There’s been a death in the neighborhood. She was most lively especially with the fading of winter, when she brought much life and joy to a prairie springtime. She made her home just down the road. This time of year, in the midst of what we call a calendar year, she was awkward in dress with sometimes a shriveled skin, yet come autumn … especially in a wet autumn … she would seemingly bounce back.
Birds loved her, especially in the spring. This past spring a pair of Sandhill Cranes briefly stopped by. Geese came by the dozens. Ducks. Wading birds. Gulls and terns. She loved her frogs, too. Come autumn, her life through the accompanying harvest seemed to become more engaging as new goose families would drop in for a brief rest. Sometimes three or four. Other times a half dozen, and maybe more. Depended on how many of the newly hatched had survived the snapping turtles, coyotes and other predators that skim their hopeful hideaways.
As soft down gave way to emerging feathers, and the molting of the parent birds that seemed to magically coincide with that phenomenon of maturity, the short flying stints began. No long distance flying yet. And they would come to her, and sometimes waddle into the harvested field for random kernels of grain that slipped past the gear works and screens of those huge harvesters that arrive as wide as the road they tread.
Earlier this week the first oversized semi-truck lumbered down that same road as did the tillers, planters and later the combines. It stopped near her and a man climbed from the cab and began working the hydraulics that somehow detached the main portion of the trailer from the tractor. As he did so, two more semis and trailers bearing different but huge gouging equipment arrived, as did smaller trucks hoisting largely coiled rolls of black drainage tile. Shortly another worker emerged from a pickup truck to balance a laser unit on a tripod.
Then, without further ado, the various workers with their neonish shirts and vests climbed aboard their different machines and all the equipment lumbered into the soybean field. And her death was imminent.
She was a small wetland. Some years when the spring rains didn’t come she was planted over, though yields from those small acres undoubtedly were smaller than the average of the unsaturated acreage. These past few years, though, years that have been called “overly wet”, prairie winds created waves of water left standing in the wetland well into summer and sometimes even freezing over in winter. Those were the autumns when the goose families would arrive before joining forces with the flocks of the main migration.
It was in the spring when this little wetland, no more than a few acres and barely a couple feet deep, came to life as the migration along this flyway of Minnesota River was so vivid and alive. A call was made to the farmer this spring after the Sandhills arrived. On my walk the morning after a rain their footprint tracks were mired in the softened mud alongside the shoulder of the road adjacent to her. The following dawn their unmistakable bugling was heard through the opened bedroom window, and later, after waking, we witnessed their lifting from the wetland and flying across a marshy area seen from the kitchen window. When he was told of the sighting he said, “Oh, cool! Hopefully they will stay.”
That they didn’t likely had no influence on his decision to tile the wetland, to drain the last vestige of mystery from his portion of the cropped quarter section. The workers did a thorough job. A couple of rings were made, first around her outer circumference and then a smaller more concentrated ring a few meters closer to the middle, and finally a very large pipe was dug into the muck right through the middle of her, from one end to the other. The dagger, if you will, right through the heart.
This morning there were only tracks of where the machines had been along with the scars across her bow. Come spring all that will be blended into the quilt of commodity, and she will no longer be a visible rest stop for the migrating birds. My neighbor’s “eyesore” and the angst he must surely have felt over the years will be as forgotten as the missing of her will be to those of us who took notice and appreciated the brief magic she gave us … and those before us perhaps since the melting of the glacier … as part of a balance of life and nature. A nature of a vanished ecosystem scholars have labeled as the “prairie pothole region” of Western Minnesota.
She was just a wetland, a prairie pothole, a seasonal slough, (whatever the name), and another of the millions like her that have succumbed to corporate agriculture through the years. Yes, she has joined the 99 percent of her sisters that have likewise been tiled, ditched and drained for as far as the eye can see. I can’t help but feel a sense of sorrow. Sisters of her have met similar fate across our nearby but former prairie these past few months, including three just up the hill on our country road. She was more personal, though, for she was close by.
Like any death in the neighborhood, she will be missed. Her varied voices … of the Sandhills, the migrating ducks and geese, of the explosive rise of the gulls, of the spring peepers and other vocal though latently invisible amphibians … all those voices of her uniquely individual nature are now silenced. It will be a strange silence.
How strange to witness a sky race, one between an incoming storm front and a wandering comet … a heavenly phenomena named Neowise that is said to appear in earth’s viewing path every 7000 years or so. My seat for this apparent and unique dead heat was the front seat of my car where I hid from swarms of mosquitoes.
We had been here the previous night after a friend posted a picture on social media. This was after 11 p.m. when normally I would have been into my second hour of sleep. So we arose from our comfort, pulled on some outdoorsy clothes in the event there might be a crowd on our gravel road, and headed to the top of the prairie where a neat little wetland has survived being drained for corporate agriculture.
Last winter I discovered the nighttime beauty of this little patch of prairie water after returning from a distant foray to capture northern lights. What makes it a delightful spot is not just the proximity to my little farm, for it is literally across the road from my upper prairie, but even more conveniently there is seemingly little if any “light pollution” from the north. No visible roads or security lights … which was not the situation that same night on a wetland a few miles north when during the best flurry of Borealis activity some fool came driving down the gravel road adjacent to ruin the long exposure!
We were just as fortunate after crawling from bed, for everything you could ask for … almost … was there for both our humanistic and photographic enjoyment. First of all, Comet Neowise was clearly visible just above the tree line. Secondly, there was neither wind nor clouds, so we had both a perfect view and even a clear reflection in the mirrored waters of the wetland. And, finally, no pollution from errant lights from beyond!
So, what was the problem? Upon a serious and frantic search, my tripod that is normally in the car simply wasn’t. For some odd reason there was a cushion for a lawn chair, so that was laid across the hood of the car so I could hopefully secure the camera for a long exposure. Ten seconds at the very least, and perhaps 30 seconds at most … something I cannot do “hand-held.” Back in my youth I could do up to a three second hand-held with a very wide aperture, though no longer.
While the pillowed security helped immensely it was still a distant cry from having a secure tripod. I loved my imagery and the quaint though faint reflection of Neowise in the placid waters. Meanwhile some of my photographic friends were posting pictures of absolutely perfect Neowise pictures .. from the mountains of Oregon to the hills above our nearby beloved Bonanza prairie.
This time I would be prepared. Oddly enough the tripod was discovered collecting dust up in my studio-gallery, so that was gathered. I charged the battery and made sure the correct setting was made on the camera. For the “techies,” this meant finding the BULB feature in the manual settings, and on advice from the youngest naturalist I know, moved from my mid-range zoom to a 20 mm wide angle lens.
With that accomplished I decided to do a bit of research since this passing of a noted celestial celebrity had completely gone, well, over my head. If Julia Ahlers, my friend who posted the original picture, hadn’t gotten us out of bed I might not have even known there was a flyby! So this is the brightest comet since Hale-Bopp in 1997, and is apparently visiting earth’s sky for the first time since those folks were pushing elephant-sized quarried rocks in building the pyramids in the Egyptian dessert! Astronomers estimate that Neowise is basically a ball of ice five kilometers wide … a shade over three miles in width. That was the estimated size of the dinosaur killer that squarely hit earth some 65 million years ago.
So Neowise? What’s in a name? Here you go, for it’s an acronym for NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer … or Neowise.
Neowise drifted from a dark part of the solar system known as the Oort Cloud — an icy graveyard billions of miles out that is filled with ancient comets and asteroids. It shot into the inner solar system as astronomers watched as it passed the sun at a distance closer than the planet Mercury. Although it survived this close encounter with our sun, it’s the sun’s rays that are making it visible even to the naked eye.
Visible, yes, but like with northern lights, it helps immensely to make long exposures to draw out the magic! On this subsequent night, like a hunter loaded for bear, I headed up the hill after the sunset to await Neowise in the northwestern sky. This is somewhat of an aversion for me. Typically when these special celestial moments appear in the heavens they become shrouded by clouds. Every single time. Even the last solar eclipse was a cloudy affair for me. Not only am I typically shaded by dense cloud covers, I now must contend with the knowledge that to see Neowise again I would need to live another 6800 years or so. Fortunately for the healthy among us the brightly blessed Hale-Bopp, which as you may recall came through 23 years ago, will make another appearance in 4380. That is merely 2360 years from now!
As I awaited darkness, peeking through the clouds of mosquitoes eagerly eying my choice red plasma just out of reach inside my car windows, the streaky fingers of a weather front began inching across the northwestern sky. I’m told there is nothing longer than a watched clock 20 minutes before quitting time. If that’s infuriating you should watch a race between an approaching storm front and darkness with the appearance of a wide ball of sun-enlightened ice with an amazingly long tail that comes through once every 7000 years as the finish line.
Every competitive parvocellular moment was greeted with glee as first one, then a second, star appeared with the glacial-like shrouding of darkness. Peeking first over my shoulder to the southern skies, which were gathering some serious darkness, then through the passenger window to the northwest to notice that the front was moving more rapidly than the darkness. It was about three minutes to quitting time when just a faint hint of Neowise began to peek through, and now mere “inches” from the emerging edge of the incoming front.
I clamored quickly to climb from the car to grab the tripod with attached camera and set up as rapidly as possible. For whatever reason the race was gathering speed, so much so that in the end I was able to capture three ten-second long shots before Neowise was covered by the front. Three shots!
This morning I awoke to a completely overcast sky and noticed rain had come overnight. Word is that Neowise will be around for another week or so, rising ever higher into the sky as it passes us into the oblivion of galactic evermore. That is almost as good as being told by the astronomers there is no way possible that this erstwhile glob of ice will hit earth and rid us of worldwide nationalism and a treacherous pandemic. I guess we should be as thankful for that as we are hopeful for clear skies between now and then.
Several years ago Natalie Warren loaned me a special canoe paddle for an unexpected trip down the Minnesota River, and it was the most beautiful paddle ever … until a recent visit to Legacy of The Lakes Museum in Alexandria, MN, where area artists put their creativity to work onto and into nearly three dozen wooden canoe paddles.
Of course, Warren’s paddle has some authenticity these creative paddles lack since her’s bore the York Factory brand … with the F being part of the right wing of the staunchly thick Y … signifying her and Ann Raiho’s completion of the challenging “Canoeing with the Cree” trip from the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers to the Hudson Bay. The college buddies were the first two women to complete the trip made famous by Eric Sevareid’s 1935 report of his trip that has served as an inspiration for many. Just holding it would have been enough, but her encouragement to go ahead and use it was unbelievable.
Those on display at the Alexandria boat museum are of a different breed and of varied medium.
Carol Swenson, the curator of the Legacy of the Lakes, who this spring prior to the coronavirus situation, put a call to artists to create paddle art as a fundraiser for this unique boat museum (which was a treat to visit even before the paddles!). The paddle art she received almost defies imagination. For an example, Quincy Roers titled his “Padd’led to the Bone” and not only carved a skull into the blade, but continued the carving up through the handle! How many of us have felt like this paddling across a blazing hot lake in the BWCA in the middle of summer?
Many artists painted lake scenes or used a Viking’s motif. There was an imitation of an Alaskan Tlingit paddle. Kristin Roers made a waxy aurora borealis encaustic painting that was eye-stopping. There were wood burnings, a collage and even a couple of paddle sculptures. Mary, my fiancée, painted one of her beloved Sandhill Cranes on her paddle blade, and mine was a “paddle river” created by using a curved “current of grain” from a maple board.
Swenson found it interesting in the many ways artists responded with their affiliation with nature and native peoples, of how artists saw the “canvas” in the blade and stopped there, or saw the blade and the handle as the canvas as a whole. Some artists worked with the characteristics and colors of the wood of the paddle to create an artwork. “Since it was the first time we’ve done something like this, we didn’t know what to expect. But we believed that community artists’ responses would be awesome and they were,” she said.
This was intended partially as a fundraiser for museum with artists paying a small fee to enter, with an option for the paddles to be sold at the end of the exhibit. Some will be, although many opted to keep their creations. Although there was more to it than that. “We have talked about the front of the museum having a temporary gallery being used for art in recent years, and last year we featured the framed prints of woodcuts by the late Charles Beck,” said Swenson. “So we were looking for ideas.”
A member of the museum’s Exhibits, Education and Collections Committee, Jack Driscoll, suggested “applying the concept of ‘mail art’ with paddles being the focus to incorporate art into the exhibit. This sent us on a mad internet search and quickly discovered https://algonquinoutfitters.com/event/ao-charity-paddle-art-auction/ which included samples their beautiful paddles,” she added. An idea was born, or more accurately, shared.
“Blank” paddles were ordered from Cabela’s, and the call was put out through the local Artist’s Guild, for one, along with word of mouth within both the boating and artist communities, and the fun began. As the paddles began streaming in, mostly during the pandemic lock down due to the coronavirus, Swenson and her team got a huge lift mentally, as well as a bit of trepidation … the same sort of fear and concerns most of us had during that time. Would the museum be opened in time for a tourist season … if there was going to be such a season. The museum actually opened on July 1, with the paddle art being part of a temporary exhibit on “Slo Boats” that includes a historic dugout canoe, among others.
“Our original thought was to allow a couple of weeks of People’s Choice voting and then announce winners of that category as well as the Artists’ and Jury’s categories,” said Swenson. “Because of the pandemic, we started rethinking how that will be done, but there will definitely be a public recognition of the project and the artists sometime in the future. Unfortunately, there are a lot of ‘to be determineds’ which is very frustrating.”
Despite the challenges she and the museum are facing, the hangable paddles have been hung in various fashions on darkened panels, with the paddle sculptures placed nearby. While social distancing and masks are requested, the Legacy of the Lakes is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, and from noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Besides the paddle art, an immense fishing lure collection and an interesting variety of boats, the museum also has a picturesque park with formal gardens. Legacy of the Lakes is located on Third Avenue West at the very north end of downtown Alexandria.
“It’s been fun and makes an interesting and rather unique display,” said Swenson. And for us, it was fun to be a part of the creative exhibit. No, Natalie Warren’s special canoe paddle isn’t part of the display and is a beauty into itself, but the array of artistic paddles is well worth a visit.