A Landscape Without ‘Homesickness’

Glacial geologist Carrie Jennings stood at the overlook of the expansive and hilly Ordway Prairie to give us a brief lesson on our momentary view. “This is what Sibley State Park would look like without trees,” she said. Prairie, not forest; grass not oaks. Two different landscapes on the same glacial moraine, both now protected.

This came to mind this weekend in crow-flight miles to the west where another portion of this ancient glacial ridge was recently converted from prairie to croplands no one needs, followed by the construction of huge, towering grain bins and an access tower visible in all directions for all to see. Runoff from the marginal and vulnerable soils may threaten three lakes — Linka, Scandi and Gilchrist.

Then there was the hapless Ortonville, MN, councilman, who during discussions over a controversial gravel pit being protested years ago on a meadow blessed with outcrops just below the headwaters of the Minnesota River, said, “All we have are our rocks.”

Bear with me, for there is a connection. Yes, the Ordway and Sibley State Park are presumably safe from corporate and mankind encroachment for future generations to study and admire, yet the unique outcrops washed clean from the earth’s bedrock at the headwaters by the Glacial River Warren 12,000 years ago will likely never be turned into an “environmental memory pod” … otherwise known as a state park. Or, if you prefer, an “island of past landscapes.” Pods or islands where we may escape solastalgia ­— that feeling people have when home landscapes become unrecognizable through environmental change.

Within the boundaries of the nearby Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, the outcrops are likely saved for prosperity, although those closest to the headwaters of the Minnesota River may end up as rubble from future mining operations.

That was a term coined by Glenn Albrecht, honorary associate at the School of Geosciences of Murdoch University, which he says describes a “homesickness you have when you’re still at home.”

Many Minnesotans have historically escaped such feelings due to the foresight of those forefathers who invested in protecting these various islands of past landscapes, from prairies to woodlands, from bogs to trout stream valleys in the Driftless. Did they go far enough? Were particular pods of past landscapes missed or ignored? I’d suggest the outcrops as one possibility and the prairie potholes as another, both created by the last major glacier.

While I love the two pieces of Big Stone Lake State Park, divided between “Meadowbrook” and “Bonanza,” sadly those shouldered outcrops rising from the earth just below the headwaters will likely one day be little more than piles of rocky rubble from various future mining operations. Those rocks! A friend known locally as Babboo, who offers vivid descriptions on this area’s unique natural history, once gave an impromptu tour of the headwater outcrops and pointed out bison rubs so polished and smooth the granite glistened in the sun. This wasn’t unlike the gneiss and granite sample boulders polished by man-made tools at a natural history park outside of Rosendal, Norway. The difference was that one was the result of eons of rubbing by an iconic prairie animal now both rare and selectively domesticated versus that of a power tool. 

Bluemounds State Park is an “island of prairie” surrounded by commodity farming, and is one of the few places where the endangered white fringed prairie orchid exists, along with a beautiful herd of bison.

Hence, there is no shrine here as at Itasca State Park for the headwaters of the Mississippi, although the outcrops are decidedly more bold and equally as interesting. How sad. Even sadder is that there is no island of past landscapes for the prairie potholes that are now 99 percent extinct due to drainage and ditching and commodity cropping. The closest you can find to true prairie is perhaps Blue Mounds and Glacial Lakes State Parks. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to preserve something that no longer exists. Solastalgia? Maybe, but then there is likely no one alive who remembers or can describe a prairie pothole vista. Can you miss something you’ve never had a chance to know? Or, see?

One needs to look no further than to the entrance of Blue Mounds State Park to realize it’s indeed an island surrounded by commodity cropping. Glacial Lakes has huge and magnificent native burr oak savannas, yet the beautiful prairie near the horse camp is part of the same moraine as Sibley and that prairie which was recently converted to commodity cropping. None of these portray the flat former prairie pothole region that existed past the ridge of the moraine ­— pockets of water that are partially visible after an early melt over frozen ground come spring. A flight overhead will reveal a half dozen or more potholes (wetlands or sloughs) per quarter section of cropped farmland as far as you can see. 

Maplewood State Park is surrounded by tourist villages and lake homes, though the unique ecosystem of deciduous trees and lakes are protected within the park.

Many of the other landscapes have been set aside as islands of past landscapes throughout Minnesota. Sixty-seven state parks in all. Each offers a glimpse of a biome worth noting. For example, the bog at Bemidji Lake State Park offers us an opportunity to see extremely rare bog plants. The bog might have survived modern mankind, although the rest of the park’s landscape may have long been converted into lakeside cottages and a hilly, tree-lined suburbia … much like what is visible just outside of the park. 

A recent drive through Camden and Maplewood State Parks offers other examples of landscapes preserved for future generations as well as reminders now of what was. Though both are “carved up” with roads and campgrounds, as are most state parks, Camden is surrounded by six-figure homes on the edge of the bluff overlooking the Redwood River. Yet that valley within the park is preserved and protected. 

At Maplewood, which is surrounded by lakes crowded with cabins and small resort towns, it doesn’t take much of an imagination to see the same for those beautiful, deciduous wooded hills that are such a delight come autumn. Maplewood even has a motorless lake with a single, pack-in camping site that is ripe for largemouth bass and bluegill fishing. Again, a motorless lake!

We find Bemidji Lake State Park unique due to the bog walk, where unique bog plants like the Dragon’s Mouth Orchid, Pitcher Plants and Stemless Ladyslippers can be found. Otherwise the parkland might be chock full of lake homes and a minor suburbia.

Granted, nothing is perfect, and applause is awarded those who created and still create these beautiful shrines and protection for these past landscapes. These treasures should be as appreciated for what they are. Some have argued that Wildlife Management Areas (WMA’s) have served to preserve the prairie … though they are typically quite small, are basically restored rather than being native prairie and lack the potholes as well as the natural diversity common to virgin prairie. Besides, two of those WMAs near our farm are cut for hay each summer, downgrading their importance as wildlife havens. 

Albrecht talks about the importance of a positive “sense of place” in people’s lives, and of the significance of what the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan called ‘topophilia’, or “the love of place and landscape.” In these two instances his topophilia went missing.

Is this image from the Red River Valley in springtime representative of the now extinct prairie pothole region? No one is alive who know, a unique landscape ignored and long past being preserved. Solastalgia? It’s doubtful you can feel “homesickness” for a landform and ecosystem you’ve never known, and can’t.

Some will argue that Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge has saved the outcrops within its boundaries, which is true, and much of the junk vegetation has been cut and removed from the rocks to make the granite and gneiss mounds appear more natural. It’s still a shame those outcrops closest to the headwaters aren’t protected, although while still possible is highly unlikely. Setting aside the prairie pothole biome as a possible “island of past landscapes” would be impossible for its natural state is long extinct. This unique landscape and ecosystem unfortunately never reached a point of the “homesickness you have when you are still at home” – a landscape missed and thoroughly ignored.

Departures …

A good naturalist would have noted the time, date, temperature … all the pertinent circumstances and details. I’m not a good naturalist. I can’t even remember the exact month let alone the day the barn swallows departed. 

I remember us sitting on the deck on that sunny and warm morning near noon, hearing the ever present screeching “CHEEPs” from the gutters above us, and from the nearby clothesline and roof peaks of the studio and wood shop. Above the bluestem of our adjacent prairie the swallows flew in their delightful dips and dives, before suddenly making an awesome aerial pirouette. Feathered jets, mouths agape, collecting ever present mosquitoes and gnats! It is suggested swallows may be among the fastest flying birds with estimates of 64 mph. And, they’re noisy. 

We were amused and pleased as the recent murmuration touched our prairie and grove, then one morning they were gone.

We were talking, my friend and I, having a sandwich, when we looked at one another sort of startled, for it was suddenly deathly quiet. Total silence save for the rustle of leaves in the breeze. Our piece of the prairie was completely naked of sound. Not one swallow sat on the gutters, eaves or clotheslines. The prairie was devoid of the swooping jet-like birds. We were left with an unexpected silence, an even louder silence than when a harsh prairie wind, one that whips branches of even the sturdiest burr oaks, suddenly dies. Just like that even those birds that had left the nest mere weeks before were somewhere off on a flight of more than 5,000 miles to places I’ve never been.

Ah, the mysterious nature of migrations. Especially those sudden departures. Even ornithologists with emeritus status, who’ve studied bird behavior throughout their lifetimes, agree. 

On close examination you can see the amulets of the redwings … so are they stragglers or from this year’s nests?

Collectively we seem to rejoice the spring migrations here in the western edge of the Mississippi Flyway. Around our part of the prairie we have hundred of thousands of snow and blue geese populating wetlands for a few days of feeding and rest come spring. A few years ago huge populations stopped just north of here, and last year we spent the first days of the pandemic lock down about 15 miles due east where a huge flock of both (along with some swans) took over a basic farm section in ghost-like seasonal wetlands. In years past we’ve been seduced by the historic gathering of sandhill cranes along the banks of the North Platte in central Nebraska, and we once caught what seemed like a million redwing blackbird murmuration above a bend of the Yellow Medicine River late one spring afternoon.

And, there is the pure joy of seeing the first huge pod of white pelicans suddenly in contrast to deep blue skies each spring. Shore birds wade wetland edges, while warblers and other songbirds dash from branch to branch even in our small grove. We delight when the seemingly same two pair of wood ducks come each spring in search of nesting trees in our grove. Each sighting regardless of the species delightfully fulfills the satisfaction of welcoming another spring to our collective souls!

Cormorants found refuge in a small Maplewood State Park lake …

Fall migrations? While we haven’t joined the serious bird watchers with high powered binoculars at the top of the Empire State Building in downtown Manhattan to catch the flecks of jet streaming warblers overhead, we have ventured to Hawk’s Ridge on the outskirts of Duluth to wonder as migrating raptors catch the currents above Lake Superior on a frosty October morning. Those are just a couple of instances of pilgrimages for the autumn migrations that seems less eventful. Mostly it’s here one moment, gone the next with little if any fanfare. Many of the redwings you see in huge murmurations in the spring seem to simply disappear from the wetlands as did the swallows from our Listening Stones Farm. Yet, for the past few days a growing murmuration of redwings have gathered here in our grove. Stragglers? Newbie’s from this summer’s hatch? Ah, the mystery!

Recent trips through the nearby Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge indicates that several species are gathering. We witnessed growing murmurations as we crossed North Dakota a few weeks ago. Soon on a warm, fall afternoon, gulls will glide over our prairie home in poetic symmetry, either as a flock or singular as if on a string, one after another. Over on Big Stone Lake you may catch hundreds of resting coots through the bright yellow autumn colored leaves of dogwood, and the skeins of geese are larger in numbers and ever more present. 

Hundreds of Franklin Gulls in migratory flight above the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.

What we see here, though, is somewhat meaningless in the overall scheme of migrations, and after years of experience and knowledge of radar use what we see may be as interesting as it is inconclusive. “Studying the movements of one species, let alone the hundreds, is a fundamental challenge,” writes Kyle Horton of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in an article published in Science Magazine. “Because the drivers of avian migration are so complex, we need a system that captures that complexity.” 

Successful migration requires coordination of a variety of physiological, behavioral and ecological systems. “Birds must navigate accurately using multiple cues, time their journeys precisely, deal with winds that may blow them off course, find food in transient and unfamiliar environments, and often re-engineer their bodies to store energy and save weight,” added Benjamin Van Doren, a Cornell co-author of the article with Horton.

Another murmuration, this one earlier in the week at Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.

The two say environmental drivers, such as temperature, atmospheric pressure and precipitation play important roles in determining when large groups of birds take flight. With so many intermingling factors, the ecology of avian migration is exceedingly complicated — in short, it’s hard to know exactly when birds of a feather will flock together. Then, suddenly disappear. Ah, the mystery!

Each year billions of birds navigate the skies on biannual migrations, traveling great distances at tremendous heights, some thousands of feet in a night’s darkness, back and forth between breeding and wintering sites that sometimes lay a continent apart. Like ancient humans crossing vast seas, some birds plot their courses using the stars. Others follow the ebb and flow of Earth’s electromagnetic field — using it not just as a compass, but as a kind of visual heads-up display to identify their position on the globe.

Coots in migratory rest in the Refuge, silhouetted against the shimmering early morning sunlight.

Ah, the mysteries! 

Here on the ground, on our small space of prairie-land, we catch only the hints, those moments of rest and rejuvenation. For the past week our grove has harbored those hundreds of redwings in an ever moving feast taken from an adjacent harvested cornfield. We sat on the deck earlier this week, Mary with her coffee and me with my tea, watching groupings from a few to dozens skitter from the treetop perches to the field, and back again. Ever restless! That afternoon, they were nowhere to be seen. The following morning, the murmur was as loud as the geese gathering in the wetland just over the rise. Then … they were gone.

On a drive through the nearby Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, on the huge reservoir of damed water, thousands of coots bobbed in wind-blown waves. Warblers darted through the mullein and sumac. Will any be here this morning? Tomorrow? Will there be a sudden explosion of wings lifting all from the water, in seeming chaos, blocking the moon or sun, as some force beckons them into the air? Like the redwings here?

On Big Stone Lake, coots in rest through the yellow of fall foliage.

Beyond the mysteries I find a certain sadness about autumn migrations … a feeling so opposite that of the promise of summer felt during spring migrations when the arrival of snow geese are as welcomed as pasque flowers on a prairie hill. Now, though, it’s not unlike watching the taillights of your lover’s car disappearing down the road, a feeling that was so vividly realistic on the afternoon the swallows left so abruptly that they left behind such a startling silence. Or, of waking this morning to discover the grove was completely empty of the murmuration. 

Ah, Maplewood!

Helplessness is a feeling I so thoroughly dislike, yet one that is seemingly ever present. As I drive through the countryside I see signs around me posted in yards and along the highway promoting a president who has done so little to bring our diverse population together during racial protests, turmoil and a health pandemic that has killed more than 200,000. So much “political popcorn” that I’m reminded of the 1975 publication of Alvin Toffler’s “EcoSpasm,” which, in part, described the economic situation in Germany in the 1930s that gave rise to Hitler’s dictatorship. 

More recently we have watched from afar to witness how Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán can now rule by decree for an indefinite period of time. That such an erosion of democracy could happen openly in the heart of Europe has caused an uproar, with many questioning what, if anything, the European Union can do to stop one of its own from undermining the very values that underpin the bloc, according to the Atlantic. My son, Aaron, who lived for years in Budapest said, “The scary part is that Orbán’s rise was all done legally, by their constitution. And, it could happen in the States …”

Our president has offered unveiled hints of achieving just that, and so much is in place for it to happen: gerrymandered polling districts, closures of polling sites in areas heavily populated by people of color, voter suppression tactics particularly in Republican states, and most recently an attack on mail-in balloting and the U.S. Postal Service. There are more creative tactics almost daily, plus a Senate that apparently loves sitting on their respective hands!

To escape this current onslaught of chaos and helplessness I find I must head to spots in the timber and prairie where there is a semblance of peacefullness and order; places that offer a convenient and medatative calmness. One such place is Maplewood State Park. Ah, Maplewood!

“For the first time in my life, and maybe for the first time since the Civil War, the fate of constitutional democracy in the United States is on the line, and it’s on the line because the president has put it there,” said William Galston, chair of the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program. “It is a clear and present danger.”

Ah, Maplewood!

“This is unprecedented for us — the scope and scale of the size of these wildfires and the impact they are having on people around the state,” said Dale Kunce, who heads the American Red Cross Cascades Region in Oregon.

Ah, Maplewood!

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who championed women’s rights — first as a trailblazing civil rights attorney who methodically chipped away at discriminatory practices, then as the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, and finally as an unlikely pop culture icon — has died at her home in the nation’s capital.

Ah, Maplewood!

The Postal Service, long an afterthought in the political process, has been drawn into the fray after its new leader, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, implemented a series of cost-cutting measures that delayed deliveries nationwide. The changes have sparked a flurry of legal challenges and caused concerns over the agency’s ability to handle the anticipated crush of election mail this year, although DeJoy has said it will be the Postal Service’s top priority.

Ah, Maplewood!

The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus topped 200,000 Tuesday, by far the highest in the world, hitting the once-unimaginable threshold six weeks before an election that is certain to be a referendum in part on President Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis.

Ah, Maplewood!

America’s worsening climate change problem is as polarized as its politics. Some parts of the country have been burning this month while others were underwater in extreme weather disasters. The already parched West is getting drier and suffering deadly wildfires because of it, while the much wetter East keeps getting drenched in mega-rainfall events, some hurricane-related and others not. Climate change is magnifying both extremes.

Ah, Maplewood!

With Siberia seeing its highest temperature on record this year and enormous chunks of ice caps in Greenland and Canada sliding into the sea, countries are acutely aware there’s no vaccine for global warming. “We are already seeing a version of environmental Armageddon,” Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said, citing wildfires in the western U.S. and noting that the Greenland ice chunk was larger than a number of island nations. This was meant to be the year “we took back our planet,” he said. Instead, the corona-virus has diverted resources and attention from what could have been the marquee issue at this U.N. gathering. Meanwhile, the U.N. global climate summit has been postponed to late 2021.

Ah, Maplewood!

Revelations that President Donald Trump is personally liable for more than $400 million in debt are casting a shadow over his presidency that ethics experts say raises national security concerns he could be manipulated to sway U.S. policy by organizations or individuals he’s indebted to. New scrutiny of Trump, who claims great success as a private businessman, comes after the New York Times reported that tax records show he is personally carrying a staggering amount of debt — including more than $300 million in loans that will come due in the next four years. “Americans should be concerned about the president’s debt because it’s a national security risk for our country,” said Donald Sherman, deputy director of the nonprofit government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). “This is information that the president has aggressively and repeatedly tried to keep away from the public.”

Ah, Maplewood!

Given that Trump’s eldest son has a documented track record of trying to corrupt our elections and subvert the national interest on his father’s behalf, it’s not surprising that Donald Trump Jr. is now actively trying to supply that rationale by calling for an “army” of volunteers to join a campaign’s Election Day security team. 

Ah, Maplewood!

The president of the United States has declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the 2020 election — ratcheting up previous rhetoric baselessly casting doubt on the legitimacy of what polls suggest is a likely defeat.

Ah, Maplewood, where breezes riffle leaves in the silence of timbered wood far distant from the printed page and muted radio; where autumn leaves are colorful and bright, and skies seem clear and often blue. All of which is reflected in the numerous lakes and potholes hidden in the wooded hills; hills with surprises tucked in the timber, and waters with swans adding a sense of poetic grace to the overall peacefulness. How great thou art!