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. 

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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