Wind Games

Back at an age when mother-pleasing was something boys seven or eight find easy was perhaps when the concept of wind first entered my consciousness. We were in the midst of one of those sultry 90-90 Missouri summer afternoons without air conditioning with no hint of a comforting breeze.

“Don’t worry,” I told my mother. “I’ll make the wind start.”

We had a young elm, or so it seemed. I scampered up the tight bark, grabbed a long and low hanging limb to pull myself further into the heart of the canopy. Using my arms and legs I started pushing limbs and jumping on the branches with all my might. If I could just get some air moving, I thought, the wind would begin. A passerby might have slowed at the vigorous movement in the center of the tree … until one of the branches holding me aloft snapped and I was sent sliding down into the yard.

“Nice try,” said my mother with a smile once she realized there was no broken bones. “But you can’t start the wind.”

Wind-blown snow creates a halo effect on a prairie wetland.

Wind-blown snow creates a halo effect on a prairie wetland.

This was the beginning of my being haunted by the wind. From the slight, calming breezes that sooth the soul to the extreme of feeling and hearing of the forces of a 300 mph plus trauma of wind that swirled around the circumference of a thunderous storm cell to propel a six-seater cloud seeding plane above the Northeastern Colorado plains. Now, living here in the open prairie, wind is nearly a constant companion. It rumbles, sometimes like low thunder, from all directions, often deep into the night. It may tingle our wind chimes, or produce a wild, Beethoven-ish symphony clanging from the ash and oaks in the yard. Sometimes when you try to take a step into it out on North Meadowbrook, a northwesterly will stand you straight to halt you in mid-step. Wind has moved hundreds of tons of topsoil this winter, yet has delicately written “poems” in soft snow using prairie grasses as cursive “pens.”

Tips of prairie grass leave wind-etched "poems" in the winter snow.

Tips of prairie grass leave wind-etched “poems” in the winter snow.

This haunting caused a friend to recently tease me of how I could happily forgo watching commercial television programming for cultural media awareness in order to follow my passion for making images of prairie grasses in the wind.

“You must realize that watching prairie grasses blowing in the wind isn’t for everyone,” she chided.

Indian Grasses dance in a prairie wind.

Indian Grasses dance in a prairie wind.

Wind is my weakness. There was that late fall evening in the 1970s in an old farmhouse outside of the Newton, IA, home of the teenage boy who’s letter prompted Pope John Paul II to visit Iowa, when I asked the family while I was doing his story if I could spend a few moments alone in an upstairs bedroom just to hear the whistling of the wind. They smiled as I backed into the room and turned off the light to sit on the bed. It had been years since I’d heard that whistle and whine of the wind in the sleeping porch of my parent’s old Missouri farmhouse. It whispered a momentary meditation.

So, yes, I have many wind stories. Last weekend as I sat alone in my canvas ice fishing “clam,” a ferocious wind whipped and snapped the canvas during a Severe Winter Warning with a -45 degree wind chill, bringing  many wind moments to life as I fought off the bone chilling cold. Wind games, if you will, playing with the mind and the numbing elements.

Sportsmen around here have given ample warnings about these Big Stone Lake winds that howl down this 26 mile long corridor of water, and now, ice. “Never get far from shore in your kayak,” they’ve warned in the warmer months. “You never know when the wind will come up, and remember, there isn’t anything out there to slow it down.”

Many tell tales of friends being caught, or of themselves being in instant peril, being stranded miles from a boat launch or pushed against a distant shore, of being capsized and adrift. This time on the ice was as close as I have come to feeling the heed of their warnings.

Despite the side flaps of the canvas panels being buried beneath ample ice chips and snow, the canvas snapped and popped with incredible and forceful energy. I was afraid of standing, fearful of the clam blowing away down the length of the lake. As I watched the undulating sides of canvas I was visited with another wind game, from of all places, the Caribbean somewhere outside of Road Town, BVI. I suddenly visualized being on the deck of the 210 ft. barquentine I was fortunate enough to help sail in the late 1970s. As we maneuvered the big square-rigged sailer into open seas, the huge sails filled with wind, snapping and popping the sailcloth just like it was my ice fishing canvas on Big Stone. Indeed, these were the only sounds as the antique naval training ship listed slightly and cut a magnificent wake in the azure sea.

I could only wish the mental images of the blue Caribbean skies had been more warming, as had the few jumbo perch pulled up through the ice. This would be another day dominated by prairie winds sweeping in from the Saskatchewan Plains, winds that once again lifted loam and snow into the skies up on the prairie and rattled old windows.

Indian Grass and heads of cone flowers moved by prairie winds.

Indian Grass and heads of cone flowers moved by prairie winds.

Through the night gusts rumbled through like a distant freight train, warded off by solidly insulated walls and a bevy of quilts made by the mother of her modern day Don Quixote, a man who has come to realize he can neither start nor end a wind … even he might wish to.

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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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