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.”
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.