Countryside Tragedy

Fortunately a blizzard has reached the prairie, and hopefully one with enough snow to cover the numerous fields left barren after the fall plow down. This offers a few days of soil protection until the next melt. It’s simply a matter of time before the continuation of a countryside tragedy continues, as more dirt is released into the skies.

Which brings up the question: Have you ever wondered how many yards are in two tenths of a mile? I’ve got the answer for you … 352, or basically three and a half football fields.

A quarter mile? 440, or four football fields and nearly a half of a fifth.

For those who haven’t protected their tilled fields with a cover crop, or even just left stalks or crop reside alone following harvest, try to imagine how far your soil particles (dirt?) might have blown. Some will perhaps drive past their fields and see a buildup in the ditch and think that’s the extent. Some farmers will take front end loaders to lift the dirt back into the field … if that dirt is conveniently close to their field. Much of that blown dirt is not.

Not to pick on any particular commodity farmer, last weekend while driving past a farm I noticed the just how distant his dirt has blown, although country terrain and trees helped in keeping the dirt reasonably close. So here goes, starting at the lip or edge of a conservation-tilled field to a quarter mile away:

This is the “lip” of the tilled field, which was “conservation” tilled after the last harvest in early November …
Another angle, below the lip. The “gray matter” is snirt, or soil mixed in with snow.
Immediately below the lip …
At one tenth of a mile … 528 feet or 176 yards. Almost two football fields from the lip of the tilled field which is across a country road from the distant tree.
About a tenth and a half …
Two tenths of a mile … and over a bit of a rise past trees.
At a quarter mile! Here the blown dirt appear as ocean waves. Some of these particles will be carried into a small stream that eventually enters a lake about a mile distant, where a dirt weir has formed in the shallow waters.

Remember, this is mid-February, and crop cover won’t be high enough for soil protection until late May or early June, depending on the crop. And this isn’t an only example. Here are a couple of images taken in Lac qui Parle County late last week.

A combination of dirt and snow …
On Hwy 212 this was a common scene from the South Dakota border to Montevideo. This dirt will surely travel further than a quarter mile …

If the snow from the blizzard per chance covers the fields there will be a temporary respite. Otherwise a majority of the fields throughout SW Minnesota are simply barren and won’t be planted until late April, May or June … leaving fields and their valuable soils vulnerable to the prairie winds.

Is there a need for cover crops? For protecting valuable soils being farmed for commodity crops? I’m asking for a friend … perhaps one who has yet to be born and who in his or her lifetime might desire something to eat.

Linking us to the Heavens

A full moon has risen here over the prairie reflecting flecks of snow swirling in a brittle breeze. Depths of our long winter. Now in the middle of February with spring feeling so ever distant, word comes that one of the highest number of Sandhill Cranes have already arrived along the North Platte in central Nebraska. This high number of Sandhills are more typical in the first or second week of March, according to an ornithologist with the Crane Trust.

Maybe time is now measured for this present grip of winter. Bless the cranes!

If swans form creative art on still waters, cranes link us to the heavens. Such promise gives me hope while bringing back a wonderful memory from this past summer when a dear old friend, Michael Muir, and I followed a visit to the Aldo Leopold digs near Baraboo, WI, by pulling into nearby parking lot of the International Crane Foundation (ICF).

Known for his reputation around Dubuque for his sarcasm, which may have been chiseled and honed back in the late 1960s when he was hanging with a small group of us fledgling journalists at the Telegraph-Herald, he blurted, “Realize, of course, that this is a ‘crane zoo.” At that precise moment my eyes were focused on a crane sculpture so I didn’t catch the twinkle in his eyes that typically accompanies such a comment.

Red-crowned Cranes (in reflection) breed in large wetlands in temperate East Asia. In the winter, the mainland population divides into two or three wintering subpopulations, wintering along rivers and in coastal and freshwater marshes in Japan, China and the Korean Peninsula. There are two main breeding populations: a migratory population on the East Asia mainland (northeastern China and Russia), and a resident population on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan.

Michael wasn’t too far off, all sarcasm aside. This wouldn’t hold the same magic found in the midst of a migration, nor was this the intention. Enclosed in spacious pens are all 15 worldwide species of cranes, each pen perhaps an acre or more in size with each containing a wading pond. His “zoo” comment referenced overhead netting stretched over each pen to keep the birds enclosed for the wealth of research being conducted on the various species, some of which are bordering on extinction. The ICF is, after all, a research facility that has operated here since 1973, and education is a huge part of that effort. Eggs are collected and moved to a separate facility that was off limits to visitors. Work here is ongoing and perhaps may lead to keeping some of the more vulnerable cranes from extinction. 

Each species was paired, and none seemed too concerned about much of anything, squawking and meandering through their respective pens. Seating areas at each of the individual sites held both educational panels and maps of where one would find them in the wild. Each map indicated both their wintering sites and summer breeding regions along with their migration routes. 

Of the 15 species, all but four are considered vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. One would think our very own Whooping Crane heads the list of the critically endangered, yet it’s the Siberian Crane that claims this dubious honor. The Whooping Cranes aren’t far behind, however. Among those that aren’t on the list are the Sandhill Cranes, and there are even hunting seasons in some states for them. Or as Michael quipped, “What’s that about?” Without sarcasm.

Blue Cranes of Africa … both the Xhosa and Zulu tribes in Africa revere the Blue Crane. Zulu royalty were the only tribe members traditionally allowed to wear Blue Crane feathers, while only Xhosa warriors were permitted to wear Blue Crane feathers into battle.

In the words of the ICF, “Reverence alone, unfortunately, has not been enough to sustain the world’s crane populations in the wake of mankind’s rapacious lust for land and resources. Squeezed into ever-shrinking habitat reserves, nearly half of the fifteen species of cranes are presently threatened or endangered, qualifying the family Gruiidae as one of the most pressured groups of birds on earth. The ICF has pursued a multidimensional program of scientific research, captive propagation, education, and preservation of crane habitats worldwide. In these efforts they (the cranes) have made great strides.”

Although my first sighting of Sandhill Cranes was in the San Luis Valley of Colorado in the mid-1970s (where I also saw my first Whooping Crane), heading to central Nebraska and the Upper Platte River may become an annual pilgrimage for me. Yet, what caught my attention at the ICF was both in the number of worldwide species as well as the unique differences between them. While the ICF exists for education and research, for me their site offered an unexpected and captive experience for my photography. 

Gray Crowned Crane … is a primitive species of crowned cranes dating back in the fossil record to the Eocene Epoch (56 to 33.9 million years ago). At least 11 species of crowned cranes once existed in Europe and North America. However, because crowned cranes are not cold hardy it is believed they died out in these areas as the Earth cooled and only survived in warmer Africa.

In my pursuit I no doubt bored my dear friend, although he was patient and kind. I found myself mesmerized by the different plumage of the crane species, birds I will likely never see in their natural habitat. Especially those that migrate between the Far East and the wilds of Siberia along with those from the African Plain. 

I found myself standing and focusing on each of the pairs, some longer than others. Our two native species bookended the loop, beginning with the Sandhill Crane next to the visitor’s center. At the very end were the Whooping Cranes, and their enclosure came without the overhead netting. In between were the 13 other species along with trails that also led off into a 65 acre prairie that housed the distant main research facility.

We were the first to enter the facility that morning. Those in the gift shop and the “rangers” who mingled with the guests were all knowledgeable and helpful, answering questions they’ve no doubt heard so many times. For example, this is one was answered at least a half dozen times that morning: “Perhaps the easiest way to tell cranes from herons and egrets is that cranes fly with a straight neck whereas herons and egrets do not. Their flight is with curved necks.”

Eurasian Craneslike the Sandhills, one of the least vulnerable. The breeding range of the Eurasian Crane extends from northern and western Europe across Eurasia to northern Mongolia, northern China and eastern Siberia. The winter range includes portions of France and the Iberian Peninsula, regions along the Tyrrhenian and Mediterranean seas, north and east Africa, the Middle East, India and southern and eastern China.

Michael and I spent perhaps our longest time observing the Whooping Cranes, who were joined by a nervous number of flighty Cedar Waxwings. When we entered the vast seating area facing the Whooping Crane pen the pair was lounging in the shaded grass. Eventually one rose and meandered around the bank above a small pond, then threaded its way through the knee-high grass to the edge of the water to drink. We had entered this particular compound close to noon, so the heat and humidity had increased significantly since our arrival three hours earlier. Soon the second crane stood and ambled down to join the other one. It was felt as if we were infringing on their privacy. That feeling seems rather imminent around Whooping Cranes, birds earning a reverence akin to worship. Yes, worship, for some cultures, particularly in Asian countries, places cranes in such status.

Cranes are particularly prominent in the art and mythology that dates back to the earliest Asian civilizations. The Chinese consider a crane as the prince of all feathered creatures giving it a legendary status, embodying longevity and peace. Cranes are believed to be mythical creatures with lives lasting for thousands of years. The Japanese are particularly fond of cranes, and their paper-folding origami is a traditional art form. To them cranes are often referred to as “birds of happiness” …  their wide-spread wings believed to provide protection. Mothers will recite this traditional prayer in concern for their children:

“O flock of heavenly cranes … cover my child with your wings.”

Whooping Crane … Two distinct migratory populations summer in northwestern Canada and central Wisconsin and winter along the Gulf Coast of Texas and the southeastern United States, respectively. Small, non-migratory populations live in central Florida and coastal Louisiana. Endangered with slightly more than 800 remaining alive.

The day before Michael and I visited the ICF we had paid homage to the late naturalist Aldo Leopold, whose farm and cabin are nestled nearby along a bend of the Wisconsin River. Leopold was as enamored by cranes as were his Asian brothern far across the seas. Mentions of the Sandhills can be found throughout his writings, and he gives particular homage in his essay, “Marshland Elegy.”

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words,” he wrote. 

The ICF was a special place, and graced me with some special images. Now, as the snow swirls in the gleam of this full February moon, I think of the North Platte; of peering through opened windows of a chilly plywood blind listening to the thousands of Sandhills seeking protection in the shallow waters and sandbar isles up and down the river. Of watching their unique beauty in easing from the skies to the protective waters; and again, hearing them rise from the darkened river in hopes some will remain until the sun provides enough light to witness and photograph yet another magical moment … when the heavenly cranes may once again cover my soul with their widened wings.

Sandhill Cranes coming for a landing on the North Platte River in Central Nebraska.

And now, thanks to ICF’s “crane zoo,” to fully realize the magic and beauty of similar migrations extending across many lands and waters.

An Escape to an Ice Floe Ballet

Across the near water where the eagles soared singularly or perched in packs on ice floes, a blueness, a cyan yielding to violet, blanketed the river in either direction as evening grew ever closer. Yet, above the Mississippi River, the sky would have made sweet fruit happy with glows of amber and orange. Somewhere back over the Read’s Landing bluff the sun was nearing a distant horizon. At that moment, though, our ambient light at the foot of Lake Peppin was fit for gods. 

Ignoring the dozens of eagles were numerous swans, especially in the distance near a wooded island across from Wabasha. Dozens, and certainly more than 100.

If the eagles were from the “hood,” the swans offered contrast by creating a sweet ballet, long necks often in symmetry, always poised with grace. Thoughts of Tchaikovsky? The contrast couldn’t be more bold between the raptors and floaters, though each were equally captivating.

These birds and colors were to be celebrated only briefly, for nightfall would come ever so swiftly. Our planet spin never slows though we’re often unaware and even immune in both deep darkness and blinding light. Sometime watch a shadow as it moves either side of mid-day, for shadows move with the same swiftness as a setting or rising sun. One mid-morning I was captivated while watching shadows move across the crevices and archways of the St. Paul Cathedral from a hotel window. Ever moving, constantly changing.

Other than Read’s Landing my month of January was unlike planet movement due to some health issues … which actually began after that near perfect afternoon while visiting fellow journalist friend, Anne Queenen. Her second floor apartment windows offered a perfect photography “blind” just a roadway and a set of railway tracks from the western bank of the Mississippi. Freighters and Amtrak’s Empire Builder between St. Paul and Chicago ply the tracks, and the roadway is a frontage road off Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 … again revisited.

After Christmas I had fought a cold/flu with sneezes that rattled the soul, although swabs of the nostrils indicated no Covid. Now, several tests later, I’m still negative, although the health issues have me cornered here on the prairie. Blessed with a catheter since my trip to Anne’s, my home here on the prairie is where I’ve been, my camera and my writing unattended. My isolation has felt rather extreme for an extrovert like me. I had thought the autumn and approaching winter was slow. One keeps learning.

All of this isolation has brought, strangely enough, a sudden and growing pressure … a sudden sense of seeking escape; to explode and explore. Ah, the three “e’s.” Escape. Explode. Explore. 

Isolation from the flu/cold was what I was feeling a few weeks ago when someone posted a picture on social media of swans in flight from Read’s Landing. By then I was healthy and fit, and felt a strong urge and acted on it by sending Anne a message after a thought, a bit of recall. When we had last communicated in the autumn she was living somewhere south of Redwing along the Mississippi River. I couldn’t recall where exactly, so I sent her an email. She responded almost immediately. “I actually live in Read’s Landing,” she wrote back, “and yes, you are most welcome to stay here with Bode and me.” 

Bode is a lovely though incredibly shy dog of blended breeds and kept a close eye on Anne’s guest as he moved from window to window looking for new images of the eagles and swans. Which the visitor did until nightfall.

After darkness settled in over the river, Fred Harding, Anne’s close friend, joined us for a wonderful dinner. All this beauty and fellowship were mere moments before my more serious health issues revealed themselves after a totally sleepless night. That would come later, though.

Thankfully Anne was happy to see me. Although we have corresponded infrequently over the past several years, it has been some time since we’ve seen one another in person. Over the years we have jointly though independently reported on many of the same issues: A rock quarry proposed on the original outcrops “released” by the Glacial River Warren at the headwaters of the Minnesota River; issues of soil erosion and water quality; and most recently, on cover crops. She was actually working on a cover crop story when I arrived.

While I walked from window to window focusing on the beautiful eagles and swans, she talked about possible places we could go for even better and closer views. On the other side of Lake City I had passed Fondulac State Park, and I promised myself I would stop on the way home. Another time, perhaps, and Anne has promised some beautiful trails. While being treated by nurses at the hospital in Wabasha, one had talked about pull out spots near Alma, WI, down the road from where she lived. The list kept growing … and Anne promised on my next visit we’ll take it all in. Whenever I’m ready to “explode” from my isolation. To escape and explore!

Now, nearly a month later my issues remain and I’m yet blessed with a catheter. I’ve been reading. And reading, and more reading. So many friends have reached out since learning of my condition, and have added much light to the darkness I’ve been feeling. Then, ever so slowly, the pressure pokes through along with those urges of the three “e’s.” Pressure or hope?

All fall I’ve looked longingly at my small camper trailer. I haven’t used it since my former fiancee and I returned from a trip to Washington state back in July. I simply couldn’t convince myself to hook it up and take off somewhere. Not even to a nearby state park. For two years now I’ve wanted to escape and explore Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. And there is always a winterish escape to New Orleans, or more specifically, the Cajun Triangle across the Atchafalaya Basin. I have so many wonderful memories through the years from the Triangle, and if there is a place in the South that feels close to home, this would be the place. Now my eye is meandering toward returning to central Nebraska and the Sandhill Crane migration. Or, to the Loess Bluff National Wildlife Refuge in Northwest Missouri. And, an invitation is open to revisit Read’s Landing to fulfill those promises of a special friend.

No, I’m not out my funk quite yet, although as we ease past what is hopefully the worst of winter my mind has begun to wander once again. Hope. There are taxes to do, and hopefully there will be some answers to my health situation. A large part of my hope is that this overbearing isolation is merely temporary and moves with the speed of our revolving planet, and that I will soon feel the welcoming bumps of the byways. That I can explode from this isolation. Escape, and then explore whatever awaits. Whatever may be.