On the hill above the lake thoughts of Finland came to mind. Wooded, with lush colors of autumn. A fine mix of birch and yellow. That cold, deep and clear water just down the rise and within walking distance. Smoke waffling from a rustic shack with scents of burning wood heating a sauna. Jack Griffin began stoking the fire mid-morning and when he announced to our group as the sun lowered from our hillside sight that the sauna was ready, the first of seven of us old guys stood and pulled off his clothes. 

Word hadn’t filtered down to me about the sauna, so I was initially prepared to sit it out. Then he stripped, and shortly I joined the others to trudge buck naked toward Jack’s wood fired sauna shack through a chilly shade. Inside was a mellow, warm heat; heat that would warm both the body and inner soul. All of which made me think of camaraderie, of how truly trusted friends group together. 

After towels were shed in the entry room, we wedged in as we best could to allow the heat to envelop our respective bodies and for the sweat beads to break out. Sometimes I’m like that in a sauna, watching and waiting for the sweat beads. Of where they might first appear. Across the chest, or perhaps the forehead. Then eventually the sheen of sweat will clam against the arms, back and legs. All the comfort of that … 

Such times make me wish for a sauna here at Listening Stones Farm, and now would be a fine time as we begin facing the approaching winter, now when the trees have shed much of their leaves and the weather has begun to worsen. Now would be a fine time for the birds of varying species are flocking together, sometimes easing through the skies, perching in the trees in the grove, collecting in nearby Big Stone Lake or the Big Stone NWR, or filling their tiny bellies in the nearby stalk fields before leaving en mass for their warmer wintering haunts.

Murmurations have given me a sense of the meaning of camaraderie in nature …

Camaraderie. In mankind and among our feathered friends, where trust and friendship are bonded uniquely.

I can imagine stepping out of a steaming sauna and looking up to see a flock of geese lift from the wetland just over the rise, or to catch Forester Terns, white against a blue sky, migrating past so poetically … seemingly singular, yet with patience you’ll notice their migration is simply not as clustered as other species. Recently as I was finishing cooking dinner, a long clustered string of terns crossed the sky en mass silhouetted against a magical, colorful pastel sunset. I initially cringed, for what a nice image it would have made had my camera not been in the studio with the card inside the reader, and with me standing at my huge kitchen window grasping a spatula.

About an hour before, just down the hill, a huge black bird murmuration cruised across my windshield, stretching from the treetop savanna across the deep ravine to a recently harvested cornfield a quarter miles distant. Yes, I did stop and try to capture an image, yet these mass demonstrations of avian camaraderie are mercurial. There is no sense to make of it, and no choreography. Yet, murmurations are witnessed in pocket spots across the prairie, and yes, even here in my own grove as swarms of birds will lift off a cluster of trees to cross to another section of the grove or to the trees in the south lawn, only to momentarily take flight and head back, or to gather in the adjacent stalk fields. 

Migrating coots on Big Stone Lake captured through autumn foliage ...

Some claim them to be Redwing Blackbirds, although most have long since departed. Yet, evidence exists that there are stragglers. Many of them. A first migration perhaps? Like with loons and some other species; that the summer-hatched birds stick around to mature and strengthen their wings before following their long departed parents from the nest to warmer locales thousands of miles away? Murmurations move with poetic beauty, in mass waves that seem to defy logic and safety. But, is there a better visualization of trust? Of camaraderie?

It’s all there, and we’re witness to it. 

There’s more. More avian camaraderie. Just down the road apiece on many evenings around dusk you may witness a grouping of Wild Turkeys take roost high in bare-limbed trees. As the evening gives way to darkness the turkeys, one by one, will glide off the rim of the prairie across the highway to brake in mid air to lightly grasp brittle branches of the long dead twin trees in the midst of the fen. I’m amazed at how birds of such bulk and bullish flight can land so delicately, yet they do it, one after another. It is here, high in twin trees, on such brittle branches, where they know they will find safety. Camaraderie?

Wild Turkeys take refuge in dead trees in a nearby fen …

While they are rare sightings around here, rumors have it that huge clusters of Sandhill Cranes are taking refuge on their autumn migrations east of here in Minnesota and over in Wisconsin. For days I debated on whether to chase them once again but procrastination won again. Much like the spring migration, the cranes will munch dropped grain in adjacent fields before seeking a safer place from predators in the evening. Camaraderie. Safety in numbers. Cranes demonstrate this sense of togetherness all across the globe, and in each of their 15 different species.

I’ve not mentioned the Coots gathering on the nearby lake, or the cormorants clustering on trees and stumps sticking from the Refuge waters. The sparrows. All clustered in camaraderie togetherness, watching out for one another seeking safety in numbers.

Cormorants on a migration rest on a nearby wetland …

Then I think of us old guys back in the sauna on that late October evening. One of the guys had passed out in the intense heat, and the rest of us gathered around to move him from the intense heat and into the cooler dressing room. As some of us covered his legs with towels and tended to him, someone raced inside to fetch a pitcher of water and glass as he slowly regained consciousness and his wits. He eventually recovered enough to gingerly follow a few of the more hearty guys down the rise to the lake where immersion into the cold water revived him enough that he was stable enough to climb back up the hill completely on his own. His wife said he was fine the next day, so all was well.

Hundreds of Canada Geese resting in the shallows of Big Stone Lake …

Camaraderie a part of nature, I suspect, and gives so many species including our own an ability to survive in the harshness of our respective lives, giving us a sense trust, sharing and caring. A safety in numbers? I don’t know if I know the answers, although I may acknowledge this: That there is a certain beauty about camaraderie, and when you’re a part of it there is a warmness not unlike that of a fine, wood fired sauna. I find comfort in that.

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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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