Lemonade Girl

Over the years emerging prairie naturalist Nicole Zempel has become the “lemonade girl.” Allow me to explain … using her own observations and writing.

Early last summer Zempel invited me into one of her sanctuaries. Surrounded by craggy gneiss and granite outcroppings, this was a mix of wood and prairie along a bend of the Minnesota River. It’s a stretch of the river the two of us have paddled past numerous times, although I had not entered the adjacent countryside until her invitation. Columbines, grasping nooks of the outcrops, and other forbs were in full bloom. Some in wood, others in grass. Along the course of our foray we were quick to point out our respective observations.

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My long time friend, Nicole Zempel, went into the woods to “find herself,” and emerged with gifts to share thanks to her wonder and eyesight.

“Ever snap a picture of something and come to realize you are looking at yourself?” she asked. Ah, the enlightenment and wonder. The quirky laugh. The shared visions.

A few years ago Zempel ventured into the wooded prairie similar to this behind a house she had purchased.  “In the woods I am fully present – absorbing the sights and sounds. My thoughts fixed only in the moment – not beyond or behind. The woods show me freedom,” she writes, then later adds, “Fear is a beast and robs us of what could very well be our most valued and rich life experiences. As with anything, the more we surround ourselves with and learn about the things (we think) we fear – we tend to fear less. Some of the most important moments in my life have happened outside of my comfort zone.”


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The first of a three-part collection of her photographs.

Zempel and I first met nearly 20 years ago when she was hired as a personal assistant of a non-profit entrepreneurial organization when I was on its board. We’ve been friends since, helping one another through various personal triumphs and turmoils. We have shared the prairie and woods, paddled many of the area rivers along with opening our souls over glasses of wine. She has an incredible ability and talent to make lemonade out of battery acid; to see silver linings in the darkest of situations.

“Through out my childhood and into my twenties I carried within me an overwhelming sense I can only describe as not being at peace. Eventually this became debilitating. Today, we in the west call this anxiety and depression. These are the blanket terms we use to describe the sensations of a mind not yet still. I have often wondered if a more fitting diagnosis might be something like ‘affliction brought on by society,’” she wrote in her blog, Wild Roots MN.

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Her second set, from a collection at her http://www.wildrootsmn.wordpress.com/ site.

Initially I was surprised when she “took to the woods” for she seemed to love and absorb a rich social life. She was often the life of the party, and there are dozens of “Nicole Moments” her friends still share. Eight years ago she purchased her house on the edge of Granite Falls that nestled against a native prairie and woodland. “My life expanded the instant that I ventured into the remnant swath of prairie land just beyond my backyard,” she wrote. “It was just a few years ago when I took my first well intended step onto the land that has never known the destruction of the plow or the intrusive, often misguided hand of man. How it has remained spared from development – I do not know. Save for patches of invasive buckthorn and other changes brought about by time – it is as it was.”

She adds, “It’s a magical place just out my back door.”

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Zempel has a fine eye for composition and detail, as evidence in this third collection.

What has transpired since has been both fun and amazing. She has discovered a talent for writing — simply, poetically and descriptively, and her photography with just her cell phone has already graced the walls for exhibitions. She says it started with the prairie.

“Even as a young girl I always had an eye and was quick to see things in nature before my dad or brother on our road trips along the river. Then I literally and figuratively went into the woods for a few years. When I decided to emerge I found I had discovered another world that I wanted to share with others,” she said. Zempel entered this mysterious world with guide books, and perhaps more importantly, with wonder. That wonder has opened an incredibly diverse world for all who know her.


Imagine finding this in nature … two snails ensnarled in a leaf.

She writes: “When we glimpse beyond the description in a book – we begin to see and share in a more intimate relationship with our surroundings. For instance, I’m 5 ‘ 2” and a half inches tall. I have sandy blond hair, blue eyes and weigh around 123 pounds … on a good day. Does this description encapsulate me as a living being? Not even close? Why should it be any different with plants?”

Nicole was writing of her thoughts on an obscure and lone wild onion plant she had come across in her prairie. What was this plant’s history? How did it evolve right there in the little piece of unplowed land? Was it a remnant of past generations? “The spiritually charged lands of the prairie are powerfully magical,” she concluded.


Spore prints help mushroomers identify their collection, and Zempel includes her spore prints as a significant part of her artwork.

From the prairie she discovered fungi and “slime mold” — all among the many wonders offered in wood and prairie, and not just in what we call the “good months.” She suggested that if you crave a little color during the winter, then head to the woods. “Sometimes winter helps us to see what is right in front of us. The unseen becomes seen.”

Like many, her mushrooming began with morels, then she discovered an expanded universe of fungi, some so small they exist in a crevice of gnarly bark. All those many mushrooms, along with the non-mushroomy slime molds and lichens … minute details that takes both observation and wonder to discover. Those mushrooms have created from her wonder and delight numerous adventures in cuisines, amazing photographs, spore prints and other art, all of which has led to gallery hangings and numerous presentations. “When things feel dark, use it. Never stop creating!” Lemonade!

Zempel says she entered the woods seeing leafy canopies. “Not any more. For reasons unexplained, in this stillness there is a heightening of the senses. Ones ability to hear seems amplified. The scurrying of a squirrel can easily be mistaken for some forest giant, the snapping of a stick will let you know that you have company, you will hear the winged motion of an eagle flying just overhead,” she wrote. “Allow nature to play you a tune … your soul will lead.”

She writes of the eagles she sees, and of the increasingly mysteries of, well, slime mold. Mushrooms are a constant wonder. She was once stopped by a spider web seen in dewy prairie grasses … “once you do you take notice of their web weaving art.”


Here is a collection of her canvases from her forays into the prairie and wood.

Then this: “The bald eagle reminds us of the long view. The tree, sturdy and strong, reminds us to allow the long view to delight upon us. The river reminds us of the last of which has passed and all that is yet to come.”

Often times the author of this wonderfully written and illustrated blog, Wild Roots MN., more closely resembles Aldo Leopold than of another fellow who went off into the woods for self-discovery, Henry David Thoreau, and she readily admits being influenced by Minnesota naturalist and writer, the late Sigrid Olson.


“Allow nature to play you a tune … your soul will lead,” she writes, thoughts collected after a walk into her adjacent prairie and woods and a decent bonfire.

“In these quiet moments I wonder…  who once walked right here? Did that person lay in the tall grasses and watch the clouds too? I close my eyes and I imagine the land – not as a remnant swath – but stretching as far as the eye can see. A time I’ve never known,” she writes, then adds, “Any day in the woods is a good day, but some are more exciting than others. I can think of few things in this life that bring me greater joy than a walk through the woods with the warmth of the sun at my back.”

Ah, just as sweet and aromatic as lemonade.

Whoopers … Up Close and Personal

All we could see was a singular small white blob of white seemingly meshing in the middle of the “liquid” mass of brownish, grayish sandhill cranes. We were among a growing yet revolving group of birders pulled off on the shoulder along the paved highway south of the Crane Trust headquarters near Wood River, NE, and most, like us, had binoculars and long camera lenses trained on that small patch of white.

Small? Yes, for to the naked eye the white “spot” was roughly the size of a rounded head of a sewing pin. Through our binoculars or my 600 mm lens, the patch was about the size of a pencil eraser. Though surrounded by literally thousands of sandhills, coming and going, it was this one whooping crane that seemed to hold the most interest. This was especially true for my traveling companion, Mary Gafkjen.

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Can you spot the whooping crane? Look for the white spot in the lower right among the sandhill cranes.

Fortunately this wasn’t my first sighting of a whooping crane. Years ago an organic farmer friend who I had featured in a story for Money Magazine loaded me into his pickup to drive to the edge of a dry gulch on his San Luis Valley (CO) farm. Our goal was to sneak up on the sandhill cranes he had noticed in one of his fallow fields. “Don’t slam the door, and once we’re in the ditch it’s all hand signals,” warned Greg. “They’re really jumpy.”

The gulch was sandy, so we could creep along rather quietly toward the field, and after about a quarter mile through the canopy of overhanging cottonwood limbs, Greg signaled that we should lay against the edge to peek over the gulch bank. The sounds of the cranes were voluminous and rich, and there were hundreds of sandhills milling around. Much to our shocked surprise (and later celebration) was a singular whooping crane strutting around right in the middle of the flock. It stood out from the rest in both color and size. This was in the 1970s when whoopers were much closer to extinction then than now.

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Luck was with us as our boat motored along Mustang Island in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, a pair of whooping cranes less than 100 yards distant.

Whooping cranes are still incredibly rare. In the 1930s, due to hunting and habitat loss, the numbers were estimated in the 20s. When Greg and I saw the one in Colorado the estimate was about 70. Thanks to some innovative efforts that included adoptive incubation in sandhill nests, among other ideas, the numbers now range between 500 to 750 birds. However, their wintering in the coastal marshes of Texas, Louisiana and Florida are subject to hurricanes and other threats, including rising tidal waters due to global warming. A number were killed when Hurricane Harvey, with 132 mph winds, hit their Mustang Island wintering home within the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Hurricanes are still a major threat.

Back in December when we were talking about a midwinter road trip, Mary discovered the Aransas Refuge online, learning of their wintering area along the Gulf Coast of Texas near the small town of Rockport. Further research found a boating expedition into the depths of the Refuge specifically for birdwatchers. This meant those on board might have an excellent opportunity to possibly see whooping cranes up close on Mustang Island. We quickly booked a pair of seats on the launch as well as an Airbnb in Rockport.

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The pair ambled along, moving from one tidal pool to another seeming oblivious to our boat.

In his introduction prior to pushing off for the three hour boat trip, the captain (who was also a naturalist) said there was an excellent chance of seeing whooping cranes, along with a vast number of other birds on the launch. He warned us, though, that we would likely be just close enough to the whooping cranes that they would appear  the size of his small fingernail. “They’re now in pairs, and quite shy. We’ll try to be as quiet and inconspicuous as possible,” he said. “We should have them here in the Refuge for another couple of months before they migrate northward. Tagging shows that most of those we see will migrate to Canada.”

Along the way and into the islands numerous bird species were pointed out by both the captain and sharp-eyed birders on board. I would mark several off my mental birder list including an oyster catcher. There were curlews and ibises, and terns and gulls — all too numerous to remember. Herons and other waders, too. Then we reached the first of the many islands of the Refuge, and it wasn’t long before the first sighting of a whooper pair was made. They were slightly closer than the singular one we had seen in Nebraska. Then came the surprise, and such incredible luck.

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No, this wasn’t from a zoo .. but from our rare sighting on Mustang Island in the Refuge!

A pair were just off shore, slowly ambling along the potholes and brackish vegetation less than 100 yards distant. He slid the boat into the muck and cut the engine, making loud whispering descriptions of what we were witnessing. Using my 600 mm I was able to get some very nice closeup images of the birds as they ambled past us, stabbing at morsels at the edges of the pockets of water.

Once they had passed, he started the engine and slowly backed us out off the mud bank to move on further up toward the end of the island. Amazingly, the pair continued coming along, seemingly paying no attention to we onlookers until there was no island left. They stopped and turned toward us, appearing to chat between themselves. They might have been 35 yards away. As the birds communicated, I pulled back on my focal length, for I sensed they were about to fly. Then suddenly, in a heartbeat, they lifted into the sky and were gone.

As they circled away, our boat captain said in a full voice filled with wonder, “We were very, very lucky. It’s quite rare ever being this close to a pair. This was just incredible.” He took off his cap and smiled before starting the engine to back off the muck. As he did so those with cameras began looking through their digital images. Mary even had some good images on her cell phone, which indicates how close we had come. What a rare and special experience.

Unfortunately, with such low numbers, whooping cranes continue to face any number of threats as efforts continue to introduce them to new and different habitats such as fresh water rice areas further inland.

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As they neared the apex of the island, the pair stopped, and began communicating audibly. This made me think they were about to fly and I adjusted my lens …. luckily!

In a Bird Watching Magazine article by Matt Mendenhall, Wade Harrell, the whooping crane recovery coordinator at the Aransas refuge said, “Things could get tight in terms of habitat available on the coast. I would say that’s a rather conservative model in that our assumption behind it is that (the birds) continue to just use coastal marsh habitat. Historically, that’s really the only thing that we can model on going forward. But if we look at some of our other reintroduced populations, we see them using a wider variety of habitat types, including agricultural habitats. (For example,) the Louisiana birds are using rice agriculture pretty heavily.

“The best-case scenario is not only will they use coastal marsh but that they will spread into other habitat types farther inland. We’ve seen a little bit of that during drought periods.” During a recent drought, he noted, many cranes spent several months at Granger Lake in central Texas, showing that the birds can winter at a freshwater reservoir. “So, they certainly have a capacity and capability to use other types of habitats. It’s just a matter of will they as their population pushes beyond the marsh?”

What they face along the coastal marshes in terms of rising seas and possible hurricanes are not the only threats, he added. “I’m not complacent to the fact that we have great dangers with sea-level rise, with the threat of contamination from an industrial accident and from the tar sands developments in Alberta, which are just south of Wood Buffalo National Park, with hundreds of acres of poisoned lakes created by the effluent that the cranes could land in and that the fragile arctic ecosystem could be screwed up by.”

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And, fly they did, leaving us feeling quite blessed for such a rare and special experience.

So, yes, the bird numbers have risen from near certain extinction to still under 1,000 birds  ­—  a rare species still on the edge of extinction. Our opportunity to not only see them in person, but to see them so close was a memory for life. We were quite blessed for this was indeed a rare and special experience.