Could Have Been Worse

Twenty twenty. Covid and a comet, masks and what those folks in Grand Marais call “staying a moose apart” caused many of us to seek safety among those who stubbornly refused to call Covid little more than a hoax. And, in the end, it perhaps surpassed 1968 as the most eventful year of my lifetime. And, it could have been worse!

We’re now just a few weeks from having new sheets on the beds of the White House, a change which will hopefully bring some semblance of peace, compassion and calm from the past four years. With it, too, perhaps an end of this deadly pandemic that is now costing us more people per day just in the United States than who died in 9/11. 

Despite the precautions and worry, we still had an eventful and full year. Our highlight was that within our circles of friends no one has died from Covid-19. We discovered, as did many, Zoom “Happy Hours.” With summer came “driveway” gatherings. Bonfires at the lake. Mary’s sister, Trish, a retired nurse, devised a plan where servers for our “potlucks” divided portions into per couple servings, a strategy we carried with us on our multi-couple “caravan” gathering at a Montana state park in September. By then I had “traded” a 20 acre, land-locked piece of timber for a R-Pod camper trailer that Mary and I used for trips to state parks in Minnesota as well as on our trip to the “Big Sky.” 

Art-wise, I had a single exhibit at the Marshall Fine Arts gallery. No Meander, nothing much at all.  This didn’t stop the “creating” for both of us, thankfully, and what had become an annual pilgrimage to the Lake Bemidji Lake State Park in search of the Dragon’s Mouth orchid finally paid off. Rather than being too early or too late, we actually found and photographed three of them. 

Our nature visits were godsend. Not just in the bogs. We had some splendid moments in the prairie as well. For about a week we made repeated visits to a couple of “melt” potholes where a huge flock of snow and blue geese had stopped for rest and refreshments. We made it to the Johanna Lake Esker at different times, and walked both our prairie here and the Griffin land near Lake Linka. The nearby Big Stone Lake State Park and the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge were visited regularly. We also journeyed to the Gunflint Lodge for a Northern Lights event that didn’t happen, with a highlight of watching a wolf chomping on sunflower seeds well after midnight that we had dropped just outside our window for the birds.

All those trips, and especially the two major ones ­— to Montana in September and our pre-pandemic Texas through Virginia journey in January — were really the highlights personally and photographically. We had just begun the rehab following Mary’s knee replacement when the pandemic lock-down began. Here is my annual “display” of some of my works for the year. Here’s to a more normal new year: 

Whooping Cranes on a remote island at Aranas National Wildlife Refuge, Rockport, TX.
Sumac and aspen, near Spicer.
White Egret at the Grotto in Fergus Falls.
Ah, my Dragon’s Mouth Orchid peeking through the foliage at Bemidji Lake State Park bog.
Sometimes one gets lucky. A starling caught near my feeder tree in a moonrise.
Sunset through cottonwood.
Soft Showys near Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge.
The comet!
Dove … through the trees here during a smokey sunset.
Grace in Autumn.
Fog over a wetland.
Sunrise at Glacial Lakes State Park.
Beautiful buck at Big Stone Lake State Park.
My annual Winter Solstice image on a nearby wetland … in the shades of Charlie Beck!

Gray Christmas, Continued

Yesterday I posted a blog titled, Gray Christmas, which focused on the windblown dirt particles that were deposited after the big blizzard. Many of my friends responded with photographs of their own from all over the West Central area of the Minnesota Prairie. From the roadsides to their places in towns. Some wrote to say they’ve never witnessed a worse snirt storm … that combination of snow and dirt … in their memory.

We each have our individual experiences, and I can date back to being so fed up with such poor care of precious farm land back in 2014 that I made a series of photographs that became my “Art of Erosion” series that was exhibited at numerous venues and was part of a traveling Smithsonian water exhibit.

Not much has changed since, and every winter since I could have replicated the photographs from six winters ago. Then on Christmas day Mary and I took the dogs for a stroll through our prairie, then later the woodlot, and there was hardly a square meter of clean snow. It was gray from wind blown soil from somewhere. This led to my blog on Gray Christmas, and since readers from all over the prairie had sent pictures they’ve taken. So far we have images from Big Stone, Chippewa, Stevens, Kandiyohi, Pope, Renville, Lac qui Parle, Yellow Medicine and Lyon Counties. Photos were taken along roadsides as well as in towns, and includes what was previously a white kitten!

Although I’ve included some of the original photos, here is a more complete gallery:

From a farm site in Kandiyohi County, a white cat dirtied by blown dirt … dirtied snow is visible behind the cat.
While we’re in Kandiyohi County, a yard and highway shoulder smothered in snirt.
A Stevens County organic farm may have barely been spared a wind-blown compromise, for the dirt may possibly be contaminated by pesticides and other farm chemicals that would have ruined the farm’s certification.
A fenced pasture on the right side of the fence line and the Pomme De Terre River below are inundated with blown dirt in Stevens County just a few miles south of Morris.
It was hardly surprising that a recently converted glacial moraine to cropland in Pope County exhibited the affects of blown dirt.
A roadside view from a car window in Chippewa County …
A farm site where the buildings and piled snow were covered with snirt …
Stairs of a Clara City home is covered with dirt ..
This lawn of a rural Clara City organic farmer, with no tilled acreage, is literally covered in snirt …
In Renville County …
An in-town window in Olivia …
A roadside near Dawson in Lac qui Parle County …
A country lawn west of Clarkfield in Yellow Medicine County …
And, from Lyon County near Ghent …
A front porch seating area on a farm near Murdock in Swift County …
Shadows and snirt from our prairie here on Listening Stones Farm in Big Stone County.

There are many more, but perhaps the point is made. Poor farming practices throughout the prairie region leave soils susceptible to being blown … land that is laid bare by tillage practices in late October and November, and left bare until spring planting some seven to nine months later. What’s to go wrong?

As one of the correspondents, Tom Kalahar, a retired technician for the Soil and Water Conservation Service, wrote, “So much for a white Christmas in corn country. $50 billion the last few years in farm subsidies should buy us a better environment. Hard to support an industry that seems not to care enough to protect our soil and water.”

That about sums it up.

A ‘Gray’ Christmas

Many of us living in the temperate zone dream of having a White Christmas. Crooners have given voice to Irving Berlin’s “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas …” lyrics on nearly every holiday album for several decades across two centuries, from Bing Crosby and Perry Como to the Surfers, Bob Marley and even Lady Gaga. 

Thanks to the “weather gods” we were all set up for having our iconic white Christmas thanks to a blizzard that blew through the prairie two days before our celebration for the “birthday child.” It was to be our first snow since early October. The horizontal snow came with 40 to 50 mph winds, though, cutting across millions of acres of croplands bared to the skies since early November. And that snow for our “white Christmases” acted just like fingerprints at a crime scene … showing us in stark detail the ills of deep and dangerous farming practices. Yes, Virginia, dirt lifts into the heavens even without the snow, for the snow only shows us the devil in the details.

A Christmas wreath in Swift County, MN, covered with grit!

Here on our Listening Stone Farm prairie, evidence of blown dirt was visible throughout in both our restored grassed prairie and in the grove despite the effort of the farmer across the road who planted one of the extremely rare fields of cover crops over his harvested soybean field back in September. We know this fine sheen of black dirt didn’t come from him, yet from whom? Ah, ha! That’s the mystery, and opens a curtain to an old prairie tale that says, “It’s really no big deal if ‘dirt’ blows around. Because it will just end up in someone else’s fields and make their land better.”

How’s this for a friendly front porch setting … in Swift County, MN.

Tell that to all the historical civilizations that are no more because of eroded and blown dirt! Have you ever seen a picture where relics of past civilizations have been uncovered by several deep feet of dirt? Ever wondered where that might have come from? 

In September this was a barren soybean field the farmer then planted to a cover crop to keep his soil in place.

So, we were certainly not alone. On a day when you would expect pictures of smiling families filling the feeds of Facebook we had pictures of people in other prairie localities sadly posting pictures of dirty snow. No, not yellow snow, but grayed snow. Dirt covered snow. We first noticed it going to town the day after the blizzard just down the road. Said one farmer over in Chippewa County, “It’s hard to say our farm is organic when the neighbors send us their dirt.” Their yard on Christmas morning was simply blanketed with windblown dirt.

Dirt blown in Big Stone County, MN, sometimes offers interesting patterns of what is popularly known as “snirt.”

Which is hardly surprising, actually, for if one were to travel from Milan to Willmar on County Road 40, those 41 miles are almost completely laid bare by fall tillage practices. If you take State Highway 7 from Hutchinson to Dawson you would be hard pressed to see a single field like the one across the road. It’s all bare, mile after mile after mile. If you take Highway 12 east out of Ortonville, you won’t pass a single tilled field protected with a winter cover crop to Benson, nor from Benson to Willmar, then from Willmar to the Twin Cities. Let’s choose another route … say from Clinton to Glenwood on Highway 28. Same story. Or, from (pick a town) say, Wheaton south on the King of Highways, U.S. 75, down to Blue Mounds State Park, itself a “grassland oasis” surrounded by plowed fields, the fields all black and barren. So, let’s go east a bit to Highway 71, from Sauk Centre to the Iowa border … it all looks the same, thousands upon thousands of acres of plowed fields that are left open to blow from November until the next crop is high enough to protect the soils. For most, this comes in June. That’s nearly a full term for the birth of a baby.

This was the lawn of a Chippewa County organic farmer on Christmas morning.

It’s not just dirt, either. As a friend who lives in the middle of this “black desert” west of Clarkfield, says, “Unfortunately, the ‘new’ soil particles that cover our entire place is most likely laced with glyphosate.”  The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified glyphosate as “probably” carcinogenic to humans, and it is blamed for non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Another farmer who focuses on growing organic barley for the brewing industry, lamented, “We have ugly gray snow all around. A snowy dust bowl!”

A wind “poem” on my Listening Stones Farm prairie … accented by a layer of gray grit!

A retired Soil and Water Conservation Service technician in Renville County, Thomas Kalahar, wrote, “So much for a white Christmas in corn country. $50 billion the last few years in farm subsidies should buy us a better environment. Hard to support an industry that seems not to care enough to protect our soil and water.” Later he added, “Cover crops would eliminate it. Depending on the percentage of residue left, minimum tillage would lesson the erosion. But we keep paying them so why should they change? We get the landscape we are paying for! We demand nothing in return for our generous subsidies. So it comes down to us.”

Shared from a friend who lives west of Clarkfield in Yellow Medicine County, MN.

David. R. Montgomery, in his frightening book called, “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations,” wrote: “Projecting past practices into the future offers a recipe for failure. We need a new agricultural model, a new farming philosophy. We need another agricultural revolution. Unlike the first farmer-hunter gatherers who could move

around when their soil was used up, a global civilization cannot.”

This is where we’re at after celebrating a Gray Christmas, accepting whether we wish it or not, gifts of grit from our nearby neighbors. Several years ago I put together a series of images for my “Art of Erosion” exhibitions, a series I could repeat year after year. Montgomery, as well as a vast number of other scientists and authors, have long warned us of the frightening ills of these farming practices. It doesn’t have to be this way, for there are ways to avoid losing soils to the winds ­— as inexpensive as simply not plowing down the corn stalks to using cover crops, as my neighbor has across the road.

And in Renville County, MN, this is a roadway on Christmas morning … a scene that could be shown on any number of country highways. So, are you counting? These images were all taken on Christmas morning in Big Stone, Swift, Chippewa, Yellow Medicine and Renville Counties, pretty much the heart of prairieland farming.

A few years back in an interview with Redwood County farmer, Grant Breitkreutz, he spoke of his trepidation of planting his first cover crops before realizing the benefits far exceeded saving his soil from wind erosion. He had better water retention, that worked wonders for his crops later in the summer. He reduced his use of chemicals and realized increased tilth and soil health. “We have eliminated erosion and improved water infiltration, which means we now keep the water where it’s supposed to be,” he said. “What could be better than that?”

Not just the water, but also saving the soil … while bringing an end to gray Christmases like we just experienced. And what could be better than that?  

The Scent of Christmas

I’ve a love affair that has survived for seven decades. And I have a hint on how it all began. This love has manifested itself in curious ways, and each time it does so with the same sense that leads to fully dedicated sales counters in the best of boutiques and fancy stores. Meaning, the perfume counter fortified by finely dressed women armed with small, delicate sample bottles designed through various engineered methods to emit just enough scent to convince the buyer of the amorous love promised by the whiffs within.

My loved scent certainly lacked the promise of amorous love. It has affected me much differently, and has carried me through the building of numerous Adirondack chairs, 18 canoes and a couple of tables; a scent that also helps line haughty closets and the most desirable wooden saunas. Confused? No need to be, for I speak, of course, of scent of cedar. Like the young woman in the ridiculous car ad, “I love it!” 

My hint dates back to my childhood when on our farm in the wooded hills of Northeastern Missouri we would choose, then saw what we hoped was a perfect Eastern Red Cedar for our Christmas tree, and how later, once squeezed through the door and clamped into the red holder with the green legs, the scent of the small tree would suddenly fill the rooms for a few weeks of magic.

It took awhile, and a bit of driving, but I finally found a cedar tree around here that would pass the family test!

Of course, I feel deeply in love!

Cedars were our choice of trees for Christmas, and frankly, we knew no other. My town friends had oddly looking trees bearing little if any such scent, and I wondered how they could possibly miss such an aromatic sense on a beautiful holiday season. Just recently I surprised to learn that most of the evergreen trees sold at Christmas are actually harvested in the heat of the summer and placed in storage until it’s time to go to market. Which means like potatoes, peanuts and an amazing array of other items, these tress are obviously preserved with a smörgåsbord of chemicals to keep them “fresh.” This offers a fair possibility of why when we bought a tree for Christmas when my own children were small I would suddenly develop a “Christmas cold!”

Looking back over the years, though, there wasn’t much about those trees, regardless of species, that brought a tear of memory or a smile of joy. They were just, well, trees. Our cedar trees back home offered a real scent rather than some faint Pine-sol smell that was likely sprayed onto the trees to mask the preservatives. 

Nowadays, due perhaps to the warming climate, our idled lands along the unfarmed hillsides around here are being invaded by these same Eastern Red Cedars, and, indeed, they are quite invasive. Those lovely hills around the outcrops of the Minnesota River from Granite Falls on downriver seem inundated with hundreds of the invasive Red Cedars per acre. This led to some pretty heavy eradication efforts over the years, which has been somewhat successful. We’re now seeing more and more of the same invasion around here, and yes, some are very tall and mature, meaning they have been here for awhile.

Many of the cedars had been feasted on by deer in our immediate neighborhood, meaning a decorated step ladder might have been a better choice!

In our neck of the former prairie you would be hard pressed to find one worthy of display for the deer have rendered most helplessly too ugly for a Christmas tree harvest. The very tops may have survived the munching though not the heart of the tree. 

We didn’t see the same affect back home. For us back on the farm it wasn’t unique to make note of Christmas tree possibilities throughout the year while doing chores and farm work. Among the criteria was having a well rounded confirmation, meaning there were no “holes” in the girth of the tree. A perfect cedar rarely existed. If a portion of the tree did have a “hole,” that part would be turned to the wall and away from view. 

Indeed, there was some debate and conversation shortly after Thanksgiving on which of the trees we’d noted to cut. Each of us seemed to have the perfect find. A hay or feed wagon was hooked to a tractor along with a saw on a Saturday morning and off we would go tree hunting until one passed consensus. Besides confirmation a perfect tree couldn’t be too tall nor too wide to push through the door, though those accommodations were often addressed on the front porch. 

A good pounding was alway necessary to shake off dead needles before the tree was hoisted into the wagon and would be repeated just outside the door for good measure before the tree made an inside appearance. Sometimes that sufficed, although most times it seemed that the squeeze through would fill a dustpan at least once. 

While the outcrops and hills down river are inundated with the invasive Eastern Red Cedar, there are signs that the warming climate has created an opening further north.

Once the right height was reached, which meant taking the tree back outside at least once or twice, causing more needle drop, the tree was then “screwed” into place by the three screws in the stand and stood in place. Hopefully it stood straight without cause for further adjustment. By then the cedar scent would be filling the air as we stood in admiration and typically proclaimed this was our most beautiful tree ever. Then the decorating would begin, which as the years rolled by, typically fell to my now late brother and sister. 

We were not unique, for over the years of putting together a story for Christmas for the various newspapers I’ve learned there were many alternatives used for the celebration. In the High Plains ancestors of the original settlers used sage brush or tumble weeds. Locales offered different ideas and concepts such as artistically stacked branches, wall hangings, chalked drawings and even decorated step ladders. Santa apparently didn’t care whether it was cedar or chalk, stacked branches or even the step ladder, for Christmas didn’t always center around the commercial fir, spruce or pine trees.

This is more typical of the invasive Eastern Red Cedar on a nearby hillside.

Our last Christmas together for my parents and siblings was in the late 1970s and we once again found a beautiful small cedar to decorate my parent’s old farm house. This was in the midst of the Mother Earth News era, and we made garlands of cranberries and popped popcorn which my nephews, then in grade school, seemed to love stringing. Yes, they had driven in from Virginia, as did my brother and his partner from Houston, my sister and her husband from New Mexico, and us from Colorado. A few years later my brother would die of AIDs, and my brother-in-law would suffer a “Monday morning heart attack.” 

Yet that one Christmas, my last with a cut cedar, was full of joy and love, with family cheer and laughter and my mother laying out a beautiful spread of her traditional food … all fully accented by a scent I’ve carried with me for all these years  — that unmistakable scent of cedar. That Christmas cedar! 

A Saunter on Griffin Land

Walking the paths of the Griffin Land that sits as a saddle between lakes Linka and Gilcrest as part of what is called the Glacial Shield is a saunter through time. Their land is part of the remnant moraine of the last glacier that stands high above the flattened prairie now converted into the ditched and drained “black desert” to the Southwest — land which extends to the previous moraine dropped by the melt-back of the Des Moines lobe with a more romantic name … Buffalo Ridge. Buffalo Ridge extends north and west into South Dakota and itself acts as a shield to the flattened former prairie of the rest of southern Minnesota and most of northern Iowa.

Once the fog burned off on a recent morning came a whispered wish from the Griffin Land for Joe Pye and I to come for a jaunt through this magical hilly woodland and prairie. My friend, Jack Griffin … the son of the original owner …  keeps a nice mown path that meanders through the picturesque landscape and along the lake shores. This was our momentary escape to a paradise from the pandemic.

After all, the daytime temperatures in early December were in the mid to high 40s. Sweatshirt weather that was delightfully pleasant provided you peered past the reasons why.

To saunter is to commune with nature and all its offerings, and the Griffin Land has much to offer.

“People talk about climate change and global warming as if they’re waiting for some magic ah-ha moment that is suddenly jolting,” said artist friend, Sunny Ruthchild. We were seated across from her a few years ago in her kitchen avoiding a stifling humid and hot July afternoon, with an emphasis on humidity, while discussing plans for an artist retreat on her farm near Walnut Grove. “Well, guess what? We’re in it. This is it.”

Yes, Minnesota has increasing humidity; hazy and sticky summer afternoons and unseasonable comfortable warm winter days. Like this one. Scientists reference a “hockey stick” to describe the warming effect … the long handle illustrating baseline temperatures for the past several centuries with the sudden lift of the blade showing the off-the-chart rise in global heating of the past 30 or so years. Every year, it seems, monthly heating records are rewritten. Many of those same scientists say we’ve passed the tipping point, and evidence from around the globe and even in our United States seems to justify the claim. Is this not “jolting?”

Recently I finished reading a fine journal written by Lauren E. Oakes called “In Search of the Canary Tree,” which portrays her doctoral thesis research concerning the effects of global warming on yellow-cedar trees on the outer fringe islands of Alaska. Once past the detailed counting and documentation, Oakes recognized, thanks to an indigenous Tlingit artist, that we humans are part of the ecosystem, and like all plants and animals, we are also in the midst of a species adaptation. Whether we realize it or not, like all living matter, adaptation is dependent on our survival as a species. And, yes, we, the species, are responsible for it!

This lone pine usually grabs my attention, especially when the light seeps through the nearby deciduous trees.

Check out the evidence that is far from subtle: Two major hurricane events devastate the Gulf Coast of Louisiana within two weeks as more storms sweep out of the tropical jungles. Wildfires continue to burn in the West, a map of flaming dots from Vancouver to Vegas that looks like measles on the arm of a child. Increased desertification in many parts of the globe causing starvation of millions, and resulting in refugees seeking refuge. Islands in the Pacific that disappear because of rising sea levels. Such “weather events” as tornadoes that ravage the southern states even in winter and the derecho that blasted through Central Iowa this past summer leveling millions of acres of commodity crops. I wonder if these whack-a-mole global events are jolting enough?

Yet, the affects of global warming aren’t always so bold. Many subtle changes are happening right in front of us. Slowly and surely. The tree species Oakes was studying was dying off because of a lack of snow cover due to global climate change caused the sensitive root systems to freeze and die. Here in the temperate Midwest, all around us, the non-native, invasive emerald ash borer now survives the more mild winters to devastate our beautiful ash trees. Subtle, yet deadly. And just one of many such subtle threats.

Acres of Norway pine stretch across one hillside before the hill dips into the valley where a most beautiful wetland, a stones throw from Lake Linka, awaits.

I’m not keen enough to note such subtle and slow changes as we walk the Griffin Land. Yet, with sweatshirt December temperatures they’re surely there. Maybe in the stalky mullein on the hillside prairie. Maybe in the deciduous trees climbing up from the valleys and hillsides of this beautiful saddle that abuts both lakes. Or maybe hiding in the various pines they planted back in the 1960s. Perhaps it’s a fungus or aphid able to survive a warmer winter that would have succumbed in months of below freezing weather. Are the flocks of swans and geese sharing a small spot of open water next to the Griffin Land on Linka another clue?

Despite any hidden forces the Griffin Land is a wonderful respite for the soul, and Joe Pye perhaps received more from our loop on Jack’s fine trails than I did, although my camera was frequently lifted to the eye. This land was originally purchased by Richard “Doc” and Florence Griffin back in 1950s, a mix of some 190 acres of mixed timber and prairie. That land is now in a shared trust among Doc and Florence’s children, and that beyond the homestead is under a perpetual easement with the Nature Conservative. Meaning it is protected from encroachment and development that keeps significant portions of shores of both lakes somewhat free of cabins more reminiscent of a Minnesota lake before those shores were riddled with wanton resort and cabin development. Mary, along with a handful of others, benefit from having a “clean” landscape to view from their cabins which lines a single shore along the Linka road thanks to the Griffin Land.

I’m always stopped by the spreading limbs of an ancient oak and the nearby mullein that graces the prairie of the Griffin Land.

Doc had passed long before I came to know the Griffin’s through my relationship with Mary. Trish, her sister, is married to Jack, a wood artist and “retired” carpenter. A couple of the old timers living on Linka still relish telling Doc fishing stories, and I thorougly enjoy watching Jack smile and nod when one of the stories pops up around an evening bonfire. Florence was still vibrant into her 90s, and loved her garden, the Purple Martins that came to roost around dusk and baking her wonderful pies. She and Doc were a creative couple, and the old “white” house contains numerous wood carvings and other clues to their creativity. Son Jack helped convert the old barn into a beautiful home Florence lived in until her death and now serves as a family retreat.

Climbing the hill to this beautiful home place is a trip back in time, and beyond both the prairie and woodland are most peaceful and welcoming. Past the grasslands the wooded valleys dip off toward the sister lakes. Huge oaks are like guardians of a different time, and the Norway pine plantation stands tall and proud. In the lowlands of the valley is a lovely wetland a stone’s throw from Linka, and a more peaceful place to rest weary feet during a hike might be difficult to find. Especially on an unseasonably warm December afternoon when all one needs is a sweatshirt and a roving, happy dog.