A Comfort in Isolation

I must confess. I’m a lousy hermit. People have even accused me of being just the opposite. An extrovert. A social animal. Someone energized by crowds. A man who shivers with fear of being cast aside, of ever being alone!

Another confession: As I aged my life as a night-prowling animal has also changed significantly. Now I’m decidedly a morning person with sunrises as my goal rather than challenging myself to a Herculean effort of making “last call.” Loud music has given way to prairie winds; delicate Prairie Smoke looms above the glittering crowns of barroom goddesses.

All of which places me squarely in a yin/yang situation. Someone has suggested that this Stay at Home Order has the potential of making me seem a “caged animal!” However, the “yang” of my “yin” is the nearby prairies and woodlands where we’ve been given governmental license to go to ease the mood. The skies, too, have blessed us recently with a steady flow of geese flybys. Nature has come to my (our) rescue.

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Oh, but the skies … blessing us with a steady flow of geese flybys.

Nature has long been a refuge. I grew up fly fishing farm ponds for largemouth bass and bluegills, hiking through nearby woodlots and horseback riding over the hills on our farm. Nature excursions have never been too distant. Back in my young professional life friends wondered how I could fit it all in. Prowling the bars into the wee hours, yet being ready a few hours later for an outdoors adventure. Looking back, I also wonder. Maybe I began maturing. When I moved to a publishing position from Colorado to Minnesota, which caused some friends to also wonder, I rediscovered country living. First along the St. Croix River, then the Little Vermillion River across a highway from the Prairie Island wilderness with close access to that beautiful little river.

With time and further change, and not necessarily of my own calling, we ended up in the flat Minnesota prairie where I ran a small country weekly for twenty plus years. It was 23 years ago this month when fate introduced  me to the ghosts of what Missouri author William Least Heat Moon called “PrairyErth” ­—  a friend, then the chief of our small town’s volunteer fire department, asked if I wanted to take a short flight with him to assess the flood waters inundating our small towns. It was on this flight that I noticed hundreds of pockets of standing water as far as the eye could see that I hadn’t seen before … sometimes several in a single quarter section.

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Among the varied species of geese were numerous Tundra Swans.

“Wetlands,” said the fire chief. “Those are all drained wetlands.”

That was the moment when I realized there was an ecosystem here that was no longer. Less than one percent of the native prairie remains, and much of that is replanted like mine here at Listening Stones Farm. Fewer of the “potholes” or wetlands the glaciers left behind remain due to ditching and drainage tile. These are the  “ghosts” of “God’s” creation of earth you see here in the former prairie pothole region during a spring melt.

This is the back story of our rather secluded life here on a “pinpoint” patch of that glacial creation. This is where we reside now in our third week of pandemic shut down. Truthfully we have been basically homebound since Mary’s knee replacement, so, yes, we are maintaining the mandated social distancing.

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Social distancing wasn’t in the plans for the Greater White-Fronted Geese that blocked a “minimum maintenance” gravel road near here.

Not much has changed going into this hopefully short period of self quarantine. Friends returning from their winter sojourns to the south are immediately going into self-quarantines themselves, so there are no man hugs (nor woman hugs, for that matter). Our few social moments find us standing a good distance apart. Which in this region of the prairie, settled mainly it seems by American-Norwegians, social distancing is a rather traditional sociological trait. Even in more typical times folks stood about ten feet apart looking up at the sky and discussing the weather.

Oh, but those skies! Look into those skies! Here we have seemingly constant waves of Canada Geese skeins. A bit further east we’ve seen huge flocks of Snow Geese in their multiple phases, along with the Greater White-Fronted Geese. In our efforts of social distancing we’ve been chasing a huge flock of both species several miles east of here.

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Swans and several goose species congregated on a “ghost” of the prairie past, a wetland recharged with spring runoff!

For this confirmed extrovert, this safety in social distancing has been both satisfying and tolerable. We have not been isolated from one another, and indeed, I feel we may have even grown closer together in this shared intimacy of caregiving. Mary, the introvert, and me, the extrovert, along with our shared senses of nature and the bounties offered even in this strangest of times for mankind worldwide.

In his book, Blue Highways, Least-Heat Moon wrote: “With a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion that I lived in an alien land, I took to the road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected.”

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“With a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion … I took to the road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected.”

For us, down the road wasn’t all that distant. It was touchable in our isolation, and comfortable in its remoteness, offering to us a sense of nature that life continues without us … despite us. That we could share in that for even a few moments brought calm to souls now challenged with change we cannot fathom, an uncertainty for mankind health wise and otherwise in ways we cannot comprehend. We can only hope this change does not mean ruin, or even death, and that in time, man and deeds will once again connect.

Coping with the Pandemic

In times like these it’s good to turn to Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Peace of Wild Things.” Please bear with me …

This week a close friend was forced to plea her case for an invasive cancer treatment after her insurance company suddenly and unexpectedly downgraded her necessary, if perhaps life altering, procedure to an “elective” treatment. She wasn’t alone, for others in similar situations also made similar comments. She didn’t take this too well, and who can blame her. In her angst she expressed her frustration by calling out those complaining of the overall shutdown of life as we’ve known it.

Here is her quote: “My patience for people posting how sad they are, that they are home bored, there will be no prom for their kid, you have not been drafted, called to war, or other first world problems, is completely exhausted! I’m so sorry you have been asked to sit home on your ass and watch Netflix.” Understandable.

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An icy wet land, an early morning sun and lone willow on a prairie near Sunburg was taken early on with the pending pandemic.

Due to the pandemic our lives are in total flux. As this plays out many of us are wondering about our impending “new normal.” What our lives were last week will likely never be the same despite all those who are expressing “once this is behind us” … “when life goes back to normal” …  and so forth. Yes, I aim to be positive and yearn to see the restaurants full, the street corners buzzing with activity and friends hugging in shared greetings. I want to see concerts and fans return to the high school courts and the big stadiums. I want to see my friend and others have the medical treatments they need to survive. These pandemic precautions are blatantly necessary, and for many life saving.

In my seven decades there have been many monumental changes and events, though nothing like this complete shutdown here and around the planet. I was born during World War II, yet I can’t recall a single time in my life when our country wasn’t involved in some military conflict or war. This was also all those years of the polio epidemic when I was a child and before the Salk vaccine, and I remember how my mother worried herself terribly over each and every hiccup and body pain. Much like we are now when someone sneezes, coughs or complains of a fever.

Meanwhile billions upon billions of dollars will be lost across the board both nationally and internationally. Lost wages will severely affect millions of workers who lived paycheck to paycheck. Small businesses and locally owned eateries will be challenged to survive. These are strange and difficult times for us all … with possible exception of the National Football League where multi-million dollar contracts have filled the sports pages the past few days. This is both sick and sad, and beyond rational comprehension.

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Both hearing and seeing the Canada Geese around here tells us there is a world out there beyond we humans and the issues we create and attempt to live through.

Yet, if this worldwide pandemic brings all humanity to their senses of compassion and neighborliness, what a wonderful change that would be. If all humanity decided to care for our lonely planet rather than searching for ways of completely ravaging Mother Earth for profiteering and other forms of greed  … from our neighbor’s farm fields to proposing mining the necessary wilderness areas; from discarding plastics and cigarette butts to deforesting and plowing up perennial grasslands; from neglecting the needs of the working poor to pushing corporate greed for Wall Street, insurance companies and major corporations; from devising more creative ways of suppressing the voting rights of minorities to providing risk free subsidies to the greedy “one percent”;  to bullying the continued need of broadband communications technology in our mostly rural areas to relying on “entertainment” styled propaganda network views (not news) …. yes, there could be a lovely new normal, one more compassionate and understanding than we knew just a week ago … before the pandemic.

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Although published in a previous blog, the number of skeins of geese provide both peace and promise!

For an extrovert, and as one in the “at risk” age group, this pandemic is quite frightening. I would love to gather my sons around me and can’t. One is in a group home lock down, meaning that even if I could venture to visit with him, I can’t. The other is in a lock down in Norway. We have social media, real time “face to face” visits, which we’ve relied on for nearly a decade. Technology makes this is as handy as sitting in front of the computer.

So, how are you spending these nervous times? There are ways of not pushing the patience of my hospitalized friend fighting cancer, who fought and won her treatment. For me I have the outdoors, and a wood shop I can reach once I cross the rivulet of melt water between the two high points of my lawn. Above us geese are moving, and the redwing blackbirds are clutching cattails in the wetlands. Every day more birds are migrating into the area. Life goes on without us in the broader world!

Which brings me to Wendell Berry and the “The Peace of Wild Things”:

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

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After years of passing this combination of sumac and birch this seemed a place to find peace.

Being diligent and creative, and following the guidelines offered to lower the crush curve of Covid-19 by maintaining a six foot space might help us navigate through these challenging times. Meanwhile I’ll grab my Nikon and find a peaceful piece of prairie or wood to escape our necessary isolation and worry not of what our new normal might be for just a bit. For a moment I will rest in the grace of the world and feel free. That will be the gist of my personal survival technique!

Eons of the Countless

Sometimes I wonder about certain words. “Countless” comes to mind, for as I was crossing the prairie yesterday my eyes caught a distant skein of geese v-ing across the windshield. My thoughts at the time had nothing to do about spring, yet there it was.

A brief glance at the rearview mirror told me I had missed seeing a few skeins behind me, and looking to the south on the horizon it seemed there were countless others. There is that word again … which can be taken in various ways. Such as, too numerous to count, or perhaps, not counted at all. Both work in this instance.

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They came in small groupings and great skeins across the prairie sky.

As my car neared the pothole region of the prairie, and in both winter fallowed grain fields and restored prairies, and in the potholes themselves, all were alive with either feeding or resting geese. In a few of the more remote potholes, also known around here as wetlands or sloughs, paired geese were walking on failing remnants of ice checking the mounds as nesting possibilities. A few knobs of mud or muskrat mounds even had a goose nestled on top.

So joyous is springtime in the flyway, for the geese seemed excited and noisy in their rest. Once home we could hear them over the hum of the wind on the wetland over the hill. A near constant drone of “honking.” They were in their element, completely unconcerned of anything other than the promise that comes with eons of migration activities across continents that still continues.

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A migration is a tiring affair and the wetlands offer a restful respite.

For mankind, this isn’t a spring of much promise. Across the world the untamed coronavirus is closing borders in forced quarantines. My son and daughter-in-law in Bergen are in a two week “forced’ protocol because they have just returned from a trip to Budapest. Indeed, the entire country has “closed down” as have others in the EU. The sports leagues, from high schools to international soccer leagues, are either cancelling events or postponing seasons. A nearby senior care center has closed itself off from all visitors, family members included, until the threat has passed or is under control.

When I noticed the skein of geese I was actually thinking of Alvin Toffler, who wrote a short essay in the early 1970s called “Ecospasm,” where an incompetent leader was completely unprepared for a perfect storm of catastrophic issues from a stock market collapse to a pandemic, all great forces of economic collapse. I was thinking of just how close we are to the “whack-a-mole” hysteria of Toffler’s “ecospasm” right now.

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Not only were there flocks in the remnant prairies and seasonal fallowed crop fields, the wetlands offered both rest and possible nesting opportunities.

Initially we sort of smirked away any seriousness of Covid19 for it was perhaps a far and distant threat that might cause a mere ripple in society if it occurred here at all. Now, though, it is real, and as a country we’re completely unprepared. Who can imagine the personal impact, let alone the economic impact this may have on each of us as individuals. Let alone the stress on our medical resources, and especially for the working poor who are receiving no help whatsoever from either our incompetent President and a Senate that is without an ounce of compassion for common man … as we each fear a common sneeze, a cough, if this shortness of breath is from uncommon exertion, too much weight, or a true symptom of an exotic and potentially deadly virus.

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I couldn’t help but pull over to watch, especially as individual birds eased down with near natural poetry to alight so softly.

And another skein of geese crosses the sky, high against a lightly lit cloudy prairie sky …

We have entertained thoughts of once again of returning to Nebraska for the Sandhill Crane migration, for this is one of epic numbers and significance. Fully two thirds of the world’s Sandhill population funnels through a small stretch of the North Platte River. Juggling calendar dates and figuring a three-day hole for the trip down and back has sprinkled our thoughts. Then came an email from Crane Trust. All visitor activities have been closed down. All along the shallow river, not just in Wood River. Yet, like the Canada geese, the Cranes are coming. They have for eons, just like the geese. Nature flies on without us.

Although my chosen highway had no shoulders for safe parking alongside the pavement, I simply couldn’t help myself. There seemed a compelling need to witness this phenomenon of nature, to see these countless skeins painting the clouds above, the communal goose talk in the prairie grasses and corn stalks, the strutting and rest on the icy surfaces of the wetlands, the poetry of flight as they eased down from the sky to alight so softly.

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Along the horizon were countless skeins along the flyway, a sure sign of the approaching spring.

It’s day 72 in China for the virus, and it spreads ever so quickly from country to country, with at least a two week incubation before the symptoms arise. Here we are in our second week. As life as we know it comes crashing down at least temporarily, spring arrives on the wings of countless skeins of geese. For me, at least, they have rarely been such a welcomed sight!