It was one of those chillingly cold windy days in February, and I hadn’t been in Minnesota for much more than a month. A group of us from Webb Publishing had migrated after work to a St. Paul watering hole where some of us joined a table where one of the writers was sitting with a young man, who she introduced by adding that he had recently moved from Russia.
“Oh, where in Russia?” I asked.
“Actually Siberia,” he said.
“Siberia?” Having had recently read a couple of Alexander Solzhenitsyn books, where he so painstakingly described the cold, nearly unbearably harsh Siberian climate, led me to ask: “So how does our weather compare to Solzhenitsyn’s descriptions of Siberia?” It was meant as a joke.
“Man, it’s the same thing,” he said. “The same climate. This is Siberia … in America.”
Once again winter is upon us, and a recent road trip through the South made me realize just how interesting it can be here in the former prairie pothole region - here in our very own Siberian outback, if you will. Deep in snow and, for the past few days, fog. Our soils are not bare like in the southern states where we traveled. We’re not surrounded by grayness, brownness or whatever color portrays their winter.
Ours is white. Snow came around Thanksgiving and is still here. We made it home from our road trip by sliding between storm fronts, and we’ve seemingly been in some sort of white winter since. This morning I awoke to a fog. Again. The fourth or fifth day running. Fog in winter translates to hoarfrost, which gives our trees and countryside a magical beauty.
Winter is the one season some folks seemingly despise. Even those who live here. Sometimes I’m one of the crowd. Most other times I’m not. If asked between Christmas and New Years a year ago, when the bird feeder tree not 40 feet from my office window was the extent of visible earth for all but one day of the seven, or six days of blizzard conditions, I most certainly was one of the crowd. Admittedly that was a rather rare circumstance.
Which brings me to what the Norwegians call “koselig,” translated as a sense of winter coziness. Years ago I visited a dear friend in Tromso, a small city located in the fjord country above the Arctic Circle. My goal was to photograph the Northern Lights, which by the end of the week had appeared for all of 15 minutes just after midnight in the middle of my stay! There were some sleepless nights waiting for a clearing. Yet, much of what I witnessed in that week of February was between being amused and amazed. At that point there were just a few hours of “sunlight.” During the “day” the sky was in a lightened, pre-dusk aura, with the sun occasionally peeking on the horizon far to the south. Peeking as our sun does here in a sunrise or sunset. Yet, people were out on the sidewalks, talking and sharing animated smiles and laughter. Few were seen huddled over to ward away the chill or supposed depression. It was not what you see in many northern U.S. cities, if you see anyone at all!
One morning we rode a cable car up a mountainside to Sherpatrappa, a beautiful park on top of the mountain overlooking the Tromso bay. The wind was howling, blowing snow to a near whiteout at times, yet the park was crowded by those who were exploring and being playfully active. Yet, as my friend, Hawre, told me recently, “You make Tromso seem like a Disney something. It sure is beautiful here but we do complain. Some of us even get depressed during the Polar Night.”
Beyond the occasional reindeer and soccer-crazed “Laps” Hawre introduced me to, there was still a sense of winter comfort in Tromso. Life was going along completely normal which led to my amusement. This is a somewhat uncommon feeling here on our little piece of prairie.
For me, horizontal, windblown snow, icy roads and the long, whiteout days are the hard times of winter. Snow that drifts down quietly from the heavens, though, seems rather magical and peaceful. One night back in 1969 on a bluff-edge sidewalk overlooking downtown Dubuque, IA, a friend and I watched the snow drift silently over the streets and harbor, glistening like minature Christmas lights in the street light cones below, a moment so spectacular and peaceful that we stopped for several moments to take it all in.
I can feel the same magic here in a forest or prairie. Like when starkly darkened oak limbs are covered with fresh snow, which if you’ll free your imagination might remind you of a royal sword salute at Buckingham Palace. Now in a hoarfrost everything appears as sweet as if sprinkled with powdered sugar. In my upper prairie the tall stems of big bluestem that was well over my head a few months ago are now pinned gracefully to the ground, glistening from the hoarfrost.
So, yes, there is some magic in our version of Siberia … once you free your imagination.
We each have our sense of wintertime cosiness, our koselig. Or, perhaps what the Danish call their hygge. There was much to amuse us on our road trip beyond visits with friends and family. Some beautiful nature, and the continued witness to climates so foreign to us in a north country winter. Now back home we can appreciate and find comfort in what is ours, a prairie and nearby woodlands alive with the magical beauty of winter!
You realize just how fortunate you are when you can consider Great Blue Herons as a bonus. And, yes, this is what happened on a recent trip to Rockport, TX, with fiancée, Mary Gafkjen. Our goal was to be up close and personal with Whooping Cranes, which came together better than even the captain and guide of our birder launch could have anticipated. The Herons happened next, and totally by chance.
After our launch and lunch we stopped at an artist’s studio where we both became intrigued by a painting class that was in session. On the wall, though, was an halting painting of Great Blues rising above an interesting mass of treetops. I couldn’t escape the beauty.
“That,” said the artist, “was my interpretation of the rookery down by the bay.”
“Near here?” I asked excitedly.
“Yep, and the Herons are here now,” she said, and promptly gave us directions to the rookery.
That’s where we headed next, our first of several visits over the course of a couple of days, including sunsets and sunrises. Great Blues lend themselves to the muse and imagination of artists in nearly every culture. Interestingly, about a week later we would be in my brother’s family room/porch in Richmond, VA, where he had a large framed print of the iconic John James Audubon painting of a Great Blue. Yes, the classic, the same one engraved on the wooden greeting sign at his Oakley House outside of St. Francisville, LA. It was there years ago that we learned that Audubon’s painting were typically portraits of dead birds, and yes, this one appears to have a flattened wingspan common to one laid out upon a table.
One of my favorite paintings was by local artist Deb Bates Larson that she displayed at a Meander years ago. She eventually had a clothe bag made for me bearing the painting. There are so many, including the one by the Rockport artist. Although I have photographed Great Blues in the past, I have yearned to join the crowd. To have images kissed by moody light. The Rockport Rookery would give me an opportunity.
So it began, starting along the beach of the bay using a long lens and simply sitting there watching. We returned a few hours later in the late afternoon light, when the bay had calmed. First I focused on the apex of the canopy, then on a solitary bird wading in the brackish backwater with pairs of fly fishers in waders. We had interesting cloud cover, although the sun was setting much further south of the rookery. Oh, but that light!
Herons were flying in from different directions, and flying off the dense canopy seemingly at will. There were no desperate measures. Simply walking around looking for different angles and imagery, watching for incoming birds and watching the light. This as unlike the rookies dotting the Minnesota River where the birds are shy and jittery. Here they paid no attention to nearby human activity. It was wholly different ecology.
At these times your mind plays on memories. Of the Great Blues I’ve photographed rising from the cattails of our nearby Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, or one of my favorite of a Great Blue about to land on an old bridging peer in the flooded backwaters outside the boundary. Or the one that steadfastly refused to leave a wooden dock on Camp Lake as I paddled by in my canoe while fly fishing for bass one early morning.
I thought, too, of my late wife, who ignored the typical greetings of spring, that of the bouncing Robins in the lawn. For Sharon Yedo White’s spring began with her first sightings of a Great Blue rising from a prairie wetland, or one she had seen gracefully crossing the sky. In a way, I agreed. Spring or not, I am soothed by their grace and spindly stature, of their colors. That little black hood feather that wavers poetically in the wind.
Now in the depths of winter, I guess I too wish a first sighting of a Great Blue rising from the wetland over the rise of my Listening Stones Farm, with warm memories of a recent Texas afternoon and sunrise morning.