A Calming of the Sea

During our recent trip to Juneau, our host, Rob Murphy, spent considerable time watching the waves on the fjord just past the bay framed by their expansive living room windows. We had dropped crab pots into the surf in about 75 feet of water on our first morning, and on three of the six mornings the surf was too roiled to check the pots. Rob, however, had a bigger goal in mind.

On one side of one of the huge islands distant in the fjord was a sea lion rookery, and the former son of the prairie was intent on showing us a slice of nature we might consider unique. There seemed to be two constants involving their bay and the nearby fjord. Their immense collection of tide chart booklets (along with cell phone aps!), and the continued monitoring of the waves.

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A few hundred of the Steller Sea Lions nestled in a rocky rookery near Juneau.

Yes, we have waves of our bluestem prairies, and some hearty winds. Yet there on the visual fjord white caps ruled the waterways most of the week, and on some days the rollers were rougher than on others. Rarely did we see a sea without white caps. One afternoon we visited a popular beach where we sat to watch the deep rollers of the open fjord as the tide came in, smashing rocks with clarity and purpose, sending spray high in to the air. Earlier we had debated on whether to bring a picnic dinner to the beach, and thought we were wise in eating lunch before we set off for the jaunt up the highway.

On our last morning Rob and I headed into the fjord on calmer seas to check the pots and bring them back to his shop, and we happily caught three “dungy’s” that were of legal size. We would add steamed crab legs to our brunch, with the leftovers going into Kaye’s incredibly delightful and delicious Cioppino, a tomato-based fish stew.

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The sound was incredible, a cross between the loud murmur of a huge ball stadium and, oh, a Nebraska feedlot, with mooing and cooing mixed with barks. 

“I think we can go … if the seas remain calm,” Rob had said as we headed back from collecting the pots. Later in the morning we headed to his workshop to clear the path to his cruiser, which we would ease into the water a few hundred years distant.

Obviously I know so little about the sea. No, there weren’t whitecaps, yet the sea was in constant movement, rolling easily across the horizon. Rob took us on a long boat ride up the coast, bouncing from wave top to wave top, past the little island with the lighthouse, and even the beach where we had watched the rough seas the day before. “Some of this,” he said of the sea, “is residual effects from the roughness yesterday. It takes some time for it to calm down.”

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They were amazing climbers, crawling up the cliff face like legless goats. 

After a while, he turned the boat and headed more westward and away from the mainland before slowing the boat and pointing to the windy side of a steep and wooded island. It took awhile to realize we were not seeing tan and gray rocks. Ah, yes, the rookery. Using a zoom that reached out to 600 mm, it was nearly impossible to focus and shoot. We were rolling, up and down, even lurching at times, and some of my images were of sky, others of water, and yet still enough to have captured some of the Steller Sea Lions. These are more common in the northern waters.

My dear friend, Mary Gafkjen, Rob’s sister, suggested I crawl into the hold and stand up through a deck port for a freer view. We were a few hundred yards out from the steep little island, yet the sounds were incredibly unique, and windblown for a rather eerie effect. A few weeks ago we were in Nebraska to witness the annual Sandhill Crane migration, and the sounds of the birds was simply unforgettable. Years ago I spent a late afternoon and evening in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in western Louisiana and came home with memories of a deep, mental audio imprint. And, now, with the Sea Lions, I witness my third such imprint.

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Their climbing is much like that of a caterpillar, by raising their mid-body up on their front and back fins, then inching forward. 

Not to diminish this experience, but it seemed the overwhelming sound was almost like a cross of a huge Nebraska feedlot, with “mooing” or “cooing,” to the loud murmur of a crowded ballpark, all with intermittent barking. The “barks,” I’m told, were those of the California Sea Lions that have migrated this far north.

Then there was the visual, and especially seeing mammals that seemed so awkward out of the sea, climb so high into the rocks along the steep cliffs of the rookery. Apparently their climb is similar to a caterpillar crawl, where they lift themselves up on the front and rear flippers to scoot forward or up.

Here is some information gleaned from an Alaskan Fish and Game website:

“Steller sea lions use rookeries and haulouts on land to rest and suckle their young. Adult females must continue foraging while nursing their pups, and the pups’ bodies are well-adapted to fast while females are hunting prey during 1-2 day trips. By their first spring, pups are able to reach similar diving depths as adults but do not do so as frequently. As pups grow older, their swimming and diving patterns grow to resemble that of older sea lions. The behavior of older juveniles and adults appears to track the behavior of their prey; for example, deep diving as prey move deeper during daylight, a focus on night-time behavior while prey are shallow and the gathering of many sea lions at places with seasonal runs of forage fish. Foraging trips are usually within a few tens of miles off haulouts, but the longest recorded continuous foraging trip was 550 miles (900 km) into the Bering Sea. Older juvenile sea lions can dive to at least 1500 feet (500 meters) and stay underwater for over 16 minutes. When swimming, Steller sea lions use their front flippers for propulsion and their back flippers to steer. When moving on land, they use a “rolling walk” on all four flippers by pulling their hind flippers under their body. Steller sea lions are capable climbers, often found high above the water on cliff faces.”

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It’s impossible to capture the true magic of the moment, not from the sounds of the Sea Lions nor the roll of the sea.

Fortunately there was ample time for us to simply roll with the waves to watch and listen. The Sea Lions paid no attention to our smallish boat bobbing in the sea. This was truly a remarkable experience, and for me, one that was quite unique. Rob and Mary kept asking if I had captured anything, for focusing and shooting was a complete “crap shoot.” Honestly, I cannot take credit for how the photo imagery turned out, for many of the images were in sharp detail, thanks to advanced modern photography technology.

Sometimes such imagery is magical, and other times the images pale to an actual experience in the field. I can vouch that this was the case, for I cannot capture for an audience all of the true magic. Not from the Sabine. Not from the cranes along the North Platte. Nor from the sounds of the Sea Lions and the roll of the sea. Then, again, who can?

Restoring the Soul

As we sat in the plywood blind, mere feet from the slow swirl of the shallow North Platte River, my dear friend and travel mate, Mary Gafkjen, quietly marveled at the crowded and loud “gurgle” of the thousands of Sandhill Cranes a hundred yards distant from us and whispered, “This is simply amazing. We’re witnessing a ritual that dates back for thousands of years.”

Yes, a migration that Aldo Leopold described in his essay, “Marshland Elegy,” as “the ticking of the geologic clock.” Since the Eocene, he surmised, an evolutionary time dating from 56 to 34 million years ago.

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A songbird appears to watch, as many of us did, as thousands of Sandhill Cranes dot the skies.

Leopold wasn’t the only notable scientist and essayist lured by the Sandhill Cranes. British primatologist, anthropologist and chimpanzee protectionist, Jane Goodall, who apparently returns to Central Nebraska annually for the spring ritual, says, “The cranes restore my soul.”

One can only guess at how long the cranes have descended on this stretch of the North Platte. Maps at Crane Trust indicate an hourglass effect that funnels an estimated half million Sandhill Cranes — an estimated 80 percent of the world’s population — and yes, a few of the quite rare Whooping Cranes, from wide stretches of Mexico and Texas to the south through these several miles of flat Nebraska riverine terrain for rest and recharging before spreading out once again from Minnesota to Manitoba and points beyond.

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Leopold calls it the migration the “ticking of the geologic clock.”

This ritualistic migration has long been of personal interest. For years in my little basement workshop, hours passed with carving knives, a fly tying vise, a scroll saw and other assorted tools for the idle mind, taped on the wall was a yellowed full page article from some newspaper rallying the mind around a trip to the North Platte for the spring Sandhill migration.

So, yes, this has long been a dream of mine … a dream enhanced by an encounter years ago back in the San Luis Valley of Colorado when a farmer friend and I crouched quietly along a sandy bottom of a drainage ditch to his organic barley field where we spied on a huge flock of Sandhills gathered for a mid-day meal. They are vocal birds, and my bird book calls it a ‘rolling, guttural bugling.” I’d suggest it as an “alto gurgling of river riffles.”

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Ambient colors from the setting sun provided another layer to an already magical experience. As my friend Mary said, “This is simply amazing. We’re witnessing a ritual that dates back for thousands of years.” Indeed!

 

Leopold’s take: “When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.”

It is a call like no other, and was heard through the night as a softened accompaniment. Around dawn the intensity rose once again in a crescendo as the sun edged closer to the horizon. Groups of birds suddenly burst from the river, coursing overhead in poetic and vocal flight. I’ll remember this sound in the same way I still recall a visit some 30 years ago to the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in western Louisiana, sounds that are both unique and deeply imprinted in the mind.

Yet, it was their picturesque flight I yearned for in our drive into the Platte River Valley along the old Lincoln Highway the day before. My hopes had begun to dwindle as we neared Grand Island late in the afternoon for I had expectations of the skies being clouded with birds. Later as we shared dinner with friends, I kept sneaking looks out the windows of the club in hopes of seeing the telltale V’s of poetic flight. Our hopes improved significantly the next morning as we drove south toward I-80 and came upon a huge flock in a prairie field. Mary got a little nervous as I pulled off on the shoulder and grabbed my camera.

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An ever hopeful Sandhill Crane began his mating dance in front of our blind early in the morning, and eventually attracted a bird to join him.

Later in the morning we touched base with the headquarters of the Crane Trust (9325 S Alda Road, Exit #305, Wood River, Nebraska 68883) and our education began. We watched a short film and viewed a nice artistic display along the walls of an adjacent hallway. A volunteer named Catfish held court in the lounge where we learned that the cranes really don’t travel far from the river to forge, that this is a holding area between their wintering areas in the south and their upper continent summer range. Also interesting is that they basically gather and fly in family units.

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At dusk the Sandhills came in directly across from our blind, sometimes a hundred or so at a time, sometimes in small groups.

After lunch we drove a bit south along the river where we joined birders from around the nation along the highway, photographing several thousand Sandhills gathered in a prairie field. We made it back to Crane Trust for a final packing of our gear and a ride to one of three overnight photographic blinds. Bruce, our driver, cautioned us that the birds had started holding up around the bend and downriver from the blinds. “Maybe,” he said, “you’ll be lucky.”

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And, indeed, we were lucky, for as dusk settled in birds began arriving from east of us to settle down right in front of our blind.

Once we made camp we settled into a couple of comfortable counter-top styled chairs to await the birds. We didn’t have to wait long, for in the distance … yes, around the bend and downriver … thousands of Sandhills flew in from over the canopy of cottonwoods in a steady fly-in from the adjoining farm fields. After a couple of hours of watching and taking distant shots we surmised that we weren’t going to be lucky. To fill time I posted a picture of Mary on a social network site and mused about our seeming misfortune. That prompted my author friend, Tom Watson, back in Minnesota, to suggest that we simply relax and be patient, to enjoy the unique sounds and the experience.

Patience took us almost through the sunset as more and more cranes continued to land just around the bend. “None of them seem to be coming from the east,” Mary whispered hopefully. Hardly had the words been spoken  when the first flock of perhaps a hundred birds suddenly eased over the cottonwoods directly across the river from us to touch down right in front of the blind. And they continued to come. By the hundreds. Way too many to count. Suddenly the sound was deafening. We were quickly enveloped in a magical cocoon of evolutionary time and experience. Yes, a restoration for the soul.

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As dawn broke, groups of Sandhills suddenly rose from the shallow Platte, headed for nearby fields of forage.

Once again I must turn to Leopold: “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins as in art with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.”

To the Women …

Well, now, it’s International Women’s Day and the celebration is flooding social media sites. All of this encouraged me to think back on the many influences I’ve had over the years. There are many, and I won’t remember them all.

It would be easy to name those who have influenced you from afar, such as Harper Lee or Rachel Carson. Carson’s book, Silent Spring, had a major influence on me as a youth, that perhaps there were sides of stories we were not being told. This was as much a start of my interest in journalism as was artist Georgia O’Keefe was in different ways of looking at nature.

However, I prefer to think of influential women closer to home. This starts with my mother, Mary Laurele Dunham White, who was just as sharp mentally at 100 as she was when I was a child. She was the first in our family to earn an advanced degree, and upon finishing college hit the road with three of her closest female friends for a road trip before WWII. Women just didn’t take road trips back then, not in 1939. Her sister, Helen, followed her to college and was eventually part of the team for the Manhattan Project.

Mom taught me about fishing, and perhaps most of all, insisted we always have a hand hobby. “If you use your mind, you’ll need to use your hands to relax,” she said. She encouraged curiosity and individualism … to not be concerned with what the neighbors thought. Her mother, who died of a stroke before I started school, was said to be very independent … the entire family, from my grandmother’s generation though mine, and the girls and now women of the more recent generations have that same trait. More than once I’ve said that if all women had grown up in our family, no one would have heard of Gloria Steinem.

After high school I ran into a completely unexpected influence, one whose name has long passed me by. We grew up in a small town in segregated times. If you were black you knocked on the back doors of stores for entry, and you weren’t served at the lunch counters. A year before I started high school the board desegregated the senior high, and my black classmates were more seen than heard. Immediately after graduation I went into basic training, and was stationed at Fort Sheridan in the motor pool, ran by a boisterous and quite confident black woman. She was extremely outgoing and confident, and she ran the office with complete authority. She was an eye opener for me, and to say I was influenced is putting it mildly.

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Me and my late wife, Sharon, who taught me so much about caring for the disadvantaged and disabled.

Moving on …  here are some others:

Susan Beloit Thompson, my college sweetheart, who taught me to how to find joy in the small and common stuff, that everyone has a story and usually a good one. She found immense joy in running a small town weekly.

Jodi Cobb was one of the first women photojournalists and a colleague at the Denver Post, and later was a National Geographic mainstay. Yes, she could shoot with the best of us, without fear, and with a damned fine eye.

Sharon Yedo White, my late wife, who despite her personal demons of depression had a heart the size of Texas, and a love for anyone disadvantaged in any way.

Kylene Olson, a dear friend, who showed me how you could successfully blend activism with policy, and sell those ideas to those who might disagree with you.

Asa Fanelli showed many of us that you can lead with love and compassion despite a corporate “bottom line.”

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Asa Fanelli, former president of EF Foundation, showed us that you can be a leader with love an compassion in spite of a corporate bottom line.

Audrey Arner moved into the prairie and showed us how to combine art with farming, and that no horizon was too distant to reach. She was instrumental in developing one of the area’s first permaculture farms.

CJ Ford, along with her late husband, Chuck Weibel, proved you could convert a strange idea of growing vegetables in the middle of the winter, in Minnesota, by using passive solar and making it work even as a CSA. They published a book that eventually led to forming of a state-wide organization.

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Clockwise from upper left, Kylene Olson (right); CJ Ford and Audrey Arner; Julia Ahlers and Amy Rager.

Amy Rager championed a way to develop a program called the Minnesota Master Naturalists, borrowed from the Master Gardener program, that has trained thousands of volunteers in three distinct ecosystems on how to volunteer and educate others on the necessity of natural quiet places in nature. Now her program is being used in many other states.

Julia Ahlers has introduced me to the incredible depths of spirituality, and the broad underlying necessity of recognizing and listening to the unspoken.

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On one of her last days of fishing, due to the affects of macular degeneration, we caught some nice fish in a farm pond. With my son, Aaron.

Oh, there are so many women who have inspired me through my lifetime, so many there is hardly time to remember and recognize them all, and yet, I’m ever grateful. Through it all it goes back to my mother, who taught me to be open minded, curious and adventurous … that people of any race or gender have something to share, and your role as a human is to be open and accepting of that generosity.

Clearing of the Spirit

Recently these words in a poem by Denise Levertov caught my attention:

 

But after a few steps, I paused, impelled again

to linger, to look North before nightfall-the expanse

of calm, of calming water, last wafts

of rose in the few high clouds.

And was rewarded:

the heron, unseen for weeks, came flying

widewinged toward me, settled

just offshore on his post,

took up his vigil.

                               If you ask

why this cleared a fog from my spirit,

I have no answer.

 

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Sometimes when simply ambling through my home prairie, something catches the eye … 

I’m often amused by how we commune with nature. When canoeing or kayaking on one of the nearby rivers, especially the rivers, typically there is a point where I’m rewarded with an uncharted deep breath and a sense of unrelenting mental freedom. How addicting, and a feeling I cherish wholeheartedly. Sometimes this also happens in the woods, or simply ambling through my home prairie. Maybe something catches the eye, often unexpectedly, a momentary glimpse of a wonder in nature.

Yes, a fog clearing from my spirit.

Many years ago, my river buddy, Tom Kalahar, and I led a group on an overnight fishing and camping expedition on the Minnesota River. Among those floating with us was a philosopher/college professor from Argentina, a man noted for silent pride and ongoing reflection. As we were getting ready to push off after breakfast, the philosopher was missing. After concerted efforts to search the wooded bluff, and even along the adjacent sand bar, he was found quietly meditating in a little wooded “room” he had discovered at the top of the bluff that provided a beautiful window to an expansive view stretching upriver. Among us he became “the Ponderer.”

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Hidden along the Minnesota River, and found while “sauntering” along the river bank.

Later that same morning we stopped the canoe caravan on a gravel bar created by the inflow of a small, clear water creek. After about 45 minutes and surprisingly little action, we were ready to head on downriver. But, no ponderer. His son-in-law sent his son up the little tributary in search and moments later the young teenager burst back through the brush. “Dad!,” he cried, “Grandpa was laying up in the creek naked!” The philosopher, laying in a calming pool of clear water beneath a gorgeous canopy of May, wooded greenness, was clearing a fog in his spirit in ways we weren’t.

Somewhere along a path, on any given path in nature, a “walking ponder” becomes a “saunter.” To hike one must have a gait, and humorously, if you’ve walked a European sidewalk with me my fastest “hike” might be considered a “saunter” by many. When afield in the woods or prairie, my saunter is natural, expected and ever more pronounced .. observing, discovering momentary wonders and fleeting moments of nature .. of clearing fog from spirit.

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“August” was a momentary, fleeting moment in the lower loop of my home prairie, a stumbling onto the unexpected in the midst of not looking.

Thoreau take on it was: “The saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.”

I’m now reading “The Hour of Land,” another fine work by author Terry Tempest Williams, who shares a conversation with New Mexico artist, Lawrence Fodor, who says, “As artists, the beauty, and all the revelations therein, is in stumbling onto the unexpected when we are in the midst of looking/not looking for something else entirely … that sensorily aware state of not assuming anything, not purposely looking for anything in particular but completely in touch with the moment and where we happen to be.”

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A moment on a “foggy saunter” in the Bonanza area of Big Stone State Park.

To saunter is a fine way to find something when you’re not looking for anything at all, or perhaps for clearing fog from your spirit. As to why, like the poet Denise Levertov, I have no answer.

Poems of a Prairie Winter

A friend who is a recognized geologist suggested from the lay of my prairie that this may have been the shoreline of a glacial lake. It does have the slope, and there are decent ghost-like wetlands during the spring melt. Plus, just over the rise is a very nice wetland frequented by thousands of ducks and geese during the spring migration. It takes very little imagination to envision all of this adjacent land as being the bed of an ancient lake.

So, yes, there is slope, though only a true flatlander would suggest this a hill. Having just climbed from the bindings of my cross country skis, the thought of this being a “hill” is simply outrageous. My eight acres of former tillable is now embraced with a layer of fresh, new snow … the first real snow of the winter. With new bindings screwed into place, skiing over the mowed trails provided a fine winter exercise good for both the heart and eyes. The heart for exercise, the eyes for catching special messages hidden within the forbs and grasses!

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You can come across special messages hidden in the forbs and grasses, poetry created by prairie winds.

 

My neighbor, Lance Lindeman, comes over about once a week in the summer for lawn meditation, or what we jokingly call “yard yoga.” Away from his job as a union organizer, he cuts winding trails through the prairie with a rider mower. His winding paths are wonderful for three of the four seasons. Not now. Not in the winter with a decent covering of snow … which is now a rarity with the change in climate … when one seeks a good, long satisfying glide. Apparently I have little to complain about!

No, this really isn’t all that troubling since the idea is to combine a little nature with the exercise, and that can be done without driving away from the farm to one of the area state parks or nature areas. Also nice is being able to take a camera into the prairie, for you can come across special messages hidden in the forbs and grasses.

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Yesterday I came across a heart-shaped “valentine” written in the snow, and I’m pleased I had the camera for on my loop through the prairie moments ago the heart was erased by the same winds that had created it.

Most of all is my love of catching sight of “wind poems.”  These “poems” are etched in the snow by the tips of the prairie grasses, aided by the wind, and some are just beautiful. Yesterday I came across a heart-shaped “valentine” written in the snow, and I’m pleased I had the camera for on my loop through the prairie moments ago the heart was erased by the same winds that had created it. Tomorrow, with another covering of snow and a nice breeze, we’ll seek new poems and messages created by the wind and prairie grasses. Among my favorite grasses is the side-oat gamma, and I’ve yet to see a side-oat creation. When it happens it will surely be surreal.

My farm sits in an area described as the Prairie Pothole Biome. The prairie grasses are a major part of that ecosystem. Some 99 percent of the Biome was lost to “progress” and “civilization” through ditching, cultivation and eventual drainage. Big Stone County, Minnesota, is rather unique, for it is one of the areas still counting a number of potholes. They’re also called “wetlands” by government entities, or “sloughs” by the locals. Same thing, sunken relics left behind in the prairie by the melting of the last glacier thousands of years ago. Winter graces these wetlands (my favorite name for them), adding seasonal grace to the shallow earthly depressions. Yes, you can find messages here as well. Winds and aquatic plants create interesting ice and snow dune formations. Yes, a different poem … poems less delicate and boldly stated.

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Winter graces these wetlands, adding seasonal grace to the shallow earthly depressions. Yes, a different poem … poems less delicate and boldly stated.

Ah, but there is more! The third natural feature of the Prairie Pothole Biome are the burr oak savannas, and yes, Big Stone County has a fair share of these on the shady sides of hills. A beautiful and huge savanna is found on the weathered bluffs along the old river … now Big Stone Lake. I love sitting in the wooded savanna at the nearby Bonanza area of Big Stone State Park during a slow, drifting snow, or even hiking or skiing along the trails hugging the lake shore. Snow in the savannas adds an entirely different layer of beauty and mystery, a poetry of  striking beauty and grace, often times haunting.

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Snow in the savannas adds an entirely different layer of beauty and mystery, a poetry of  striking beauty and grace, often times haunting.

Yes, I look at the prairie differently than many. That’s okay. We each have our own creativity and ways of interpreting nature. When I find messages left by the wind, the grasses and forbs, the trails left by mice, pheasants and coyotes, the icy sculpturing the wetlands, the oaken arms ladened with silhouetted snow, I’m pleased. If I don’t find them, will you? Will you read them the same way? Does it matter? In winter, prairie poems come to life, etched as they will by wild winds. This poetry provides hope and warmth on a wintry, snowy day.