Meander Countdown

An email from the Granite Falls Arts Council today proclaimed that art is all around us this week. Indeed, it’s the annual Meander: Upper Minnesota River Art Crawl weekend, and for the first time we’re one of the studio stops. The brochure has us listed as Number 1, a designation cited for destination rather than documentation!

Yes, there is the proof! We were in the official brochure!

Yes, there is the proof! We were in the official brochure!

Over the past several months this has all been quite new and exciting. First was being accepted as one of the 45 artists to exhibit on the Meander, then came the various meetings where we mingled with many of the artists we’ve known over the years. However humbling, it was nice being considered a peer. Then the brochure arrived and there it was, officially, in brown and black …

These panels were designed to be self-standing and to hopefully give viewers an idea of how a framed print will look on their walls.

These panels were designed to be self-standing and to hopefully give viewers an idea of how a framed print will look on their walls.

Now comes crunch time. Sleep has become a luxury, and many unanticipated trips are being made picking up last minute pieces. Like this morning, when I awoke wide-eyed and staring at the ceiling. Those cards? What can I do about the cards? After a drink of water, I crawled back under the freshly washed sheets we were so happy to lay under last night and tried to sleep once again. Going back to sleep was fruitless.

Yes, we’re in the midst of the “Meander countdown.” Those cards! Reality hit pretty hard Sunday afternoon when I broke down the card packs to fold and place them into their respective categories and realized they were all at least ten to 15 percent darker than the proofs the company had originally mailed. Many were simply not usable, much too dark for putting on the rack. Three long and dark hours after crawling from bed, an early morning phone call was made to the printer, and, yes, they will reprint.

As the countdown slowly creeps toward the Friday opening I find myself falling back on the experiences of all those years in the publishing and ad agency business: Trying to minimize stress while by taking a deep breath and realizing that in the end things will be okay. “Hiccups!” they say.

Just a few of the canvas prints we have placed on the walls here at Listening Stones Farm for the Meander weekend.

Just a few of the canvas prints we have placed on the walls here at Listening Stones Farm for the Meander weekend.

Over the past several weeks tools have been worked overtime in cutting mats for the prints; sawing, gluing and sanding the cedar frames; designing and building display panels for the framed prints; hanging the canvas prints; and even constructing a homemade card display unit … which I hope to fill with usable cards. We have configured and reconfigured the layout of the rooms, and hopefully today or tomorrow we’ll start setting things up. Our goal is to confine our “showroom” to our dining and living rooms.

Even beyond the actual prep for the Meander, this has been an interesting personal journey. Ever since the Meander began a decade or so ago I’ve been a huge supporter by doing artist interviews and photographs for my country weekly, and over time I began to dream of being among the select few artists chosen. Thanks to Rebecca’s encouragement, along with our move to Big Stone County where there is some semblance of the native prairie pothole biome, my photography has moved into a new and hopefully a more “artistic” direction. Earlier in the spring I was asked to present at the Minnesota Master Naturalist’s convention where my subject explored the use of natural light in making nature images. My research took me back into a “rediscovery” of the works of Impressionist painter Claude Monet.

About 20 years ago I did a photo essay entitled, “If Monet Lived in the Prairie,” where I tried to mimic some of the French painter’s more iconic paintings to similar scenes I found in the prairie. Since the presentation my personal prairie work has become more “impressionistic,” if you will. In playing around in Photoshop I’ve discovered a technique to “soften” the images in ways you couldn’t in a darkroom. Other photographers have asked about the technique and have tried it with mixed results. Trying to simply soften an image without using traditional photography techniques is often a folly. These techniques may include, depending on the circumstances and subject matter, the focal length, selective focus, and ISO readings, not to mention the ambient physical aspects of wind, the quality of natural light and the use of the fore- and background color and texture. This is certainly beyond “point and shoot.”

Adding a softness to the image goes way beyond the "point and shoot" genre.

Adding a softness to the image goes way beyond the “point and shoot” genre.

Since using this technique we’ve basically “turned over” my complete portfolio since my last hanging show in January; a technique some photographer and artist friends have suggested carries a personal “signature” or style. How will it play on the walls in the Meander? We’ll see.

Perhaps the saddest part of being on the tour is not being able to visit the other artists along the river valley. We have an incredibly talented, vast and rich artist’s community, and one much larger than the Meander itself since over the years several very talented individuals no longer display on the tour. This continues to be a strong tour even with the departures.

We must find room for this image made last week!

We must find room for this image made last week!

Yes, the feel is different on this side of the Meander. So much work goes into it, including contributing to the marketing displays along the way. Now, we’re just four days away. Gulp-time. Hopefully my printer cartridges will arrive along with the glass being cut for the last two frames, and of course, receiving those freshly printed replacement cards. We’ve yet to test the “Square” for our sales, and we have to set up the two rooms. Oh, and place the directional signs out on the highways. So much to do and so little time.

Come Friday the doors will open and hopefully some fine folks will find their way to Listening Stones Farm. By then we’ll have done all we can do. Rebecca will have some produce and eggs available, and my sister is bringing up several dozen of her great cookies. Me? I’m up on the wall! And the countdown continues!

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In Transition

A sense of nervousness has settled in here at Listening Stones Farm. This sense of affairs began shortly after our return from our trip north to Ely for our yearly break from routine. This “settling” has been by a series of degrees — literally. Our overnight weather report for Friday took it over the edge.

As Rebecca said, “Thirty-four is too close for comfort.”

With 75 tomato plants in her lower garden, plus the raised beds and tall green arches of produce she has out there, she is creating strategy while rationalizing her anticipated losses. Perhaps “our losses” would be more accurate, although there is both a sense of ownership and privacy involved in her near acre of produce farming. Those tomatoes are in the heart of the freeze zone since they’re located in perhaps the lowest level of our garden and yard — a location, she informs me, that makes it quite difficult to protect.

Rebecca's low hanging tomato plants on the right side of the picture are particularly vulnerable because of their location.

Rebecca’s low-lying tomato garden on the right side of the picture is particularly vulnerable because of its location.

The signs of this transition from summer to fall have been evident since we returned from up north. On Monday morning, our last day of warmth, my labor included working on frames for my Meander photographs. Many trips were made between the house and the workshop. Whenever I entered the workshop I was accosted by any number of swallows, as has been the custom all summer long. Later that afternoon as we shared our daily glass of wine on the deck, Rebecca spoke of her observation, “Well, the swallows are gone.”

“Can’t be. They were all over me all morning.”

“Listen. Look around. Do you see or hear them?” Indeed, while the prairie was still buzzing with dragonflies there wasn’t a single swallow in sight. None on the rooftop awnings of the workshop. None on the clothesline. The air was empty of the acrobatic fliers.

In the distant rise of the prairie we noted the short flights of ducks from one wetland to another. Yes, the ducks are coming through, and the geese are now gathering. Murmurations of blackbirds are beginning to fill the treetops in the grove. At night, as the sun sets and the coolness sets in, coyotes begin their night songs nearby, offering voice to the musical concert provided by the slight wind music from the chimes scattered around the trees in the yard. All of this nature is alluring and alive and you feel blessed to be a part of it.

Yellowheaded blackbirds by the hundreds gathered along Highway 75 near Bellingham.

Yellowheaded blackbirds by the hundreds gathered along Highway 75 near Bellingham.

Earlier this week was the rising of the harvest moon. I ran for my camera and was able to make a fun image of the last of the yellow flowers in the prairie. Yes, our prairie that was bursting with yellow just a few weeks ago, as it has all summer, is now mostly a dull green turning brown. We anticipate with pleasure the brownish beauty of a more mature prairie, which we see in patches around us, where the winds that make music with my chimes provides a dance for the Indian grasses and spindly bluestem. While the wind gives the prairie grasses a freedom to dance, those same grasses give face for the winds. And, yes, the browns are beginning to dominate those prairie patches. Bluestem is now in turkey-track stage, and the other native grasses shimmer in the glow light of autumn.

Bluestem in a prairie wind this week near Hermann.

Bluestem in a prairie wind this week near Hermann.

While there are no survivors of the original prairie pothole biome, my imagination is often taxed in trying to visualize an actual prairie. For years I’ve stared at horizons and tried, trying to replace the sea of corn with bluestem, to visualize those seas of grasses so spoken of; of bluestem so thick it could wear away the toes of the boots of horseback riders seems impossible to imagine. I’ve tried imagining murmurations of blackbirds so thick in coolish September afternoons that they blackened the skies, sometimes completely shielding the sun … if you can believe reports of ancient storytellers, both from the letters of settlers and the passed along stories of the native elders. These are among the images I just can’t seem to pull off. Far easier to picture, though, are the long wingspan of V’s from the geese flying high overhead, often at different strata. These are all pieces of a grand puzzle, though many with the edges worn and the hooking circles of the pieces torn.

The prairie is no more. More than 99 percent of it is gone, and more remnants are plowed as glacial rocks are pried from the soil with heavy construction equipment. The last field of glacial litter between Correll and Appleton was being scraped clean last week, a vivid image that needs no imagination. Nor is the continued mining of the topsoil of the former prairie that took nearly 12,000 years to form and less than 200 years of plowing, from the first settlers through the evolving of industrialized farming, to mine. Poor tillage practices and even greed prevents a protection of the soils from blowing in those eight or so months of bareness, or of trickling away with the seasonal rains as more and more acres of yellowish clay peak through where thick layers of topsoil once laid. Farmers are no different in this mindset than other “miners” of the earth’s resources, all part of a world-wide population reeking with indifference.

Whether we speak of cropland or the reservoirs of fossil remnants we boast as endless beds of fuel, we seem intent in using up all of the earth we can. It is an interesting concept that we can use up the resources of the earth and still survive, and when the time comes, and it will, the silence will be deafening — like our barn the afternoon the swallows left.

Harvest moon over our prairie now seems like a harbinger of the change in weather.

Harvest moon over our prairie now seems like a harbinger of the change in weather.

That is a decided winter for future times. As we scurry for blankets — how can we cover 75 low-lying tomato plants? — to protect what we can, the approaching autumn will not be ignored. A frost is imminent. We in that transition of autumn toward winter, and with much of the canning and freezing of Rebecca’s garden done, we hang on to what is left as best we can. We’ve had a lovely growing season, and some of our work is unbeatable — our smoked eggplant and tomato sauce is about as perfect a testament to the summer season as you can find. The apples are about ready for harvest and sacks of walnuts are hanging in the shed. We work hard, just as the squirrels around the grove are doing, preserving the last of what we can for the months ahead.

This transition into autumn is interesting, and becomes more so each day. We look toward the rest we know is coming. In some ways it can’t come soon enough. In other ways, we want to put this transition off as long as we possibly can.