Traditions …

Time, it seems, has had it’s way with me for some of the details escape me. These past few days have been a mix of nostalgia and regret. Regret that due to this Covid-19 pandemic and the deaths of the last remaining aunts on my mother’s side of the family in the past couple of years that our annual jaunt to Missouri for Thanksgiving won’t happen this year. I thought we had gone last year, but I was reminded of the weather. Either on our end or their’s. So we didn’t go. Those are among the details escaping me.

Replacing the gathering back in my home country will instead be a Zoom trivia contest among family “teams,” one of which includes the expats, my son in Norway and a niece in Mexico. We’ll likely “zoom in” just to see the familiar faces. I’ll miss staying at my sister’s place, her glassed-in backyard solarium and walks in the nearby state park and the landlocked 20 acres of timberland as part of my inheritance. 

From my sister’s solarium a few Thanksgivings ago …

While I loved the inherited timberland, there were a few points in my life when I thought it would be a perfect place to settle into at my now age. There was a lovely deep ravine that if damed would have made a lovely little lake surrounded by woods comprised of spindly shagbark hickory and mighty oaks. A guy with a bulldozer wasn’t sure that the right kind of clay needed to hold water was present. As beautiful as those trees were, we lacked an easement and we had no way of actually knowing if the reticent neighbor who owned the three sides abutting the land closest to the gravel road would have been willing to an agreement. Lawyer fees on top of the costs of bringing in “rural water” and electricity were too concerning, so those dreams died this year when the other neighbor abutting the fourth side of the woodlot bought it … which more than paid for our new camper trailer. We’ve already had more use from it than I’ve had from the woodland in all these years. Count your blessings!

We didn’t make many of the Thanksgiving trips back from Colorado, although that changed when we moved to Minnesota in 1982. The trip down was half as far as the trip from Denver, and the weather (for the most part) was usually less of a risk. One year a blizzard ended our trip south about an hour into it, and another time we were stranded in an Iowa motel on the way home. Then there was last year. The blizzard on either our end or their’s. 

A maple leaf from the roadside fringe at Long Branch State Park …

I’m reminded of traditions within traditions, and one that was turned over to me years ago was the oyster dressing (stuffing). Sometime in the late 1800s my grandmother’s family would send a gunny sack of fresh oysters by train from the Boston area … well, to be frank, from Salem. These would arrive shortly before Thanksgiving and were shucked and used in the Thanksgiving dressing before they spoiled. Sometime in the 1950s my mother took over the making of the dressing, and then later, in the 1990s, the “chore” became mine. When I make it for the second year here on our farm, the tradition continues into its third century, and perhaps for 140 or so years within our family.

Admittedly, I don’t make it like my dear mother, who measured ingredients by pinches and fistfuls, monitored by solely by taste with the tip of a spoon. Well, that last part hasn’t changed. It’s all in getting the right blend of cornbread, chunks of dried bread and appropriate spices, although the spices are rather simple. Ample amounts of sage (remember her fistfuls?), a bit of pepper and salt and ample melted butter. Just enough eggs to mold it into a soupy mixture before adding the canned oysters. Onions were always added  … until I tempted tradition a few years ago to remove them so my sister and the husband of a cousin, once removed, could enjoy the fare.

My generation carried the old family tradition for several years even as moves from our old hometown began creating family separations. My adult cousins maintained a sense of “residence” while my aunts and their mothers charged on. Now they’re spreading out as well, and the “dinner” portion of the tradition was taken on by the daughter of one of my cousin’s daughters – the third generation to host the family gathering within my lifetime. These past two years the dinner was in Kansas City where the cousin-mother and daughter now live next door to one another. By now they might have even changed the menu to local KC-styled BBQ instead of the smoked and “straight” turkeys of our past. No one would have heard a discouraging word from me if this is the case. For you see, traditions are precarious and subject to change … or even come to an end.

One of the sturdy oaks in the 20 acre woodland I sold this summer, but which provided years of dreams and nice sauntering adventures through the years.

My mother began some of those by ending our Christmas traditions back in the late 1970s or early 1980s when all of her adult children and their families crossed the country to come home. My older brother’s family, including his three sons, drove in from Virginia as did my sister and her husband from New Mexico. Our baby brother came up from Houston with his partner, and we crossed the plains from Colorado. It was a joyous affair, and my sister had hand-knitted sweaters for all her brothers. Her husband helped the nephews put together their put-together toys. We shared great laughs and a wonderful traditional dinner, including the oyster dressing. We didn’t realize at the time, though, that this would be our very last Christmas together as a family, and it also was the Christmas that inspired mother to tell us it was time for all of us to start our own individual traditions. The stress she felt until she knew we were all safely home was just too much, she said. 

A few years after that Christmas our baby brother died of AIDs down in Houston, and my sister’s husband had a devastating “Monday morning heart attack” at work just before leaving on a business trip. I went through a divorce, remarried and moved to Minnesota to work as an editor for a publishing firm. 

And, now, Covid. Social distancing and warnings from medical experts to dial down the gatherings. It now appears our extended family’s Thanksgiving tradition has moved from a lively shared, in-home reunion filled with an incredible array of food, Scrabble and joyous stories and laughter to an international and out-of-town Zoom. Cousin’s Brad’s smoked turkey and the pumpkin pies, the crock of creamy chicken-infused homemade noodles, Cousin Nancy’s homemade pumpkin pies ladled with heaps of whipped cream, and yes, the oyster dressing will perhaps be no more. 

An interesting pattern of sumac in a prairie meadow at Long Branch State Park.

With one son in Norway, and another in a group home lockdown, it will be just the two of us here at Listening Stones Farm. We have our dark meat leg and thigh simmering over wild rice in the crockpot, and Mary baked  a great pie. She has some traditional staples she’ crafting now in the kitchen, and I have the zesty ingredients for the oyster dressing set aside for I’ll be damned if that tradition dies! Seems there is no snow in the forecast, and we have a lovely November day outside, which as a dear friend claims as when the “sky comes to touch the earth.” We’re looking forward to a quiet and shared Thanksgiving, one of many I am hoping we’ll share for years to come. That, too, is hopefully a tradition worth sharing and saving!

Art of Ice (and Wind)

Lately I’ve been wondering if Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pa and pioneers like him took a moment to appreciate the hidden and intricate beauty of the prairie before the cold and grayish drudgery of winter set in. Did they appreciate the grasses and wild flowers in summer, the murmurations of blackbirds so thick in the spring and fall they blackened the sky, or an Orchard Oriels pulling dabs of fluff from cattails abundantly common in the wetlands on a dewy June morning for their nests? Or, the artful beauty created by wind and ice come the beginning of winter.

Perhaps their focus was solely on surviving the thick hordes of summer mosquitoes and the need of warmth and basic survival above all else once the days became short and the temperatures way below freezing. 

Snow patches, outlined by wind-blown dirt, almost appear like a school of fish on a wetland up the road.

I was thinking of the Pa’s of the olden days recently when I caught the ethereal beauty now on display thanks to the art of ice; of how wind helps create such beauty in these last one percent of the surviving prairie potholes, or wetlands. Students of the prairie know full well that 99 percent of the wetlands are no more, ditched and tiled from existence, plowed over as part of a commodity crop coup by Pa’s generational descendants. Winter offers a special moment to catch this exhibit of nature’s natural beauty in the “canvases” of those remaining wetlands.

Experience tells me this natural art will eventually dissolve into drudgery, that all this beautiful magic, this “winter wonderland,” will soon fade into a chilly boredom of snowy sameness. Those powerful arms of burr oaks highlighted with fresh snow will blend into a jigsaw of darkened clustery shapes, those beautifully well hidden  prairie poems written by the wind and penned by the tips of bent bluestem will be erased into a blur of colorless whiteness, and the wetlands will thicken into “hard water” sheets 18 to 24 inches thick. 

An interesting natural natural minimalist and geometrical design was left behind in a wetland surrounding an elevated glacial rock.

Now is when this magical art is near us, yet after years of observations you’ll find that no two years, let alone even two days, are ever alike. This is an ever-changing exhibition in form and in light, in design and color. What is here today will likely be erased or “painted” over by the whims of nature’s brush. All we can do is observe and appreciate, day by day.

So let’s traipse along the edge of a wetland to scout along the reeds and cattails as the wind caresses the last of the algid waters to create small ice villages, exotic trapezoidal pyramids, or what might appear to be a flotilla of sailing ships set a sea in ancient times. Say the Swedish Navy in the 1500s. It’s just fine to allow your imagination to soar. Mine does.

Sometimes the art of ice and wind tickles the imagination … be they candy kisses, odd triangles or even miniature sailing ships gliding across the sea!

Winds may create ice “knuckles” at the base of cattails that rise above a blueish liquidness of a yet to be frozen wetland, perhaps reflecting the ambient colors of either a sunrise or sunset, or that richness of late afternoon light. These icy toes may be misshapen, uniquely designed by wind direction and speed. A few years ago on a nearby wetland the wind shaped ice around waterborne stumps in a way they looked like Hershey’s candy kisses. Nearly the same color as the foil wrappings, though with stems dark and tall.  

Similarly, there was an afternoon at another wetland when the tips of a willows were blown in such perfect wind circles they formed  “teapots” nearly as perfect as if they were from clay molded by a master potter. As the wind continued to blow the pots skimmed the surface in concise circles, growing ever larger, millimeter by millimeter. The next day? Gone.

A moment after an afternoon dusting of snow gave the ice and wind a place to play and create!

I once observed an early winter sunset along the edge of a wetland where intimate “sculptures” formed by wind and water captured the waning and colorful late afternoon light to offer magical ice and wind art that graced the prairie waters in a place far distanced from the hallowed halls of the Louvre. Pick your own art museum if you wish.

Recently an interesting geometrical design was left behind in a wetland surrounding an elevated glacial rock. So unembellished, yet so reminiscent of paintings found in a modern art gallery. Subtle in a natural minimalist design, awaiting the viewing of a prairie passerby.

In late afternoon drives during moments of “Monet light” these freeze/thaw cycles leave behind acres of art  subjectively designed the whims of wind, designs abandoned and frozen in cursive detail in brief moments of time, colored by ambient light of a lowering sun, yet so fickle and vulnerable come the sunlight of another day. 

Above, look closely for the “teapots” created by the willows and wind, or the “ice knuckles” created in an afternoon wind on a nearby wetland. Or, if you wish, catch the icicles bathed in a sunset.

Now, as we ease into a new winter … which for some, including myself, seems a might too early … this artistic display is now open for viewing. As an observer of nature, and in particular the prairie nature and wetlands around me, I’m finding this interesting and ever-changing beauty so fascinating. 

I don’t know if Pa and the settlers like him, nor those in the Native nations before them, appreciated a similar beauty, for I’m sure that it was there as it is here now, and in those times this artful beauty would have been so much more prevalent with the thousands of wetlands surrounding them. I’m also painfully aware of what a special eye one might need when facing tragedy and survival in turbulent times just as we are as a species now trying to survive a deadly pandemic. I’ve no doubt that some did, that they stopped ever briefly to marvel at the nature around them.

A late afternoon light, sometimes referred to as a “Monet light,” gives this interesting “canvas” on a wetland a beautiful design that is likely here today and gone tomorrow.

Perhaps these observations are absolutely necessary in our time now, where even a moment spent near unmasked humanity could prove fatal. Maybe this is the escape I needed in this frightening world, places I can hide away ever briefly, to view and perhaps even photograph this  ever-changing art of ice and wind found in what remains of the relatively few and rare surviving prairie potholes. 

A Day of Wait

The wait begins. Perhaps bringing an end to these past few weeks of uneven sleep, unexplainable anger, the short temper and issues with focusing, and above all, the “doom scrolling.”

Yes, I’m guilty, for the doom scrolling is nearly as hypnotic as it is fruitless, and above all it’s overwhelmingly hard on the soul. Doom scrolling is fervent on the social media sites I frequent. Admittedly there are so many positives for the site that I am hesitant to leave. Just last week for my birthday I received nearly 300 greetings from friends from a dozen countries, and it’s the heart of the marketing efforts for my art. Yet I seemingly spend long moments of time, though not hours as some do, scrolling through the feeds that are full of doom and dread. 

Television isn’t much of an escape, and never was for me. Political ads are mostly awful. My avid morning newspaper reading finds me skipping over some stories for I know our president will be quoted. Driving to town isn’t much of an escape for I see neighbors I feel I should trust flying Trump flags, and when I see one next to an American flag my blood pressure spikes.

So how do you escape? Henrietta Couillard, a therapist at The Family Partnership in Minneapolis, says, “Going to a calm place in your mind can help to ground you in more positive thinking.”

My escaping, in finding peace, took me back into the archives to get away from “doom scrolling. This from the Lake Johanna Esker.

This what I’m needing, and what I seek. During our cold and windy days of the forthcoming winter here on the prairie I have found escape going through old image files when we’re not on a photo foray. Sometimes I will stop on an image to re-crop it, or work with the contrast. To somehow make it different. More appealing than the last time around. Doing so has helped me relive past trips afield. Then I would move on. Something revised, perhaps saved, wondering if any of it would ever see light beyond. For now, though, it is both an escape and a hope.

Both escape and hope were present when we went to a friend’s art opening over the weekend. Beautiful plein air watercolors from her travels around the world. Everyone was masked making it difficult for me to engage in conversations, for over these past seven or eight months I’ve learned that lip reading is a significant tool for my understanding conversations. Often I would be away from the small clustered conversations, engaging instead in Joan Eisenreich’s paintings. Seeing those colors, so bright, so hopeful.

Then it returns. This dread and doom, this gloomy existence. I was raised in a democracy. Yet over the past several years we’ve watched as what was at once an honorable conservative party create innumerable ways of suppressing voters of their democratic voices. Political pundits suggest that a fair and democratic polling process would end their reign at the White House and in the Senate. That is apparently their fear. And it doesn’t stop. Less than a week from our election day a federal court overturned an agreement reached during the summer between both parties. Two of the three justices ruled that ballots received after 8 p.m. on the election day wouldn’t be counted even if postmarked on November 3. Understand that in their fear they’ve also packed the courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

Birds are often a “refuge” for me mentally, and this early morning image from the Sandhill Crane migration two years ago caught my reflective eye.

The day prior to the art opening news came of several pickup trucks surrounding a Biden/Harris campaign bus between San Antonio and Austin, which according to numerous reports attempted to push it off the road. Their fearful efforts were applauded by the president. He also blessed efforts in other areas of the country where road blocks to balloting sites were blocked by his supporters. Voters standing in line have been pepper sprayed and harassed. Armed terrorists have been recruited by the president’s son and others to patrol what they call “rough areas.” Do you need a translation? Placing armed white guys outside polling sites in non-white areas. Intimidation. Arming to create fear. We’ve become a Third World country.

Let’s be blunt: this political party is so thoroughly convinced that victory is near impossible without these various voter harassment and suppression efforts. In retrospect I think of post-WWI Germany and the rise of Hitler, of Cuba with Castro, and more recently of Sarajevo, a multicultural city where residents seemingly lived in such peaceful harmony it was paraded as near Utopian when the Olympics were held there. Then came the rise of a Serbian takeover that turned neighbors against neighbors, friends against friends, and family against family. Sound familiar? Is this happening here, with us, in what until four years ago was a beacon of democracy worldwide before our current president, his party and his cultish followers have turned into an international joke, and a fearful one at that.

Sara Wolbert’s story prompted me to find this image of a Bald Eagle fleeing with a fish at the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.

Thankfully I have friends who are more positive and hopeful than me. Over the weekend Sara Wolbert was helping her partner track down a deer he had shot when they came across a dead eagle … our national symbol of strength and she offered a possible metaphor: “Even in times of uncertainty, there are opportunities to find strength. I’ve heard that some apex predators transition when the world needs their help.”

Seeing hope within a deceased eagle, which by the way is en route to a Native nation.

So, the wait begins. I’m nervous as are most of the people I know including my friend, Allison Maraillet. She, a child of the prairie, married a Frenchman and lived in France for years before they recently moved to be near their daughter in Quebec. This weekend she shared this quote from Napolean: “Je ne peux vivre sans champagne, en cas de victoire, je le mérite; en cas de défaite, j’en ai besoin.”

Translated: “I can’t live without champagne, in case of victory, I deserve it; in case of defeat, I need it.” So we wait with the tremendous hope that we’ll deserve it!