Mayflowers

“Ah, the Mayflower!” sighed dear friend Kylene Olson, who probably is as close to a native prairie flower expert as you can find. “This flower has been ingrained in my memory and in my family traditions since I was two years old.”

This was a new term for me, yet it made sense. She was looking at a photograph made a few years ago on a Sunburg prairie of a pasque flower. There is a hidden story here, however, and a good lesson.

mayflower1

It has to do with a recent conversation with a prairie photographer artist friend who admitted she sometimes lacked motivation, especially after nearly two decades of portraying elements within the few remnants of remaining native prairie. “How many images do I really need of big bluestem?” she asked rhetorically, smiling, while also noting that her children are now taking precedent as they reach junior high age.

Indeed. My children are reared and into lives of their own, and my life has changed significantly in the meantime. Yet, after all these years motivation is not yet an issue. I’m easy. About all it takes for inspiration is for someone to smile and tell me they have enjoyed one of my images, like Kylene has. I’ll admit, though, there are still times when I weaken and wonder, “How many images do I really need of a big bluestem?” Or, of pasque flowers, for that matter.

Last year was my first at skipping over the blooming season of this stout little harbinger of spring. I neither found, nor sought, the opportunity. Photographers and others involved in different medium of the arts often struggle to find the motivation to capture new images of an old subject.

Our work is defined by how we “capture light” in terms of subject matter and composition. We may work for weeks to pull those three adverse criteria — light, subject matter and composition — together to create a perceived image. Sometimes we’re simply lucky. In photojournalism this is called “having an eye.” Composition becomes, in Hemingway’s words, “a movable feast.” You train yourself to see and capture an image on the run. Two ends of a photographer’s spectrum, perhaps, that may sometimes work in concert.

An example: Back in June when the delicate prairie rose was in bloom I scanned the late afternoon skies searching for just the right hue for an idea that is much easier to visualize than to actually describe. On a scouting trip with Rebecca, we spied what we thought were some fine specimens in a Wildlife Management Area about ten miles southeast of our farm. Finally one evening a rich, cranberry hue seemed promised by the evolving sunset and I promptly set off with my camera, barreling down country roads toward the site. Light conditions change rapidly late in the afternoon, and especially as sunset nears, so there was an urgency.

When I rolled up and rushed toward the flowers to work with the light I realized this was an entirely different plant with blue flowers. Scouting at 50 mph is highly overrated, especially around dusk when we made the original discovery. On the trip home on this perfectly calm night, as that crimson-y hue became even more vibrant across the sky, I passed a lone white pelican fishing solo on a mirror-like wetland. My trip was not made in vane. I returned home with a very pleasing yet unexpected image — the movable feast.
September

As for the prairie rose, the idea still simmers on the proverbial back burner.

When I first discovered the plight of our vanished prairie years ago I felt an urgency for capturing such “icons” as the pasque flower, prairie smoke, lady slippers and cone flowers, among others. I’d also found my way into taking a Minnesota Master Naturalist course that included a field trip to one of the most compelling stretches of native prairie in Western Minnesota. Steve Harms, who claims title to this hilly moraine of prairie near Sunburg with his wife, Robin Freese, told us that the pasque flowers were in full bloom and had virtually laid claim to the hillsides. “This is the best we seen for many years,” he said.

At the time my focus was still more in details than horizons, and I captured an image I liked well enough to put into my next calendar. When I shared my pasque flower image this past week with Kylene, she quickly created an entirely new wave of inspiration and motivation with her response.
pasqueflower

She said, “This flower (Anemone patens, or Pulsatilla patens or Pulsatilla nuttalliana, appears to have three Latin titles) is my earliest memory of a prairie flower. My friend Laurie Denbrook recently asked, ‘Remember picking bags full of Mayflowers?’ Her sister was my best childhood girlfriend. We would pick paper bags full (before the dreaded plastic grocery bags) and walk around Watson, knock on doors (mostly the older women in town) and sell them a large handful for a nickel, every spring. We picked them ‘on the hill,’ which at the time was our horse pasture before becoming the infamous Champion Hill, noted in the not too distant past as the ‘sledding hill’ in Watson! Even after all my older sisters and I grew up and moved away and came home for Easter, it was a tradition to go to Champion Hill and search for Mayflowers. We were rarely disappointed. It seemed that no matter how early or late spring came, or how early or late Easter, Mayflowers were always blooming that weekend — amazing. Each spring my older sisters still ask if I had checked for Mayflowers.”

Added another friend, Lynn Lokken, “I grew up picking them as well. Great memories of my grandma teaching me about them. They bloom, we get snow, and they survive! In fact, we’ve done prairie burns and they pop up through that, too.”

I have no such childhood memories of pasque flowers, yet it is pleasing when an image brings pleasure and memories for others. Good fuel for motivation, I’d say.

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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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