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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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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