Bends in the Path of a River

Leaves were breaking from the budding bank-side maples as our group meandered down a stretch of the Pomme de Terre River north of Appleton. And, yes, the river meandered from one bend to another as wild rivers do. As my lead canoe came around one of those bends two White Tail Deer raised their heads from the morning drink, as shocked at seeing us as we were delighted to see them. At once, in a heartbeat, they pivoted, clamored up the bank and bounded away into the woods toward safety.

Well, sort of, for at the very next bend of the river we came upon the two a second time as they lept into the fast, runoff waters to escape our intrusion once again. One made it safely across the current to the opposite bank. Not the second one, for it was plastered by the current against the upturned roots of a deadfall. Having had canoes pinned like this, the pressure is never ending, intense and strong. The frightened deer struggled mightily, and as we neared we discussed what we might do, if anything, to help the deer that was in obvious trouble. The closer we came the more the deer thrashed and kicked its legs, struggling for any leverage in the water that covered all but its head. When we were not 20 feet away and had begun to maneuver the canoe to in some way help, it had generated enough inertia to edge itself off the root mass of the deadfall and make it across the river.

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Past the oak at Bonanza, the ice on Big Stone Lake is honeycombed.

The imagery of that moment several years ago came back to me while on a recent walk with my friend, Lee Kanten, in the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge when we stopped on a high outcrop overlooking a bend of the Minnesota River. Such bends of a river come to me often as life-like metaphors, and one I’m relying on now as I, like the deer pinned on the deadfall, attempt to get back on firmer ground after an unexpected divorce.

Lee has been the “guys in the canoe” in that metaphor.

Something else I thought about as we sat basking in the warm sunshine on that late afternoon was how fortunate I am to have a manfriend who can talk intelligently about life and relationships. We men are not noted for having such deep discussions of the heart, although I might argue against the cliche. Perhaps this isn’t as uncommon as reputed. Since moving to the prairie a couple of decades ago I have been fortunate to have had a handful of male friends who have been forthright and understanding about relationships. Mostly canoe talk, if you will, and yet, those conversations often lacked the depth of my conversations with Lee.

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My friend, Lee Kanten, who is equally as good at consoling one on the loss of love and the hopefulness of a happy future.

Sometime last fall we made plans to take lunch at a barbecue joint in Milbank, and yes, there is one and it has delicious brisket and ribs smoked the right way. We sat at a picnic table outside in the sunshine and brisk breeze and easily moved past formalities. Lee, to my knowledge, isn’t a fisherman, nor does he pay much attention to sports. He’s an artist, film maker and musician who wandered onto the farm during a Meander two years ago at the start of his retirement. Over time we connected, and that was thoroughly evident as we gnawed on the rib bones. Time has erased the exact content of our conversation that afternoon, although I recall returning home and telling my former wife how nice it was “having a male friend up here I can talk to about real stuff.”

She agreed and encouraged the friendship. And now, because of her decision to end our marriage a few months later, that friendship with Lee has taken on deeper meaning and importance. On the day following her announcement to me Lee drove out to the farm to spend a long afternoon as I worked through my initial tears, fears and heartbreak. That they were departing the next day for several weeks on the road was especially tough except for cell phones and the calls back and forth as he and his wife, Jeanie, called to check on my state of mind, and were kind enough to hear me through too many times to count.

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Finding solace in nature is part of the beauty of where we live.

A few weeks ago Lee called to suggest we take a walk. Someplace in the woods. In nature. We took Joe Pye and headed over to the Bonanza Area of Big Stone State Park. Lee asked good questions and was an excellent listener, and as we walked we talked of relationships, that of his son’s recent breakup, that of a cousin’s issues, and of mine. At the end of a long walk through the wooded hills and ravines we came out at a picnic area and sat for awhile. “This was where we came when my son broke down about his situation,” he said, looking around at familiar surroundings.

On that warm day Big Stone Lake was honeycombed with black ice. In a few days the winds and warmth would begin the sinking of the surface ice and the upper lake would become free. Ah, freedom. The start of a new season. Of new life. As if he were a metaphor himself, Joe Pye took the opportunity to chew through the restraining strap as we talked. So much symbolism in so little time.

The following Sunday we went to the Refuge and to a trail I hadn’t noticed in all the times I’ve been there. “We used to come here all the time when I was a kid. This was our playground,” Lee explained as we headed up the thin semblance of a walking path that looped through the scrub brush and cattails to within a few feet of the original channel of the Minnesota River. We then climbed up onto a series of gneiss outcrops that overlooked an upriver stretch of the river. While you couldn’t see where the stream came from nor the exit, we were above a delightful and peaceful bend of the river. And here we sat to talk once again.

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From the bend in the river from atop the outcrop.

As men friends, one consoling the other on the loss of love and of the hope for a more peaceful time ahead. Of looking at life as a series of bends of a river, never quite knowing what is around the next curve … not the challenge nor the possible beauty … just that the current continues to push you along, and you paddle as well as you can, and as much as needed, taking it one paddle stroke at a time.

Something a good friend both recognizes and reminds.

Epaulets of the Prairie

A week or so ago a dear friend excitedly said she had seen her first Redwing Blackbirds of spring in a wetland about an hour downriver from here. It was nice learning of others who see this King of the Cattails as one of the harbingers of spring.

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A murmuration comes into a wetland at Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.

Imagine my pleasure a few days later as I settled into one of the Adirondack chairs on the deck with an early afternoon glass of wine to find a small group of them flying from tree to tree, and back again, right in the backyard of Listening Stones Farm, all decked out with their distinctive epaulets ablaze in the warming prairie sun. With the geese and ducks occupying the two nearby wetlands, often lifting in flocks in unison, with a steady honking off in the distance, with the occasional white winged Terns effortlessly drifting by on wings of wind adding another level of punctuation, the entirety making for a sweet and splendid afternoon.

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Part of the grouping of Redwing Blackbirds in the tree next to the studio.

Interestingly, having Redwings in the yard isn’t all that rare. We had even one that continually came to the hanging feeding most of last summer, comically struggling to maintain balance on the little perches while doing birdish-like yoga asthmas while digging for sunflower seeds. Rather than hanging out in one of the nearby wetlands, this male made a home in our lower prairie, perching on a spindly prairie sunflower to call out its throaty, high slurred whistle, “Terrr-eeee! Terrr-eeee!”
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Obviously these are among my favorite birds, although I admit to being rather a fickle lover. Great Blue Herons. White Pelicans, especially in flight. Cedar Waxwings. Redpolls. Any number of warblers. Wild Turkeys. The list continues on and on, and I could make a legitimate argument for each, though no more so than for the Redwing Blackbird.


A warning given!

Redwing Blackbirds were one of the pure joys of going up to my grandfather’s farm pond as a boy, which was the only pond on the farm at the time with a near full ring of cattails along the edges. Fortunately there were just enough “holes” in the rushes that you could flip a fly to attract a bluegill, or even have an explosion from the top water attack by a largemouth bass if your fly was close enough to the edge of the spindly stalks. Such memories include standing next to my mother as she tossed a cork and worm-ladened hook from her cane pole in the same region. Like being on the deck on this sunny and warmish day, all lovely afternoons well spent. While we fished, Redwings would watch warily, often scolding us angrily.

Redwings are one of the first migrating bird species to arrive each spring, and usually in this part of Minnesota by mid-March. While others express excitement over the first sightings of Robins, my focus was always on Redwings. Unfortunately, they are also one of the first birds to leave in the annual migration to Central America each July. They begin flocking up in mumurations … named, I’m sure, for the sound of the hundreds of birds “murmuring” at once much like the sound one hears at a sports stadium full of humans … to fly from one farmstead grove to another. Along Big Stone Lake, a couple of miles south of the farm, you’ll see vast ribbons of murmurations in August before they suddenly disappear almost as magically as they appear in the spring.


Finding a nice perch seems to be among the joys as the birds establish a territory.

One of my first “scientific” papers from college was a mapping of Redwing territories on that pond of my grandfather. A couple of years ago when back home going through old boxes after the death of my parents we came across a box of my old magazine articles and newspaper columns my mother had somehow found and collected, stored neatly in a cardboard box. Near the bottom I found the old term paper from my Ornithology class, where the professor wrote, “Interesting, although I am wondering how you were able to distinguish the actual male territories without the aid of banding.” On it was a classic C- grade. As I was told the following semester by forestry professor, “I hate to tell you this, but you are not a scientist. Your mind just works differently.” I’m sure the birdman felt similarly. My mother, and her sister, Helen were the analytical, mathematical types. I was not.

Listening Stones Farm is on the Flyway, and right on the territorial cusp of where the Redwings and Yellow Headed Blackbirds actually mix. It isn’t uncommon to see both species sharing the cattails of a wetland all through this area of the prairie. Both are beautiful birds, and I enjoy making photographs of either. The Yellow Headed are usually late to the party, though.


A male Redwing in a perfect late afternoon prairie setting next to a wetland in the Clinton Prairie.

As March marches onward, as you drive in the Big Stone Wildlife Refuge, or by any of our nearby wetlands, you will see the male Redwings staking their individual territories, dotting acres of cattails on sentinel stakes above the bent and beat-down stalks from over the winter, those epaulets lighting up the wetlands. Oh but what a welcomed sight after even a mild, short and basically ugly winter.

Finding Self

A fog lay heavy like a thick winter quilt over the prairie on a recent morning. Beyond vision in the depth of grayness, skeins of geese flew overhead creating spring music so dear to hear. Joe Pye pranced and sniffed with cautiousness in his discoveries, more dog than puppy, looking up often in search of the sound makers.

In the afternoon wind moved dormant bluestem and browned native prairie forbs and grasses from gentle sways to near violent gusty whips. Skeins are easily visible seen, and often several vees stretch at once across the sky with honking as loud as in the morning fog, though less haunting.


The “emptiness” of Rebecca’s gardening hat left on the sill of the “summer kitchen” with the winter prairie seemed like requiem for the relationship.

A friend wrote that she had seen her first Redwing Blackbird in a marsh about an hour south of the farm. Finally. Redwings have for years been my harbinger of spring. Although I feel the warming is too early, it is still welcome.

These brisk mornings give way to afternoons warm enough for little more than a long-sleeved shirt. There is a sense of freedom about not having to bundle up.

A road trip to the dentist allowed the crossing of the Chippewa River, which went from looking clogged with ice floes early this morning to a gurgling openness by mid-afternoon. Indeed, a quick hike in the fog this morning found plants dotted with dew, not ice, clinging tightly to browned arms. We are speaking of water now, not ice. Droplets, rivulets and puddles, like the river, free of icy hardness.

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On the few times I was out, I was looking for gaiety and color.

Spring, the season of renewal, is nearly upon us. This sense of change is necessary as much personally as it is earth-wise.

It has been some time since I’ve bothered to write, with exception of the journal I sometimes scribble with my thoughts. Much has happened personally since my last post. Some readers are aware that my wife and partner, Rebecca, asked for a divorce in early January, and has since moved “home” to Vermillion, South Dakota. Her decision was shocking in that I didn’t see it coming, and was not a decision I desired. There is no need for detail nor a rendering of my emotions.

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Simplicity and minimalism seemed to dominate the few images I made.

So I find myself, like earth around me, needing a season of renewal, of finding self. I’ve not been able to write much beyond the deeply personal scribblings in the journal. Nor have I had much desire to make photographs. As time eases along I can feel this spirit of creativity slowly returning. One might say I’m moving from the “whys” to the “what next” stage of the healing process, and in this uncharted personal journey this is a significant step.

This has not been a picturesque winter. I worry that perhaps this is on me, that I may have lost “vision” of the nuances and beauty of the prairie. Over the past week, though, I’ve begun carrying the camera more and even embarking on photo-specific road trips. Finding self is an interesting adventure, especially when you have felt so lost. They tell you to take one step at a time, and with that there is a healing.

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Some viewers read despair and sadness in this image, while some saw hope. To me it spoke of both, and of a world suddenly empty.

Looking back over the few images I made, the themes are simple. Some are weighted by symbolism I felt at the time. None more so than that of a crow on ice. Some say the image seems full of sadness while others have spoken of the hope it shows. I can see both, yet for me it symbolizes the sense of loneness in a vast unknown.