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.

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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.

One thought on “Elements of the Esker

  1. Pingback: Elements of the Esker | Listening Stones Farm

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