A Road Being Taken

“Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man.” Aldo Leopold

Although our recent drive to the ROC at the University of Minnesota-Morris for a pollinator presentation was artistic in a way, this wouldn’t be a good day for America’s “Original Conservationists.” This is a self-chosen term our farm brethren speak with pride when speaking at environmental proceedings and politicians like to use at farm shows. You have to wonder if these self proclaimed “Original Conservationists” or “True Environmentalists” — as some of billboards broadcast — see the effect prairie winds have on their prized investment. Those winds have created sastrugi-like snow waves, or perhaps you would prefer calling them snow dunes, along the roadways and almost all of them were highlighted with swirls and patches of fine particles of dirt.

snirt9 snirt12 As we drove we continued to gaze at the miles upon miles of snow ridges and waves accented by prairie dirt along the fall-plowed fields, interrupted here and there by a few farmsites, patches of restored prairie, or in the rare fields where corn stalk residue was still standing. Only on those few select areas were drifts the color of snow. There was a sad but unique beauty where the dune edges carried outlines of soil-paint blackness as if applied by a makeup artist.

snirt2 Soils are taking a beating throughout the broad Mississippi River Basin it seems. On a drive home from a recent visit to Missouri most of the fields from northeast Missouri through Iowa and into Minnesota had telltale evidence of snirt (“sn” from snow, and the “irt” from dirt). Tons of topsoil. A field near Raymond, Minnesota, had lost so much wind-blown soil that only the tracks of the Burlingon-Santa Fe Railroad provided border between the shoulder of Highway 23 and the actual field. Land Grant Universities and other sources, from Kansas to Canada, and from Indiana to Montana and the Dakotas, are publishing emergency actions for farmers that include mulching with straw and manure, or by some form of mid-winter tillage. It’s much too late for sensible cover crop options, or in leaving crop residue in place.

snirt7 Those “conservationists” typically will blame a lack of snow cover for the wind blown erosion rather than take personal responsibility for making sensible preventive measures.

snirt1 One of those soil specialists, Dave Franzen, of North Dakota State University said in an article published in Farm Progress Magazine, “I am astonished how many growers think that most of the (soil lost from) wind erosion ends up in their ditch, and all they need to do is scrape it out and put it back onto the field. The ditch silt is only a small fraction of the soil lost. Most of the soil lost to wind travels for hundreds and thousands of miles. Ocean researchers track the buildup of sediment on the ocean floor over time. Wonder where the sediment comes from? Your fields.”

snirt13_1 Franzen expressed dismay that farmers were taking out field wind breaks, especially if they don’t plan to leave a lot of residue on the surface of their fields in the future. Such is the case in the Minnesota prairie where miles of piles of former field windbreaks and groves await burning. While more land is laid open for more corn to be planted, little is left to prevent wind erosion.

snirt8 Between the snirt and the demise of bees and other pollinators because of a changing plant profile due to commodity mono-cropping and the use of Bt-flavored GMO crops with built-in systemic insecticides, our “original conservationists” would take a major beating on this cold, windblown day. Conservation-minded people would care more for their topsoil and for the bees and other pollinators absolutely necessary for growing their crops. Yet we saw no cover crops and very little crop residue left from the fall harvest. Winds were rumbling across the prairie in gusts to 40 mph, lifting particles of exposed topsoil in their wake. When this settles, the snirt we saw will be covered by more snow and topsoil.


With land being sold for more than $8,000 an acre you would think our Original Conservationists and True Environmentalists would care more for their investments. You would think they would also care about leaving precious topsoil for a future generation … like the next one, if not for those who come after.

As for the bees and other pollinators, this is a topic for another discussion.

snirt14 “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” Franklin D. Roosevelt

Taking Care

We’re enduring another big blow today–temperatures predictably plunging after a brief hiatus in the 20s and 30s, this time an inch or two of snow, and then the wind begins again in earnest and the world beyond the grove-edge disappears.


I was lazy this morning in a way I don’t often allow myself to be. Of course I let the dog out and fed her, made coffee and turned on the light in the chicken coop.  But, the newest issue of The Sun magazine came yesterday, and after fixing the floor lamp above one corner of the couch, I sat down and devoured it until almost noon.

John asked me to make a quiche, and he sautéed the bacon-and-onion filling while I mixed, chilled, and blind-baked crust, then filled it and baked it again. He kept thinking it was ready before it was, and then just as he had given up thinking about it, I brought him a plate with a warm slice.

Quiche isn’t hard. Soufflé isn’t hard, either, but I think we get hung up on anything French as being difficult or fussy or not right if it isn’t perfect. My quiche isn’t perfect, but I like eating it anyway (and thankfully, so does John). There are a series of steps, but they are enjoyable to break up a snow-bound morning at home. The most laborious thing is the crust; but it isn’t difficult when you aren’t trying to be perfect about it. Flour, lard, salt, water. Cutting, chilling, rolling, patching. If I thought my requirement was to make a perfect crust, I wouldn’t bother making it, and if I didn’t make it, I wouldn’t get incrementally closer to a perfect crust each time.

This issue of The Sun was thought-provoking as always, and also disturbing as some issues can be. The disquiet came from one story wherein the narrator describes a character injecting herself with Ritalin. I am incapable of thinking about syringes without a weak-jointed shudder, and I kept looking away from the page as if I were looking away from the actual scene of an injection–then returning as if it were my sole responsibility to follow through on a patient’s care and bring the story to its conclusion.

I admire nurses greatly for their capacity to do this kind of work–and maybe more so for the fact that I would be utterly incapable of it (though with a sterilized sewing needle I can extract almost any sliver).


In the latest Northern Star, our local paper, there is a front page above-the-fold story written by a nurse and community member, Maria Botker, about her family’s quest for treatment for their youngest daughter, Greta. Greta suffers from a severe and difficult-to-manage form of epilepsy, and Maria and Greta have moved to Colorado to seek treatment with a specific form of medical marijuana, which is legal in that state. The story was heart-felt and hopeful–Greta’s seizures have been reduced!–but their family remains separated because the drug laws in Minnesota forbid the use of marijuana as medicine, and Maria’s husband Mark and two eldest daughters remain here on the farm and in their familiar school district.

It’s interesting how relationships can change one’s perspective on an issue, isn’t it? The last thing I expected to see in my tiny, socially conservative western Minnesota community was an article by a well-respected community member asking people to think about legalizing medical marijuana. But, policy becomes personal when it affects a well-known and liked family, and when neighbors are asked to consider, “what would you do?” Of course, you would do everything you could to take care of your child, and no one wants to see families split up.

When the story is personal, it’s hard to think of as a “strategy,” but it is. The policy needs changing, and it’s the personal stories–especially about people you know–that help you relate, and perhaps reconsider your position. It may be a difficult issue, but in the end it often comes down to our values–help for those who suffer, and loving our neighbor. I applaud Maria for sharing it, and the Northern Star for featuring it prominently in their paper.

BTW, there’s also a story in today’s Star Tribune about the issue, and it features the Botker’s story as well. You can read it here.


This lazy Sunday feels like a gift after having threaded the needle in my travels of late–between blizzards and Polar Vortex sequels I managed to attend a media workshop in Minneapolis and travel the opposite direction to the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society’s winter conference in Aberdeen, South Dakota. I’ll admit I left before the last session (and supper!) yesterday afternoon, after becoming sufficiently spooked by weather forecasts and the anticipated route through Summit and the Coteau des Prairies on U.S. Highway 12. Viewed on a topographical map, it might be barely noticeable to those used to mountain vistas, but conditions are often several shades worse up there than anywhere else. I’ve driven out of a clear blue sky Minnesota River Valley up into sleet, high winds, and dense fogs near Summit that helped it earn its local nickname: The Bermuda Triangle of South Dakota.

However, the idea of an entirely carefree day evaporated early this afternoon, when I discovered Alice, the feral cat-who-thinks-she’s-a-chicken, lying prone between the basement windows. She’d been sheltering there off and on through the bad weather, but she’d disappeared for a close to a week, so I was watching for her return. Alice is usually very alert about anyone approaching–even growling between mouthfuls when I bring her food, so I was alarmed to see her unresponsive.

I ran inside to get her a plate of soft food and chicken broth, and as I got closer, she didn’t budge. I touched, then jiggled her–nothing. I dragged her out by the towel she lay on–the grimace of death was on her face–eyes wide and unseeing, tongue protruding between her teeth. After coming inside and having a good cry, I pulled together a couple of plastic bags to store her body in ’til the ground thaws in spring. Pulling her out of the window well with plastic bag in hand, she let out a small moan, and the very tip of her tail twitched. She was limp, not stiff. And she was alive–though just barely.

I ran inside, laying her on the mudroom’s boot mat, then frantically gathered cat carrier, blanket, and heating pad. She’s now residing temporarily in the downstairs bathroom, where I am checking on her every half hour or so. With a wide syringe (for oral medication, not injections), I tried to give her a little chicken broth, and I think at least some of it went down her throat instead of my sleeve. I’ll try to give her a little more before our supper, and again before bed. She’s still limp, but breathing. Her bowels have evacuated, her eyes stare at death, and her tongue lolls.

Despite our agreed-upon prohibitions against any more inside cats, Alice–on the seemingly unlikely chance she survives–will be granted a reprieve from “outsider” status to regain her strength away from the icy winds and stinging snow.

Meanwhile, we wonder when our reprieve will come–when the white-outs will subside, when we can break through the still-mounting drifts, and step into a warm and spring-heralding sunshine.

[Update 1/27: Alice passed away yesterday evening. She will be buried on our farm in spring.]

Alice, circa 2008, with one of her kittens. Photo credit, Joanne Svendsen.

Alice, circa 2008, with one of her kittens. Photo credit, Joanne Svendsen.


Each winter has its own special trials. Last year we were still battling wet snows and howling winds while starting the farmhouse renovation project in April and then on into May. It didn’t help that the snow fence at the end of the drive had collapsed, and the ground was too frost-bound to drive the posts back in place. The drifts blew right over it, blocking our access.

Traveling the six miles out to the farm from Clinton each day, we’d grit our teeth with a “Here We Gooooo!” and gun it down the gravel road turned to soup and slush, calculating that perfect acceleration point to blast through drifts and potentially bottomless mud holes without careening off into the ditch–wipers on full blast to clear the spray.

It occurs to me that the reason I have no images of the road when it was bad is because I was focusing on avoiding getting stuck.

It occurs to me that the reason I have no images of our road in full-on mud season is because I was focusing on avoiding getting stuck.

There is an art to this kind of driving that rural people learn at an early age. Failure to master it can mean a long, cold slog to the nearest inhabited farm or paved possibility of a ride back to town–even worse are the decades of ridicule when everyone finds out.

Granted, I’ve only lived up here for a little over three years, but for sheer volume of snow, my first winter in 2010-2011 was the biggest pain. I was living in a little cottage down by Big Stone Lake–one with a shared parking area and steeply-inclined approaches. The problem was, it just kept snowing, and no one was living in the houses on either side of me to help pay for a plow to clear the whole darn thing every two or three days, which seemed to be the frequency of the storms. Instead, I’d shovel the patio by the door, then up the stairs to the parking area, then an increasingly narrow and walled-in path across the parking area and up the second set of steep stairs to the highway, across which I parked my continually plowed-in little pickup.


Actually, I had to shovel down that second set of stairs–and sometimes two or three times a day because the MN DOT plows would come by and shove big hunks of snow and ice down into the stairwell, which was bordered by high retaining walls. Once I managed to get all the snow and ice chunks down to the bottom of the stairs, I’d scoop and fling them up on the top of the two, then three, then four-plus foot high piles I’d created by attempting to keep my walking path open.

I moved off the lake as soon as I could get out in March–though getting in to the new rental place was also a problem–the driveway and front walk had untouched four foot high drifts that I stabbed at valiantly but ineffectually with my shovel until the guys at lumber yard across the street took pity on me and made short work of it with a loader. I still had to carve and stomp and snowshoe walkways in the backyard for the dog to do her business–it’s hard to squat when you’re already up to your ass in snow! I think it was late May before the last little bit of snow on the north side of the house finally melted.

Compared to that first winter, the second one seemed like a breeze. It never got brutally cold for more than a couple of days; we had snow, but it came in manageable doses. After a mysterious fire in the rental house and a few months living with friends on the South Dakota side of the border, I’d bought a house and returned to Clinton, and even though it was a good-sized space, it wasn’t unreasonable to heat. All in all, 2011-2012 was an easy winter, requiring little of the heroic efforts of my first western Minnesota season.

I don’t want to jinx it by commenting on a season still in progress, but I don’t think we’ll look back on this winter and curse the snow (it IS snowing now–I think–and the wind is creating the white-out conditions we’ve grown accustomed to). We’ve yet to call our neighbor to come with his tractor, and we’ve fired up the snow blower only once–and even then the situation wasn’t dire–we could still get out; we just wanted to clear in case of second and third “helpings” piled on top.

No, this year’s need for fortitude isn’t about the snow; it’s about the cold. Blistering, brutal, ridiculous cold. Subzero cold that lasts for days, with weird little intervals of 24 hours or less where the wind shifts suddenly and raucously to the south, the temps rise overnight, and then plunge again the next afternoon. Last Wednesday, the temperature was 26 when I walked into a evening meeting. On leaving two hours later, it was 41. The next morning, the warmth had fled like a summer dream, and the melt water was ice. Just yesterday, it was a balmy 40 degrees, but the wind whipped up again, and overnight it dropped into the teens. This morning it was 18 with a +4 windchill; this afternoon it is 0/-26.



“Real” temps are supposed to hit 20 below tonight.The mailbox just beyond the edge of our grove is playing its usual game of now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t, and in the latest of a series of cancelled events, missed meetings, and best-laid-plans, our expected dinner guests won’t be joining us tonight. John finally took down the wind chimes yesterday after I couldn’t take their nightly cacophony anymore–two of them had lost their clappers–one was recovered but the other we can only hope to locate in the spring.

And this is before we get Polar Vortex, Part Two starting next weekend and potentially lasting through the beginning of February. Will we even be able to tell the difference? Do I have the fortitude it takes to face the answer to that question?

Since I can’t bury my head in the sand (it’s frozen solid, after all), maybe I’ll just bury my nose in that pile of seed catalogs and order forms. In my four layers of clothing. Under a blanket.

With a BIG glass of wine.


Tears of a Prairie Goddess

     When I re-entered the gym full of crafters back in December, my neighbor to my right with the scroll saw art was hovered over my table of framed prairie prints and calendars.
    “I’m so sorry,” he said as I walked up. “I just brushed against this and it fell from the table and your frame broke.”
    He was frantically working to re-glue one of the four framed images on which I had not had time to install the corner stabilizers. Fortunately the glass hadn’t shattered. When I turned it over to see which of my images would obviously have to be pulled from the show, there was barely any surprise. My Penstemon grandiflorus, or giant beardstongue.
    This plant and I have an odd history of sorts, one that began a few years ago in my attempt at bringing to life a native prairie garden in back of my home in Clara City. My garden was like a very special Christmas; gifts that were startling visual, were “presented” for almost daily unwrapping, and were usually quite interesting.
    These gifts usually came near dawn as I habitually took my first cup of morning tea by making a slow walk around this garden I’d planted in the disturbed spoils of soil resulting from the installation of a geothermal heating system. My previously beautiful “glacial till” was now mixed with subterranean gravel, probably not perfect for a prairie and less so for many other offerings this side of Phoenix. Yet, my little prairie was setting root in many interesting and surprising ways.
    When Sally Finzel of Morning Sky Greenery provided a list of native prairie plugs of grasses and forbs for the garden it was like looking at a list of words from a foreign language–Latin, to be exact. Over the years I had grown fond of wind-swept prairie grasses, especially Indian grass, and like many I adored coneflowers. All those other plugs we pried into the rocky mixture of clay and till were what offered all those many Christmas-y-like surprises — changing from day to day, and as I would learn later, year to year, as prairies do.
    One sleepy early morning in late May as I slowly made my way around the rock perimeter of the little prairie garden I came to a sudden stop to stare in disbelief of what appeared to be a scene straight from a sci-fi movie. There, between cupped sturdy leaf shelves, were four to five regally crowned stalks, each looking as if they had magically and perfectly captured giant green teardrops from a tall prairie goddess, each trailing a curly tail reaching toward the heavens. These “platforms” of magical teardrops stair-stepped their way up the smooth, green stalks.

    With what had become an almost daily occurrence, down went the teacup as I fetched my camera. My focus was on this unworldly beauty, of these magical characteristics of this unknown plant. This image has intrigued me ever since. My intention was to place the image in my next prairie calendar. My only trepidation was in not actually knowing what plant offered this visual magic.
    Later in June of the same summer I photographed bumble bees bullying their way deep into lavender  blossoms that were at least in inch or two in length, much like a child does while crawling into a parent’s sleeping bag. The burly bees would simply disappear inside the blossoms for long moments before budging back out to fly away.
    Images of the bees and the unworldly sci-fi plant were among the possible calendar images I was showing my artist cousin and my wife last August when we noticed that the waxy, egg-shaped leaves in both images were identical. Another friend with immense knowledge of prairie plants immediately identified the plant. “Oh, that’s giant beardstongue,” she said.


    A moment of research indicates that the plant is rather common to native prairies, though it is seemingly more common to the High Plains than the warm grass prairies. It is found in the more rocky areas of Minnesota where the glacial moraine apparently stopped,  and along the Minnesota River valley. As the beardstongue was telling me, I was beginning to discover there was a whole lot about the prairies of the past I either didn’t know, hadn’t realized or even noticed despite so much time spent afield.
    My intentions were seemingly always trumped by more colorful or timely images, so when the possibility came for putting together an exhibition at Java River in Montevideo of my photographic series of Ghosts of the Prairie, the magical beardstongue image was among one of the first I sought to print. The time had arrived to move this image from bridesmaid to bride.
    Less than a month before the show this was among the framed prints I took to the show in Maynard, and it was hardly surprising to find this image as the one to have been nudged from the table. My crafter friend was quite apologetic and was intently using what he called his magical glue to put the frame back together.
    “I’ve tried that glue before,” I told him, “and it just won’t hold. So, really, don’t worry about it.”
    Before the doors opened for the little craft show, I took the broken frame and the photograph of those magical green teardrops of the mysterious prairie goddess back to the car.
    Her time would come. That is how it is with magic.   

What’s in a Name?

She wasn’t real fond of “Kale Yes Acres.” Nor did “Pleasant Pheasant Farm” get the nod.

What’s a man to do?

Frankly, I hadn’t given much thought to the naming of our farm. Didn’t see much need. Yet, my dear Belle of Vermont believed we needed a name for the farm. “What about this?” she would say. Perhaps it was the form of my smile.

My suggestions contained more Teflon than Velcro it seemed.

“Maybe we should just have a naming dinner party,” she suggested as we sipped wine one night, which sent us into an impromptu brainstorming moment on who of our many friends might be of the best help. While we couldn’t agree on a farm name, nor the best gathering of brainstormers, we did agree on who we would want as a facilitator.

This went on for weeks. Often in the kitchen after one of my walks, or when she came in from her work in the garden … after quiet muse time.

The Belle had a farm with a name down in Vermilion, SD. Flying Tomato Farm. She had no desire to move the name north. She held forth that naming our farm was important, and that cute, pun-like names, which happens to be my forte, just wouldn’t work. Naming a farm provides an image, perhaps even a brand. “Farms need names,” she insisted.

Back home in the 1950s my father went through some trepidation himself before settling on Meadowview Farm as its name. Our family farm was split almost equally between crop and grazing land, although the plan was seemingly to have just enough corn to sustain his cattle through the winter months, with the other crops grown for rotational purposes. His love was beef cattle, and his relaxation was saddling up on summer evenings to ride alone through the hilly back country to check on the herd. So the name was equally poetic and appropriate.

We have no hills here on our 14 acre spread. Of those, only eight acres are considered tillable. We made an easy and early decision between us to place those acres into native prairie with help from the local Pheasants Forever chapter and the SWCD. My guess is that about another acre will be devoted to the Belle’s vegetable farming after the spring thaw. Our eye is on a permaculture-like existence, with perhaps a farm stay or artist’s retreat with our out buildings — which might even include a yurt.

We have many dreams for such a small spot of earth. We find it exciting to see what shakes out. So naming our farm does carry a significance. One recent afternoon the Belle strode into our office with a purpose, grabbed a marker and wrote a name onto her faithful flip chart. “Listening Stones Farm,” it read.


There is a history here on the farm. When our friend, Kurt Arner, came to clear our grove of buckthorn and a half century of deadwood, he suggested a trail be cut through the upper half. Since we had discussed doing this beforehand, it was an easy decision. His  traversing trail concluded with a wooded loop at the far end.

I asked if he could cut one of those trees into a bench. He did, and we called it our “listening bench” in honor of Sigurd Olson’s “Listening Point.” Not just a title for a book, but Listening Point was an actual point on 26 acres on the shores of Burnside Lake near Ely. Here “he could look out over the wide-open spaces of the lake, listen to the birds, watch the sunset, and regain some balance in a life that had become more and more hectic at a time when most people begin to think about retirement,” reads a dedicated website.

Listening bench_1
Our bench is comprised of two portions of a log Kurt V-ed before centering a portion of the same weathered trunk into the grooves. He then sliced off the top third to create the bench, which abutted another fallen tree for a natural staunch backing. No wide open spaces, nor a view of a lake, yet it is a fine place to escape what life can throw at you at times, surrounded on all sides by trees and a protective canopy.

Also on our farm were two outbuildings long past saving. We found an excavator who brought in a large machine to dig a hole where he could deposit the spoils of the two buildings for burning. Embedded in the foundation beneath the century-old granary — yes, we found hand scrawled messages on the painted red barn wood that read, “Changed oil July 1911” — were several boulder-sized glacial stones he set to the side beneath the canopy of a tree we had saved from the saw.

These stones were, I believe, her inspiration, and a fine inspiration at that. Our farmland lies on the cusp of the moraine of the last glacier, and the rocks likely came from this land. Several similar sized boulders were unearthed in the cleared grove. Rocks, or stones, form the name of this county, and are a prominent physical feature of the river valley.

“Stones are what brought us together,” said the Belle. “People talk about Big Stone Lake, and of the soil. Stones just don’t get a fair shake.”

So, what’s in a name? For us, the eons of heritage of our small, appropriately named farm.