There they stood. Mere inches in height, poking through low-hanging, scruffy looking ditch bank grasses. Spirals of white blossoms, circling around a thickened dark green stem. My very first view of the native orchid, the Nodding Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes cernua).
“These,” said naturalist Gary Lentz, “is a true barometer of the start of fall.”
Minnesota is home to a vast variety of native orchids, many of which I would not have known nor seen if not for true naturalists like Lentz. One cannot have enough naturalists in your life, and although I’m a Minnesota Master Naturalist, I’m far from the real thing. All that means is that I’ve completed the 40-hour course and have done a fair amount of volunteering for the past several years. Indeed, a kindly forestry professor at the University of Missouri sat me down one day after class with these words: “If you continue with a study of the sciences you will become the most frustrated of scientists, for you don’t have the mind for it. You should be a writer. Someone who observes and appreciates, not someone who delves into the analytics. Let me introduce you to my friend, Dick Lee, in the journalism department.” A huge weight had been lifted.
About a week or so before my brief visit with Lentz, he had posted a photo on social media saying the “ladies” were close to his mailbox near his hideaway farm nestled along Cottonwood Creek between Granite Falls and Echo. It turned out to be a convenient stop on the way home from dropping a friend off at the airport.
Lentz is one of the naturalists I’m fortunate to know. He, like the others, have a nose for the prairie and an eye for spying the natural nuances of life in the wild. Among the others are Kylene Olson, a walking encyclopedia of Latin names and native species recognition; Dave Jungst, of Morris, who seemingly is in the fields of Polk, Swift and other nearby counties almost daily observing and recording the changes in native prairie life; and of course, Lentz. Amy Rager, Terri Dennison and Chris Ingrebretsen also come to mind. There may be more, for the worst part about making a list is leaving off deserving people, which I’m sure I’ve done.
One of my first river valley naturalists was Ed Stone, whose small house just up the slope from Vicksburg County Park, was tucked in the woods against some of the most beautiful Minnesota River gneiss outcrops. Stone’s living room was basically a naturalist’s office, with a huge, centering table where he sat to record his daily observations of the natural life around him. Every January he would pass along his copious notes to various country newspaper editors like myself to print if we wished. I was fortunate to visit with Stone several times, including my favorite venture when we climbed into the outcrops that were as sheer and flat as they were angled to “hunt” for a rare skink he promised lived in the crevices. We spied two, but in no way were we close to catching either for closer observation.
This summer at a “pop up” arts festival where I was showing my impressionistic prairie photography, a woman asked if I had known Ed Stone. After some shared remembrance, she said, “You know he passed about two years ago?” I didn’t, for I had lost contact after moving to Listening Stones Farm almost three hours away. Ed Stone was a gentle man, someone you could picture as a modern day Aldo Leopold, author of the classic “Sand County Almanac.”
So here we were, stepping carefully around the “ditch bank ladies” taking pictures. I told Lentz that I had swerved a time or two while seeking what he had shown on the site of the white blossomed plant while driving down the main highway toward his gravel turnoff. My surprise was their delicate stature, for I realized you would require more minute observation than that from a windshield to see them.
“We were able to convince the county to not disturb this particular road bank when they wanted to widen the road. As orchids, they won’t grow just anywhere. Whether that is because of certain microbes in the soil, or what, I don’t know. I’ve tried collecting the seeds to propagate them without much luck,” he said. “You’re seeing them at their peek. In a few days they’ll be gone.”
He was right, for I did drive back once I realized that in my excitement and efforts to capture the incredible spirals of blossoms that I had not made a defining, overall “ecology” image — my curse observed years ago by the forestry professor.
As I walked along the now barren seeking even one of the delicate orchids, Lentz was right. This was another fleeting moment in the natural world. Ah, the knowledge of true naturalists. I then remembered that moments before we climbed into his pickup to drive to this obscure roadside site Lentz had positioned a couple of seeds under his microscope to show me. It was a moment straight out of Ed Stone’s “naturalist handbook” and cause for another smile. And further proof that someone like me can’t have enough naturalists in their life.