In the Context of Winter

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Releasing Our Inner Pagan

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

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

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White tails in the Solstice hoarfrost.

 

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

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

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My first Winter Solstice images.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buck Fever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the Driftless

Sometimes I wish I were more of a landscape artist. This realization hit home again last week on a whimsical, spur-of-the-moment trip into my distant past to the Mississippi  River town of Dubuque, situated squarely in the midst of the “Driftless,” characterized by vast stretches of the deep valleys and rolling hills offering rather poetic vistas.

Ah, that distant past. Back then, back in the late 1960s, I didn’t realize the beautiful hill country around Dubuque was called the “Driftless.” I had no reason to know of it’s official geologic name, the Paleozoic Plateau. Back then the streams and rivers ran clear, and the hilltops were graced with fenced-in, lazily grazing cattle. The woods, with a smattering of leaves sparkling in autumn sunshine, hadn’t yet been carved into suburbia. Back then the town itself featured a riverscape that was as gray as it was abandoned.

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The formation of the Paleozoic Plateau, more commonly known as the “Driftless.”

That riverscape now features river-respected parks and modern architecture. Colorful and artistic murals grace many of the old, repurposed buildings. Even back then there was a staunch civic pride, a pride that seems even more proudly pronounced now. Yet, the geography and natural history surrounding the Mississippi River valley dominates the landscape as it always has.

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Sometimes the colors were more muted, as in this fog-scape along the Mississippi River.

Long since moving from Dubuque, and thanks to the lessons on the natural history of the north since moving to Minnesota and earning the badge of a Minnesota Master Naturalist, I’ve learned more about the effects glaciers have had on the landscape. Both in the Driftless and in the former prairie pothole region of Minnesota.

Ah, but the Driftless. For whatever reason this area of northeastern Iowa, northwestern Illinois, southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin … a geographically composed raindrop to a satellite image … escaped the icy blanket. The Des Moines lobe skirted off to the west while the Green Bay lobe deposited its till off to the east, leaving these hills and valleys as graceful as can be found in nature some 12,000 years later.

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For whatever reason I can’t lay aside my lenses, nor ignore the odd imagery that catches my eye

Now those hills, as far as you can see from the many strategic lookouts, are covered with ripened corn. We were told the streams are not quite as clear, and fencing is no more. And, my old apartment building? Eleven oh eight Locust? And, Dubuque itself? Like in the adjacent hills, all has changed as should be expected after some 50 years and counting.

This recognition of this change occurred this past week when my companion, Mary Gafkjen, and I ventured downriver to Dubuque to visit long-lost friends, Michael Muir, John Buckley and Tom Syke. John and I had worked together at the Telegraph Herald in 1968-69 before I moved west to work for the Denver Post. Michael, Tom and John were schoolmates and best friends, and it was through John that I met the others. Our visit included a brief stop at Syke’s Galena area woody valley where we had hoped to see the latest batch of pottery be pulled from his wood-fired kiln. We were a couple of days early, it turned out.

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Yes, there was some color … especially with burr oak.

Our reconnection began after a conversation between this trio of old friends was sparked by the transformation of my first apartment in Dubuque into a boutique burger bar. Michael “googled” my name and asked if I was the writer and photographer they had known back then. We’ve all since gone as gray as those old abandoned buildings of the past. Syke is still quite the character, terminology I suspect that fits each of us. Buckley left his reporting behind to become an attorney, and Michael worked his way up the education and career scale to become an important cog in the Dubuque banking business. In those 50 years we’ve all survived and even thrived in our respective careers.

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The bluffs along the Mississippi offered protection for the colorful autumn leaves.

Fortunately we drove along the river road from Hastings south to Prairie du Chien before cutting across the river to angle through Iowa to Durango outside of Dubuque. Along the river the bluffs had protected the leaves to preserve some color. Out in the open hill country, harsh October winds had blown away most of the colorful leaves as they have here in the former prairie. Even in Michael’s “Muir Woods” the trees were mostly barren. No, his “Muir Woods” are not the gigantic redwoods of his family’s heritage namesake, made up of hickory, maple and cedar instead.

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Even in Michael’s “Muir Woods” the trees were mostly barren.

It was here in Michael’s woods I played with light and leaves, although there was a little of that in our drive south along the river. For whatever reason I can’t lay aside my lenses, nor ignore the odd imagery that catches my eye. Not even in the Muir Woods found deep in the Driftless.

High and Wide

If it takes a “big man” to admit ignorance, consider my stature with that of the Biblical David. After being a Minnesota resident for 36 years, it took my relationship with Mary Gafkjen to learn of the autumn raptor migrations at the Hawk Ridge Raptor Observatory in Duluth.

She mentioned the migrations a couple of weeks ago and suggested we head to Duluth to witness the phenomenon at Hawk Ridge. We arrived on a grayish but calm day on the last Monday of September to virtually an empty hill. There was a trailer set up with a volunteer who was basically closing up. “It hasn’t been a good day,” she said, “and it’s pretty much shut down for the day. Tomorrow might be better. Try being here by nine or so in the morning.”

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With a loan from the Nature Conservancy, bought approximately 250 acres to serve as a buffer for the preserve, and later, with a trust agreement with the City of Duluth, now manages 365 acres as a nature reserve open to the public for both study and enjoyment.

Sounded like the story of too many fishing trips. We traversed the wooded hill through some spectacular autumn scenery and babbling North Shore streams back into the small city for some craft beer and fine dining. On Tuesday morning we were a few minutes late, and was greeted by dozens of bird watchers carrying some impressive monoculars, binoculars and cameras. The watch had begun. I scanned the treetops on this high bluff some 500 feet above Lake Superior, eyeing the skies just above tree line. A bearded young man with a volunteer patch suddenly exclaimed loudly, “There! Just above the fishing ship.” He easily identified three different hawk species and some vultures … those with the thin tails.

What? They were flying above the lake itself? I studied the skies across the beautiful and still calm waters and saw nothing. Mary caught my angle and directed me to look higher. Much higher. Even higher still, and then, high and wide of the bluff, and clearly over the waters of the lake, were the thermals carrying the birds. Dots to the naked eye, but with good binoculars, and even with my inexpensive 600 mm lens, there they were.

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On Tuesday morning we were a few minutes late, and was greeted by dozens of bird watchers carrying some impressive monoculars, binoculars and cameras. The watch had begun.

Initially I was disappointed as a photographer, though not so much as a spectator. The birds were not only quite distant, they were also very high in the thermals. They were not even close to the beautiful layering of colors provided by the lake and clouds. Exhibiting more patience than I typically noted for, in time fortune came my way … for about a dozen images.

What an incredible learning experience. Here is a brief history: The first systematic count of raptors began in 1972, and the voluntary naturalist program, Friends of Hawk Ridge, was established seven years later. And, yes, raptors have used this unique flyway for eons. Apparently the site and migration were familiar to local gunners who actually used the birds for target practice. The killing was stopped through efforts of the Duluth Bird Club (now the Duluth Audubon Society). The club publicized the illegal shooting and worked to have the prohibition against shooting within the city limits enforced.

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Thousands of visitors come from all 50 states and some 40 foreign countries to observe this unique annual fall migration … one of the few concentrated raptor migrations in the world.

Later that group, with a loan from the Nature Conservancy, bought approximately 250 acres to serve as a buffer for the preserve, and later, with a trust agreement with the City of Duluth, now manages 365 acres as a nature reserve open to the public for both study and enjoyment. Now thousands of visitors come from all 50 states and some 40 foreign countries to observe this unique annual fall migration … one of the few concentrated raptor migrations in the world.

More than 20 different raptor species move from their summer breeding areas as far north as the Arctic and head to destinations as far south as points in South America. In the fall, the birds veer southwest along the lake shore. Some days are obviously better than others, and observers say that on days with northwest winds, thousands of raptors can be seen migrating past the Ridge.

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Some days are obviously better than others, and observers say that on days with northwest winds, thousands of raptors can be seen migrating past the Ridge.

It is a wonderful experience, though much different than the sandhill crane migration. Admittedly, I didn’t know what to expect although raptors are among my favorite bird species. We had passed a grouping of cars the first day and was told that volunteers had hiked into the site to hopefully capture and band resting birds.

On the morning we were on the Ridge, a volunteer arrived with a young Sharp-Shinned Hawk that screeched bloody murder about being held. After a brief presentation and discussion period, he handed the bird to a woman who did the honors of releasing the bird. The effort was applauded by those arcing around the two as the hawk quickly vanished over the treetops.

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On the morning we were on the Ridge, a volunteer arrived with a young Sharp-Shinned Hawk that screeched bloody murder about being held.

Then it was back to the observations … from the roadside to a treetop platform. I found myself smiling as I looked back over the treetops and into the vast skies over the huge lake. “There,” said the deep-voiced young man, his eye trained through the viewer of his monocular secured to a sturdy tripod. Again I raised my camera lens along with those who hoisted their binoculars, only this time I was facing the lake. Off in the distance was another grouping of silhouetted black dots against the blueish-purpled clouds. He and some of the others were quick to identify the dozen or so specks as another Hawk Ridge volunteer erased the previous numbers on a nearby tally board. Seventy-one in all to that point in the morning, and more than 21,000 sighted so far in September!

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Off in the distance was another grouping of silhouetted black dots against the blueish-purpled clouds.

Meanwhile, I prayed for lower angled, invisible thermals … low enough to hopefully have the raptors mixed in with the delightful colors. They were soaring high and wide, rarely moving a feather it seemed … gliding quickly and effortlessly further along the bluff line perhaps toward the Mississippi Flyway directly south. Again, I could feel the smile, realizing once again how fortunate it was to witness a fleeting moment in geological history and time even if they seemed only dots in the distant clouds.