Sweet Music of Spring

Ah, yes, the sounds of spring! The music! I can now hear it as my annual “yard river” broke through to begin flowing this week, and my, what a lovely sound. More of a narrow ripple than a growling rapids, though sweet nonetheless. All of us live in a watershed, thanks to gravity, and gravity is the conductor! Listening Stones Farm is no exception. 

Water droplets from the melt begin the journey in clumped drifts in the bluestem on the hilltop of the upper prairie, tunneling beneath the prairie grasses to join singular droplets off icicles hanging from branch tendrils in the grove and the melt from the feet of the cottonwood, dogwood and maples. Some course downhill from the crest of my neighbor’s crop field, all of it joining just above the wood shop to course toward the first of two small retention ponds we’ve had dug here.

Enough of the melt, which came rapidly thanks to the suddenly warm temperatures, offers a bit of what naturalist John Muir called “snow that melts into music.” Yes, the small stream courses through the yard as all this melt rushes through to the foot of the grove and an eventual escape into the county road ditch and with luck, perhaps even to the Gulf of Mexico. We just happen to be on this side of the Continental Divide that cuts across the “roof” of nearby Browns Valley, itself the “roof” of Big Stone Lake.

A lullaby created by the water moving through our prairie, yard and grove.

Hearing the soft lullaby here in the lawn made me wish for more. Not too distant is the Bonanza Education Center, the northern “half” of Big Stone Lake State Park and located a bit south of Browns Valley and the Divide. Bonanza is composed of a high bank cut through the prairie by the Glacial River Warren when the ice dam at the foot of the massive Lake Agassiz broke free near the end of the last glacial period. Much like the rest of the cut through the prairie, from here southeast to Mankato, the Minnesota River system, of which Big Stone Lake is the first of a chain of “river” lakes, are full of these ravines. Some include actual waterfalls.

In Bonanza there are at least three rivulets coursing through these wooded ravines fed by springs that keep water moving throughout most of the year, even in winter. Now, with the melt, waters are raging through these ravines, and the music becomes more “concerto” than sleepy lullaby. A full symphony may occur further downstream in the actual river … provided there is enough for bank-high flooding. This week the concerto was lively as the melt waters spread out onto the frozen ice sheet to create a beautiful mosaic of melt and left over ice and snow. Solitary and stubborn ice fishermen still dotted the lakescape even as the sun lowered into a recent sunset.

A lone ice fisherman braves the melt and elements on Big Stone Lake.

Our melt has come quickly, or as weather columnist Paul Douglas noted in his midweek column in the Star Tribune, “We might be skipping straight to April weather.” This time last week temperatures hovered near freezing, and my yard and driveway were covered with a thick layer of hard, matured ice. Hard and gray, speckled somewhat at the fringes. I spent quite some time trying to break through an ice layer on the sidewalk between the house and studio, finally breaking through the last six-inch deep by four-foot long stronghold Monday afternoon. Ice on the driveway finally began to yield to the Bobcat delivering hay bales for the horses a day later. Then came the warmth, and Muir’s music.

What a lovely sound.

Trees from the grove reflected in the melt water in the yard.

Here, though, it was rather ambient compared to that of Bonanza, and later on at the small creek just down the road that cuts along Meadowbrook to Big Stone Lake. All of it was lovely. All of it announced the end of winter. All of it opened arms to the warmth of spring and a change of seasons. All of it offers muse to the poets, and as Henry Williamson, the British author of Tarka the Otter, wrote years ago, “Music comes from an icicle as it melts, to live again as spring water.”

Indeed, this music is accompanied in the skies as Redwing Blackbirds, Snow and Blue Geese and their nearby cousins, Canada Geese, return to their northern breeding grounds. With the pleasing music of moving water, the sounds of the migrating birds offer us the woodwinds and brass to complete this orchestration of spring. Such blessings are so welcomed, so appreciated. 

What a lovely sound! 

The geese and ducks add to the orchestration of the spring melt.

Water in our small watershed is indeed alive and moving, dripping away from icicles and snow to course through our prairie island en route toward the Minnesota River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. Daunting, isn’t it? In this freeing of the grip of winter, I doubt if I’m alone in feeling just as free as the melt itself. How heavenly such freedom feels. And, how lovely and satisfying is that orchestration of spring!

A Freedom of Expression

Hello! My name isn’t Wayne Perala. Hailing from Fergus Falls, Wayne is one of the best bird photographers I’ve known. He has perhaps filled his Audubon list with precise, accurate closeup portraits of many of the birds of our region whether in flight, perch or wetland, and superbly so.

Perhaps some of my images are similar to Wayne’s, although my quest is a bit different for my goal is to somehow use birds as an element of an image more so than a portrayal. Sometime I wish I had Wayne’s persistence and patience, his gift of leading on the wing. I don’t.

This was all part of my trepidation, or perhaps even procrastination … if not a little of each … this past week as I faced a deadline of an Audubon photography contest. Contests, although chock full of subjectivity, are fun, yet at this point of my life there is a loss of importance. Back when building my career there were many awards and honors accumulated through newspaper “clip contests,” state and national newspaper photography “contests” along with some fine newspaper and magazine writing awards. Yet, my two “Oscars in Agriculture” for journalistic ag writing now serve as bookends, though on my walls hang a couple of honors fully cherished including a beautiful Tokheim plate awarded to a “Riverkeeper of the Year.” The others? In boxes and drawers, somewhere lost over time.

The swallow that happened to make this a favored image.

My procrastination last week stemmed more from wondering if what I really liked about a particular images would be accepted more universally. My images are from what I see in the moment, hopefully with good composition, lighting, depth of field and so on, and if that happens to translate into something more, then, as was stated back in the day, “Far out!” 

One particular image comes to mind. Just before an evening “blue hour” arrived I was “illegally” parked on a highway bridge over the Minnesota River as it meanders through the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. Floating in the river was a gnarly log reflected in the calm, cream-colored waters. As I was focusing on the log a swallow suddenly dipped to the river surface for perhaps a gulp of river. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the Frenchman considered as the “Godfather of photojournalism” might call such a capture a “decisive moment.” 

Decisive moments are what we strive for as photojournalists, be they as simple as an image of the swallow’s gulp near the reflected log in the mirrored surface of a river, or Cartier-Bresson’s own “Children in Seville, Spain,” a portrayal of child’s play in a street through a crater of a bombed out wall during the Spanish Civil War. Of course, there is no comparison between the impact of the two images, and I’m certainly not vain enough to place myself in the company of Cartier-Bresson. Or, Wayne Perala, for that matter.

Cormorants at rest on tree stump “pilings” in the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.

Last summer I printed my river image and included it among the collection of matted prints I place both here at my studio and at some of the art shows, and often I’ve seen people pull the image out for a closer look. Finally a young man brought it to me to buy, commenting on the peaceful feel along with the colors. When I pointed out the swallow, he seemed to gather more respect for the image. Was this image worthy of the Audubon contest? Many more of what I claim as my favored bird images fall within this genre.

Here’s another example: Just a few miles away, and in a different portion of the Refuge, I made an image of cormorants resting on “piers” of stumps protruding from the waters. I love the feel and composition, although I fear the seemingly overall dislike and even hatred of cormorants. Perhaps this is a prejudice common only to Minnesota anglers who perhaps mistakenly blame cormorants for declining walleye populations in lakes … while dismissing the global warming effects on waters that diminish the ciscos and other “bait” fish walleye feed on. Certainly loons are much too loved to blamed for such atrocious acts against their favored fish. 

A chance moment when a pair of Sandhill Cranes flew over, their wings and posture seemingly a portrait prehistoric in nature.

Over the years I’ve captured many interesting images of cormorants, a member of a family of birds I initially fell in love with one dawn morning in the Everglades while watching and photographing Anhengas seeming to appear as feathered angels as sunlight glistened through their outstretched, drying wings. And, yes, their cousins, the cormorants, do the same thing. 

One of my favorite Canada Geese images was at the North Ottawa Impoundment as they seemed to be in rest before the fall migration. I assume this was a family unit, which is common in that time frame and moment. Another is an image of White Pelicans at rest on a spit of an island in Big Stone Lake, and of a Wood Duck hen ferrying her newly hatched brood through pond weeds in Salt Lake near Marietta. There’s the Orchard Oriel snatching cattail fluff for its nest, and a Great Blue Heron perched on a dead cottonwood in the setting sun. The paired Sandhill Cranes that appeared out of nowhere while I was focusing on early summer Prairie Smoke. Their wings and posture was, to me, a portrait prehistoric in nature. Oh, and a Bob-o-Link taking flight in prairie grasses … over the years so many “decisive moments” have occurred in my pursuit of bird imagery.

A Bob-o-Link about to go airborne from a prairie perch … about as close to a Wayne Perala image as I could make.

Perhaps this sense of photographic freedom dates back to how I ventured into journalism. While in college a Forestry professor called me back as I was leaving his classroom to tell me that if I continued to pursue nature and the environment as a scientist that I would likely be “the most frustrated scientist ever. Your brain just functions differently than those in this classroom, and that’s okay.” He praised my writing and suggested that I concentrate on that instead of the sciences. He even introduced me to his good friend who was then the director of the Ag Journalism Department at the University of Missouri. 

It was as if Eagle talons had been extracted from my nape. Suddenly I felt a sense of freedom for the first time in all of my schooling. And, now some 50 some years later, after a long career in photojournalism and writing, that feeling of freedom still exists. Procrastinating the Audubon contest was a surely part of that freedom, for my work doesn’t need to fit any particular concept or ideal, and I have no need for another possible award. My work is as free as that of a heron or eagle, defined solely by whatever space that might surround a particular perch or space in the sky. 

This family of Canada Geese almost appear as musical notes along prairie waters.

I don’t know if Wayne Perala entered the contest, although I hold hopes that he has for his photography of avian species and life is superb and worthy of such honors. If so, and even if his photography isn’t chosen, he’s one hell of a portrayer of avian life, and whose work I thoroughly respect and appreciate. We’re perhaps driven by a similar creed, though our art is  portrayed somewhat differently. No one would expect us to be “identical” twins. 

A Calm in the Madness

If one looks, and not necessarily all that deeply, he or she may find calm in the “madness” of March, which is perhaps our most awkward month. March arrives with an uneven reputation and temperament ranging from the tournament heavy “March Madness” to an earthy “Muddy March” through the Shakespearian promise of the “Ides of March” and so on. It carries both a scrounge of winter past and a prelude of a spring to come, an in between month.

We Minnesotans are notoriously ingrained with the reputation that all of our high school championship tournaments are paired with halting blizzards, with fans known to argue that their preferred sport, be it wrestling, dance line, hockey or basketball, will bring the deepest and wildest of the seasonal blizzards.

Here in the country we anticipate a month of extreme muddiness as the snow yields ever so slowly to rising temperatures. We have hope the snow melt won’t happen so rapidly that the frozen earth isn’t properly prepared even if we can’t wait for it to be gone. If the surface snow melts before the ground below, torrents of raging waters and ice floes will likely clog the prairie rivers as happened in the spring of 1997. 

Sandhill Cranes on a Nebraska plain …

Prairie towns along the Minnesota and its tributaries were threatened throughout the watershed and some were introduced to FEMA and other federal programs. Later in the spring canoers would marvel at seeing flood refuge clinging high in the treetops along the river, and at one bend of the Minnesota River below Renville County’s Skalbakken County Park, floodwaters stacked logs high up into the tops of the riverine trees like a log cabin wall. 

Lest we not forget the winds. Those “Ides” of the prairie, where there isn’t much to block what comes across the Dakotas, lift dirt particles airborne from the barren cropping fields. There is little resistance once the snow cover is gone for there are too few cover crops being planted.

Enough of the perils, for there is another side to March. A much calmer side. That reawakening. Sometimes this calm is as small as observing the feathers of Gold Finches gradually gather more color. Or noticing that the Juncos are no longer at the feeders, or that the small and colorful Snow Buntings no longer linger along the roadways. While one would hardly call the Sandhill Crane migration, among others, as “calming,” yet those noisy and frenzied moments along the North Platte in Central Nebraska brings a sense of calming, for yes, spring is finally on the way. And I find that calming.

Pasque flowers breaking through a late March snow covering.

Migrations signal the reawakening of our prairie, this release from the grip of winter, as much so as the first blooms of prairie flowers. Indeed, there are some hardy flowers that may break through even in March.

Surely I’m not the only one who will forge a path to a known hillside where pasque flowers peak from scraggly brown and grayish dormant grasses. If we’re fortunate we’ll see our first pasque flowers bloom before the full release of winter comes in April. A few years ago I ventured to “my hill” ­– seems we all have a prized and chosen hill – to find a spring bloom awakening across the hillside. Not long after the initial bloom appeared we were hit with another blizzard. Afterwards I returned to find the snow had blanketed the blossoms, yet the blueish purple pushed through, delicately and defiantly strong.

Earlier this week I caught my first sighting of those seemingly haphazard skeins of snow and blue geese just north of town. A year ago in March we were blessed with a large flock with hundreds of birds that adopted the wetland just over the rise from Listening Stones Farm. This was the second time over a six year period this has happened. Other years I’ve had to drive across the county, or even up to Traverse County, to capture photographs of the migration. I don’t know where they are resting now, although I know they’re here. Somewhere.

Snows and blues rise from the wetland just over the rise from Listening Stones Farm.

I long to head to the North Platte, and might still depending on an upcoming procedure to solve a health issue. I was close to giving up on the possibility, although a drive this week to Sioux Falls to meet with a specialist churned up the desire to simply keep going. It felt as if I were already half way there. If I have a “March Madness” it’s the Sandhill Crane migration, and reports of the migrations have come from Illinois, Colorado and Nebraska according to the International Crane Foundation. The largest migration route is through central Nebraska where a quarter million Sandhills are said to funnel through.

Twice I’ve rented an overnight blind along the Platte to be closer to the birds as they come to the river for overnight protection from possible predation. As the sun lowers to the horizon large flocks begin descending down to the shallow waters and sand bars. As impressive and beautiful as the flights and landings are, the prehistoric din of the collective callings mentally transports you through the ages to prehistoric times. 

Oh to experience the Sandhill Crane migration once again!

Even if I can’t slip away for a few days, March will bring many rewards for this grounded traveler. As I write the release of winter is occurring. Calmly and steadily, on earth and above in the treetops and clouds – a calm within the “madness” of this awkward month juggling between seasons.