Elements of the Esker

A couple of weeks ago Morris-based naturalist, Dave Jungst, posted some of his true-to-scale photographs showing Prairie Smoke nestled amongst an interesting looking white flower.

After some thought I asked him about the flower and his location. Moments later he responded with the name not only of the flower (Pussy Toes) but also the location. That turned out to be the Lake Johanna Esker, a glacial sand and gravel ridge about two miles east of the Ordway Prairie in Polk County … both part of Nature Conservancy holdings.

Though it is a challenge to locate, the esker is no secret. Yet it is new to me. Thankfully Dave is open to sharing these sites with me. Last summer he led me to some Yellow Lady Slippers, one of the flowers I’ve wanted to photograph for years, although he was very protective of both the location and of the flowers. This remains a secret site between us.

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We didn’t have sufficient light for a deep image with good depth of field on our first visit.

He did seem a little taken back when I published the images. “Wow,” he wrote of the short prairie orchids. “You made them so huge!” As a true naturalist Dave’s intentions are to record photographically in correct dimension and ecological accuracy. My work is more impressionistic, blending form, light and composition into hopefully an interesting image. Our work is different though complimentary.

A week ago my first trip was made to the esker, and after several attempts at trying to find the correct country road I rediscovered the beauty of cell phone communication. Once Dave established where we were he was able to direct us to the correct county gravel road. We were several miles off, actually. Even with that we nearly passed right by the little parking lot. Once we were out of the car and walking across the gravely terrain, the carpet of wildflowers was unbelievable in richness and number. Pussy Toes dominated the area with as many Prairie Smoke poking through as I’ve likely seen in my lifetime, a perfect pinkish and spiky contrast to the muted whiteness of the Pussy Toes.

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A Killdeer was nesting among the Pussy Toes and Prairie Smoke on our first visit to the esker.

Although we began the trip from Listening Stones Farm to coincide with the lowering evening light, we barely had 30 minutes to really work with the camera before dusk settled in. Too many gravel roads, I suppose; too much indecision and exploration. My images were made with a nice softness, yet just a little more light would have surely helped create a deeper depth of field.

This past Sunday we were greeted with a hazy whiteness that seemed to linger through early afternoon, a day that began with my meeting up with my dear friend, Tom Cherveny, and his granddaughter, Ella, to paddle and fly fish Mountain Lake at Glacial Lakes State Park. A gusty prairie wind made it challenging to hold positions for long, yet a nice largemouth fell victim to one of my fly presentations as did several small bluegill. Tom and his family planned to leave shortly after lunch, and my thoughts turned to the esker and the Prairie Smoke. The two Prairie Smoke plants in my native prairie garden was just starting to show tendrils and had sparked an idea.

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Just a fascinating site to visit, as evidenced by the use of a long focal length and selective focusing to enhance the colorful softness.

What, I wondered, would an image look like if you could combine this hazy whiteness of light with the just emerged tendrils of the Prairie Smoke, surrounded by the vast carpet of white Pussy Toes? So I ventured through the countryside from the State Park through Glenwood, down 104 toward the Ordway Prairie. This time the gravel road was much easier to find, and it weaved through the woody hills of the glacial shield toward the esker. As typical for photographers, my concern was the light. Was there enough for contrast? Would there be too much contrast to offset the softness? Would the Pussy Toes have disappeared into dormancy?

My first impression after hopping out of the River Truck was that I was both too late and too early. From the appearance of the Prairie Smoke, it appeared I was too early. Very few had moved into the tendril stage. And, yes, the Pussy Toes that had dominated a week before had pretty much shut down. Especially on the higher ground.

Fortunately there was enough emergence of new flower species to help offset my disappointment as I ventured over the esker. After about an hour of shooting and looking I actually found just what I was looking for … albeit a bit muted. There were enough Pussy Toes to give a sense of whiteness, though nothing like the week before.

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While I was hoping for a greater influence from the white Pussy Toes, this is close to the image I had envisioned.

I laid in the prairie focusing, waiting out wind gusts, and eventually made about four of what appeared to be sharp images of three finely placed Prairie Smoke spikes with wavy tendrils. That was it. No matter which direction I turned I could find nothing to match these three. While the images weren’t exactly what I had envisioned, and what had inspired my driving another hour east further from the farm, as I walked toward the River Truck I was feeling rather pleased.

That happens when you’ve come close to capturing an image you’re envisioned. Overall it was a pretty nice day. One spent with an old friend fly fishing a motor-less lake, lipping a really nice bass on a fly, capturing my image in soft whiteness, then sharing a good, dry white wine on the deck of the farm house with my dear woman friend, Wanda. Life, as they say, is good.

An Artist Retreat

While I find myself somewhat mystified when newcomers compare and complain of having “nothing to do” here in our little corner of the prairie, I can also relate. Some 20 years ago I wore those same shoes.

Over time I’ve become more connected. Now there is hardly time to keep up with everything seemingly going on concurrently. This is just scratching the surface, for there are rivers to paddle and fish to catch, either by kayaking with my fly rod, or doing some river bank angling for my favored channel catfish. Nowadays I’m also connected with the area-wide arts community, and this weekend was chock full of activity. Once again.


Audrey Arner at her culinary “Grasp the Nettle” foods at Moonstone Farm. (Photo by Susan Otterholt Kempe}

In terms of culinary arts, Audrey Arner held her annual “Grasp the Nettle” where she introduces “foodies” to the goods of the prairie wild, from nettles to morel mushrooms.

Kathy Marihart also opened her new “Smallest Art Gallery” on the main street of Ortonville with the first class of the season featuring an incredible artist, Naomi Shanti Ballard, working with young elementary artists from the two-state area.


Naomi Shani Ballard explains a painting technique at the Smallest Art Gallery in Ortonville. (Photo by Edie Barrett)

In New London, potter Bill Gossman worked with Goats Ridge Brewing, the town’s craft brewer, to work with customers in decorating beer steins that he will fire in his wood fired kiln.

I suspect the list goes on.

Further on down the prairie some 50 or so of us artists gathered for the annual Southwest Minnesota Arts Council’s (SMAC) Artist’s Retreat. This two day, overnight gathering at the unique Danebod Folk School in Tyler was a multicultural event featuring a mix of native American artists and others that I found helpful, entertaining, fun and inspiring. Unfortunately, it was also rather limiting since the event offered a packed schedule with more classes than you could possibly attend, often concurrently.

Our gathering session was a presentation by the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre on “The Way of the Monarch.” This was my third “instructional” presentation by Heart of the Beast and all have left me humbled by both the puppetry and the message, and one that equaled an Earth Day presentation years ago on clean water.


Melanie Gabbert-Gatchell demonstrates part of the alcohol ink technique to students at the SMAC Artist Retreat.

Our first afternoon session was by Granite Falls artist and SMSU English professor, Melanie Gabbert-Gatchell, who offered a “hands-on” activity with alcohol inks on tile, an art form that I’ve found intriguing as well as beautiful. Perhaps 20 of us were seated around tables blowing at colorful inks through plastic straws or blasting away with canned air to spread paints across both tiles and table tops. Melanie was rather kind about my efforts. “His tiles turned out just like his photography — the backgrounds were muted, and he had distinctive objects in the foreground. Just lovely.” How can you not like praise like that?

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My attempt at alcohol painting of tiles.

Charlie Roth strummed and sang into the night in the adjacent theatre, and as always, he was superbly entertaining. A songwriting and performing prairie icon, Charlie always makes his performances fun. This followed his afternoon workshop on songwriting, and he prefaced his songs Friday night with informative tidbits on either his singular efforts on originals or the explanations of songs he was covering.

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Songwriter and performer, Charlie Roth, performs.

Most helpful for me was Steve Gasser’s presentation on developing a web presence, which followed a long breakfast conversation when I shared my blog and frustrations with my photographic websites with him. His response: Not to worry, for it’s all workable. Provided I can gather the appropriate passwords!

Later in the afternoon was a grouping for a visual arts peer critique headed by sculptor/artist Eva Miller. Many of the suggestions were interesting and informative, although my favorite part was listening to each artist explain the muse and direction of their individual pieces.

Yet, the session that I drove home thinking about was by friend and native artist from Granite Falls, Super LaBatte. This was as much an insight on his personal struggles as it was on spirituality and his explanations of these unique native arts forms. His introduction into the arts began with his quest for sobriety many years ago, and his subsequent meetings with Native elders in his steps toward recovery, which was to dance. Dance, meaning at pow wows for personal and spiritual cleansing.

“To dance, I needed the vest. The moccasins. And I had no money,” he explained. This lead him through a long, laborious process into the tanning of hides, and of learning the ancient Native art of brain tanning. Brain tanning uses the brains of, in his case, pigs that he processes before applying it to the hides that he has taken through the preliminary tanning techniques … steps of which he explained in fine detail. The process gives hides a softness necessary to more successfully move into the other art forms. Softened hides gives you better moccasins and vests, both of which rely on beading. Then his chosen method of beading was as old school as his tanning process, and contrasted with that of another Native artist in the room. Their conversation of varied techniques was quite interesting.


Super LaBatte confessional story of his personal life and his ancient forms of Native arts techniques were mesmerizing to the other artists attending the retreat.

Super’s presentation of the art forms was intertwined with interludes into his major life changes; of his confessions in his quest for a better life. In the midst of his presentation, Super told his mesmerized audience that his spirituality is rather individualistic, and that he rarely leans on the use of sweat lodge cleansings common among his peers. “My thoughts,” he said, “are that if you are good to people, if you make good choices, and if you live a good life, these are the keys to my personal spirituality.”

Of all the fun, new friends made, and important information gleaned from the retreat, Super’s life story and those words of his personal form of spirituality resonated with me driving home across the prairie.