Spring in the Potholes

Spring in the western prairie region of Minnesota comes alive in some special venues, though none more lively and boisterous than in the wetlands.

Ah, but what a term. Some who grew up here look askance at you when you say, “wetlands.” More common to them is the term, “slough.” Technically they’re the “potholes” of what ecologists call the “prairie pothole” biome. These are the remains of the last glacialization some 12,000 years ago, and if you happen to see one, or if you are more fortunate than most by living near one, you are near a rare moment of earth time.
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Here is why: since John Deere’s plows came to the prairie with the encroachment of European settlers, 99 percent of the potholes have been drained to make way for what we call commodity crops. Corn and soybeans, mainly, but also sugar beets, potatoes, edible beans and sweet corn. A “prairie” is a really a misnomer since all but one percent of these former grasslands that stretched from mid-Canada into Texas remain, sectioned off into mile-wide squares. In the early to mid-1900s, there were typically four quarter-section farms. No more.

Before the plow and eventual underground tile drainage and ditching, there were thousands upon thousands of potholes dotting the former prairie. Several in each quarter section. Ghosts of those wetlands typically appear each spring when the frozen subsoils prevent the spiderwebs of drainage tiles to move off the surface waters. In time, perhaps, the ghosts will return, for as a dear friend and naturalist, Tom Kalahar, preaches, “Nature always wins!” We can only hope, though none of will likely see this in our life times.
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After living in the industrialized “black desert” of farming for the first twenty-some years of my prairie life, moving into Minnesota’s “Bump” has been a revelation. For all around our Listening Stones Farm are many natural potholes. A large one can be seen from the upstairs rooms of this old farmhouse just over the rise to the east, and a smaller one is up and across the road from our upper prairie. Thanks to a recent hint we have discovered a jewel box of potholes just north of the “Clinton Road” just three miles from the mailbox. Big Stone County is perhaps the closest county in all of the former Minnesota prairie pothole region of resembling the original, post glacial landscape. Indeed, many federal and state sponsored restored native plantings surround some of the wetlands, allowing you to almost visualize how the natives saw the land pre-plowed back in the 1800s.
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Best of all, living nature seems to agree. For those of us fortunate enough to reside here, spring is truly a special season. A recent trip north toward Barry found about 20 bald eagles resting on the ice of a frozen pothole. A month after moving here I saw my first Curlew on a nearby wetland. We’ve already seen several pairs of geese on the smaller wetlands, presumably scouting for nesting possibilities. Within a few weeks male Redwing Blackbirds will arrive to stake out territories on cattails now frozen along the edges.
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Back in my country weekly days I was often amused by phone calls from readers excitedly describing their first viewing of spring Robins. Sorry, folks, I’d suggest, but the true sign of spring already happened two months ago in a nearby slough when the Redwings appeared as suddenly as they had disappeared last July, their feet securing balance on a browned and bouncing stalk of wind-blown cattail, nervously alert while staking territory.

Just being outside right now gives witness to skein upon skein of Canadian and Snow Geese flying over, announcing their flights in seemingly joyful chorus. And friends sitting around a late afternoon bonfire will look skyward following the sound, searching for “vees,” faces fixed in smiles. Early mornings as the sun rises, you can hear geese either over the hill or feeding in one of the unplowed corn fields nearby. As the potholes thaw, more and more will alight in rest and the sounds will dominate spring air. Literally thousands of geese at a time will hole up in the wetland to the east. It is a sight and sound I’ve thoroughly welcomed in my life and anticipate with glee.
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Spring in the potholes is just as alive and vibrant as any I’ve found while canoeing the nearby prairie rivers. Be they Swans, geese and the many species of ducks, when the potholes come alive, spring has finally arrived.

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Foggy Walk in the Woods

It was a quiet woods. An earthen path thawed just enough on a February afternoon for a near silent hike.

Waves of fog eased in off the adjacent Big Stone Lake, precipitation rising from an uncharacteristic deep winter thaw. Dampness was prevalent all around. Rain had fallen most of the morning, and now in the afternoon, an occasional drip gravitated from limbs and branches overhead.
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This shrouding by fog gave the oaken savanna a sense of mystery. At times the path through the wood was visible for a few hundred yards. Sometimes, much, much less. About as far as I could heave a stone.

You would hope for a sighting of a whitetail deer, and they’re here. Hoof prints sunk fresh in the newly thawed mud in the pathway. Mature prints of a winter herd. Where their trails crossed the cleared path for humans, the muddy evidence seemed fresh and raw. Used. Yet, there was no sightings.

Indeed, for most of the walk there was an eerie silence. Initially the caws of a couple of distant crows were heard. But before walking down the hill past the picnic tables where my friend, Lee Kanten, and I had sat about this time a year ago when I was in the start of healing from an unexpected end to a marriage. On that February afternoon, at about the same time of day, we had taken the sun-warmed path from the opposite end of the park. Deeper into the woods on this February afternoon, the silence enveloped you as did the fog.
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About halfway along the route through this oaken savanna of Bonanza is a brook, one that seemingly never freezes. It is fed by a series of springs further up the deep ravine. The brook was my goal, and announced itself long before I came over the last ridge before entering the ravine. Yes, the wood was this quiet. And the announcement was not unlike when you can hear the lapping waves of an ocean shore. A sweet sound, of ripples cascading over small rocky steps and fallen timbers, relentlessly heading for the lake.
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Perhaps I’m not alone in coming to a stop here. A small raft-like bridge crosses the brook, one that is weathered and is host to a small carpet of lichen. When it isn’t so wet I like sitting on the edge of the bridge, my feet dangling just above the moving waters, just to listen to the lyrical babbling of the brook. I fully expected the recent thaw to have brought a higher rush of water down through the ravine, a torrent, perhaps, and was somewhat surprised to find what a friend calls “the usual.”
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Sometimes in the midst of a winter day, if the snow isn’t too deep, I like coming here just to see and hear the moving water of the brook, and perhaps this was my underlying and unspoken reasonings on this afternoon. To get here you must traverse a bit of hilly country and wind your way through a vast bed of buckhorn sumac. On this day most of the bobs had been tended to by the deer and birds, though you could still see a reddish brightness of those bulbous seed heads peeking through the foggy grayness. A welcomed sighting of color fighting through this dense grayness.
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Whether one can fully feel sated of the sounds of the brook, there is a sense of comfort that all of this will be here another time, and the walk back to the car brought new sightings along the timbered path. New photographic poetry, if you will. A foggy woods is much different for the senses than a clear woods, and you find yourself stopping now and then for the beauty of a deep breath. Yoga moments in the woods of nature.
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Then you reach the car, and lay the camera in the seat before leaning against the chassis for a last appreciative moment. Just then a prairie wind arose, and within a breath of a moment the fog blew away and the woods cleared … along with the mysteries of an afternoon in a foggy wood.