For years she had an eye open for embarking on such a trip, yet didn’t know where or when. She was considering several options. Then one evening while talking to coworkers in Grand Forks, ND, where she now lives with her husband, Ryan, an Air Force pilot stationed there, it was mentioned that two women had paddled from Minneapolis to the Hudson Bay a few years before.

That trip was 11 years ago now, and the paddlers were Natalie Warren and Ann Raiho, a trip that Warren documented in her book, “Hudson Bay Bound.” After a Google search Eklund connected with Warren, and through the connection learned about Servareid’s book. Then she read that Warren was doing a reading in the Twin Cities and drove down to connect with her. They’re still connected, and Eklund has sent texts to Warren on occasion during the trip to ask questions.

She packs economically, storing her gear in waterproof bags in the compartments, behind her seat and between her legs.

“It was through my connections with Natalie that I decided this was the trip I wanted to make,” she said. “Since I started, she continues to be a great help.”

Eklund claims she’s been a paddler most of her life while growing up in rural Eastern upstate New York near the Vermont border. A kayak paddler. “So when people ask why I’m using a kayak instead of a canoe, it’s because this is what I’m comfortable paddling,” she said. She somehow packs her supplies in waterproof bags that she stores in the portals, behind her seat and between her legs. She is an economical packer. 

Yes, she has a deadline of sorts, for Ryan is scheduled to be re-deployed in late August to Edwards Air Force base located in the western edge of the Mojave Desert just east of Los Angeles. This places her in a race against time since she lost two full weeks due to flooding and dangerous debris as well as her paddling against the heavy flood-stage currents of the Minnesota until she entered the “chain of lakes” along the Minnesota-South Dakota border.  

Madison with her flathead catfish, one she caught after being “inducted” into a catfish clan near Vicksburg County Park in Renville County.

Like some who have paddled the route before her, she has found a friendly community along this first fourth of her paddle. Folks she calls “river angels.” One was a family who adopted her for two weeks during the excessive high waters, the mother of whom shared the same dietary allergy as Eklund so there were no food issues. There was also a group of five fishermen who inducted her into the “clan” complete with a heavy river rod and a hook baited with a bullhead that led to her catching a 20 pound flathead catfish. So, yes, she has stories and nice remembrances of many she has met along the way.

It was actually through an old “river rat” community that led her to Listening Stones Farm last Saturday. I drove down with my canoe trailer to meet her at the foot of the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, then ferried her to her Big Stone Lake put-ins and take-outs starting around 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, and an hour later on Monday … all part of a strategy to beat the heat and high wind warnings later in the mornings. It’s been a wonderful experience for me, for I also have a connection with Natalie Warren. Warren has stayed here at the farm in the past, and once even loaned me the paddle that was branded at York Factory at the conclusion of her trip with Raiho. Eklund plans on taking a wooden paddle for the very same reason.

Perhaps the most challenging aspects are behind her, although there remains some worrisome concerns. Among those numerous challenges are meeting up with her food supply along the way in quite remote outposts along with several paddling perils. Lake Winnipeg, for example, is as long as the Minnesota River and is much more temperamental than Big Stone Lake since it faces into the prevailing winds. Numerous rapids await on her final leg on the Hayes River. “I’ll need to often make split second decisions on whether to try to run it, line through it or portage,” she said. 

She chats with Big Stone Lake historian Judy Beckman at the foot of Big Stone Lake.

This doesn’t include polar bears that she might possibly meet once she begins the descent toward the Hudson Bay. She isn’t “carrying” either. “Where would I put a gun on a kayak?” she asked of the obvious. She added that her parents and others have concerns about her traveling alone as a woman, although she believes some of those worries have lessened the further she has traveled along with the experiences she’s faced so far. “I’ve met some good people along the way,” she said.

Much of her trip of a lifetime lies in front of her, and she says, “I’m so happy to have this lower portion of my trip behind me, and Big Stone Lake was the last of it. It wasn’t bad at all except for the heat. I grew up lake paddling, and after fighting the flooding and fast currents on the Minnesota, the lakes were relatively easy for me” even while facing white-capped waves on her first day on Big Stone Lake. “I’m ready for getting on the other side of the Continental Divide and having the currents in my favor.”

Taking “five” after her 20 miles of padding up Big Stone Lake on Sunday morning in 100 degree heat and white cap conditions.

Then there’s this … that move to the Mojave. “I’m a North Country girl used to blizzards and snow,” she said. “I mean, I grew up in upstate New York! And, I’ll be going from the cool Hudson Bay to the desert basically overnight.” That seemed to faze her even more that the nearly 1,200 miles remaining on her paddle to the Arctic. 

As Eklund paddles ever onward she’s proving, if she hasn’t done so already, she isn’t “one of those people.” “I’m living my dream,” is how she put it.  Nope, she’s not one of those people! 

Sunrise, Sunset … So Swiftly Flow the Days

I’ve never hugged my neighbor, the farmer. Perhaps I should reconsider now I’ve realized that my 78th summer will have an Eastern horizon, one open to both colorful dawns and a rising sun. He has planted soy rather than ethanol, meaning my horizon won’t be hidden behind 12 to 14 ft. tall corn plants for the rest of summer and fall through harvest. What a fine and unexpected blessing.

Perhaps my greatest joy in living here at Listening Stones Farm is having views of a horizon for both the sunrises and sunsets. I love both, and love how they bookend a fine day. Although I’m generally not a fan of musicals, the hallmark song, “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof, has resonated with me simply because of the choruses:

Sunrise, sunset

Sunrise, sunset

Swiftly flow the days

Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers

Blossoming even as we gaze

Sweet, isn’t it? Granted, I view more sunrises come fall through spring than I do in the summer although it’s nice being able to see the line of trees on the flip side of this quarter section even on the “Midsummer Solstice.” To be clear, I do see the sunrises in summer … not just as many of them. Often times I’ll note the ambient colors of a new dawn and walk into the prairie or take off with my camera for a tree, prairie or wetland I’ve somehow placed in my mental “database” to feature in what I hope is a stunning image. Remember, I hold only a camera. Same holds true of the sunsets. Colors that are never predictable, displayed on clouds rarely duplicated, painted on early morning and late evening landscapes and nature. So swiftly flow the days!

A sunrise toward the east from my prairie … while below, a sunset toward the west …

Those fine moments of special color and light reminds me of what a fortunate place to live, this last bastion of our glacial blessings, for there remains remnants of the mostly depreciated prairie pothole biome. Some are large, shallow lakes, of which we are blessed with numerous ones to the east across U.S. 75. Less than 100 years ago the potholes, or wetlands (some call them “sloughs” although that word is too close in both pronunciation and image to “slum” for me) numbered in the millions, beginning at the Glacial Ridge down to the loess bluffs region of NW Iowa. Now there are but a few thousand, and in some of the prairie pothole counties there might be but one or two scattered across an entire “black desert”, tucked away from sight and promised cropping land. 

Those wetlands make for beautiful mirrored images of the rising and setting sun, and in many instances are blessed with willows and other trees that may add interest and dimension to an image. Yet, just sauntering through my prairie or an oak savanna, all part of a rather unique and mostly obliterated geological offering to mankind that provides other elements to photograph. Birds, forbs, deer and damselflies all come to mind, all part of such a wonderful blessing. 

A tipster allerted me to a nearby wetland where a swan family had settled, making for a nice sunrise image.

A few evenings ago I again headed to the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, this time in search of the blooming of the rare ball cacti hidden and embedded in the roughened and craggy gneiss outcrops. There was just enough of the “Monet light” remaining to provide some drama to the few images of rare forbs I captured, and yet it was early enough to be blessed with the ambient backdrop of colors so often painting the clouds. Blooming even as we gaze!

While I couldn’t find the blossoms on the cacti, there were some blooms on plants common to this very rare and barely surviving ecosystem left behind by time — an ecosystem indigenous to an eon long passed and mostly unseen. Then, on the way home as the sun was setting, a beautiful purple painted the sky behind a pair of roosting wild turkeys, then several moments later, a vivid orange graced the sky behind a trio of trees on a ridge above Big Stone Lake, a ridge created by the Glacial River Warren when the ice floe dam of the humongous Lake Agassiz broke free just a few miles north in at what is now the small town of Browns Valley ­— the geological event responsible for the near desert-like ecosystem tucked within the outcrops.

And, on the drive home a bonus sunrise image of a foggy Stony Creek.

This was just a week after I rose at 5 a.m. to follow a tip of a swan family with a newly hatched brood of cygnets in a nearby wetland. I arrived just as the sun rose to capture them in a beautiful orange-ish glow spread across stilled waters. Then, as a bonus on the way home, I found a fog rising above a beautiful bend of Stony Creek just east of Ortonville. Although neither was of my home horizon, this was special nonetheless. Admittedly, sometimes these home horizons are invitations to promises beyond. 

Ah, but my home horizon! Hundreds of sunrise images have come from within my prairie in all seasons, and in multitudes of colors and light, and each time I believe what I’ve captured can never be topped. Until the next sunrise. The same may be said of sunsets, from capturing them alive with curtains of smoke from western wildfires to those clear and cheerfully painted by our rapidly escaping star … our sun. One season following another!

A sunset image of a dragonfly in a bluestem prairie …

Many of us have heard the arguments of those living in coastal Florida boasting of the most picturesque sunrises on their eastern shore versus those who claim there are no better sunsets anywhere than those crossing the Gulf on the western shore. I’ve witnessed both and can lay claim that neither can touch either the sunrises or sunsets here on the prairie, and from my horizons, in opposite directions, allow these nearly daily magical palettes of unequaled color to appear. Time after time, one season following another.

So sing it, brothers and sisters! Sing it loud and clear:

Sunrise, sunset

Sunrise, sunset

Swiftly fly the years

One season following another

Laiden with happiness and tears

Hope … For Jenson’s Small ‘Island’ of Art

A Mourning Dove swept past me moments after I had eased into a weathered wicker chair on the small garden patio of rosemaler Karen Jenson’s iconic home in the small artist community of Milan,MN, mere blocks from the Milan Village Arts School (MVAS) where she held classes in the past. The dove landed to perch momentarily on a simple wrought iron guard rail, the work of Gene Sandau, the late blacksmith artist from nearby Madison, posing proudly if not symbolically.

Was the dove symbolically an omen for an era gone by? Perhaps an era even erased from current existence? Hope springs eternal for something many of us are holding onto as vividly and strongly as the dove’s talons grasped Sandau’s wrought iron.

I speak of her home, for Jenson is now a resident of a senior care facility in nearby Appleton. Her house has remained empty with exception of AirBnB out-of-town renters who’ve come for MVAS arts classes. Her house is in itself a work of art by an artist known even in the old countries for her freestyle rosemaling. Indeed, she was considered one of the best internationally, and artists traveled to this small prairie town for years to study with Jenson. 

Jenson’s “great room” is representative of her home of “old world art” in the small arts village of Milan.

Her garden, which surrounds the house with nooks and crannies just as it is within the exterior walls, is an island into itself. From the two patios, front and back, and from windows inside her house, the nearby streets are beautifully obscured from view. How could anyone not describe her house and corner lots as anything other than an island? An island of old world art?

A few years ago when her family decided for the move to the Appleton facility, a fund was started with hopes of saving her home as a living legacy to her influential life as a artist and teacher, which would be donated to MVAS to also house guests … as it did until Covid. “My hope is that someone will buy my home and donate it to the school,” she said, “that it will remain as it is. I didn’t want to sell, and I wish I could still live there. I loved my home.”

The house was recently listed and a “standard” open house was held this past weekend. A “lookalou” couple came in ahead of my friend, Wanda Berry, and I. Like us, they were audibly amazed by the art that seemed to evolve from every direction, from each of the numerous nooks and crannies, in all the rooms and an unexpected balcony, all emphasizing Jenson’s Norwegian rosemaling and Swedish dalmalning.

Her kitchen with the decorative cabinets is a treasure.

This wasn’t my first viewing of the ornate interior that was the work of Jenson’s painting and the carpentry skills of twin brothers, Aaron and Arvid Swenson of rural Flom, who constructed the beds and other decorative pieces. That initial viewing was years ago prior to the now annual Upper Minnesota River Arts Meander when friends Harland and Robbie Kasa, of rural Cannon Falls, came for a visit. We gave them a tour of the studios of area artists Dale and Jo Pederson of Wegdahl and Gene and Lucy Tokheim of Dawson before driving to Milan for a visit of the Arts School.

Harland, too, was an artist who recreated from scratch horse drawn buggies and ornate carriages, and got into a conversation with Jenson at the school. Interestingly, Harland had a client who was interested in having a rosemaled seat on his buggy, which Harland had explained to Jenson along with his frustration in finding someone to do the painting. “I do a little rosemaling,” she quipped before inviting us for the short walk to her house to show us her work. She was kind enough to show us all of her home but her bedroom. Her house back 20 some years ago was a wonder of awe. For those of us so fortunate, an awe that hasn’t changed.

A view of the ornate garden that obscures the adjacent streets gives one a glimpse of Jenson’s early morning cup of reflective coffee.

I knew Jenson only by sight at that point, and a few years later our booths were next to one another at an international cultural event in Willmar. Thus began our conversations and friendship, one that has continued to this day. She was working on a plate during the event and when we were packing up she was fine with selling it to me … which is now here on my wall at Listening Stones Farm. Since she has visited the farm a few times, and always smiles when she sees the plate.

And, yes, there is another connection between us, for it turns out that her grandfather and his brothers built this house I live in here on the farm, as well as others in the nearby area … all “Gustafson-built houses.” She grew up as a child at the foot of this road, near Big Stone Lake, and for a short while placed a small prebuilt log cabin on the top of a hill on land she still owned. “My family farm,” she called it. We were quite excited to have her as a new neighbor and envisioned sitting with a glass of wine to possibly view sunsets featuring a small oak savanna on the ridge across from the little cabin. Unfortunately her poor health kept her from enjoying her hideaway, and it was eventually sold and moved after she entered the Appleton facility.

Which brings us back to her beautiful “island” home in the midst of Milan. The house is listed for just short of  $200,000, and was initially part of an agreement set up by Jenson with ties to MVAS to hopefully raise enough funds to purchase the house and lot and donate it to the school. Contributing to that effort was area community organizer Patrick Moore, a 40-year friend of Jenson’s, who said that over the years about $70,000 had been raised. It wasn’t enough.

Her seating area in the “great room” offers a nice view of her west side garden.

Some family members had apparently, much to Jenson’s disappointment, run out of patience with the fundraising effort and as Jenson put it this weekend, “wanted to bring an end to it, to just get it sold.”

“Unfortunately,” said Moore, “negotiations broke down, and we couldn’t meet the family’s price, so now we are hoping that a friendly buyer can step forward.”

Hope is eternal, for Jenson, Moore and others … myself, included. Her home … yes, it is a home more so than a house … is a regional treasure, at least, and in itself a work of sweat, labor and art. Jenson’s sweat, labor and art. Although the fundraising efforts, which basically began after Pioneer PBS Emmy Award-winning staff did a Postcards segment on Jenson and her Milan home, have fallen short, many of us are still hoping for a just conclusion. Perhaps a wealthy buyer with a benevolent spirit might still purchase the home and lot, then donate it to MVAS while keeping the art home as is. As internationally respected rosemaler Karen Jenson has left it, a legacy to her life and career as an artist.

A wreath of greeting and farewell still hangs as one leaves Jenson’s former home.

Sitting in the stilled, ornate garden, hidden from the street, it was easy to find a moment of meditation among the bleeding hearts, allium and other plants in her beautiful gardened yard, with a warbler and sparrows cheerfully singing and with a dove momentarily perched on the wrought iron. You could close your eyes and vividly recall the painstakingly painted freehand rosemaling decorated the walls, doors of cabinets and rooms, of the twins’ wood crafted adormants and beds, along with intricate acanthus carvings.

When I opened my eyes, the dove had flown. Was it a symbolic omen? One suggesting hope is on the way, or one of a less fortunate conclusion? Many of us hold hope that Karen Jenson’s legacy, of her art and her importance to this small Norwegian village in the heart of the prairie, will be forever retained.

Zen … Before the Storms

My little foam bug, one tied on a #12 hook complete with a couple of sets of rubber legs, landed in the shallow water. After a couple of strips a swirl happened and I raised the rod tip. What followed as one of those epic showdowns between a bull bluegill and man on a three-weight fly rod. I was in heaven!

My dear friend, Jack Griffin, rose from the captain’s chair with interest. Our bout over the little floater fly was a tough one, bending the rod in an arc that brings joy to the heart, and in such moments, hope the rod will remain intact. So far I’ve been fortunate, and would be again as the stout fish the southerners call brim made circles that would impress a dedicated barrel racer. “Wow, that’s a nice one,” said Jack as the fish drove for deeper water.

Finally the bruiser gave in to allow me to skim it across the surface and lift it into the boat. “That’s a mighty fine fish,” he said, and I couldn’t have agreed more.

“It’s too big to keep,” I said. “I’ll have to release it.”

This small topwater fly, half the size of a penny, worked magic with the bluegills!

Jack wanted a picture, so we posed, the bluegill and I, and then the beauty was released to the lake. This battle was start of a fantastic two days of fly fishing for perhaps my favorite fish. Saturday with Jack, and again on Sunday morning at Annie Battle in Glendalough State Park with old friends, Tom and Cindy Cherveny. Both times the “fish were on.” 

If I were asked what activity brings me the most enjoyment, joy and relaxation this might top the list. I don’t need to go back too far in the past to second that emotion. My son, Jake, and I had gone to Missouri last Thanksgiving, and the weather was favorable for some late fall fly fishing. All the ponds on our family farm were ice free and I had caught numerous bass and  few crappies but no bluegill. A few miles east of our farm lives a retired banker on rolling, timber-blessed acreage that is home to about a five acre pond and home to some incredible bluegill. Years ago he gave me “perpetual permission” to fish the pond, so I drove over, pushed the line through the guides of my three-weight, tied on a “softie” and laid out a cast. 

This wasn’t a very good angle, for the bluegill was larger than it looks … and that isn’t a fisherman’s tale!

Moments later my soul was restored in blissful joy as the first bluegill hit the fly. Those circular patterns of brawn seem to do that to me. Before an hour was up I had enough “keepers” and sat down next to my rod on the bank. If Zen is indeed a state of calm rapture, I had achieved it. This feeling occurred more than once over this Memorial Day weekend, and not just from fishing. Friendships count, too. And a saunter through a native prairie was a fine dessert. The fishing, though, was supreme. Jack and I would do well on his home lake Saturday afternoon, rimming around one corner of the lake in his pontoon. It was easy fishing, and his dog, Julie, loved those moments as much as Jack and I did. Maybe even more.

Sunday morning I hoisted my kayak onto the car and headed to Glendalough. Initially camping was planned, although getting ready for an arts show on Thursday poxed that idea. At Annie Battle, a southeasterly wind was already laying heavy waves across the surface, a prelude to the incoming storms that would batter us for the remainder of the holiday. Thinking the leeward edge of the forest across the lake near Minnesota’s only state park canoe-in campground where they were camped would be protected, I pushed off and was careful to keep the nose of the kayak into the waves. I was surprised at how well my muscle memory kicked in, and within a short time I made it across to calmer water. 

The burr oaks weren’t fully leafed, their hefty limbs still bared to the sky.

Moments after I got into the lee they paddled up in greeting with Tom lifting a healthy stringer of their catch. As we chatted I rigged up, using the same rod and fly. I let out some line and laid the fly into the shallows, and within three strips my first bluegill charged into battle. 

This is heritage lake managed for bluegill with a five-fish limit, and no motors or electronics are allowed. This is Tom’s country, for it’s beautiful and quiet, a portion of land nestled in the transition zone between prairie and hardwood forest. The park was named by a long ago owner of the land, E. E. Murphy, then owner of the Minneapolis Tribune, for an Irish word meaning a glen between two lakes … one of which is Annie Battle. 

The “spent” seedlings of the Pasqueflowers blanketed the upper prairie.

After catching and releasing dozens of bluegill and a handful of bass, the predicted storm announced itself with a sudden crack of thunder. I gave the four fish on my stringer to Tom, then took off for the landing on the distant shore trying to beat the storm.

Once I got the kayak settled into the car top carrier, I stopped per chance at the Prairie Hill Interpretive Trail near the park entrance for a sandwich, then grabbed my old Nikon and headed in through a woody ravine with a promised prairie at the apex. A few weeks earlier I had photographed an incredible display of spring Pasqueflowers on a southern exposure of this same prairie and was hopeful of finding more wildflowers. Finding a Prairie Smoke would have made my spring-to-summer wildflower voyage nearly complete. And thus far, the weather was cooperating. The storm was mostly just wind and threatening clouds.

Though leafing had certainly started, the burr oaks were coming late to provide me with a few more opportunities to continue my “limb” works. I saw my second ever scarlet tanager moments into the saunter, and once in the upper prairie portion of the trail, I spied a few Prairie Smoke hiding among a meadow seemingly full of spent Pasqueflower seed heads — nearly as pretty as the blossoms themselves. It was a day … a weekend, really … that offered perhaps more than I rightfully deserved.

And, yes, there was Prairie Smoke hiding in the prairie grasses!

Views from the top of the prairie were magnificent, and I settled onto a handy bench for a little meditation. Had my camera battery not died I might not have had reason to leave. As I headed back down the mile long trail toward the car a day old fawn suddenly stood awkwardly in the middle of the trail. On legs so spindly that it was wobbling to stand, it seemed to wonder if I was man or wolf, friend or foe, and I was kicking myself for not having my spare battery along. Eventually it stepped off to the side, still in newborn wonder as I scooted past toward the car.

Nice size bluegill on an ultralight fly rod. Time spent with good friends sharing a fellowship with nature. Chance encounters with beautiful wildflowers, a scarlet tanager and a newly welcomed whitetail deer to the world. I believe there is a Zen to be found within the natural world, and for a couple of days it was presented ever so lovingly. It was a beautiful peace before the storms rolled through on Monday … 

Forest Bathing

A standing joke among us “forest bathers” this past weekend was to “not forget your fig leaf!” This form of ecotherapy translated as “forest bathing” was one of the multiple-offered courses at the Minnesota Master Naturalist’s Gathering Partners conference on Prairie Island. One of the two leaders, Kristen Mastel, had lived in Japan where she handled her cultural stress by venturing into an eco-antidote practice called “shinrin-yoko,” translated to mean “taking in the forest atmosphere.” Or, as it’s now known in the U.S., forest bathing.

Rather than fig leaves, we students were advised to wear sturdy but comfortable walking shoes and to be prepared for unpleasant weather along with a bit of a hike. Our leaders used the term “slow walking” at the beginning, although this was later amended to “sauntering” after being told that naturalist John Muir used “sauntering” for the same gait. 

“I don’t like either the word or the thing,” wrote Muir of hiking. “People ought to saunter in the mountains — not ‘hike!’ Do you know the origin of that word saunter? It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre’, ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”

Our saunter near the Mississippi River town of Redwing certainly had towering bluffs, though no mountains. We were on a portion of the Cannon River Trail that meandered through an aged deciduous forest and seemed perfect for sauntering. We didn’t know quite what to expect in the course, although after a few stops I began to realize that our pace was rather similar to the numerous nature “saunters” my artist friend, Lee Kanten, and I have done on numerous occasions: Sauntering through the woods, and somewhat similar to Muir’s ideal saunter, the rugged outcrops at the headwaters of the Minnesota River in the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. Age, perhaps, had more to do with our decision to saunter than a meditative mindset.

Like many meditative practices, certain disciplines awaited us, and sound can interfere. How would we handle the nearby highway noise with semis barreling through, or even the St. Paul to Chicago freighters rolling on the rails. Neither proved insurmountable.

Initially we gathered at the head of the trail and took a few minutes to engage in a deep breathing exercise quite similar to yoga breathing. With heads bowed and eyes closed, we drew in a deep breath, held it for a long moment before releasing. This came rather easily. That nearby traffic noise became rather muted the longer we practiced our meditative breathing. “In Japan,” said Mastel a bit later as she explained the discipline of forest bathing, “we sat on a mat to meditate. Shinrin-yoko, which is roughly translated into forest bathing, helped me handle the stress of being in a different culture along with a language barrier.”

As we sauntered along we would stop to practice a different discipline, or sense, along the way, concentrating on each until the next stop. Interestingly, “seeing” was the last of the disciplines, meaning I was forced to use senses rarely used in the saunters that Lee and I have done through the years. Photojournalists and artists are somewhat adept at seeing, and as we sauntered through the picturesque trail, composition and lighting emerged all around. Yet I kept my camera zippered inside my backpack … until a couple of the other students eased their cell phones from their pockets, one to photograph a wild flower, and the other a well hidden lichen. 

At one of our stops we were encouraged to smell. I admitted to the group that this was rarely one of my practices, yet when I forced myself to pay attention, the sense of smell came alive. First there was a rich muskiness, interrupted several steps later by a sweetness of a tree in bloom. There were other scents I couldn’t identify although there was an awareness. 

My weakest was that of hearing, for not only have I suffered a hearing impairment since I was a teenager, and have only recently found hearing aids that actually work well, I’m not used to “listening” when afield. Again, forcing myself to concentrate on the different sounds of the forest such as having the birds high in the canopy come to life. A rustle of leaves in the slight breeze. Then the sound of running water in an adjacent stream on private land close to our trail. On our walks in the Bonanza Education Center, spring-fed rivulets in the deep ravines do come to life and we make it a point to reach such a stream on the lakeside trail just to hear the sound of running water. And, yes, for meditative purposes.

My pivoting in different directions attempting to find a singing bird might have been counter-productive to the exercise although I wasn’t alone in doing so. Momentarily I recalled the audio rapture over the years … of the “jungle-like” sounds in the “blue hour” before darkness at the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in western Louisiana; the volumness of the sandhill cranes through the night in a blind on the North Platte River in central Nebraska; and of sea lions on a remote island near Juneau, Alaska. Those sounds were so dominate that hearing aids were unnecessary, and perhaps loud enough to rupture any thought of quiet meditation. On the Cannon River Trail, though, Mastel and her partner, Leah Masonick, had awakened another sense.

When the time came for awakening the sense of sight there was a feeling of comfort, for permission was now granted. One of the other Master Naturalists on the saunter shared thoughts of walking through various and ever changing compositions of nature all around us, and there was comfort in this sharing of likeness. 

Masonick said forest bathing encourages you to slow down, to cultivate a sense of presence and deepen your connection with nature … that it is done intentionally with a hope of engaging all the senses to stimulate creativity and to inspire wonder and awe. At the end we shared a comforting herbal tea and spoke of our individual awarenesses and awakenings.

I found myself in a zone, making it difficult to switch gears heading into my afternoon activity … about a four mile hike through a nearby Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) on the lip of the Driftless Area. I was ambling along (sauntering?) in a peaceful daze among others who were seemingly in a rush of aim and discovery. Meanwhile I was stuck in my “sight” mode, mainly, while listening for birds I couldn’t find and bending to smell native flowers along the path of whacked buckthorn stubble and in the narrow prairie hillsides. My eyes were drawn to the beautiful sturdy limbs of burr oak and the contrast of stark white birch against a greening, leafing out forest covering the deep ravines between the hilltops. And wildflowers a man of the prairie rarely encounters.

Here I was using old, under-used senses with renewed vigor, and I couldn’t have been more blessed. Interestingly, the fig leaf was unnecessary.

Earth Shadow Thoughts

Here’s the thing ­— whenever there is one of those celestial events it seems as if 99 percent of the time we’re greeted with thick, impenetrable cloud cover. This was my reasoning upon returning from the BWCA a couple of summers ago when the huge solar eclipse turned everyone I seemed to know into sun god nomads. A photographer friend made a beautiful horizontal portrayal of the eclipse, and others still talk about it with delighted wonder. They speak of a 360 degree sunset I can barely imagine and the thrills of actually being in such an eclipitical moment.

Me? I ventured over to the Prairie Wood Environmental Learning Center and squatted in the bluestem prairie waiting for perhaps some of the magic. Obviously on the extreme edge of magical bliss. I found it sorely lacking, no blame to the ELC. I hopped in my car and sped up Highway 71 to Sibley State Park, where the park naturalist, perhaps feeling sorry for me, loaned me her solar safety glasses. It was just in time to see the last eighth of the moon shadow. 

Eclipses aren’t the half of it. Twice I’ve made trips to photograph Northern Lights. Once was flying to visit a former exchange student and friend in Tromso, Norway. We would rest much of the day before heading out into the nearby mountains away from the city lights and into deep early February darkness in hopes of catching one of those outlandish dancing rays of other otherworldly pigmentation. In our nearly week-long excursions we had about 15 minutes of visualizing the lights peeking through small holes in windblown clouds. My other trip was to a resort on the Gunflint Trail along the Minnesota-Canadian border with a beautiful exposure to the north across a barren, ice-choked lake. Unlike farm country, the wilderness was free of light “pollution.” Well, we did catch a glimpse of a wolf, although the skies were either completely clear with no Aurora or blanketed with a dense, snowy cloud cover.

Our “blood moon” in the midst of the lunar eclipse on Sunday.

Thankfully the last comet that came through lasted nearly a month in the darkened universal canvas, long enough to plan some pictures including reflections in the calmed surface of a Minnesota lake.

Several years ago, though, in my last (and incredibly short) marriage, we sat outside of what has become my patio in lawn chairs with a bottle of Cabernet, holding hands as we sat through a visible lunar eclipse. Afterwards I made a social network comment expressing my second thoughts about not recording the eclipse with my camera. To which an old friend and chief photographer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Brian Peterson, wrote, “Sometimes John it’s perfectly okay to simply enjoy such things that happen in life. You don’t always need to have a camera in hand.”

This time I was fully prepared, although I must admit my trepidation after watching schooner clouds pass by all afternoon. Which brings me to our very last lunar eclipse this past Sunday night. Fortunately the first half of the show labeled as the “blood moon” lunar eclipse was going to happen within a time frame conducive to “old men hours.” Amazingly we hit that special one percent of cloudless skies so I could see and photograph such a special milestone in the adventures of larger life! However, there was no hint of spine-tingle that I was acutely aware of, although seeing the moon turn bloody looking was both interesting and special.

What transpired mentally as I sat in the chair typically used in my photography blind was trying to imagine thoughts of those preceding us in both time and technology. With the earth’s shadow slowly but surely edging over the surface of the moon I wondered if there were thoughts that perhaps the world was coming to an end? Were there thrills the following morning to awaken to find yet another day had arrived complete with blue skies and sunshine?

Historians believe one of the earliest “recorded” eclipses happened in November of 3340 B.C. after a series of circular and spiral shaped petroglyphs were found in County Meath, Ireland, along with charred human bones beneath a stone basin of what is now the Loughcrew Megalithic Monument. Scientists have wondered if there is a correlation, although they have no answers. Apparently the charred humans weren’t part of the petroglyphic history.

A thousand or so years later was one of the earliest solar eclipses, believed to be in 2134 B.C., as recorded in ancient Chinese documents, an eclipse event that supposedly was believed to be the result of a large dragon eating the sun. This nearly corresponds with Hsi and Ho, two royal and supposedly loyal astronomers who were ordered by Yu, the first emperor of the Xia Dynasty, to fend off this fearful sun-eating dragon but chose to get drunk instead. The displeased Yu then chose to have them beheaded. 

Speeding ahead toward more “modern” times, wars and even the Crucifixion of Jesus may have had ties to lunar eclipses. In and around 413 B.C., at the height of the Peloponnesian War, in a decades long struggle between Athens and Sparta, the superstitious Athens commander, Nicias, decided to hold off a safe departing because of a lunar eclipse. This prompted the Syracusians to then attack, overcome and weaken the Athenians stronghold on the Mediterranean which marked the eventual demise of Athenian dominance. 

Sometimes it’s just enough to enjoy the mysteries of our moon, especially since scientists suggest the human race is living in a unique and special time with the proximity between earth and moon.

Concerning Christ, Christian gospels suggest the sky darkened after the crucifixion which astronomers believe may have coincided with an eclipse. The “event” was apparently married to astronomical records in the years 29 C.E. to 32 C.E., records which historians have used in trying to pinpoint the death of Jesus.

So much for the past. For the time being the future looks promising for fans who seek pilgrimages for such events of the vast universe, all right here in our very own galaxy. On April 8, 2024 our next solar eclipse will cross through Mexico, the United States and Canada, from Mazatlán heading northeasterly through Texas and several other states en route to the border between Maine and eastern Canada. It’s estimated the maximum duration of totality will be about four and a half minutes. Of course, cloudy weather in the northeastern states and Canada may block views of the eclipse, so what else is new? 

Just in case you’re wondering, our next lunar eclipse is scheduled for September 7, 2025, and yes, the United States is right in the middle of the expected earth shadow. The western half of Alaska and the tip of Nova Scotia might see a partial event but the rest of us in this broad slice of the planet, from pole to pole, should have a front row seat … pending a lack of cloud cover.

Suspected paths of future solar eclipses.

Before one gets the idea that these soulful celestial events are forever certainties, consider this: Scientists conclude that we are living at an extraordinary time and place within our unique universe where total solar and lunar eclipses are even possible. They warn that this will not always be the case, as gravitational interaction between our planet and its moon is causing the moon to slowly ebb away from Earth into vast universal darkness at a rate of nearly an inch and a half a year! So within 500 to 600 million years they estimate the moon will appear much too small in our sky for there to be another total solar or lunar eclipse sighting on Earth ever again. So, folks, plan accordingly. You can’t say you haven’t been forewarned.

Confessions of a Rookery Collector

Great Blue Herons hold a special place for me. Long, sleek and grayish blue, with the dark crown angling back overhead, stalking the shallows ever the hunter. A spear-like beak that slices through both time and water, angling for a fish or frog; a portrait of animalistic stealth ­— a “water wolf” —  always on the ready. Although those that become urbanized become less shy, those in the wild have little tolerance for mankind, lifting from the river a hundred feet in front of a canoe, or lifting with sudden urge from a wetland or prairie stream to glide away, neck curbed with straightened legs, off to some realm of both safety and promise. 

Great Blues are part of my springtime wonder. They arrive early, weeks before color begins to soften the woodlands. Besides catching glimpses of the herons, this array of woodland colors of the buds of awakening trees, from the bright reds to the nearly full spectrum of greens, eases my soul. Adding peace. Adding joy. This leafing out is truly an acknowledgment that we’ve finally passed the rigors of a winter past and are now heading toward summer. This is all choreographed between bird and wood so wonderfully … until it isn’t.

Male Great Blue Herons bringing in the sticks the female will knit into the nests.

For on one of the bends of the Minnesota River below Skalbakken County Park, rather close to the confluence of Cottonwood Creek, the Great Blue Herons have adopted a piece of the wooded banks for a rookery that becomes completely hidden once the leaves of the trees appear between the rookery and the river. Besides being unfair to a hopeful canoer, there is something about a rookery that simply amazes me, and has for as long as I can remember. Could it be having a sneak peek into the inner secrets of an avarian slice of life?  

If the late counterculture poet and author Richard Brautigan could collect trout streams, then whose to say I can’t collect heron rookeries. His fly fishing pilgrimage through Idaho in the late 1960s isn’t unlike mine through the numerous crane rookeries through the years. Around our region of the prairie numerous birders make an annual pilgrimage to a rookery shared by cormorants and Great Egrets on a small island in “grotto” park near downtown Fergus Falls. Color me guilty, for I seem to make the 90 minute drive at least a few times each year especially in the spring during the collective nest building span of time. 

Beside the Fergus Falls and Cottonwood Creek rookery, that springtime canoers paddle past, another one exists about a mile or so below US 212 some miles south of Marieta surrounded by a stately oak savanna. This one, like many, is well hidden, and like many, basically the only time it’s visible is in the spring before leafing. Even then one if lucky to see it.

She awaits, as do I peeking in at their interesting society.

Over the years I’ve been drawn to other rookeries in other states. Perhaps the most notable one is the Snowy Egret rookery on Tabasco’s Avery Island near New Iberia, LA, where the McIlhenny family basically saved the egrets from extinction in the early 1900s thanks to a man-made rookery. At the time the birds were threatened due to the fashionable thirst for their fairy-like feathers. Avery Island is a magical place in the Cajun Triangle.

Another rookery I thoroughly love is within the town limits of Rockport, TX, a beautiful Great Blue Heron rookery that was pointed out to me by a local artist after I had admired one of her paintings in her front street studio. This heron community is adjacent to both the Gulf of Mexico and a brackish bay where the birds wade the waters with seemingly no concern of nearby human traffic either in vehicles or on foot. A naturalist friend tells of a well populated crane rookery in NE Minneapolis where the birds are also “tamed” by the proximity of humanity.

Not so at a rookery on a small lake in the Eastern South Dakota Coteau. A few years ago a friend and I discovered this beautiful island rookery between here and the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Like the Fergus Falls rookery, there isn’t any foliage blocking the view. Last week I ventured over after seeing a heron lift from Meadowbrook just down the road from Listening Stones Farm. This was a “they’re here!” moment of discovery, and since this rookery is about 90 minutes west between Sisseton and Sand Lake NWR, I took the drive. There the birds held me captive for nearly two hours … which is about normal. Their “secret society” feeling simply  grabs me.

The handoff …

And the rookery was alive with nesting activity. While females worked on arranging the sticks brought in by their mates high in the trees, the males flew off in search of more nest kindling, grasping mere sticks in their beaks before easing across the expanse of the lake. Amazingly, they would land on spindly branches before gingerly walking down to hand off the stick to its mate. 

Besides being mesmerized by the branch ballet, in the deft manner of not only landing on the end of a branch, and then balancing as the male eased toward his mate with the stick secured in its beak, there was the eased poetic flight over calm waters carrying sticks dogs would love. Sometimes both would work on the construction, although it seemed that moments after the hand off the male would again take flight to gather more sticks. In his absence, she would knit the stick into a maze that would become their nest. Interestingly, much like the rookery in Fergus Falls, sometimes a nearby cormorant would attempt to wrestle the stick away from the herons. Rarely were they successful.

Yes, their island rookery was shared by cormorants, who likewise were busy in next mending. Though like in Fergus Falls, I wasn’t there for the cormorants … birds that appear so old worldish with their strangely webbed feet and hooked bills that they appear to be from times’ past, as first cousins to prehistoric Pterosaurs. But, aren’t all birds? 

An overview of the rookery between Sisseton and Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

These nests they weave of random wood high in spindly trees, mostly now perished due to the buildup of guano from those that have adopted the highest most branches, are study and strong, surviving in this case, often harsh and strong prairie winds. 

In those nests she will lay three to seven greenish-blue eggs that will be incubated for about four weeks with the male and female taking turns. Chicks break through the shells with eyes open, and like all those Pterosaurous cousins, are completely dependent on their parents for sustenance – food that is regurgitated from small fish, frogs and other small animals ingested in their stomachs. Within two to three months the youngsters are ready to fly, and come late summer they will be smaller mirrors of their parents. Though less fearful of mankind, the young herons can be seen in waters near their rookery stalking the shallows with far less spookiness than their parents, a fear that will become more pronounced as they age. 

So life goes on, seasonally, and with balance and symmetry. Beautifully poetic, with their high branch ballet, and if you’re lucky you can witness all of this in a natural theatre often near water and in an early Spring before a leafing closes the curtain on this delicate and fearful society. Rookeries are rare treasures, and I for one am most happy to be a collector.