A Miscommunication?

Since I’m not a Gold Finch, I have no more love for thistles than many of my neighboring farmers despite the colorful purple blooms. There, the start of my story …

About this time a year ago an older man arrived in the farmyard with a threat: If I didn’t take control of those colorful blooming thistles in my restored native prairie I would be subject to both a fine and the cost of having the prairie mowed by an outsider. That’s where the SWCD man came through, for he convinced the County weed cop that the thistles would help provide necessary “fuel” for the proposed prairie burn we would do this following spring.

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The lush prairie in a sunset a few days before the cutting.

So the weed cop relented. And we had a very good prairie burn, and as happens following a burn, a gorgeous and lush regrowth of both forbs and grasses followed. Yes, and thistles. For a few weeks the eight acre restored prairie was a mixed blanket of purple and yellow, each providing color and background for the other. Indeed, after that initial growth a most colorful mixture of other prairie flowers began poking from the ground. Cone flowers. Different varieties of native wild clovers. Clumps of beebalm were scattered all through the emerging grasses. Big Bluestem was close to heading out, and there even were a few instances of its signature “turkey foot” seed head dancing in even the slightest breeze along the trails we have continued to cut through the upper and lower prairies. Yes, and the thistles.

I’ve been expecting the weed cop to show any day to once again bellow his threat. Then, on the Fourth of July, one of our neighbors came through with a rake and baler to bale the shoulders of an adjoining road ditch. I jumped into the car and went with an offer … my ditch shoulder hay in exchange for his topping off the thistles. The idea came after a motor trek through the nearby Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge where it was obvious this is what they had done.7-8-17 myprairie3

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” said the man over the noise of the tractor he was using to rake windrows of mown fescue and brome, the common ditch bank plantings in the area. We shook hands on the deal.

There was no word or cutting of either the road ditch or the prairie since, and with each passing day I expected a visit. Who would arrive first? Weed cop or farmer? Finally the farmer pulled up in his pickup and rapped on the door. “I’m here to cut those thistles,” he said, and then filled me in on his frightening moment on the rather steep approach to our driveway on the north side.

“Remember, what I need done is for you to top off the thistles and leave the rest standing.”

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Acres of grasses and wold flowers …

He nodded, and said, “That shouldn’t be a problem.” Once again, we shook hands on the deal.

While working in the studio a little later the sound of his tractor came from the north side of the grove. I then left for an appointment in town. When I returned he was about to head into the lower prairie, which is when I noticed that he was not topping off the thistles as we had agreed. Rather he was mowing the prairie as if it were hay. From the narrow strip of prairie facing our deck all the way up the hill toward the upper prairie the once lush prairie was laying flat just inches from the ground. I was stunned, and felt as if I had been kicked in the gut. What didn’t he understand about our two conversations? Our deal? How could he have misunderstood my requests? It was really too late to say or do anything, for the damage was done for the most part.

A few hours later my friend, Wanda Berry, arrived for a dinner she wouldn’t eat. “It was just starting to look like a Monet painting out there,” she tearfully lamented, adding that she hadn’t been this upset even when she sold her home in Robbinsdale to move back to the prairie. Later she would walk through the damage picking up cut morsels to create a “cut flower” bouquet.

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What didn’t the mower understand about our conversation?

Yes, I made a posting on a social media site about what had happened, and many friends from around the countryside responded, mainly to suggest that we should relax, that it will grow back. That I realize, yet all that lushness is laying flat on the ground. The support was lovely, yet they had not nurtured this prairie for four years. They hadn’t fought the near takeover of sprouting Chinese elms that the hot controlled burn seem to kill, of the long effort to get a good propagation of beebalm going throughout the acreage. Nor had they listened to the pheasant families that had taken roost and raised families in that grass.

Regardless, the clipping at ground level wasn’t part of the deal. I realize there seems to be few people who respect a native prairie, or perhaps to even understand the necessity of perennial grasses. Otherwise there would likely be more than just one percent of the original prairie stretching from the plains of Canada to the Piney Woods of Texas. To some it’s just grass, a wasted bit of land that should be in some commodity crop. Something useful. That isn’t the case for us here on this little oasis of native prairie, miscommunication or not.

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Wanda and her “cut flower” bouquet of the yellow cone floswer, beebalm, native clovers and Big Bluestem..

“What I don’t understand,” said Wanda, “is that he knew what you wanted. You told him twice, yet he went right ahead and leveled it right down to the ground. If he realized he couldn’t do it, why didn’t he just stop and tell you? Why did he just keep right on mowing it down?”

I could offer no answers. Some days are like that. And, yes, sometimes there is miscommunication. All I could offer was that this time there wasn’t.

Roadside Attractions

A year ago last May when returning from a fly fishing adventure in Ontario, I decided to cut across to Detroit Lakes from Park Rapids on Highway 34 rather than continue along the windy Highway 71. Apparently cutting over offered a shorter route on the way home.

About halfway to Detroit Lakes, on a native grass meadow, a sea of red graced the green, a color that seemed to simply explode in beauty. For whatever reason my rush to return home gave me adequate reason not to stop and investigate. This year, returning from a similar week-long fishing trip to Ontario, I passed the meadow again. Once again the red danced above the greenness of the grasses, and once again I drove on by. Then, further down the road, the same flowers graced a roadside shoulder, accompanied with a contrasting white prairie flower. This time I stopped. Roadside shoulders are public. Meadows are not. The red? Indian Paintbrush in all its startling flush of redness.

Since this trip home was a week later, and according to some with adequate knowledge of prairie forbs, it seemed as if this was about the time to capture images of the Minnesota State Flower, the Showy Ladyslipper. As I traversed across the state I had already made cell phone calls to the state parks in Bemidji and Itasca, and a woman at Itasca suggested I was at least a month early. Remembering the progression cycle of plants from my college days, I then placed a call to Maplewood State Park, which is another hour or so south of Itasca. Maybe the Showys’ were starting further south.

They weren’t, said the park manager, who then added, “She’s right. I’d aim for the end of June. By the way, if you are looking for something closer than Itasca, the roadside on Highway 34 between Park Rapids and Detroit Lakes typically has some wonderful clusters. I would start there.” I told him about finding the Paintbrush. He wasn’t surprised.

About two weeks later, Morris-area naturalist Dave Jungst posted a few pictures of the Showy he had discovered near the Johanna Lake Esker, a Nature Conservancy site adjacent to the Ordway Prairie in Polk County. This is on the edge of the Glacial Shield. Not knowing if there would be another opportunity to photograph the Showy, I took that route on the way to the Studio Hop in Willmar, where I was scheduled to set up for the weekend exhibit and sale. My desire was to complete a four-card set of Minnesota’s native orchids.

Having never seen the Showys before, I imagined they would appear much like a few of the other native Minnesota orchids. Small and delicate, content in the comfort of surrounding prairie grasses. Instead the stalks stood tall and defiant, bursting from adjacent grasses with solid plant pride! The esker plants were sparse and scattered, and walking along the roadside they were easy to spot and photograph. Keeping an eye on the time, I jumped into the truck and popped over the hill where a couple of cars had pulled off the gravel road next to a nice clump of Showys. More pictures.

So, yes, I had images. Yet, images that were more botany-like than artistic. With plans to meet a film crew for a segment on kayak fly fishing for bluegills for Prairie Sportsman at Glendalough State Park, I decided to bring my camera gear along should we be released from filming early enough to scout the park for Showys. Harsh, 20 mph winds and intermittent rain forced a cancellation of the filming, and since I had already planned the day off the farm, I left and headed north. My plans were to be at Itasca State Park early afternoon. At Fergus Falls I decided on a whim to skirt to the west and head toward Detroit Lakes and Highway 34, heeding the advice of the Maplewood park manager.

Wise decision, for I had barely got onto Highway 34 before I found a cluster of about 200 or so Showys. They blanketed the shoulder in all directions. After wading across several feet of soggy mud and cattails to reach them, I made an effort to capture them in all their glory and beauty. This was just what I was looking for, and for about an hour I worked various angles to capture the essence of this beautiful native orchid.

Later, as I drove away more species of native flowers graced the shoulders, along the same area as the paintbrush. I realized that the park manager was right, that Highway 34 is a treasure trove of native flowers throughout the summer. And, that this short stretch of road offers us some beautiful roadside attractions.

Elements of the Esker

A couple of weeks ago Morris-based naturalist, Dave Jungst, posted some of his true-to-scale photographs showing Prairie Smoke nestled amongst an interesting looking white flower.

After some thought I asked him about the flower and his location. Moments later he responded with the name not only of the flower (Pussy Toes) but also the location. That turned out to be the Lake Johanna Esker, a glacial sand and gravel ridge about two miles east of the Ordway Prairie in Polk County … both part of Nature Conservancy holdings.

Though it is a challenge to locate, the esker is no secret. Yet it is new to me. Thankfully Dave is open to sharing these sites with me. Last summer he led me to some Yellow Lady Slippers, one of the flowers I’ve wanted to photograph for years, although he was very protective of both the location and of the flowers. This remains a secret site between us.

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We didn’t have sufficient light for a deep image with good depth of field on our first visit.

He did seem a little taken back when I published the images. “Wow,” he wrote of the short prairie orchids. “You made them so huge!” As a true naturalist Dave’s intentions are to record photographically in correct dimension and ecological accuracy. My work is more impressionistic, blending form, light and composition into hopefully an interesting image. Our work is different though complimentary.

A week ago my first trip was made to the esker, and after several attempts at trying to find the correct country road I rediscovered the beauty of cell phone communication. Once Dave established where we were he was able to direct us to the correct county gravel road. We were several miles off, actually. Even with that we nearly passed right by the little parking lot. Once we were out of the car and walking across the gravely terrain, the carpet of wildflowers was unbelievable in richness and number. Pussy Toes dominated the area with as many Prairie Smoke poking through as I’ve likely seen in my lifetime, a perfect pinkish and spiky contrast to the muted whiteness of the Pussy Toes.

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A Killdeer was nesting among the Pussy Toes and Prairie Smoke on our first visit to the esker.

Although we began the trip from Listening Stones Farm to coincide with the lowering evening light, we barely had 30 minutes to really work with the camera before dusk settled in. Too many gravel roads, I suppose; too much indecision and exploration. My images were made with a nice softness, yet just a little more light would have surely helped create a deeper depth of field.

This past Sunday we were greeted with a hazy whiteness that seemed to linger through early afternoon, a day that began with my meeting up with my dear friend, Tom Cherveny, and his granddaughter, Ella, to paddle and fly fish Mountain Lake at Glacial Lakes State Park. A gusty prairie wind made it challenging to hold positions for long, yet a nice largemouth fell victim to one of my fly presentations as did several small bluegill. Tom and his family planned to leave shortly after lunch, and my thoughts turned to the esker and the Prairie Smoke. The two Prairie Smoke plants in my native prairie garden was just starting to show tendrils and had sparked an idea.

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Just a fascinating site to visit, as evidenced by the use of a long focal length and selective focusing to enhance the colorful softness.

What, I wondered, would an image look like if you could combine this hazy whiteness of light with the just emerged tendrils of the Prairie Smoke, surrounded by the vast carpet of white Pussy Toes? So I ventured through the countryside from the State Park through Glenwood, down 104 toward the Ordway Prairie. This time the gravel road was much easier to find, and it weaved through the woody hills of the glacial shield toward the esker. As typical for photographers, my concern was the light. Was there enough for contrast? Would there be too much contrast to offset the softness? Would the Pussy Toes have disappeared into dormancy?

My first impression after hopping out of the River Truck was that I was both too late and too early. From the appearance of the Prairie Smoke, it appeared I was too early. Very few had moved into the tendril stage. And, yes, the Pussy Toes that had dominated a week before had pretty much shut down. Especially on the higher ground.

Fortunately there was enough emergence of new flower species to help offset my disappointment as I ventured over the esker. After about an hour of shooting and looking I actually found just what I was looking for … albeit a bit muted. There were enough Pussy Toes to give a sense of whiteness, though nothing like the week before.

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While I was hoping for a greater influence from the white Pussy Toes, this is close to the image I had envisioned.

I laid in the prairie focusing, waiting out wind gusts, and eventually made about four of what appeared to be sharp images of three finely placed Prairie Smoke spikes with wavy tendrils. That was it. No matter which direction I turned I could find nothing to match these three. While the images weren’t exactly what I had envisioned, and what had inspired my driving another hour east further from the farm, as I walked toward the River Truck I was feeling rather pleased.

That happens when you’ve come close to capturing an image you’re envisioned. Overall it was a pretty nice day. One spent with an old friend fly fishing a motor-less lake, lipping a really nice bass on a fly, capturing my image in soft whiteness, then sharing a good, dry white wine on the deck of the farm house with my dear woman friend, Wanda. Life, as they say, is good.

An Artist Retreat

While I find myself somewhat mystified when newcomers compare and complain of having “nothing to do” here in our little corner of the prairie, I can also relate. Some 20 years ago I wore those same shoes.

Over time I’ve become more connected. Now there is hardly time to keep up with everything seemingly going on concurrently. This is just scratching the surface, for there are rivers to paddle and fish to catch, either by kayaking with my fly rod, or doing some river bank angling for my favored channel catfish. Nowadays I’m also connected with the area-wide arts community, and this weekend was chock full of activity. Once again.

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Audrey Arner at her culinary “Grasp the Nettle” foods at Moonstone Farm. (Photo by Susan Otterholt Kempe}

In terms of culinary arts, Audrey Arner held her annual “Grasp the Nettle” where she introduces “foodies” to the goods of the prairie wild, from nettles to morel mushrooms.

Kathy Marihart also opened her new “Smallest Art Gallery” on the main street of Ortonville with the first class of the season featuring an incredible artist, Naomi Shanti Ballard, working with young elementary artists from the two-state area.

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Naomi Shani Ballard explains a painting technique at the Smallest Art Gallery in Ortonville. (Photo by Edie Barrett)

In New London, potter Bill Gossman worked with Goats Ridge Brewing, the town’s craft brewer, to work with customers in decorating beer steins that he will fire in his wood fired kiln.

I suspect the list goes on.

Further on down the prairie some 50 or so of us artists gathered for the annual Southwest Minnesota Arts Council’s (SMAC) Artist’s Retreat. This two day, overnight gathering at the unique Danebod Folk School in Tyler was a multicultural event featuring a mix of native American artists and others that I found helpful, entertaining, fun and inspiring. Unfortunately, it was also rather limiting since the event offered a packed schedule with more classes than you could possibly attend, often concurrently.

Our gathering session was a presentation by the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre on “The Way of the Monarch.” This was my third “instructional” presentation by Heart of the Beast and all have left me humbled by both the puppetry and the message, and one that equaled an Earth Day presentation years ago on clean water.

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Melanie Gabbert-Gatchell demonstrates part of the alcohol ink technique to students at the SMAC Artist Retreat.

Our first afternoon session was by Granite Falls artist and SMSU English professor, Melanie Gabbert-Gatchell, who offered a “hands-on” activity with alcohol inks on tile, an art form that I’ve found intriguing as well as beautiful. Perhaps 20 of us were seated around tables blowing at colorful inks through plastic straws or blasting away with canned air to spread paints across both tiles and table tops. Melanie was rather kind about my efforts. “His tiles turned out just like his photography — the backgrounds were muted, and he had distinctive objects in the foreground. Just lovely.” How can you not like praise like that?

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My attempt at alcohol painting of tiles.

Charlie Roth strummed and sang into the night in the adjacent theatre, and as always, he was superbly entertaining. A songwriting and performing prairie icon, Charlie always makes his performances fun. This followed his afternoon workshop on songwriting, and he prefaced his songs Friday night with informative tidbits on either his singular efforts on originals or the explanations of songs he was covering.

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Songwriter and performer, Charlie Roth, performs.

Most helpful for me was Steve Gasser’s presentation on developing a web presence, which followed a long breakfast conversation when I shared my blog and frustrations with my photographic websites with him. His response: Not to worry, for it’s all workable. Provided I can gather the appropriate passwords!

Later in the afternoon was a grouping for a visual arts peer critique headed by sculptor/artist Eva Miller. Many of the suggestions were interesting and informative, although my favorite part was listening to each artist explain the muse and direction of their individual pieces.

Yet, the session that I drove home thinking about was by friend and native artist from Granite Falls, Super LaBatte. This was as much an insight on his personal struggles as it was on spirituality and his explanations of these unique native arts forms. His introduction into the arts began with his quest for sobriety many years ago, and his subsequent meetings with Native elders in his steps toward recovery, which was to dance. Dance, meaning at pow wows for personal and spiritual cleansing.

“To dance, I needed the vest. The moccasins. And I had no money,” he explained. This lead him through a long, laborious process into the tanning of hides, and of learning the ancient Native art of brain tanning. Brain tanning uses the brains of, in his case, pigs that he processes before applying it to the hides that he has taken through the preliminary tanning techniques … steps of which he explained in fine detail. The process gives hides a softness necessary to more successfully move into the other art forms. Softened hides gives you better moccasins and vests, both of which rely on beading. Then his chosen method of beading was as old school as his tanning process, and contrasted with that of another Native artist in the room. Their conversation of varied techniques was quite interesting.

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Super LaBatte confessional story of his personal life and his ancient forms of Native arts techniques were mesmerizing to the other artists attending the retreat.

Super’s presentation of the art forms was intertwined with interludes into his major life changes; of his confessions in his quest for a better life. In the midst of his presentation, Super told his mesmerized audience that his spirituality is rather individualistic, and that he rarely leans on the use of sweat lodge cleansings common among his peers. “My thoughts,” he said, “are that if you are good to people, if you make good choices, and if you live a good life, these are the keys to my personal spirituality.”

Of all the fun, new friends made, and important information gleaned from the retreat, Super’s life story and those words of his personal form of spirituality resonated with me driving home across the prairie.

Earth Day

As flames danced exotically against the blue sky, Earth Day 2017 became one we’ll not long forget thanks to a favorable wind and the Clinton Fire Department.

Ah, yes. My very first prairie restoration burn. And one I didn’t quite expect so soon. Initially we had plans to attend the important March for Science at the University of Minnesota-Morris. Age perhaps had a hand on my being home after two straight days of driving to Fargo and back with computer issues. Surprisingly the call came mid-morning from the fire chief. Yes, I had the burning permit, and yes, I would be home. All I had to do was activate the permit with a phone call.

About an hour later the trucks began arriving, along with the wind. “This won’t take us long,” said the chief, eying tree activity in the grove. Yes, even the larger branches were swaying. “We’ll start here in this corner and work around your farmstead.” Which I found interesting since I had envisioned starting on the northwest corner of the prairie and working down this way. Luckily I wasn’t in charge.

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Taking the canisters of mixed fuel, he and another fireman walked the edges of the prairie next to the garden and along the county road and my first, on-farm prairie burn was underway. All eight acres! Within moments the wind fueled the blaze, fanning flames high into the air. Smoke bellowed above the prairie sending the signal aloft for all to see miles away. Their burning plan created a natural fire break and kept the burn both within caution and reason. The burn was going extremely well despite my fear of being a bit late, for the undergrowth of grasses had already begun to green. That green was no match for the intense heat. Initially we had aimed for the first of May so the weed trees would have a bit of greening. An unseasonable, early spring had taken care of that.

My burn plan actually began a few weeks ago when the same Clinton fire crew suddenly pulled up in front of the farm and made preparations to burn a patch of prairie across the road. As they monitored the burn I approached to ask a few questions. “We really don’t have time to talk now, but will once we’re done here,” said the harried fire chief.

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About an hour later they drove up the driveway. And new plans were crafted. With the proximity of my studio to the prairie, the fire department would have been called despite the original plan made with a dear friend, with ample restorative prairie burning experience thanks to his work with Pheasants Forever, over a pizza weeks ago. He is also deep into wild turkey season, and frankly, the distant two-hour drive and unpredictable wind directions made it more sensible to do the burn with a local crew.

So on this sunny and windy Earth Day all forces joined together to renew our prairie. We were due a burn for both prairie age and to thwart the encroachment of the weed trees, mainly Chinese Elm. Now the wait begins to witness an amazing transformation. It might not look like much now, for the only green is in the walking paths we had cut through the prairie … for there were no matted prairie grasses there for kindling. Otherwise the prairie is charred black. It won’t take long for the prairie to recharge. Typically a beautiful flush of forbs and flowers will explode from that blackness, and hopefully the big bluestem will finally take hold to become the dominate grass.

We still have some important steps to take. First will be the arrival of Blayne Johnson with his brushhog to whack down the weed tree forest that has taken root over three primary portions of the prairie. Within an hour of his tasking, the small exposed trunks of the seedlings must be sprayed with a strong brush herbicide to kill them. Although the tops were likely “killed” by the heat of the fire, the roots … like those of the matured prairie grasses and forbs … are very much alive and have stored enough reserve energy to quickly send up new shoots.

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We have a serious an issue with weed trees. When the grasses went into dormancy last fall the true extent of the weed tree takeover was vividly evident. Those elm shoots remained green in contrast with the brown prairie grasses, showing a dominance of volunteer seedlings.

This will likely be a life-long fight on this little Big Stone County prairie regardless of our success with this initial burn. The real solution is to take out all of the “mother” elms, a decision I have yet to accept because I hate losing mature trees that add both physical beauty and shade for the farmsite. Especially the tree next to the studio, one of stature, character and beauty.

Certainly the elm issue is of topical concern, although we are beginning to see an influx of Eastern Red Cedar on the nearby hills and bluffs that aren’t farmed. Cedar can throughly dominate prairie lands as evidenced by the wild, unfarmed areas around Granite Falls, just little over an hour southeast of here. More and more of the cedars are dotting the hillsides up here which isn’t a positive sign.

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Fortunately, we’ve seen no cedars here on the farm.

Our Earth Day burn didn’t take long. About as much time as the march in Morris, I suspect. We’re quite fortunate to have a small town fire department in Clinton with the knowledge and tools to do a good burn. Soon after they motored off to do three more burns Saturday afternoon we sat on the deck sharing glasses of wine and marveling at the blackness of the charred prairie and talking about the resurgence of the native flowers and grasses.

Within a few weeks, perhaps, the greening will begin, and the entire eight acres will soon be in full flush of new growth. Lush with color and vigor. That is one of the beauties of growing an underground jungle. And, certainly, a reason for our sense of excitement. While we missed participating in a wholly necessary political march less than an hour from our doorstep, our Earth Day was hopefully spent in an equally important manner.