Once again Listening Stones Farm is enveloped in a shroud of whiteness hiding all but the muted yellow of the few strands of big bluestem that somehow refuses to yield under the depths of previous snows, adding a stiff defiance while bending only to staunch prairie winds.
This curtain of a white, supposed secrecy has draped itself to shorten the world beyond, a world that would likely be a mystery if not for those days when it is not. Days when the now unseen silo of the distant farm to the west pokes through a tree line, or to the tree line to the east that so resembles the one back home on our Missouri farm when I was yet a child, and before my mother’s last great garden was buried beneath a huge pole barn for her husband’s farm machinery.
My sister, here for a visit a few years back, noticed the similarity of views when I pointed it out to her. And when the weather is conducive to having a steaming cup of morning tea on the deck, I can look at that tree line and think of my youth: Of the oddly placed farm pond on the hilltop that always seemed full even in the driest of summers, that yielded plump bluegill and aggressive bass to at least three generations of family fishers; of the tall, lone and statuesque cottonwood adjacent to the pond, just to the south, though now long gone with latent buried, deadened strands of roots plowed over for the switched crops of corn and soybeans. The pond remains as does the aged tree line a half mile distant. Even the old pole shed is gone, victim to deep, wet snows of this same winter.
So now, in a grip of winter many are ready to see yield to the greening of spring, that view of a similar but distant tree line two states north is presently hidden by a blizzard.
Which brings me to this, on a day when wind-blown snow is making travel impossible …
Not so long ago a friend from the past, with whom we reconnected after nearly 50 years this past October, wondered if I would do a “white on white” posting of my images. As I ponder the evasiveness, guile and drive of the lone wolf that braved the ice of Lake Superior to return to her homeland from Isle Royale, and look at that impenetrable wall of whiteness, I wonder if I can find beauty, or even perhaps a sense of peace, within this overwhelming whiteness?
What draws us (or me) to whiteness? Is it an uncluttering in a vastly and increasing turbulent world? Is it a need for simplicity? A search for minimalism? Purity, if there is indeed such a thing? Or, is it a contrast, and as we sometimes hear, a choice between good and evil? Purity and evil aside, that there is contrast is a given.
Recently I was in an art class where we were to pour paint on a blank canvas. Like many of the others I chose and toyed with various colors of poured paints. My neighboring artist who shared the same table used but two vials of paint … one black, the other white, and created an incredibly interesting piece. So interesting I could barely keep from staring at it in wonder. I believe the reason was because of both the contrast and complex patterns she created. She first poured a large pool of white onto the canvas, then a small pool of black in the center of the white paint. Then she swirled a sharpened stick along with canvas itself to create a contrasting fluid pattern that included a hinting blend of gray … just enough to give it an overall wow factor.
Uncluttered? Yes. Simplistic? Yes. Minimalistic? Yes. Good or evil? Get a life!
Since there isn’t such luxury with a camera, unless perhaps you have a talent for “photo-shopping” (which I decidedly don’t), I must rely on using traditional photojournalistic camera techniques. Most of which is simply recognizing natural patterns of composition in nature and knowing where to monitor the light for the type of exposure for the image I want.
There’s that, yet it has more to do with simply being there. Venturing out in hoarfrosts and fogs, into snowy prairie fields and even taking advantage of dull, overcast skies are certainly as important as learning to meter and use composition and light for the image you want. How can you secure an image if you’re not there?
Back in my early career years one of my true joys was the freedom afforded to what newspaper editor’s called “weather art.” Leave the office and head to the streets, parks and nature areas. The key for me, at least, was to avoid clichés while capturing the cold, the heat of a summer day, or even the “whiteness” of the weather. Public areas were great because they were “public,” meaning you could capture nature as well as people.
What I do today is not so much different from capturing weather art. My focus is now on the declining nature of the native prairies. This encompasses forbs and grasses as well as the oak savannas, wetlands, birds and other wild animals that frequent them. Like before, I don’t use filters, and depend on ambient color, natural light and whatever nature puts before me while using an eye for composition and knowledge of photographic technique.
A few years ago I fashioned a series of blue images, and now, in light of the surrounding curtain of whiteness on a cold and blustery winter day, and a friendly challenge, with blown snow clinging to the windows, and with tree limbs and swards of bluestem dancing in this brutal prairie wind, here are my images where white is the defining element.
Are they images of purity, peace and/or minimalism? Perhaps, yet for me what I wish to feel most is a sense of comfort. Comfort along with a feeling of warmth … especially on a day of blizzard-plastered windows, purple highway travel advisories, and such a remote sense of snowy isolation.
Some 20 or so years ago Margreet was seated “shotgun” as we traversed the prairie en route to the small town where I ran a weekly newspaper. As we edged along on the brutally cold winter afternoon with the heater at full blast, I was becoming rather self conscious since it seemed my Dutch friend was intent at staring at me. Finally in complete self consciousness I asked, “So what’s up?” as I brushed imaginary crumbs off my down vest.
Margreet smiled in apology. “I’ve just never seen anything quite like that,” she said, bending forward to point past me and off to the southwest. It was then that I noticed the sundog hanging in the sky. After years of winter prairie living, sundogs seemed to hang in winter skies like pictures on a living room wall. You took them for granted knowing they’re likely there, and that you can look up in appreciation when reminded.
After a short, layman’s explanation, I asked if I should pull over so she could some photos. If I would have stated something like, “Oh, sundogs are simply hexagonal ice crystals suspended in cirrostratus clouds that refract sunlight to create a halo effect. Sometimes they’re called an icebow, nimbus, or gloriole” I might have lost the magic of the moment for Margreet.
Margreet is an artist and photographer, as well as a practitioner of wholistic wellness practices for women back in her hometown north and west of Amsterdam. She quickly reached into her travel bag for her camera and we pulled off onto the shoulder of the highway where she proceeded to burn a roll of film … some with her in the foreground, and a few of her host. A recent visit to her home in Holland indicated how impressed she was of the sundog, for an old print of it was framed and still on display.
Sundogs are indeed a phenomenon of brutal, icy skies. The previous and somewhat scientific explanation is what creates these icy halos which can form what are called “Parhelic Circles” of which we rarely see the bottom third. These circles occur when “sun” pillars reach high into the sky above the sun. On the “right days” when it all comes together you have a rather special and magical sight.
Sundogs are most visible when the sun is near a horizon either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Apparently there is no historical reference on why the name, although according to various sources the name “sundog” has existed in language since the early 1600s.
Here in the North Country we may be over our limit of sundogs for this winter. At dawn you’ll first see the tip of the sun, then to the side rainbow-ish arcs begin to emerge to foretell of a day of frigid, Arctic temperatures. Hours later those arcs are the first to disappear, then the sun lowers below the horizon. Hopefully we will have found warmth within those bookends of time.
Strangely I am now captive of their existence. This winter alone I suspect nearly a dozen sundogs have begun their rise in the Eastern sky across from my Listening Stones prairie. Some mornings they appear as rainbow colored arcs complete with vivid colors, while on other mornings they are nearly as bright as the blinding sun. On some mornings sun pillars rise into the sky above the sun to form that apex of a Parhelic Circle. Years ago I photographed such a Circle somehow poking through a prairie blizzard.
Of late I have greeted morning visitors of a social media site with images of the numerous sundogs prompting one friend to ask if my next exhibit would be titled “Being Haunted by Sundogs.” After another such posting I “promised” I was done picturing them, yet a few days later I posted yet another image (now three sundogs ago) when another friend chided me. “I thought you were done with sundogs,” she wrote, quite possibly in jest. Maybe they’re harder to give up than smoking.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m simply overwhelmed by the dearth of winter color, of all the typical grayness or snow-blown whiteouts. Yet there are times when the magic of winter provides immense joy. Capturing the color of a sunrise or sunset in ice formations, or the ambient colors painted on snow dunes created by prairie winds can do that. So does the absolute freshness of a world turned frosty white with the crystals of a hoarfrost. Those rainbow colors of a sundog affects me just as deeply.
So, yes, I suppose I am haunted by sundogs in much the same way Norman Maclean was haunted by trout stream waters. And for which I can offer no apology