An Orchid Obsession

Hunting native Minnesota orchids was hardly an obsession. Until four years ago. Until the Dragon’s Mouth, a delicate and small purplish bog orchid, appeared in my consciousness.

Just to be clear, there was no intention whatsoever of becoming Minnesota’s John Laroche, the main man in “The Orchid Thief”, Susan Orlean’s book about he and a group of Seminoles who apparently were poaching rare native orchids in the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve of south Florida. I just wanted an opportunity to see the Dragon’s Mouth in person, to photograph what appeared to be a beautiful and interesting looking rare orchid, one that was purplish with a “tongue” with intriguing hues.

This was an odd obsession, and one so unexpected. My rather limited knowledge of native orchids rarely extended beyond Ladies’-Tresses and various Ladyslippers until I decided to take a leg-stretcher on a trip to Fort Francis, Ontario, for a special fly fishing fly-in trip four years ago. I had stopped at Bemidji Lake State Park where Harold Marty, then the “CSI” guy for northern area for the Minnesota State Patrol, and his wife, Kim, introduced me to the bog walk many years before. All I could recall was that it was an elevated boardwalk over and through a bog. The walk through was impressive enough that on my return I stopped again. Since my camera was in the shop for cleaning and repair, I made due with my cell phone photographing the emerging Stemless Ladyslippers and the brightly blinding yellow Marsh Marigolds.

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Once again there were ample Stemless Ladyslippers along the bog walk, and I can’t seem to skip past a single one without stopping for a photograph.


On the way out I stopped to talk with the park naturalist who showed me photographs that included the Dragon’s Mouth orchid, a rare and beautiful orchid found only in the bog ecosystems. This was the start of my obsession. She suggested I was too early. For the next two years I stopped while driving through on subsequent fly fishing trips, each seemingly a week later than the previous years, again without seeing one. Each time the obsession grew. Last summer we made a special trip just for the Dragon’s Mouth and missed once again, although I had ample opportunities for the Stemless and even picked up some very nice early Pitcher Plant images.

This time would be different. Later in the year helped along with some “investigative” research. Meaning that a few days ago I called the park naturalist and she said a Dragon’s Mouth had been found, adding that you needed to really know where to look to find it. She also thought by the weekend there might be more. On Saturday we headed north, stopping en route at the very beautiful Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge and Itasca State Park. Saturday was also a day I normally wouldn’t have walked out of the house with a camera since there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Not a one. I could only hope that shooting in RAW at a low ISO that there would be enough digital information to reduce the contrast while pulling out the shadow detail. For this type of photography there isn’t anything more blessed in my opinion than a cloudy day!

Once at the boardwalk my “inner Laroche” took over as I scanned every square inch of the visible bog for a spot of violet. The entire boardwalk might be a quarter mile in length, and I literally took it one horizontal board at a time, scanning inch by inch on both sides of the walkway. Nothing. That isn’t true, for there was ample Stemless, and the Pitcher Plants were in a beautiful full bloom. As I reached near where my companion, Mary Gafkjen, was waiting, I was feeling rather discouraged. Then, just before reaching her bench I spotted a tiny patch of purple poking through some boggy grasses. Using a very long lens, I was hopeful. I couldn’t get a clear view of the plant. It was just a blotch of purple amongst some distant, dense spindly green grass.

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Many of us wondered about these blooms, which were quite numerous. Ah, but they were Pitcher Plants, whose leaf structures are insect traps. I love bogs and the different plants you see there.

As we sat I briefly considered breaking the rules to tiptoe across the bog for a less encumbered view. Rightfully so, Mary vetoed my thoughts. This was after we had walked to the very end of the boardwalk without seeing another one. We returned to the purple “smudge” where I sat to contemplate my next move as Mary walked on. People kept passing by as I sat attempting to find a better focus through the grasses. I just finally gave up and started back up the boardwalk.

What happened next is what many mushroomers know … that you can be looking right at a morel, say, and until you actually see one you see none at all. Yet, when you find the first all the others come into view. All around you. Which happened not three meters distant. And what is really odd is that I was photographing a blooming Pitcher Plant located between both when coming from the other direction … without seeing either the one facing me or the other in profile. Both were in full sunlight with light glaring off the dorsal sepals, and much closer than the one tucked into the grasses further down the trail.

As I sat, kneeled and finally laid onto the boardwalk for different angles, a few passersby asked what I was photographing. Only one caught the significance and she stood tall with a cell phone. Some, “Oh, cool’s” and “Really’s” were said, though most were there for a joy ride. None shared either my relief or excitement. That was all mine. It was my obsession and one I couldn’t share.

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As I sat, kneeled and finally laid on the boardwalk for different angles, none shared either my relief or excitement. This was all mine. It was my obsession and one I couldn’t share.

There was just enough breeze to sometimes shade the two plants, or to barely cover some negative background “noise,” so patience was as necessary as was the sharing of the moment. I thought of just the night before, and several hours of highway time distant, when we were with a group of friends at an outdoor concert by my musician friend, Lee Kanten, when we told of where we were headed and why. I justified the journey in search of this tiny, rare and obscure orchid by comparing it to that of a hunter driving to Meeker, Colorado, to hunt elk. “The hunter might not see an elk, and he might miss even if he has a shot. Same thing,” I had said.

“But,” asked someone, “all that way just for a flower?” Maybe it made no sense. Obsessions are just that way!

Several moments and photo images later I headed up the gravely path to join Mary. She said she saw my smile beaming from under my sweaty old hat several meters away. She assured me it was a smile of contentment and without an ounce of smugness. Imagine that!

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There is such a small window for the bloom, and for once I was there when the window was open.

Later, when we were back on the highway, I thought of a different kind of hunter … those who travel to Africa for safari hunts. No, I’m not a hunter, so I imagined that when you’ve shot and killed a lion, then what? What happens next? Is there a new obsession?

Dragon Mouth’s are rather rare and emerge after many years to bloom in an ecosystem that is severely threatened by global warming. It’s a precious if somewhat unknown flower, an orchid, no less. There is such a small window for the bloom, and for once I was there when the window was open. Perhaps that is all one can ever hope for. Satisfied, I shall now return to being “opportunist” and leaving the “hunting” and hopefully the obsessions for others.

Awaiting a Hummingbird

So here I sit on my little old and weathered wooden deck awaiting a hummingbird. My main effort in today’s 96 degree heat was to replace two of the feeders that aged to leak extensively, to a point where I became concerned about the price of sugar.

My Sauvignon Blanc is chilled which helps with the heat. So far, and perhaps due to the drought provided by the previous distributors of sugar water, no hummingbird has happened by. A pair of oriels flew past, noted my presence in the Adirondack chair, and alit in branches of the nearby tree to express their displeasure. I use the phrase reluctantly because at any other time I would call their peepy chants a protest. Protest is a word to be used selectively in such times.

My time now on the deck, despite the horrid heat, is necessary for in a few weeks the neighbor’s corn will reach such a height that my horizon will disappear until harvest. This happens with 12 ft. high corn, which clues tell me is of the GMO family. A few days ago the son, who I suppose is now the farmer of record, covered the rows with a spray which I assume is Roundup. I worked long enough in the agricultural public relations field to realize that the chemical is within the contact classification, that his corn will pass it through their cells and reach for the heavenly skies. My main issue with GMO crops is the Bt insecticide chemicals “bred” into the cell structure. Which, bottom line, is lethal to bees and other beneficial insects as well as the nasty ones.

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Making photographs before or after the sun appears offers some nice color surprises.

His crops contrast my prairie and the native plants here in my gardens. It is what it is. Long story short, without my work as a freelancer and later in the advertising industry I couldn’t have afforded to buy this patch of earth that now hosts an eight acre native prairie. My joy is being a thorn in the side of what is considered “modern industrialized agriculture.” My Art of Erosion exhibit was one such thorn, a sort of penance for the ills of my career.

In the distance come the “barks” of pheasants, and around me songbirds are vocally active. My small Listening Stone Farm has been somewhat of a refuge these past few months as we now enter our fourth month of coronavirus. As restrictions are being lifted, our North Woods-looking “lodge” restaurant down the road has opened the patio along Big Stone Lake. We have tried to spread our takeout buys over the course of the lock down. About once a week we buy from one of the restaurants we would normally visit. Hopefully all can survive and resume their fare.

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These Prairie Smoke were in silhouette on the Lake Johanna Esker. Thanks to digital technology I was able to pull the color out of the shadows.

All is not well, though, due to the blatant murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop last week. Cities and smaller communities around the globe are in protest, and in some situations, violent ones while our un-presidential president fans the flames of discord and bigotry. Perhaps waiting for a hummingbird in such times seems so childish, yet I wonder what good would an old white man be on the streets. Years ago, in the mid-1970s, a black roommate took me on a drive one warm Sunday afternoon to give me my first lessons on white privilege. We were headed into downtown Denver when he pulled into a convenience store. “Let’s get something to drink,” he said.

When we entered the store the clerk addressed John, my roommate, asking if he needed any help. I walked on by without giving it a thought or question, pulled a cold Diet Coke from the cooler and went to pay. John had a helper following him around the store, being “helpful,” and later back in his pickup he asked, “So, did you notice any difference in how we were treated?”

“You got service and I didn’t,” I said.

“No. I got attention and you didn’t. Let’s try a couple of more places.” Same thing. As we neared City Park we passed a young black man running on the sidewalk. “See him?” John asked as he pulled over. “Now, did you look in front to see where he was going, or behind him to see if he was being chased?”

A starling flew close enough to almost feel the breeze from his wings en route to the light colored driveway to drop a poop sac from its nest. They’re like soft-shelled little white eggs but aren’t. A few years ago starlings raised such ire with some owners of suburban swimming pools that letters were arriving at the big dailies asking what course of action should they take. My guess is that such questions about bird behavior are easier to write than on how one can be more compassionate to a neighbor of color. Maybe I missed those letters. Perhaps it’s just easier to phone 9-1-1 to report a possible assault.

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After pulling the color from darkness with the Prairie Smoke, I tried the same with a Columbine here on the farm. It seems there is a “Valentine” heart as a backdrop.

Like during the pandemic lock down, some of this time during the protests has been used to go afield. The other morning before dawn I was photographing an emerging Prairie Smoke. Later while processing from RAW to a usable image, I lightened the flower just enough to expose the seemingly latent color. Rather than a silhouette I then had an image that was almost magical … appearing as a rediscovered Impressionistic painting perhaps. That night I tried using the same technique in the fading sunset, pairing up a Columbine image with the one of Prairie Smoke. A few evenings ago I tried the same technique with White Prairie Ladyslippers. This is what we do. In troubled times we create. Perhaps bringing the color out of the darkness was a subconscious move. It wasn’t a conscious effort for George Lloyd or any of my friends of color.

Besides, what is an old white man going to do on the streets of Minneapolis? Eight hours of highway time, round trip? What effective means can I add to the protest? This is everyone’s “battle” … learning to not just accept our neighbors of color, but to also adjust to a necessary equalization. One of where an old Native man, or an elderly Black man, can sip a chilled beverage on a faded, worn wooden deck awaiting the feverish flight of a hummingbird without worry. Without concern for his children, or his children’s children; that they can have equal opportunity for good jobs and a life free of worry and confrontations of “white privilege” or any form of police brutality or lynching. It’s 400 years too late in coming, but maybe like a hummingbird, it may come.

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A prairie meadow in dusk across the road from the patch of White Ladyslippers.

It’s a nice day out. Hot, even for this time of year. A news story hidden among the protest stories told of how global warming has extended Minnesota summers by at least a week. That’s on top of higher heat indexes, and if we pay close attention we can observe even more subtle changes in nature. Climate change is now a younger person’s battle. My generation … we “hippies” or members of the “counter culture” …  tried creating and leaving a better world for our children and grandchildren, yet many of those victories in our time have been reversed by greed and corporate favors. We can only hope those moving into their decision making years will have solutions and more success in saving both our humanity and our planet, in creating a worldly environment of peace and equality for all regardless of race, gender, age or religion.

So it comes down to this; this old man sitting on the deck along a restored prairie with a sparkling new plastic sugar-water feeder waiting for the arrival of a hummingbird, and realizing how joy may sometimes be found in something so minuscule and fleeting.