Have you ever found a spot on earth where you dream of just laying back and breathing in the sweet significance and savory fragrances of life? Where there are no worries? No pain? With just the soft shuffle of leaves in the oaks above and the prairie grasses all around, with the singing of birds, and perhaps a chorus of peepers from the fen in the valley below … all in harmony in a moment of time?
The late prairie essayist Paul Gruchow called these “empty places,” although they’re really not all that empty. As he writes in his book, The Necessity of Empty Places, “We are drawn toward wildness as water is toward the level. And there we find the something that we cannot name. We find ourselves … ”
In other words, empty places may also be “filling places” for the soul. This is how I see a small oak savanna at the base of my country road … which has as it’s official designation, “County Road 9,” or as the dispatch folks call it, “770th Avenue” — a country gravel known around here rather more poetically as “Upper Meadowbrook Road.”
It wasn’t long after moving here to Listening Stones Farm that I became entranced by this small savanna. Located on a hilltop just down road apiece, it has a mere handful of burr oaks. When turning onto Upper Meadowbrook, my eyes are instantly and naturally drawn toward this quaint savanna. It’s like an interesting woman who draws your interest away from all others in a crowded room.
Part of the attraction is the tall ridge, a rill created and left behind perhaps by the Glacial River Warren. The ridge itself curves north toward the beginning of the Upper Meadowbrook prairie where my small farm is located. At the very apex of the ridge stands a single burr oak. The sentinel. Down the hill a bit are the neighboring trees, creating a sweet cluster, a neighborhood that speaks of both brutal strength and poetic beauty. A small piece of life where Gruchow warns that “ … nothing is sustainable and permanent. Maybe that is the beginning of wisdom.”
The ridge angles further down the hill into a rather narrow and perhaps violently created valley, for the neighboring hill is likewise steep and cut close. Across from the savanna on the adjacent and stranded hilltop sits a small, pre-built cabin placed there by my dear rosemalling artist friend, Karen Jenson. Just beyond Karen’s cabin is a ravine etched into the flattened prairie that stretches several miles eastward.
Here the prairie lands must have yielded to the rapid violence from the melting glacial waters to leave behind this cut of a ravine that is now home to numerous deer, wild turkey and undoubtedly dozens of unseen fauna species. A stream can be seen draining into an enticing wetland, with a lengthy, low-angled waterfall that empties an overflow into the fen stream. On the adjacent hills guarding the ravine are a couple of staunch oaken savannas, each numbering many more trees than the one I’ve chosen to claim as my own.
Meandering in from the north of the small savanna is another small stream that starts high up in the farm fields and abandoned household groves before cutting through the hillsides to create the fen stream at the base of the ridge of this small savanna. Nearby to the south, state DNR crews are cutting away the invasive trees to restore the original fen in the state park land. Without the highway and byways, and before humans like me, this entire “empty place” would have been so interesting to discover and explore.
I suspect the view from my seductive little savanna is stupendous. Especially at sunrise. I’ve passed the ravine more times than I can count on my early morning forays with a camera. I’ve rarely been let down. To the right of the ravine is a sloping, grassy pasture where wild turkeys come in the spring to fluff and prance, and deer are often in the meadow to graze.
Behind the sentinel oak is a view across a wide, vast valley that stretches across to the sweeping hills of the South Dakota Coteau. Big Stone Lake lies within that stretch, along with the prairie meadow and the continuing fen within the confines of Big Stone Lake State Park. From the sentinel tree you could watch the dawn rise through the distant ravine to the east, or catch a sunset painting the hilly Coteau in the glow of pre-darkness.
Then, there is this small savanna itself, on the defining ridge in the midst of it all. Over the years so many images have been made of it, with and without whitetail deer, with and without wandering wild turkeys; with intense sunsets and quiet, satiny mornings, with and without the glitter of a hoarfrost.
This hilltop savanna is still a wonder, however, for I have not actually hiked the ridge, nor have I eased up against the sentinel or laid in the prairie grasses on the hillside slope. This isn’t mine to use, yet I am constantly seduced by its beauty, this small savanna that always catches my eye as I leave from my prairie land farm, or return from afar. This is my glance of beauty across what could be a crowded room — a mystery of the unacquainted, those masked truths of the unknown; those elements of a dream-scape we cannot name.
Let me begin by saying how much I love trees. My boyhood home was in the rolling hills of Missouri where the ravines and stream banks were full of oaks, stately cottonwoods, maples and shagbark hickory. Much of my art focuses on trees. Lone trees. Native oak savannas. Leaves of spring and of autumn. So here I am entranced by the works of crews at the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge in denuding the overgrown granite outcrops of, yes, trees.
This was the surprise offered in my first loop through the Refuge this spring once the snow had melted and high waters receded. And there they were, magnificent and bare, shouldering the prairie sky as if they were once again young. Ah, those magnificent outcrops! Bared by the Glacial River Warren some 10,000 years ago, which washed away the prairie soils with such force that bedrock was exposed from here at the headwaters all the way down what is now the Minnesota River past Morton. From roads along the river you won’t see the bedrock, but you will canoeing the river or hiking along the tree-lined bluffs.
But not here, for the trees and shrubs are gone. Sawn and piled, awaiting the burn. And the outcrops? Those roughened mounds of stone, igneous and metamorphic, of granite and gneiss? Here at the Refuge they’re back. Back in their youthfulness, their bared shoulders naked to the sky, back as they were meant to be.
Laid bare, too, thanks to the chain saw, is a unique ecology, an ecosystem that dates back through eons of time; one threatened to extinction by the overgrowth. This is a select biome nestled within the craggy outcrops including, particularly here, the rare ball cactus, which are truly unique to the Big Stone and Lac qui Parle County outcrops. These small cacti are found nowhere else in Minnesota, according to Fred Harris, research scientist with the Minnesota Biological Survey.
If one is fortunate enough to follow Harris around on hikes into the outcrops along the Minnesota River, he will point out any number of rare lichens and plants, some so small and humble you must be down on hands and knees to study them. Some will send shoots skyward for a few inches, stalks barely wider than a human hair. This should be a close look, for you won’t likely see them again since they’re tied to such a limited and unique ecosystem. Flora like a wolf’s spikenosh or a short pointed umbrella sedge. Try the mouse-ear chickweed. There are a handful of others, including prickly pear, which is a giant by comparison to its cousin and the non-succulents. It’s interesting to hear people on one of Harris’ outcrop walk-abouts ask, “Cactus in Minnesota?” Yes. Native cacti!
Refuge manager, Scott Simmons, said such plants are definitely threatened by the “many types of invasive trees and shrubs that aren’t a natural part of the prairie and outcrops. In native prairie times, wildfires and grazing bison limited the extent of woody vegetation. Such methodology is in the distant past. While we can use controlled burns, which we have done in sections of the Refuge, we felt it was time to do the tree removal as a part of our active management plan.”
A drive through the Refuge will reveal piles upon piles of the downed woody species being readied for a burn next winter. “We ask that people be patient with us as we work to restore the granite outcrops and hopefully maintain their unique plant life. It won’t happen overnight,” he said.
There were other issues with the overgrowth. The weed trees provided cover and perching sites for predators that threatened both grassland birds and the waterfowl harboring in the nearby shallow waters … ducks and geese are actually the backbone of the reasons for creating the Refuge.
Simmons noted that numerous tactics have been attempted including fenced-in goats to help knock back the buckthorn and other brushy plants, and for years even crops were grown on selected portions. Controlled burns have been targeted for other portions of the Refuge on both the prairie that eases toward Marsh Lake and on the bluff-like hillsides created by that incredible rush of waters with the breaking of the ice dam on Lake Agassiz 10,000 to 12,000 years ago — back when the bedrock, or outcrops, that date billions of years old, were first exposed.
One doesn’t have to go far to see the negative effect of overgrowth on similar outcrops, for just below the headwaters at the town of Ortonville, and before the Refuge, the standing outcrops are thwarted significantly by the invasive trees. Muted. Hidden. Overgrown. This is a sacred land of Native Americans, and Simmons now wishes he had been in his position when the land came up for sale several years ago.
The opportunity to “refurbish” the outcrops within the Refuge was seized by decision makers like Simmons, who along with his colleagues worked tediously to unveil these beautiful craggy features of this unique headwaters natural history. A friend who grew up nearby remembers playing on these very same outcrops some 60 years ago, and was stunned when he saw the difference. “It’s like my own childhood was back,” he said.
Come winter Simmons and crew will burn the dried piles of timber, and in time the shiny stumps will weather and gray, eventually rotting completely away. So, yes, just a little patience and time will provide future generations a glimpse of an era long forgotten, this paean to geological history.
Was it the continued blight of whiteness, or of the now, when the golden light of a sunset sets off a beautiful contrast of the spiny tendrils of a delicate pasque flower? Perhaps it’s the soft pastels of a leafing tree framed by the hardness of old gray timber? Had the winter itself caused the soul to enter something akin to the windless doldrums that plagued sailors on seemingly endless blue seas?
I can’t recall the exact moment (day, month or time of day) when I grew tired of winter as the continuous, never ending snow storms continued to overwhelm us with piles upon piles of whiteness, drifts upon drifts here on my little farm; of window views no longer than a quarter of a typical city block … or from where I sit, just past the bird feeder tree.
Rest assured, a winter weariness happened. Those winterish doldrums. The wearing down of the soul. Truth be told, I may have even been late to the game even after considering all the complete “white out” days that were piled on top of one another just like those piles and drifts lingering on the prairie outside.
Then came the melt. High waters still flood the lowlands, and the Minnesota River, and some of the tributaries remain out of bank. For a few weeks a stream, complete with a small riffle, cut across my lawn coming off the upper prairie. Both retaining ponds were overflowing, and the stream ran from the prairie pond to the one in the grove. In brief moments of domestic creativity, images of a small bridge that would take a certain woodworker over the stream to his workshop came to mind, and the only sensible reason why it wasn’t constructed was in knowing just how silly and out of place it would look once the stream of water stopped and the grass greened.
The oncoming Spring nearly exploded upon us. One afternoon a stop was made on a nearby hilltop typically blessed with the first rush of pasque flowers, one of the first of the appearing spring flowers. Remnants of snow still coated the hill, yet, amazingly, a few pasque blossoms popped up through the snow. A day or two later the snow was gone and the hillside was blanketed with one of the most impressive pasque blooms in years.
This was my anecdote to all the reports from friends and neighbors who gushed upon returning from the desert states with reports and photographic proof of the incredible desert blooms … for we had one here, and interestingly, few seemed to make the trek to the hillsides for this bloom of our own. Our very own native prairie bloom.
Now we await the poking up of the equally delicate prairie smoke. The leaves are emerging from the mashed duff, and before long the stalks with the star-shaped, pointy pink blossoms will inch ever skyward. Like the pasque flowers, these are of small stature and rather defiant to the forces around them. Fortunately both arrive in dormant prairies to give us hope, beauty and color far different from the whiteness of this past long winter.
Evidence of spring arrives on a higher plane, too, and in equally delicate doses of wonder. Trees are budding, and in some species, even leafing. A drive through the hardwoods on the edge of the glacial shield this past weekend provided ample evidence of our seasonal change. In some ways, this is my favorite time to visit the wooded hills and ravines. There is almost an audible whisper of, “I’m back!” Yes, there is color, and for some tree species, the colors are reminiscent of autumn colors. Reds. Pastel yellows and greens. All poking through gray and white woody trunks.
It’s about time.
It seems most of the feathered migrations have by now flown through, and it was a magnificent display all around. Huge, sky-blocking flocks of snow geese graced many of the ghostly prairie potholes … ponded waters where in a few weeks crops of corn will replace winged migrations. Now the white pelicans are seen floating in the wetlands and pothole lakes, those telltale bumps of avian sex still on their beaks.
Along the edges of rivers, colorful warblers are darting through, and those birds that grace us with their momentary seasonal homes are busy building nests. A stop at Grotto Park in Fergus Falls, on the edge of the glacial ridge, paired up snowy egrets and cormorants collect sticks to build nests. Then come the eggs, and later, a new generation of life … not unlike that of the pasque flowers and prairie smoke. Not unlike the leafing within the woods.
Spring is in full theatre, and we couldn’t be happier regardless of where we fit within this nature of being. Perhaps if we looked close enough we would notice we, too, are revealing, if not boasting, changes of color within our collective souls. Those fresh, new colors of spring. I wouldn’t be surprised, for it’s May for God’s sake!