If I were to catalog my short list of virtues, patience would likely pale rather quickly. As I’m sure my dear mother and some former wives and lovers may agree. I’ve tried, and if truth be known, I’m least patient with myself than I am with others. If there is a substantial trait that resonates among teachers, patience must surely rank among the highest.
So over my years I have worked to overcome this personality disorder. Yoga, perhaps, has helped. I’ve also learned to walk away when things are no longer fun with the realization that they may again bring joy. My love of silent sports and meditating with nature has helped significantly. “Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience,” advised Ralph Waldo Emerson.
His words came to mind recently as I sat alone surrounded by the natural offerings of the rill of the Johanna Lake Esker. It was here that I was once again reminded of the sometimes sweet rewards of patience. Just for the record, this wasn’t a moment of impatience nor of sudden anger; rather it was in waiting out a few long hours before a hopeful sunset with a sky painted with ambient pastels to serve as background color for a meadow of the native prairie smoke, a delicate little prairie flower now in incredible bloom.
This esker is a special place. Yes, I’ve seen and made images of prairie smoke in other places, including my Listening Stones Farm prairie. Though nothing like this, nothing like the esker. A few years ago, Morris area naturalist Dave Ernst introduced me to this wonderfully open geological wonder. That year was one of utter magic thanks to coincidental flushes both of the white pussy toes and the vividly contrasting reddish prairie smoke. While I don’t know how rare such a coincidence may be, there hasn’t been such a blending flush of the two prairie forbs since.
So my returning, which is a good two hour drive from here, is nearly a pilgrimage … as one might do with the sandhill crane migration in central Nebraska along the flat South Platte. I suppose we all have such significant milestone wanderings. These trips to the esker is one of mine. I began wondering about the Johanna Esker during a recent bus tour on the effects of glazilization led by an old friend, Carrie Jennings, who is now director of research and policy for Freshwater Resource Center.
Her tour was part of the Minnesota Master Naturalists’ Gathering Partners of Natural Resources’ annual conference held in nearby Willmar, a prairieland hub the late essayist Bill Holm labeled as the “gateway to the prairie.” Just a bit north of the small prairie city is the start of the “glacial shield,” or in Jennings’ terminology, the resulting leftover moraine from the last glacier covering much of Minnesota. Her tour began at Mount Tom in nearby Sibley State Park, a heavily wooded walker’s paradise. After climbing to the apex for an overview of the former ice field, she led us on a walk on an esker adjacent to Mount Tom before we mounted the bus for a trip to the Ordway Prairie north of Sunburg — a land mass, she said, of what Sibley would look like if it wasn’t covered with trees. Both are part of the same moraine feature.
The Johanna Lake Esker lies just east of the Ordway, and to get there you drive the curvy gravel road through the rolling mounds of the old moraine. My return was actually triggered on the Mount Tom esker after we found a lone prairie smoke plant spreading those “exploding fireworks-like” shoots skyward in a misty rain. This was my first prairie smoke bloom of the season for I’ve seen none in either in my home prairie nor in the nearby Clinton Prairie.
A glance up the rill of the Johanna Lake Esker as I pulled into the grassy parking lot was met with an unmistakable rusty shading blanketing the brownish grassland. There they were, and yes, here and there white pussy toes popped up through the redness. My goal was to arrive on the esker in the defining light of the day, in what is called a “Monet light” for its tone and richness. And it was a beautiful light, highlighting the prairie smoke both individually and as a vast community. I then yearned for one of those pastel sunsets, yet it was still nearly two hours away. Provided those pastels would be there since only a few scattered clouds dotted the sky.
So I would have to wait; to practice patience. You couldn’t ask for a more wonderful place to “suffer” in wait. A warm, sun-blessed afternoon with just the slightest breeze … just enough to move the browned prairie grasses that give many of my prairie images a preferred softness. I had ample time to lay on my belly to play around with different ideas that came to mind. I even tried to capture an overview, yet with plants with such a small stature this offers quite a challenge. After all that playing around, though, I was still some 90 minutes away from the sunset.
More waiting. More time to watch the shadow play on the nearby tree lines. More time for idle, meditative rumblings. In time a pair of white pelicans rose from nearby Lake Johanna to fly overhead, perhaps guided by those mating nuptial tubercles on their bills. Not long after that came the second major thrill of my time on the esker — a pair of sandhill cranes that suddenly came flying toward me from the west. Like the pelicans, they are so beautiful in flight, and they were in near perfect symmetry as they flew overhead.
Ah, such sweet rewards of patience. So, yes, you are often rewarded for your patience, when you “adopt”, as Emerson says, “the pace of nature.” Although the skies failed to yield a pastel glow, my trip home across the basic prairie flatlands created by the huge ice sheet was one of peaceful satisfaction. What more could one ask from an afternoon among beautiful native flowers? With an unexpected flyover of sandhill cranes? Of time alone, in a quiet natural setting, being in tune with the pace of nature?
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The book Hidden Forest is a collaboration between naturalist Sigurd Olson and photographer Les Blacklock. I had always been mesmerized by the cover photo of a fawn standing at water’s edge, taken at close range from above and behind. The image is so ethereal and the point of view so improbable I actually believed it was a painting not a photo.
But then I had the great good fortune of visiting Les and his wife Fran at their Moose Lake home. That photo hung near the front door; seeing it stopped me in my tracks. “How did you possibly get that picture?” I asked. Les’ one word reply: “Patience.”