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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.