No, I’m not Jean Diggins, who must be a unique specimen of human-hood as she digs, kicks and glides. Nor am I Jean Menden, the artistic silversmith, who were it not for her depths of compassion and friendship, could have left me stuck in my tracks cross country skiing a few winters ago at Lac qui Parle State Park. We’re both long past having the youthful vitality of the young Olympian Diggins.
Yet, I do enjoy threading up the boots and hooking into the bindings on the long skis. And have for years. As a young man there were many Saturday mornings when a group of us, usually led by an exuberant Lola Dingamans, would ski up a mountain pass with backpacks filled with the makings of lunch and a bottle of wine. When we reached a picturesque site Lola would scream her wild and beautiful scream, which was our signal to undo the bindings, stomp a circle in the powdery snow for a seating and break out the lunch. Afterwards, after the last of the wine, we would bind back up and gleefully ski the several miles back down the mountainside to our cars. Far cheaper and much more friendly than hitting the slopes at Breckenridge, Vail or Winter Park.
Not many people I know ski around these parts of the prairie. There are exceptions such as Menden and Lucy Tokheim, yet apparently many don’t equate these flatlands with skiing. Which is too bad. Oh, you could venture to the Prairie Woods ELC, which I’ve done several times over the years, where for a modest fee you can rent skis. They even maintain trails, as do some of the more highly visited state parks. Not around here, though, which is a shame because Bonanza and the Big Stone Lake State Park would offer some beautiful skiing as would the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, where you could swish past outcrops denuded by the Glacial River Warren thousands of years ago.
Which brings me to the home place. Across the trails of the home prairie and deep into the small woodland here at Listening Stones Farm, a fresh powder-like snow had drifted from the sky recently to further blanket what had fallen through the night. Winterly prairie winds were whipping the big bluestem causing snow to cruise across the landscape creating drifts and dunes more reminiscent of desert sands. For most of the day, and certainly throughout the grayish misty-looking morning, the distant horizon in all directions seemed a whitish blur. It was cold. Bitterly cold, and the wind and snow added to the chill.
So why would one spend nearly an hour searching for the poles that were stashed beneath a pile of coats on a hook to venture out on such a morning? Alone? With a camera, no less? Well, because there was a beckoning. Some might have suggested an explanation a bit differently.
You must understand that unless I’m rising from a couch or chair, or happen to catch a glimpse of my weathered and aged features in the bathroom mirror, I rarely think of myself as being, well, old. So what if I’m 77 and home alone, out on the frozen trails in 14 acres of tall grass prairie where a bad slip or fall might put anyone in peril in that sort of frigid environment? Those are thoughts you have once back inside with a steamy cup of tea!
I thought of Menden many times in my scooting along, slowly moving one ski just ahead of the other. On our skiing at Lac qui Parle I would try to kick/slide in futile attempts to keep up. This would cause breathing that would have scared any nurse of good standings in these times of Covid. Enough of that! Yet, I would look up while catching my breath to see Jean patiently awaiting me. What a wonderful friend! This time, though, I was alone.
For despite the temperatures and the wind, both the prairie and woodland were full of sometimes small and intricate sightings, while at other times a catch of the prairie amidst distant pairings of beauty caught my eye. Alone I found myself thinking back to those long ago years in Colorado, or with friends like Jean, or at Prairie Woods or at a State Park, just reliving old memories. But those memories, the many sounds and sightings, and the photographs of the natural offerings wouldn’t have been possible inside in the warmth of the hearth.
I was dressed warmly enough, although my skiing (if you could call it that!) kept me plenty warm. I saw the woodland a bit differently than before, and the prairie was rather challenging thanks to the uneven drifts and dunes. The two were quite different. Inside the woods the wind wasn’t an issue. It was quiet save for the birds that flitted around either high in the canopy or on the dense underbrush of buckthorn. Nuthatches, chickadees and downy woodpeckers, mainly. A few stubborn leaves caught and hosted bits of fallen snow. In one spot there were a few spindly arms of a plant that seemed to hold dearly to seed clusters that reminded me of those Reese chocolate cups. Was it too close to lunch?
Skiing out of the woods and into the prairie offered more of a challenge, especially physically because of the wind. Skiing up the hill into the wind was far different than on a sunny Colorado mountainside. On the weather shows the talking heads estimated a 30 mph blow, with gusts much higher. Ten to 20 mph higher. That, plus my erratic mowing of the trails in the summer added to the challenge. Rarely do I think of skiing when I create and groom the trails with the mower, so I sometimes cut the turns too tight for skis. I think of this when skiing, then come summer I don’t remember the having to ski-step to cut through the tight, narrow turns. Yet there were some beautiful stretches where it was a joy to kick and glide down a stretch of downhill straightaway. With the wind at my back. These were glorious moments, full of freedom and joy.
Along with the joy of a straightaway glide were glimpses overhead as an eagle labored against the wind, and then after the turn at the top of the upper trail, a skein of geese flew over possibly heading to a stalk field down the way. My near heart attack came when three male pheasants suddenly exploded from the bluestem to glide down the hillside away from my threat. Gliding free with the harsh wind like thin, feathery arrows.
In less than a quarter mile this was more wildlife combined that I remember seeing in all those skiing trips through the Colorado mountains, and this was right here in my home prairie on a day that was blustery cold, when staying indoors in front of the fireplace seemed a safer and perhaps a saner option. My skiing was more reminiscent of a woodland saunter, too, often with stops to look and listen, to admire and commune with the bluestem in ways far different than in the summer when butterflies and bumblebees, swallows and dragonflies seem to rule this nook of the natural world. It was a good day.
Let’s make believe that these year-beginning days of fog were like a theatre play featuring our new year with the stage curtains closed. Undrawn, closing off our view as far as one can see; mere feet in some cases, a curtain of grayness extending to places unseen. As Jaimal Yogis writes in his book of self discovery, “Saltwater Buddha,” “There is this sly strip of fog — water in it’s most mystical incarnation — slithering over, around, and through the hills, making everything look ancient and unsolved.”
So on the opening morning of the new year, and the day after, and now trice again in a week, long after the sparks and cinders have faded and cooled from New Year’s fireworks, we have faced an almost metaphorical and mystical beginning of 2021. Fog that made everything seem ancient and unsolved, unlike this bookended year we’ve hopefully parted from. This sad and seemingly unending tale.
A year filled with a deadly pandemic and political unrest, with true-life scenes and scenarios in our very own White House and capitol, scenes not unlike what Peter Sellers’ character faced in his Inspector Clouseau films. What seemed so funny in film fiction didn’t translate so well in real life, not with the egging on of bigotry and political unrest caused by hardcore, home-grown terrorists bearing weapons intended for human carnage and encouraged by the president; not with a completely mishandled pandemic that continue to costs us more lives per day than died in 9/11 and now numbering nearly 400,000; not with lock-downs, masking and a complete social shutdown for the covid conscious. Not with all the attacks on our environment; those oil leases on previously federally protected lands among other autocracies and the sale of National Park lands.
Our past year was both terrifying and life changing. As a society and as a country we’re anticipating a curtain being drawn to life more seemingly “normal,” although we have no knowledge of how our new normal may look, of how the new story will unfold. That is all behind the undrawn curtain; behind the fog of our metaphor. As our fog eases in over us perhaps in the lifting we will ease into more settled and compassionate times.
As the curtain is slowly drawn the lighting begins giving mystical joy to this metaphorical stage, for in our temperate part of the country, with below freezing temperatures accompanying this dense and impenetrable grayness, we find a magical hoarfrost coating every inch of fog-touched surfaces, coatings of star-shaped beautiful icy clusters. On trees and prairie grasses, coating every twig and blade as if dusted by a fog fairy. Edgy at a glance, though comforting in a glossy beauty.
All of which begs for a journey within the ancient and unsolved, where those stark heavy branches of oaks and cottonwoods are suddenly jeweled, where the nuded bulbs of solitary cone flowers glisten as if donning a queen’s crown, where leaves of big bluestem curl poetically within the depths of a prairie, dotted perfectly with frost as surely as they’re coated with poetic drops of dew in a summer sunrise. All magical and mysterious moments.
Sometimes just inside this curtain a solitary tree allows it’s unique personality to show, one that is too often blended into a woodland or hillside much like a beautiful woman blends into a dance floor crowd. By itself its trunk and limbs become silhouetted and solitary, a wood-thick personality often stark and challenged in symmetry. As the curtain eases further open it blends into a grove or cluster of trees, as the curly blades of bluestem does in a sea of browned and crusty outlined prairie grasses. All offering a widening visual world beauty now seen as if for the first time.
As the sun begins the eventual burning away to slowly draw further open the curtain, this shortened visible world grows wider around us, becoming ever more slowly revealed. Initially a fog forces us to focus on the near, for there is no afar. We trust it exists beyond the curtain, and as it is slowly unveiled we maybe see our world differently than we had before.
Finally, and with gradual aplomb, a hazy light begins to peek through the gray … a hazy stage light beginning as a softened, unfocused circular globe before easing into a more focused yellow richness. As we lay back to look straight above us, this grayness yields to deeper tinges of blue, a canopy of space undefined in the broadest of senses.
Rarely does this curtain remain closed for long, perhaps until midday as Carl Sandburg’s iconic cat starts rising on silent haunches before moving on.
As this metaphorical curtain spreads open we wish this “moving on” bring us greater joy; an ability to see one another unencumbered with chaos and distrust. Will those crystallized out-linings fit for a queen allow each of us to evoke more warmth from what we know is both numbing and cold?
Though a fog blankets us with a mundane gray we must still seek beauty, for it is there. In our world. Our familiar world, that which is ancient and unsolved, yet beauty that is ever widening in the unveiling.