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.

Image
    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.

Image

    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.   

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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