Bent Branches and Illogical Consequences

Late Sunday afternoon Lin Brimeyer re-entered my life, and it couldn’t have come any time too soon. She came by printed page thanks to her husband, Jack, who had promised to publish a booklet of their too-short life together. Sunday was the 25th anniversary of Lin’s death at age 45 due to cancer. It had been awhile. Lin and I hadn’t seen one another since their wedding at Eagle Point Park overlooking the Mississippi River in Dubuque over Memorial Day weekend in 1972. I took pictures for their wedding.

Lin was a young woman embedded with an old soul, and for some reason those rare folks aren’t around us for very long. Rarely long enough. When she hugged you she enveloped you with that inner soul, wrapping you with comfort and joy. Jack and I were “cub” reporters at the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, and for a time we were roommates. When Lin and Jack walked down the street in front of you it was hard to guess who was who for both had beautiful, long brown hair women envied that reached nearly to their waists. Eventually I would move on to the Denver Post, and Jack would leave a few years later to become the managing editor of the Peoria Star Journal. 

Lin had a wonderful outlook on life, and never seemed to take illogical consequences too seriously, which bode well for me on Sunday. The afternoon before I had just returned from a five-day stay in a hospital with Covid, and where I spent too much time contemplating life, along with irrational thoughts of what my son might see if he picked up my old Nikon were I to die. Would the last picture be worthy? Unworthy of being saved? Indeed, the wile and ways of illogical consequences, like a mother worrying if her child had on clean underwear in case of being hit by a fire truck.

My last image from my April 11 foray to Big Stone Lake State Park, taken on a wetland just north of my Listening Stones Farm …

“If you’re going to obsess, save it for something truly important and work is usually not that important,” was among the thoughts Lin had shared with Jack over the years.  

You see, Lin had many such views concerning life which Jack shared in his booklet: and a piece read at her memorial service explains a lot about her, a piece written by Dick Schneider and published in Family Guideposts in 1981: “They say that if you creep into an evergreen forest late at night you can hear the trees talking. In the whisper of the wind you’ll catch the older pines explaining to the younger ones why they’ll never be perfectly shaped. There will always be a bent branch here, a gap there …”

Besides the numerous eulogies, milestones and anecdotes he shared in his beautiful booklet, he included a number of “Lin-isms” they shared that said so much about her philosophies of life, a life she had devoted to helping others both personally and through her career in social work. Among them:

Love your family unconditionally; they’re the best you’ll ever get. If people offer to help, it’s your duty to let them. You should dance on a table at least once. When in doubt, plant more flowers. All you Redhats: You can never overdo Christmas. Things done at the last moment are somehow more gratifying. Don’t judge people harshly; they’re probably doing that themselves. The fun of fishing is lost when you actually hook something. You can never have too many books. It’s not enough to simply love someone; you must be able to tell them why. When you’re under a lot of stress, you’ll probably wreck your car. It’s best to have many best friends. Serve more food than anyone can eat and don’t forget the rolls. Time spent on the phone with friends is not deducted from your total allotment. If you put in a swimming pool, size it for family and friends, not for yourself. Take long walks but never alone. Every vacation must include a visit to a flower garden. Always carry aspirin. Newspaper people are much nicer than other people think. Anything made by your mother is better. Don’t throw out memories; rent more space if you have to. Islands are always better than the mainland. It’s OK to have lots of stuff. Nephews and nieces are never boring. Be sure to designate a favorite aunt. For really relaxing music, turn on a purring cat. You should never be too busy to listen and never too scared to talk. Weed barriers don’t work, dammit. Let others in on your dreams. We’ll never stop needing toys. It’s mostly in the genes and that’s not fair. Dirty jokes are usually funnier. Chocolate is best at breakfast. When you stop learning, you stop. Never rush a river, for rivers have a flow of their own.

My first image on the foray, of fishermen at the State Park access. Taken the evening before I was admitted to the Sandford Hospital in Sioux Falls with Covid.

And then there was this one Jack wrote that they both learned after attending too many funerals where the dead person was never mentioned in human terms, and sometimes not even by their known name: Remember the dead with laughter if you can, and tears if you must. But do remember them.

For some reason, two really struck home: “Never rush a river, for rivers have a flow of their own.” And, “Islands are more interesting the mainlands.”

Over the years I’ve been more “island” than “mainland,” and I never felt either more alive or free than when I was a freelancer, when every moment and conversation seemed loaded with possibilities. Years later, when working as an editor for a magazine in an office, the “mainland” was a grind, seemingly staid and stifling. Some sense of freedom returned after moving to the prairie to run the small country weekly, which I “married” to a coordinator’s position with an international student exchange program. I had found the freedom to write and photograph whatever I wanted along with earning international travel and making friends all over the world. We were also surrounded by a river valley of people who themselves were “islands” off the “mainland” of humanity. This became home, and remains so for that very reason.

My second image … a murmuration at the entrance of the park …

There, too, is a natural rhythm of life … a river, if you will … that plays itself out within the currents of time. Moments come when the currents are narrowed, becoming rolling rapids over boulders of stress at the height of a stream. We, too, edge into eddies from time to time, yet somehow ease back into an ever flowing current. Never rush a river.

For some scary moments laying in the hospital bed I did obsess over some things of serious nature … including fears that a rough rapids could occur quickly. Perhaps my fear of death from Covid was a bit overwrought. And while there were alternatives to laying in thought (especially of those silly illogical consequences), or staring out a window at a barren sky … which I did on occasion on my last afternoon … mine was a quiet room, an eddy in time, and I rested in relative comfort in realizing that the staff was comforting, professional and caring.

I hadn’t met up again with Lin Brimeyer as yet, but when we did gather the following afternoon she came with a smile and a soul deep with understanding and care. Just as I remember her doing all those years back in the past.

My third image was of a lone tree on the crest of a ravine …

Toward the end of her life, Lin and Jack found an old part of a oak-shaded cemetery where they secured a plot, and where he would place a marble tombstone onto which he had etched an Emily Dickenson poem, one so appropriate to her enriched and beautiful soul:

“If I can stop one heart from breaking, 

I shall not live in vain; 

If I can ease one life the aching, 

Or cool one pain, 

Or help one fainting robin 

Unto his nest again, 

I shall not live in vain.”

All Call, no Beck …

As we loaded up for a short hike though the darkened prairie to a turkey blind he had set up a few days before, Tom Kalahar sniffed the pre-dawn air and said, “If I had to choose between hearing a chorus of heavenly angels sing and the music of wild turkeys, I’d take the wild turkeys every time. There is no better music.”

Last week we had made a “date” for Kalahar, perhaps the most avid turkey hunter I know, to hopefully place me in position to take photos of the fluffy, sex-starved toms. We met before dawn Sunday morning beside a patch of CREP land near Minnesota Falls. We had parked on a minimum maintenance gravel road, gathered our respective gear and started our hike, traversing on a barely visible, worn deer trail.

This field, like so many others in Renville County, is a solid part of his legacy as former director of the county’s Soil and Water Conservation District. He was noted among his SWCD peers before retirement for converting the most cropland into the perpetual conservation easement CREP program several years ago. 

A trio of wild tom turkeys in full display a few years ago.

“The turkeys, if they’re around, won’t be far from us,” he said. “There just isn’t that much habitat around for them anymore, and this is one of the rare spots.” 

We hiked for maybe 700 or so meters through the dormant grasses past a finger of a tree blessed gully and a deer stand tucked on the inside corner away from the road. We then cut across the pasture to the next finger of the tree engulfed gully where he had put the blind. As he set up a couple of decoys I readied my camera gear and got situated inside the blind. 

Sunrise was at about 6:48 a.m., and we were safely ahead of schedule as he pulled down the panel pieces for camera angles and viewing. Moments later he pulled out his slate and began chirping a hen cadence. Immediately he got an answer, and moments later a tom gobbled in return as well. Their roost seemed like it was mere meters behind us in the wooded gully. It was a conversation that would continue for an hour or more giving us a sense of hope and promise.

Tom Kalahar works his slate call in the blind Sunday morning near Minnesota Falls.

As the dawn approached and eased into the morning light I continually adjusted the metering of the camera. If the turkeys came into our view I wanted to be ready. There might not be time for adjustments once they arrived. As the light continued to brighten I realized what a fine choice Kalahar had made for our shoot. This open prairie was like a stage with a beautifully contrasting muted woodland as a backdrop. Easing over the tree line was a nearly perfect three-quarter backlight with a comforting softness. All we needed was the turkeys.

Meanwhile Kalahar kept working the call, and the responses were nearly immediate. “They’re close by,” he whispered. Several moments later he again whispered, “They’re now off the roost and on the ground.” No sooner had he spoken when a chickadee lit momentarily on a dead tree branch just outside my side port window. Suddenly another appeared, then about four more. Just as quickly they were off toward the inside curve of trees, all before I could raise my camera. 

Pheasants “barked” almost off and on while Kalahar and the turkey hen continued their bantering back and forth, with the tom occasionally joining the conversation. Then, abruptly, all went quiet save for the distant pheasants. And would remain so for the rest of the morning. We whispered an intermittent conversation about turkey hunting. He counted seven different states where he has hunted, including on my family’s farm in Missouri. 

This was also from a few years ago in a field overlooking Big Stone Lake.

When I expressed my admiration of how the tom’s fluff themselves in their finery, he said, “It is impressive, especially if you’re bow hunting. They’ll fluff their feathers this full,” he whispered, opening his hands the width of a bushel basket, “while inside that fluff of feathers is a body like this.” Now his hands had narrowed to the width of a football. “There isn’t much to shoot at.” It’s that display of puffiness I was after with my camera.

Our time would pass peacefully. We would not reconnect with the brood, for they must have found more CREP land habitat down the way. “You never know,” Kalahar explained, still in a loud whisper. “It can be quiet like this then suddenly in all the quiet they appear. Now, while the hens are laying their eggs, there is more group movement. The hens come in and the toms follows. Once the eggs are laid, then the hens separate themselves from the flock to incubate the eggs. The toms are more or less on their own and will be moving more. That comes later in the season. Right now they’re still following the hens.”

Another flock of wild turkey with the hens on the move. This was taken last week in a wooded ravine near Listening Stones Farm.

Our morning in the blind went slowly quickly, and while that might sound as a contradiction, it is as described. “Patience is the entire key to turkey hunting. Maybe 20 percent of the hunters score a bird and those that don’t are basically impatient. Me? I have unlimited patience. I can sit here in a blind from dawn to dusk, and really, there is nothing better. This is by far my favorite game to hunt. For moments in nature just like this.” In his “man cave” back in Olivia he will bring forth an impressive collection of turkey beards from his years of hunting. “I’m pretty picky. Mine is a selective harvest,” he said.

Contemplation over much of nothing comprised my morning, which was chilly enough without activity yet warm enough under down outerwear that there was no shivering. Watching a morning awaken is a delightful experience especially in a prairie meadow surrounded by dense wood. A few times I would see something of interest and shoot a picture. Tom intermittently worked either his slate or squawk box, though the answering had long before stopped.

This wasn’t going to be the day despite our honor of patience. Entering Kalahar’s world for a morning was something to cherish, a world filled with the nuances of nature from chickadees to distant hovering buzzards, from conversations with an adept turkey hunter and his distant prey to the continued “barks” of pheasants, also in the trials and tribulations of springtime romance. 

One of my “contemplation” images while in the blind, with backlight highlighting one of the trees in the fingered gully across them our patient wait.

“This is one of my temples,” he would say at one point as we waited. “I have many such temples, though none better than this. There is nothing better than turkey hunting. Nothing.” It would be a morning of all call and no beck, and we both honored these timeless nuances of nature between hunter and prey. 

As we loaded our respective gear in our vehicles near noon, some six hours later, he extended the invitation to join him in the blind on another day. Perhaps I had passed the “patience test,” although he added, “Just be prepared, for next time you might be next to a shotgun blast.” His preferred hunting season was just three mornings away whereas mine seems perpetual, and like his, spring after spring.

Two Old Guys

“Our doctors would be having nightmares if they could see us now. Two old guys with questionable balance climbing over these precarious rocks!” came the soothing words of encouragement from dear friend and musical artist Lee Kanten in the midst one of our occasional saunters. Our climbing and balancing acts were on the ruggedly beautiful virgin outcrop terrain rising from the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. True, neither of us are wholly well-balanced, and Lee has more bionic joints than I can remember. Me? I’m just old.  

But, who cares? Those unnamed physicians were busy elsewhere, and arguments could be made about the just rewards of job security.

When we made our plans for our most recent saunter the sun was shining and blue skies with dotting clouds covered most of the earthen canopy. By the time we reached the Refuge a strong wind from the west had blown in an umbrella of grayness stretching to the edges of our horizons. We were not to be denied, especially after being told by a previous hiker that an unexpected waterfall was to be witnessed at the end of the paved trail off the central parking lot. So, off we went, each of us with a hint of a limp which we kindly pointed out to one another.

This bur oak catches my attention every time.

We had debated on whether to hike the Refuge or the lake trail at Bonanza, and opted for the hike on the trail through the outcrops, bedrock exposed by the ancient Lake Agassiz flood. At the apex of one of the more distant outcrops is a broad horseshoe-shaped bend of the Minnesota River that courses through the Refuge. That was my goal, at least, although I anticipated a reflection of blue skies glistening off a mirrored surface paired with colorful budding of riverine tree life. Perhaps another day.

Finding the waterfall wasn’t much of a challenge, for the paved walk took us directly to the bench next to the river (a perfectly rather secluded spot for self reflection). The falls was visible through thick woods off in the distance, and Lee surmised that it might be melt water being pumped from the gravel mine nestled next to the Refuge.

We weren’t long at the end of the paved path, and decided to climb up the craggy face of the adjacent outcrop to the walking trail we knew existed once we scaled the face. Up above the wind had a more wintry bite. The trail is one of our favorite for it winds through the picturesque outcrops and an oak savanna, and at various points offers great vistas of the Refuge prairie off to the southeast along with that vast flooded waterway that attracts migrating geese, ducks, wading birds, white pelicans, coots and other birds en route to their eventual summer environs. On our adventure the waters were basically barren of migrating birds save for a few coots coursing through the flooded grasses. 

The waterfall viewed through the timber.

Eventually we meandered through to the top of the next outcrop where Lee suddenly stopped to verbally wonder about the power of the Glacial River Warren, the name of the breakthrough river of Lake Agassiz some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Geologists surmise that when the ice dam fractured waters sped through the glacial till like a cleaving sword at speeds of more than a million cubic feet per second. Till was tossed aside and scoured away down to the caprice, leaving behind a washed out valley of bedrock that varies in width at points of more than three miles wide, and is a gneiss and granite wonderland from the headwaters of the Minnesota River, that now courses through that trough of the old glacial river some 213 plus river miles from here to Mankato. 

That scouring began just a few miles upriver from where we two old guys were climbing, and all these outcrops were laid bare by the flood. What’s fun is finding little holes in the gneiss where pebbles were spun by the raging waters leaving behind pockmarks in the stone you can easily still see thousands of years later. I’ve seen similar pitholes in outcrops as far southeast as Morton. These continuing outcrops give the Minnesota River Valley a special natural landscape not unlike the Boundary Waters … were it not for the polluting of the river waters themselves.

We played tag … until I caught it in the grasses.

To crawl, walk and climb through such events of our natural history is daunting. Lake Agassiz covered what is now most of central Canada including all of Saskatchewan, North Dakota and northern Minnesota and was in it’s day larger than any existing lake in the world including the Caspian Sea. Remnant waters include Lake Winnipeg, Lake of the Woods, Red Lake and Rainy Lake, among others, as well as the Great Lakes. 

The breakthrough drainage with River Warren was so disrupting and of such magnitude that it significantly impacted climate, sea level and human civilization. The huge freshwater release into the Arctic Ocean near Hudson Bay was believed to have disrupted oceanic circulation and caused a temporary global cooling. Yet these outcrops, here in the Refuge, was where it all began, and we two old guys were traipsing through what Lee called “an eye blink in time.”

Before Euro immigration this valley was home to various Native tribes, and local historian, Don Felton, often known as Babou, points out areas within the refuge where campsites were set up by the wandering tribes in  search of bison and other game. He can also point out bison rubs where a fine sheen glistens off the granite and gneiss in the sunlight some 150 years after the last bison were believed to have grazed prairie grasses in the valley. There is even evidence of Petroglyphs hidden within the outcrops, but Babou and others are reluctant to show them for fear of vandalism.

The horseshoe bend of the Minnesota River from the top of the outcrop.

We didn’t see much bird life on our saunter. A few robins and a Downy Woodpecker. It was a bit early for the warblers and Cedar Waxwings, which love to tantalize a man with a lens on such saunters later in the year. A small brownish bird flirted with the photographer by hiding in the dormant grasses and blitzing behind oak branches along the trail. I did capture an image yet have no clue of its identification. 

When we finally reached the more distant outcrop where the horseshoe bend of the Minnesota River beckoned, the wind was fraught with a pelting of occasional raindrops. Some felt like sleet against the cheek, and we hurriedly began making our way back through the rocky maze toward the car. Although it might require a vivid imagination to suggest we two old guys made a sprint for our safety and comfort, we did make it back mere seconds before the rain actually hit.

Meandering through this landscape left naked by glacial waters rushing at speeds we can barely imagine is humbling, offering much in similarity to viewing of the Milky Way on a moonless night when you can grasp the insignificance of both human life collectively on what appears to be a most unique planet in a limitless universe, along with your own life within it. That “insignificance” pales, though, when you can also vividly view and hear the destruction of what remains of this unique planet in ways far more morbid and everlasting than that caused by the Glacial River Warren. We two old guys will long be gone by the time earth will become uninhabitable if current trends continue, as earth becomes a wasteland planet that global greed has forever failed to yield.