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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.