A ‘Blame’ Game

Those visible dirt particles were bellowing upwards of a couple hundred feet. With gusts up to 50 mph a brownish “fog” kissed the near horizon. Make “horizon” as just down the road not even a mile distant. And those light tan spots poking from the former prairie? Those tan spots of ever-growing exposed subsoil? We’re simply watching them grow, inch by inch, acre by acre, year after year.

It’s easy to blame the wind. Next to our small Listening Stones Farm prairie, though, my neighboring farmer, Travis Sandburg, has his soil perfectly protected with his row crops easing up through the radish and rye grasses he had recently sprayed. That 50 mph gusty wind? It was merely tickling the browned grasses while his soil remained protected from the winds as it had all fall, winter and spring. No-till planting into a cover crop. Travis even gained some of his neighbor’s dirt down the road where he had no-till planted into a stalk field. On this windy afternoon his field was mostly shrouded by a brownish haze ­— a neighboring dirt. Luckily for him he’s not an organic farmer, otherwise his status might have been compromised.

A towering haze of blown dirt outside of Clinton, MN, created by gusts up to 50 mph on soils unprotected by cover crops. Tan subsoils poke through the haze.

Millions of tons of dirt left fields across the vast opened prairie on this Tuesday afternoon, all from fields left unprotected. Those driving through the area noticed and spoke of it. It’s easy to blame the wind.

On a field just west of Clinton dirt was blown airborne in dense, swirling clouds. In the greater gusts towers of particles rose high into the sky. Through the dense darkness of the dirt cloud tan spots in the field poked through. A woman who lives in Clinton said, “It’s the ‘Dirty Thirties’ all over again.” She claimed to taste the fine particles. It’s easy to blame the wind.

Now is not the winter when snow provides a contrast to perfectly show blown and misplaced dirt. Most of it is black. Fine topsoil. That mixture is called “snirt,” and a few years ago poor farming practices provided me with a “canvas” for my photographic show, “The Art of Erosion.” I could duplicate the imagery every winter. In one field stretching across two miles of roadway about 20 miles east of here the erosion was so severe this winter that the farmer used two “tracked” tractors equipped with blades to scrape the blown black dirt back into his field before working it for planting. They worked the two-mile stretch on his side of the paved highway for days. His dirt on the ditch shoulder across the road remained untouched likely due to an inconvenience of transporting it somehow across the highway and back into his field. It’s easy to blame the wind.

Neighboring farmer, Travis Sandburg, planted a soil protecting cover crop after harvest last fall, then no-till planted his new crop into the chemically-treated grasses.

One of his neighbors further down the highway also scraped bucket loads of topsoil from a meadow overlooking the Pomme de Terre river. I don’t know what it costs to run a tractor over several acres of a meadow to collect dirt blown from a field, although it seems it would be far less expensive and convenient to simply plant a cover crop. It’s easy to blame the wind.

About the time these farmers were working to recoup their blown dirt a picture made its way into the printed media of a beautiful ancient mosaic that was discovered under tons of eroded dirt somewhere in the Mideast. This was one of many such images of past civilizations found beneath eroded sands and dirts over the years, all from cropping practices on fields cropped long before the switch from BC (a calendar era based on the traditionally reckoned year of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth) to AD (after his death). It’s easy to blame the wind.

As W. C. Loudermilk’s wrote in his published paper, “Civilizations and Soil Erosion”: “Present day archaeologists, in their postmortems on excavations of ruins of ancient civilizations, have revealed some very illuminating information. They now tell us that some former civilizations, one revelling in a Golden Age of prosperity and surrounded by magnificence and opulence, are crumbled in ruins, half buried in the dust and debris of their own destructive exploitation of the lands they once cultivated.”

A dusty haze hung over much of the ‘black desert’ as winds blasted the topsoils.

Such was a compelling and frightful theme in David R. Montgomery’s “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations” that, according to a published description, traced the role of soil use and abuse in the history of Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, China, European colonialism, Central America, and the American push westward. He described how each granule of dirt was pretty much historically ignored as it blew away until it was too late, adding to the end of previous civilizations. He warned that we’re now farming the “last frontier” of tillable soils on our planet. There is no more. It’s easy to blame the wind.

It’s the same as folks saw yesterday as they drove through what in our neck of the prairie is called the “black desert.” Fields left basically tilled and barren from the past harvest until we reach protective crop canopies in mid-June; where dirt is susceptible to blowing for nearly eight months over the course of time. Very few of those commodity farmers have adopted the practices of Farmer Sandburg by planting cover crops or even leaving stalk fields unplowed until spring, meaning they leave their and much of humanity’s soils vulnerable to the winds of winter. We watch the tannish brown areas, those hilltops of subsoils, grow ever larger, year after year. Where will the soils be when humanity reaches a point where those soils will need to produce foods we can actually eat? It’s so easy to blame the wind.

A portrait of a moraine “terra quilt” with blocks of subsoil on the rises mixed with “shashings” of black topsoils in the lowlands and valleys.

A friend who runs a grassed beef operation on an organic farm in the former glacial moraine about an hour east of here talks about how the landscape around her is now being converted from grasslands to commodity cropping. “They’re bringing their cultural farming practices up from the black desert to here on the hilly moraine, and every year there are more gullies washing away soil, and you can just watch the dirt blow away,” she said. “There is really no excuse nor need for row cropping the moraine. None.” 

As you drive through the moraine, or the “glacial shield,” even the recently converted fields have those telltale tan areas to create a terrain quilt with “blocks” of subsoil on the slopes and hilltops mixed with “shashings” of black topsoils settled in the lowlands and valleys. “Chemical farming” brings a semblance of somewhat balanced crop yields, yet those tannish brown areas grow ever larger, year after year. It’s easy to blame the wind. 

There was very little snow contrast on this two-mile stretch of highway where you couldn’t distinguish the field from the road ditch. Two tractors were used to scrape the blown dirt back into the field prior to planting, although the dirt that settled in the adjacent ditch across the road remained.

Travis Sandburg and other farmers like him, including my nephew in Missouri, Mark White, are learning the means and necessity of saving their soils from such heady winds that blasted the prairie on a Tuesday afternoon. There is even a Facebook group called “Everything Cover Crops” with lively forums and discussions among the adopters. Back in my farm journalism days we called these folks “early adopters.” Those are the folks willing to seek change for the betterment of the earth’s resources. Otherwise we have a shallow depth of life-sustaining topsoils for humanity being put at risk while we simply sit back and watch the black soil blow and the tan spots grow. It’s so easy to blame the wind.

Cluck, Cutt or Putt?

Our foray on Sunday morning was, in truth, a ritual of spring! At least for me. We were in search of the small reddish star-shaped lobes of prairie smoke, one of my traditional spring prairie plants. The site? The Lake Johanna Esker, an uneven swath of protected prairieland between Sunburg and Brooten on a curvy narrow country gravel road that courses past the Ordway Prairie, numerous unnamed wetlands and some dense stands of timber. Traversing the gravel road is a joy in itself. Then there is the esker, an untamed relic of a glacial past.

We had come on a May morning, one that was a bit chilly though beautiful. A great day for a saunter. About halfway through our sauntering foray a “clicking” sound became ever more audible. While I was knee deep in the hillside grasses focusing on a small purplish ground plum blossom poking through the duff, Mary had taken a seat on a broken branch of an old oak when we both heard the sound. Was it either a cluck, cutt or putt of an unseen possible wild turkey? Both of us heard it. If so, it seemed one was rather close with another off in the distance.

“I think that’s a wild turkey,” she said. “But I don’t see one, and I don’t know how close.”

It seems we were part of a nervous cutt rather than a fearful putt, for the wild turkey simply strided to the crest of the esker.

She was right. One was quite close though unseen. Those who brag of beard lengths and scratch slate to entice them may have deciphered whether these “clicks” signified whether the bird was simply announcing its presence to another in the flock, was aware but unafraid of something strange being in its vicinity, or if that oddness was actually a security threat. Apparently there is a subtle difference between the three differentiating “clicks”  …  which sound about the same to a mere novice.

When I stood moments later a lone turkey just a few meters behind us suddenly made several stealthy strides back up toward the crest of the ridge of the esker, stopping now and then to gaze down toward us. We were either part of the comforting cluck or the nervous cutt rather than a fearful putt … if we were to correctly read its movement and reactions. A putt would have no doubt meant a quick and noisy exit via a quick feather-fluffing flight rather than a stealthy stride!  

Yes, there was prairie smoke despite the recent prairie burn.

Our encounter with the wild turkey was at about the mid-point of our jaunt into the Pope County esker, a beautiful sanctuary for prairie forbs and birds. And, home to one of my certain annual milestones each spring, midway before the search along the Watson Sag for white ladyslippers and long after the appearance of pasque flowers on a virgin prairie hillside overlooking the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. Each is part of my annual  spring ritual. 

Over the years the esker, one of the few protected in Minnesota that is also accessible to the public, has never let me down. This saunter would follow suit for scattered throughout were the smallish reddish lobes daintily poking through the grasses, the petals forming fiery stars peeking through the ankle-high grasses. 

I loved finding the ground plum blossoms poking through the duff!

We were both relieved and pleased to have found them since large portions of the 806 acre grassy property that is protected by the Nature Conservancy and had been put through a controlled burn in recent weeks. Several stretches of the lower portion of the esker were left uncharred as was a portion of the 70 foot high serpentine ridge where we encountered the turkey. That ridge is the actual esker, comprised of an ancient sand and gravel stream bed deposited deep below the ice during the last glacier 10,000 or so years ago. For the past several centuries that old stream bed has been covered with earthen deposits supporting grasses, oaks, the stalky white blossomed field chickweed, prairie smoke and those scattered clumps of purplish ground plum. And, at least one wild turkey!

One of the nice surprises was the occasional field chickweed!

Morris area naturalist, Dave Jungst, introduced me to the esker several years ago and it has since drawn me back in a near pilgrimage ever since. Over the years I’ve made numerous images here of more than just prairie smoke. One of my favorite was of Sandhill Cranes that flew over as I sat in the grasses late one afternoon awaiting a colorful sunset as a hopeful blending background to a picturesque clump of prairie smoke. Another time I found my first showey ladyslipper near the marshy wetland on the edge of the site. And once a killdeer physically challenged the face of my camera lens as I lay belly-flat in the grasses trying to focus on a nearby flower.

One year the equally smallish white pussytoes provided a ground covering so solidly thick and white that the reddish prairie smoke lobes poking through offered a nearly perfect natural quilt that would have stunned even members of the American Quilter’s Society! Seemingly, this was a unique experience for it hasn’t happened since, and on our visit Sunday only a few small patches of pussytoes were spotted. 

The white quilt created by the pussytoes with the prairie smoke poking through was so thick it would have stunned even members of the American Quilter’s Society!

Yet, this is so true of nature. No two years are ever quite the same. Indeed, I was warned after planting my eight acres of restored native prairie here at Listening Stones Farm to never take a season, and particularly a year, for granted because no two years are the same. One year early on our prairie was so thick of yellow flowers of varied species that it glistened with a golden brightness that was nearly blinding as we crested the hill at the end of the section. The following year blues and purples dominated, and not once in the seven years since have we seen such a theme of yellow!

Before heading out to the esker on Sunday I had moments of wonder, and specifically if the prairie smoke was even in bloom. Between our house and the studio we have a small triangular native prairie garden where most years I can use it as a barometer for which native flowers might be in bloom out in the prairie wildernesses. So far the prairie smoke in my garden hasn’t popped a lobe yet this spring. 

The soft greenness of the leafing aspen along the edging was both catching and pleasing to the eye!

A few steps past the springed gate at the esker my concerns were quickly put to ease. Ample prairie smoke was spotted to photograph among so much more. The ground plum on the esker ridge, for one, was certainly a treat, and I spent long moments finding a pleasing angle with sparse field chickweed. Plus there was the soft greenness of leafing aspen along the edging of the esker was both catching and pleasing to the eye. Then there was the wild turkey “clicking away” in an undetermined language. Was it a cluck, cutt or putt? One may always wonder.