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 (https://brentolson.substack.com/) 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.”

November

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. 

Ravines

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.

Seasons Come, Seasons Go

Seasons come, seasons go. And our autumn, a time of migrations and leaf transformations of color, seems on the brink of closure as October winds blast across the prairie, littering the rivers and plains with dead and dried leaves of varying colors. Truly it was merely a matter of time, and after my hitting the colorful peak last week at both Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge and Maplewood State Park, my desire to capture the last of an autumny essence at Buffalo River State Park meant time was of essence. With that in mind I set my alarm for a 5 a.m. wakeup call.

My thought was to drive up to Buffalo River State Park just east of Moorhead before dawn with hopes the winds hadn’t already denuded the trees alongside this small, picturesque river. Then, either I didn’t hear or ignored the alarm all together, my day was off kilter before it had barely begun.

As I left Listening Stones farm early that morning my initial rationalization was that although I would miss the sunrise at Buffalo River some two hours up the road, there might still be ample post-sunrise color for my photography. At the end of my road, though, my plans abruptly changed. Left to Buffalo River, or right to the Minnesota River. I’d be turning right.

Time was running short either way. For prime color and light, that is. Yet, there was still a whole day to come. Without speeding I made it to a bridge over the Minnesota River with moments to spare as the sun was just barely below the horizon. Pulling the car onto the shoulder, I grabbed my camera and rushed for the bridge ahead of two cars heading toward Ortonville and actual paying jobs. One of the pure blessings of retirement.

So my day began on the Minnesota River and would eventually end several hours later on the Buffalo River up in Clay County. If timed correctly, there would be ample time for some hopeful late afternoon light and color near  sunset. A rapid assessment showed many of the trees had already been hit with winds from across the floor of the sheer flat Red River Valley, though a hint of leaf color peaked through along the waters edge. Later in the afternoon an overcast sky doused any intent of adding ambient afternoon colors to those beautiful waters. 

My morning brought some nice images to the camera. Perhaps nothing like my Klimt-like image of the leaves I made late last week, but decent enough. Same for my afternoon on the Buffalo River, although once again I longed for a pathway to the bottom of the bluff just below the park headquarters. That was my mental image when I left home, for when I was there last winter the snow was too deep and this time the hillside growth seemed too much of a hassle for a descent dip into the valley floor with no idea of the eventual view. From the hilltop there appeared to be a nice long stretch of river pointing toward a setting sun.

Back on the Minnesota my sunrise image was calm and colorful with ambient light from the rising sun reaching over the hillside village of Odessa. Across the bridge a reflection of the moon, though smaller than a button, awaited against a “rainbow” dawn-ish sky. 

Moments later, on a whim, I found the gate into the Big Stone NWR open so I took the loop. There would be hours to kill before I would leave for the Buffalo River. Oddly enough I can usually capture a few interesting images on each trip through the Refuge, and I would again.

Once again the few birds I saw were cooperative, including a great blue heron … before an erosion of patience hit for a launch skyward to head across the pool shallowed by a summer of drought. A few hundred feet down the loop road four geese shared a rock that in normal times and water levels would have been under the pool’s surface. And so it went. On this morning there were numerous geese and cormorants, though little else in terms of avian species.

After circling the loop I found leaves floating in the calmed river, and fortunately it was early enough that I could leave the car in the narrow, one-way canopied road without fear of traffic. I could take my time in search of something interesting. Several attempts had left me wanting, although I found one of the images rather interesting when I downloaded the card. 

Up on the Buffalo River there was barely enough color to be interesting. Among my joys photographically is playing with water imagery, and I was able to make a couple of nice images. One in particular I thought was really nice was of two trees reflected on stilled waters with a few leaves floating through. Further upriver was a newly fallen leaf perfectly caressing the surface with its shadow reflected by the mirror-like water.

Once again I tried to photograph the magic of gravity, of how leaves weighing less than a butterfly are drawn toward the earth. “That’s why they call it ‘fall,’” said a friend. Years ago I sat both on a balcony and later on a bench of a cobblestone patio at Suzanne Kranz’s boutique hotel in Breda, Holland, as leaves got their call from gravity as they broke loose from a stately old oak tree in the hotel courtyard. Though it was like a rain with so many drifting down at once, I had no more luck along the Buffalo River than I’d had in Breda. 

Then the winds came. You could hear it above and see the sway in the treetops even if it was calm on the trail. That would change out in the open away from the timbered land, some of which was also protected by a tall river bank. A day that had been reasonably warm for mid-October was suddenly chilly with a drop in temperature of some 13 degrees by the time I had returned to my car off the trail. The experiences between the two rivers couldn’t have been more different.

Out on the plain on the drive home the winds were brutal. My car would be hounded on the two hour drive home as singular windblown corn leaves sliced across the beams of the headlights like thrown knives. Where was the early morning calm and peacefulness on the Minnesota near Odessa? The night offered a wholly different aspect to the day than the calm I had experienced earlier that morning on the bridge over the Minnesota River, and even earlier in the state park. It seemed as if in an instant our autumn was coming to a windblown conclusion, offering a closure for both leafy color and warmth on the threshold of winter. Seasons come, seasons go … on a day between two prairie rivers.

The Unencumbering

On my saunter hardly a leaf was stirring, not even a grouse. On a quiet afternoon the wind was silent. So silent this wooded path along Big Stone Lake was so stilled the snapping of a stepped on twig seemed to pop like a cheap firecracker. Perhaps even echoing through the woods and across the waters.

Although I had stopped twice for meditative reasons, once just into the woods and then later on a storm ravaged oak on a distant hill near a meadow of autumn blessed sumac, for I enjoy and sometimes need dipping into a forest “bath.” And there I was, pleasantly alone, on the lakeside trail of Bonanza.

I kept my eyes coursing through the timber in hopes of seeing deer. Those “snapping” twigs were unrelenting, so chances were slim if not impossible. Not just any deer, for I wanted a nice, regal buck with stout antlers, ambling slowly along within lens view surrounded by colorful leaves. Later I would scare up a doe and her twin, nearly fully grown fawns, and luckily a couple of shots were made as they bounded away. 

My hope was for photographing a regal buck with stout antlers, although a yearling would do.

Initially I had concentrated on hearing, and high in the treetops birds were busy with hasty flights high in the canopy and song. Later when I tried to enlarge the images it seemed as if I had come upon a small migration of blackburnian warblers. One of the birds I could identify later was a redpoll. It was the only one without the markings that so closely resembled the blackburnians. 

In previous saunters on this trail, piliated woodpeckers would flutter in and out of camera range, and on this afternoon the same held true. As patient as I could be, my only images were of their backs that blended so perfectly with the tree bark. There seems to be a trio of trees with deeply hollowed holes, all almost perfectly symmetrical from the pattern of pecking. I’ve considered bringing a blind into the woods to place between the trio of trees. It seems I only think of the blind after entering the woods.

Before the destructive derecho earlier this summer the trail was pristine and cathedral-like with towering oaks providing a nearly perfect canopy. Limbs, thick and heavy, arched gracefully from stately trunks over the trail. Often I found myself searching for angles that might illustrate such a seemingly perfect portrayal of woodland form, strength and beauty. Now the trail is littered with broken trees with shattered limbs laying askew in the aftermath of that shuddersome storm. Trees seemingly so strong and indestructible were simply no match for the straight-line winds barreling across the lake. 

A “sumac” meadow brought color on a cloudy day.

Park workers have cleared the trail itself of the trunks and limbs, although the damaged oaks remain throughout, snapped and broken as if they were Tinker Toys. I wondered if the broken trees would be somehow removed and perhaps burned, or if the decision was made to allow them to slowly rot and degenerate into the soil of the forest floor. What is time to a forest? 

Bonanza is much like the rest of the eastern shore of Big Stone Lake with a steep bank cut through the prairie by the Glacial River Warren. Cutting through these tall shoulders of the lake are numerous ravines, and one such ravine cuts across the trail about two thirds of the way through. Spring-fed waters trickle through the forest and over stones before entering the lake, offering hikers a heavenly sound, one that eases away strife and worries if the time is taken. A boardwalk bridge offers a fine place to sit, or even to lay down, to allow the magic to work.

At the upper “lip” of the ravine, the reds from the sumac and yellow from the dogwood brought a lovely brightness to the otherwise cloudy day. I laid so the colorful horizon was in view so I could take in the color as well as the sound of the trickling waters. On rare occasions I will encounter another hiker, and I wondered what one might think of seeing an old guy laying on the boardwalk bridge, a camera at his side, with his hands clasped as a pillow behind his head. Perhaps he or she might come and sit, too, or maybe find the necessary space to find a similar prone position.

A spring fed steam cuts through the ravine en route to Big Stone Lake.

Eventually the inertia came to right myself for the rest of the hike which would take me up the hill into the sumac meadow. Here the sumac, ever invasive, spreads in a sea of autumn redness across the meadow with clusters dotting the distant hillside. 

At the “end” of the trail rest two picnic tables, and taking a brief seat always seems like fine idea. More so to collect one’s thoughts than to rest. Interestingly I had not heard the boats motoring on the lake until I sat, and there was only a few off in the distance.

Then it was time to head back, to look at the woods from a behind previous prospectives, This time there was no stopping to sit or lay on the bridge, and some of the worked over trees trunks and limbs were laid so the cut ends seemed to face me more so than I had noticed on the hike in. I sensed more destruction, more mayhem of a storm so strong. Nature taking its course in time.

What had once been a beautiful canopy lays tattered and torn along trailside.

It was a fine saunter, and a relaxing one after a taxing weekend. I debated on whether I should process my images, or to wait a day or so. My walk wasn’t necessarily meant for photography. My intent was merely to recharge the soul, to breathe unencumbered with stress and busyness. Meditation was more in need than the adding a few images to files that will one day be long forgotten. As I neared the trees at the start of the trail, the warblers were still fluttering from high above though the stillness remained. 

I was reminded of the thoughts shared by songwriter and singer Beth Wood recently on social media: “I just want a few days of doing nothing, with no plans and no to-do list and no agenda and nowhere in particular I have to be.” My saunter through Bonanza felt like that, and I’m quite blessed to have such a beautiful trail nearby for such moments.

Moments of a Season’s Passing

First came the boulder, and after high stepping through the sedges and prairie grasses, there was a flattened space wide enough to simply sit. A glacial remnant perfect for meditation. I had come for my fifth straight day of easing through the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge’s auto tour where presently an interesting and seemingly ever changing array of bird species are easing through in migration.

My meditative stone was surrounded by acres of prairie grasses, countless cattails and soaring gulls. When you feel a need to be “grounded” and back in touch with your inner self and nature, you do what you must do. Within moments of the yoga-like breathing the essence of the surrounding nature began to seep into the soul. On this afternoon the air was still. Grasses were stationary and the water surfaces mirror-like. About the only sound came from the gulls overhead as they seemed to soar effortlessly if not gleefully. If only I could see a gull smile.

It was time for the outer world to seep inward. Sounds. Smells. Sights. Interestingly enough, the sun that hadn’t seemed so intense before suddenly seemed to sear my exposed forearms, and then came the realization that my floppy old weathered hat was in the other car along with the small collection of artwork from the street fair from the day before. Perhaps it was the street fair that brought the necessity for this need of internal grounding. 

My five days afield in the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge began with the unexpected sighting of this pair of sandhill cranes.

Moments later my walk began anew along a worn and grassy roadway. Perhaps I was on the long-discussed bikeway from the nearby town of Ortonville. About ten minutes later a lone bicyclist peddled past turning to ask if this area was open to hunting. “I haven’t a clue,” I said loudly enough in hopes he could hear my response in his passing. I wondered then what one might hunt for the only animal life I had seen was a yellow butterfly, a few grasshoppers and the gulls. 

At  one point I stopped to survey the possibilities of catching the gulls gliding over a distant wetland through the framing of leafless trees. The scene was quite distant, a bit hazy, and if the photograph worked, it might make a nice image. One of muted colors with a mix of life and death, of a gliding of life mixed with the weathering of death. After another quarter mile or more down the grassy lane I turned back. 

Once in the car I headed toward the circular tour road. Five days before a pair of sandhill cranes were in marshy grasses along the inner wetland across from the edge of west pool. My returning was in the ever hopeful event they might still be around although they had flown the next day. Within this near week I had captured some nice imagery, one of migrating great egrets resting on the canopy of distant trees. I was able to capture one coming in to perch with the resting flock thanks to an old friend, Bill McBean, who was along, and said, “Hey, look! There’s one flying in!”

One of the three adjacent trees where the great egrets had perched in the canopy.,

It was a perfect warning, for otherwise I might have brought my lens down and missed the arriving egret. Moments later we passed a log covered with perched and resting wood ducks in the wood-strewn Minnesota River. So much deadwood floats in the river that it is impassible for kayakers and canoers. Only one group of the “Canoeing with the Cree” paddlers to the Hudson Bay have attempted to paddle this stretch of river because of the deadfall. Since, most have portaged the Refuge via the highways.

On this afternoon of my latest circling of the loop, my first Western grebes caught my eye, along with dozens of ducks and cormorants. A pied-billed grebe dipped underwater just as I pressed the shutter and didn’t surface within my sight range, but its cousin, the Western, did so along with a youngster. My dream is to one day catch the Westerns in their “rushing ceremony” when two males vie for the courtship of a nearby female by skimming across the water, their necks curved and the bodies arched high as they rush across the surface.                                                          

The Western grebe and its youngster in the West Pool of the Refuge.

When turning at the big bend at the end of the inner prairie I slow to watch for shorebirds in the shallows at the foot of the pool. One year I caught several plovers coursing through the edging plants, although this year the growth between the loop road and the pool is much too dense and high for such an image. I’m ever hopeful to someday see an American avocet, and they’ve been spotted here numerous times before. Not by me, though.

Around the bend in the marshy wetland was a pair of great egrets and a lone great blue heron, and all seemed  willing to ignore my presence. The three birds quickly made up for the absence of the sandhill cranes, posing for both stalking as well as flying pictures. I couldn’t have been more blessed.

A great blue heron goes “hunting” amidst the resting ducks.

Sometimes I wonder if this loop around the Refuge has become much too common, too familiar, for I cannot count the number of times through the years that I’ve driven the loop. A few times I’ve walked the four miles, too, and always with a camera at hand. Over the years I’ve caught images of dozens of water birds, plus bob-o-links, yellow headed blackbirds, orchard oriels, the never quiet dickcissels and dozens of other birds in the prairie grasses and cattails. That familiarity never seems to tire for it seems as if there are rarely disappointments. Each time seems to offer a special treat, and over these past several days there have been many.

Sometimes I wonder, too, of those who drive up behind me, and while they seem to offer patience and kindness, once they pass by my car pulled far off to the side I will see them across the way speeding along. I wonder what they must see or experience, if anything, for I find myself slowed and curious, patient and watchful, always looking for some gem in the waves or leaves. 

Although it seemed as if the large flock had departed, this great egret was still hanging around.

Earlier in the summer I explored a flattened piece of bedrock so many times in search of a ball cactus bloom that even now, months later, my paths are still visible. So many times I’ve pulled to the side to capture the cone flowers, or sunflowers, or to follow the flights of rare bob-o-links across the prairie grasses. On this afternoon I crept from my driver’s seat to capture the Western grebes, then later, I spent at least a half hour of crouching to photograph the pair of egrets and the great blue heron. Thoreau offered thoughts of such moments: “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”

I’m game enough to believe my moment on the glacial rock adequately prepared me for those other moments afield, to make the time to see and feel and record the natural beauty around me for it felt so fleeting. Now is a time of change, of a season’s passage, and with it these birds are here only briefly then gone leaving behind silence and a promise of an oncoming winter. All in a season’s passing.

Travels with Tom

About two or three times a year we have a “dinner date,” Tom Watson and I. Generally we’ll select a nearby steak house that serves a decent wine, ribeyes or pan fried walleyes. The wine comes in small individual  bottles; just enough to almost fill a standard wine glass. This time, though, we chose a relatively new Mexican restaurant in his hometown of Appleton which has both his favorite el camarón and my blessed carnitas. And, we opted for margaritas as our choice of beverage. 

Tom is an outdoors writer who writes kayak-based articles for a paddling website, nature columns for weekly newspapers around the region, well-chronicled guidebooks as well as articles for various magazines. Having a nearby writer friend is a blessing, and besides our interests in silent water sports and the outdoors in general, we don’t need to highly define or explain what we have faced professionally. 

Most nights after our dinner we will end up either on my deck or his, although his has a huge hammock chair where he often sits with a cigar as classical music from the local MPR channel drifts across the driveway from his garage. We’re not so fortunate here. Prairie winds and whatever birds are available for song.

Our first stop was to capture native sawtooth sunflowers in the the rich, fading sunlight.

On our last dinner I asked if he would mind if we took a drive to the nearby “twin bridges” that crosses a narrows of Lac qui Parle Lake with my hope of seeing and photographing an American avocet wading along the muddy edges of the shallow waters. We were blessed with great light for imagery. As we left the restaurant he suggested a detour that turned out to be a narrow graveled, minimum maintenance road that cut between the Marsh Lake dam road and the Twin Bridges.

I don’t know if this graveled lane has a name other than perhaps “the short cut.” My river-based friends have called it that for as long as I’ve lived here. The Marsh Lake road is Ct. Rd 51, and 119 cuts across southwest from Appleton over the Twin Bridges and onward to Dawson if you don’t take the Madison fork. Dusk was on heaven’s door as we veered off the beaten path into a patch of near wilderness along the short cut and it was immediately obvious our little detour might offer some interesting possibilities. I reached for the camera as we entered the prairie’s edge and the marshy woodlands just in case. 

The heron flew from a marshy area to perch behind us on the limb of a dead tree.

I was immediately rewarded. First to beckon was a field of sawtooth sunflowers being kissed by the lowering sun. A couple of quick images were made just as the flowers went into the deep shadow of the oncoming nightfall. So on we moved, slowly, and it seemed every few turns of the wheels was like slipping past the layers of an onion with new sights being presented with each peal. A great blue heron lifted from a backwater slough, then turned to land behind us on a sturdy branch of a long dead tree. Again we stopped, and I leaned through the door for a couple of images. 

Then a stand of long weathered whitened trees stood tall and defiant against a timbered growth of younger trees, ghosts of an earlier time. And so it went, layer after layer, until we reached the Twin Bridges road. We then passed a small deer partially hidden deep in the cattails before moving onward to the marshy lake views as the light that made Monet famous descended upon us. As we neared the second bridge a sudden and unexpected sandhill crane crossed the sky over the marshes. A singular bird, and we couldn’t find its landing nor mate. 

I’ll admit being a sucker for the whitened skeletons of long dead trees.

Ornate views were offered on both sides of the bridges, to the east an afterglow glistening off distant clouds, and to the west, the fading remnants of the sunset. Although the afterglow was more colorful, you couldn’t help but take a deep breath to breathe in all the goodness of the surrounding nature and the beauty unfolding around us.

“Sometimes when I see a forecast for a Northern Lights display I’ll come down here to attempt a shot,” said Tom as we slowly rolled on down into the access point to turn around. “There isn’t much light pollution.”

The afterglow showing the “rainbow” sky above the lake at Twin Bridges.

Two nights later another old friend and I drove down in anticipation of the Aurora display, but the traffic was too heavy to safely stop for the long exposures seemingly necessary to capture the full array of the painted skies. We would quickly drive up the short cut road to the Marsh Lake dam where we were able to secure a decent half dozen shots before the flares died down for the night. If not for the short cut we would have missed the short display that lasted well under 30 minutes.

Taking car forays with the camera is something I frequently do, although it’s more commonly done around my Listening Stones Farm in rural Big Stone County. My little acreage is surrounded by beauty, by both prairie and woodland, and offers perhaps the last remnant of the original Prairie Pothole Biome left behind by the last glacier 10,000 or so years ago. All but one percent of that biome no longer exists.

Tom had mentioned the bridges as a possibility of capturing Northern Lights, which led to this image two nights later at Marsh Lake dam … which we reached early enough by taking the short cut road.

Some might argue that the nature Tom and I witnessed the other night along the short cut road wouldn’t have existed back in time, for about the only trees native to the prairie were burr oaks within savannas on the northern slopes of the sometimes rolling terrain of the prairie or along the carved out banks left behind by the Glacial River Warren, or further toward the northeast of us, on the distant moraines and occasional esker … what is called the “glacial ridge.” Lake country. 

As we left the Twin Bridges to drive back toward Appleton darkness had settled over the prairie. At Tom’s place he built a brief bonfire and we shared a glass of wine before I headed for home. My short drive was accompanied with a smile in acknowledgment of a long and fine friendship along with those few unexpected images from the little shortcut he had suggested ­— those travels with Tom was a nice dessert not long after such a delicious Mexican dinner.