Of a Winter’s Solstice

What was a day-long “ugly” Winter Solstice, with a thick gray hugging our Minnesota prairie like a heavy quilt in a dark room that you can’t seem to kick off your feet, ended with bright blue and vivid lights of red. Of all my escapades over the years to capture an image on this the shortest day of the year, none have ended quite so colorfully.

Dawn foretold the color of the day; we had no sunrise. Before noon I took the dogs for a walk through our prairie and grove seeking inspiration. Yet, for most of the day I kept my eye on the windows, hoping for a glimmer to break through. Gray makes such a search, on a day when light is celebrated, rather gloomy. Since I pride myself on having a positive attitude, I wouldn’t allow the grayness to pull me down.

Last year on the Solstice, these gulls rose from the ice at the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.

Last year on the Solstice, these gulls rose from the ice at the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.

Late this afternoon, with the camera in tote, it was off to the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge with just a fringe of pinkish color along the horizon. Unfortunately, once again the gates to the Refuge were padlocked so the outcrops, possible deer sightings, and the acres of native prairie were off limits. Things were not looking good, not like the past several years when my search for a Winter Solstice picture has been rewarded. Few were as bountiful than last winter when I pulled up onto the dam that creates the Refuge on the Minnesota River. Just as I pulled up, a group of terns lifted from the ice. I quickly lifted the camera and was fortunate to capture a single image, and one of my favorite photographs of the year.

Over the years the Winter Solstice has yielded some fine images. Years ago I captured the lowering sun over my neighbor’s farm. Unlike my tern image, which was blessed with just enough sun to show the shadows on the ice, the farm image was decidedly “Solstice” with the height of the sun angled low over the southern prairie sky.

An iconic image of a Winter Solstice on the northern prairie.

An iconic image of a Winter Solstice on the northern prairie.

Another year, just before dawn, I was able to make an image of another neighbor’s sheep pen along the highway in a blessed blue hue as I was leaving for an out of town meeting.

Then there was the deadline picture on a very cold and sunny day, just minutes before I had to send files of the weekly up to the printer. Not only was there a huge hole available on the front page, but it was also the day of the Winter Solstice. In the southern sky were the rainbow colors of a sundog. As I hurried up the street, suddenly a group of pigeons exploded off the local elevator right into the hues. Up until the tern image, this was certainly my favorite Solstice image for many reasons, and the image played well for a tall, three column vertical on the front page. Welcome to the digital age!

Needed a Solstice picture for my country weekly, these pigeons flew from the local grain elevator into the arc of a sun dog.

Needed a Solstice picture for my country weekly, these pigeons flew from the local grain elevator into the arc of a sun dog.

Oh, there are so many times like these when I think of Jim Brandenburg, the Luverne/Ely photographer who went onto fame with the National Geographic Magazine, and who has published two beautiful books based on a personal challenge he offered himself to make one image a day for 90 straight says. Some of his images, which he dated along with the time, were made early in the morning, although enough were late enough in the day where you imagined he was getting a little antsy. While I rarely place that kind of pressure on myself, today I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have enough light, let alone an interesting light, to capture anything besides that grayish gloom. Remember, the Solstice is about light and promise, both of which were the basis of celebration of the Solstice for thousands of years.

With the refuge locked, I turned toward a wetland with jagged stumps jutting from the surface. Whenever I pass the wetland I slow and gaze at the possibilities. The wetland was just up the hill from the valley and offered a last chance considering the approaching dusk. Enough of a melt had occurred to give an interesting reflection of a brighter sky skimming across the surface of the ice. After parking the car, I walked down and worked on the composition on one of the more interesting stumps. Indeed, a sense of accomplishment settled in as I climbed back into the car to return home. At a nearby field approach I made a U-turn and started back down the highway when I noticed a more interesting angle and quickly pulled the car over to the shoulder, making sure I put on the hazard lights.

Dawn broke on a Winter Solstice on a neighbor's sheep pen.

Dawn broke on a Winter Solstice on a neighbor’s sheep pen.

A car passed on my side, and four sped past from the opposite direction as I aimed the lens at the ice and jutting stumps. It was then I noticed the bright blue and vivid red lights bouncing off the rear view mirror … that of a state trooper who had pulled up behind me. As he walked up I sat and wondered just what I might have done wrong, and joked as he came to the back of the driver’s side door. “Sir, I really wasn’t speeding!”

“Well just what are you doing?” he asked.

“Taking a Solstice picture of those stumps in the wetland across the road.”

He turned toward the slough and then looked back at me with a somewhat incredulous expression. “You’re doing what?”

Once again I explained.

“Well, you should probably park up the road and walk back here to take your pictures. It’s just not safe to be parking half off the road and on the fog strip,” he said, again looking across at the wetland. “Just be safe,” he said as he turned to leave.

“Happy Solstice!” I shouted.

Finally, just before dusk, a nice pinkish light broke over the prairie. My 2014 Winter Solstice image.

Finally, just before dusk, a nice pinkish light broke over the prairie. My 2014 Winter Solstice image.

He stopped, looking surprised at the salutation, perhaps his first and only such greeting of the day. “Yeah, well a Happy Solstice to you, too.”

I wonder if Brandenburg has a story like mine.

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This entry was posted in He Said by John G. White. Bookmark the permalink.

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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