Forest Bathing

A standing joke among us “forest bathers” this past weekend was to “not forget your fig leaf!” This form of ecotherapy translated as “forest bathing” was one of the multiple-offered courses at the Minnesota Master Naturalist’s Gathering Partners conference on Prairie Island. One of the two leaders, Kristen Mastel, had lived in Japan where she handled her cultural stress by venturing into an eco-antidote practice called “shinrin-yoko,” translated to mean “taking in the forest atmosphere.” Or, as it’s now known in the U.S., forest bathing.

Rather than fig leaves, we students were advised to wear sturdy but comfortable walking shoes and to be prepared for unpleasant weather along with a bit of a hike. Our leaders used the term “slow walking” at the beginning, although this was later amended to “sauntering” after being told that naturalist John Muir used “sauntering” for the same gait. 

“I don’t like either the word or the thing,” wrote Muir of hiking. “People ought to saunter in the mountains — not ‘hike!’ Do you know the origin of that word saunter? It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre’, ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”

Our saunter near the Mississippi River town of Redwing certainly had towering bluffs, though no mountains. We were on a portion of the Cannon River Trail that meandered through an aged deciduous forest and seemed perfect for sauntering. We didn’t know quite what to expect in the course, although after a few stops I began to realize that our pace was rather similar to the numerous nature “saunters” my artist friend, Lee Kanten, and I have done on numerous occasions: Sauntering through the woods, and somewhat similar to Muir’s ideal saunter, the rugged outcrops at the headwaters of the Minnesota River in the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. Age, perhaps, had more to do with our decision to saunter than a meditative mindset.

Like many meditative practices, certain disciplines awaited us, and sound can interfere. How would we handle the nearby highway noise with semis barreling through, or even the St. Paul to Chicago freighters rolling on the rails. Neither proved insurmountable.

Initially we gathered at the head of the trail and took a few minutes to engage in a deep breathing exercise quite similar to yoga breathing. With heads bowed and eyes closed, we drew in a deep breath, held it for a long moment before releasing. This came rather easily. That nearby traffic noise became rather muted the longer we practiced our meditative breathing. “In Japan,” said Mastel a bit later as she explained the discipline of forest bathing, “we sat on a mat to meditate. Shinrin-yoko, which is roughly translated into forest bathing, helped me handle the stress of being in a different culture along with a language barrier.”

As we sauntered along we would stop to practice a different discipline, or sense, along the way, concentrating on each until the next stop. Interestingly, “seeing” was the last of the disciplines, meaning I was forced to use senses rarely used in the saunters that Lee and I have done through the years. Photojournalists and artists are somewhat adept at seeing, and as we sauntered through the picturesque trail, composition and lighting emerged all around. Yet I kept my camera zippered inside my backpack … until a couple of the other students eased their cell phones from their pockets, one to photograph a wild flower, and the other a well hidden lichen. 

At one of our stops we were encouraged to smell. I admitted to the group that this was rarely one of my practices, yet when I forced myself to pay attention, the sense of smell came alive. First there was a rich muskiness, interrupted several steps later by a sweetness of a tree in bloom. There were other scents I couldn’t identify although there was an awareness. 

My weakest was that of hearing, for not only have I suffered a hearing impairment since I was a teenager, and have only recently found hearing aids that actually work well, I’m not used to “listening” when afield. Again, forcing myself to concentrate on the different sounds of the forest such as having the birds high in the canopy come to life. A rustle of leaves in the slight breeze. Then the sound of running water in an adjacent stream on private land close to our trail. On our walks in the Bonanza Education Center, spring-fed rivulets in the deep ravines do come to life and we make it a point to reach such a stream on the lakeside trail just to hear the sound of running water. And, yes, for meditative purposes.

My pivoting in different directions attempting to find a singing bird might have been counter-productive to the exercise although I wasn’t alone in doing so. Momentarily I recalled the audio rapture over the years … of the “jungle-like” sounds in the “blue hour” before darkness at the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in western Louisiana; the volumness of the sandhill cranes through the night in a blind on the North Platte River in central Nebraska; and of sea lions on a remote island near Juneau, Alaska. Those sounds were so dominate that hearing aids were unnecessary, and perhaps loud enough to rupture any thought of quiet meditation. On the Cannon River Trail, though, Mastel and her partner, Leah Masonick, had awakened another sense.

When the time came for awakening the sense of sight there was a feeling of comfort, for permission was now granted. One of the other Master Naturalists on the saunter shared thoughts of walking through various and ever changing compositions of nature all around us, and there was comfort in this sharing of likeness. 

Masonick said forest bathing encourages you to slow down, to cultivate a sense of presence and deepen your connection with nature … that it is done intentionally with a hope of engaging all the senses to stimulate creativity and to inspire wonder and awe. At the end we shared a comforting herbal tea and spoke of our individual awarenesses and awakenings.

I found myself in a zone, making it difficult to switch gears heading into my afternoon activity … about a four mile hike through a nearby Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) on the lip of the Driftless Area. I was ambling along (sauntering?) in a peaceful daze among others who were seemingly in a rush of aim and discovery. Meanwhile I was stuck in my “sight” mode, mainly, while listening for birds I couldn’t find and bending to smell native flowers along the path of whacked buckthorn stubble and in the narrow prairie hillsides. My eyes were drawn to the beautiful sturdy limbs of burr oak and the contrast of stark white birch against a greening, leafing out forest covering the deep ravines between the hilltops. And wildflowers a man of the prairie rarely encounters.

Here I was using old, under-used senses with renewed vigor, and I couldn’t have been more blessed. Interestingly, the fig leaf was unnecessary.

Earth Shadow Thoughts

Here’s the thing ­— whenever there is one of those celestial events it seems as if 99 percent of the time we’re greeted with thick, impenetrable cloud cover. This was my reasoning upon returning from the BWCA a couple of summers ago when the huge solar eclipse turned everyone I seemed to know into sun god nomads. A photographer friend made a beautiful horizontal portrayal of the eclipse, and others still talk about it with delighted wonder. They speak of a 360 degree sunset I can barely imagine and the thrills of actually being in such an eclipitical moment.

Me? I ventured over to the Prairie Wood Environmental Learning Center and squatted in the bluestem prairie waiting for perhaps some of the magic. Obviously on the extreme edge of magical bliss. I found it sorely lacking, no blame to the ELC. I hopped in my car and sped up Highway 71 to Sibley State Park, where the park naturalist, perhaps feeling sorry for me, loaned me her solar safety glasses. It was just in time to see the last eighth of the moon shadow. 

Eclipses aren’t the half of it. Twice I’ve made trips to photograph Northern Lights. Once was flying to visit a former exchange student and friend in Tromso, Norway. We would rest much of the day before heading out into the nearby mountains away from the city lights and into deep early February darkness in hopes of catching one of those outlandish dancing rays of other otherworldly pigmentation. In our nearly week-long excursions we had about 15 minutes of visualizing the lights peeking through small holes in windblown clouds. My other trip was to a resort on the Gunflint Trail along the Minnesota-Canadian border with a beautiful exposure to the north across a barren, ice-choked lake. Unlike farm country, the wilderness was free of light “pollution.” Well, we did catch a glimpse of a wolf, although the skies were either completely clear with no Aurora or blanketed with a dense, snowy cloud cover.

Our “blood moon” in the midst of the lunar eclipse on Sunday.

Thankfully the last comet that came through lasted nearly a month in the darkened universal canvas, long enough to plan some pictures including reflections in the calmed surface of a Minnesota lake.

Several years ago, though, in my last (and incredibly short) marriage, we sat outside of what has become my patio in lawn chairs with a bottle of Cabernet, holding hands as we sat through a visible lunar eclipse. Afterwards I made a social network comment expressing my second thoughts about not recording the eclipse with my camera. To which an old friend and chief photographer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Brian Peterson, wrote, “Sometimes John it’s perfectly okay to simply enjoy such things that happen in life. You don’t always need to have a camera in hand.”

This time I was fully prepared, although I must admit my trepidation after watching schooner clouds pass by all afternoon. Which brings me to our very last lunar eclipse this past Sunday night. Fortunately the first half of the show labeled as the “blood moon” lunar eclipse was going to happen within a time frame conducive to “old men hours.” Amazingly we hit that special one percent of cloudless skies so I could see and photograph such a special milestone in the adventures of larger life! However, there was no hint of spine-tingle that I was acutely aware of, although seeing the moon turn bloody looking was both interesting and special.

What transpired mentally as I sat in the chair typically used in my photography blind was trying to imagine thoughts of those preceding us in both time and technology. With the earth’s shadow slowly but surely edging over the surface of the moon I wondered if there were thoughts that perhaps the world was coming to an end? Were there thrills the following morning to awaken to find yet another day had arrived complete with blue skies and sunshine?

Historians believe one of the earliest “recorded” eclipses happened in November of 3340 B.C. after a series of circular and spiral shaped petroglyphs were found in County Meath, Ireland, along with charred human bones beneath a stone basin of what is now the Loughcrew Megalithic Monument. Scientists have wondered if there is a correlation, although they have no answers. Apparently the charred humans weren’t part of the petroglyphic history.

A thousand or so years later was one of the earliest solar eclipses, believed to be in 2134 B.C., as recorded in ancient Chinese documents, an eclipse event that supposedly was believed to be the result of a large dragon eating the sun. This nearly corresponds with Hsi and Ho, two royal and supposedly loyal astronomers who were ordered by Yu, the first emperor of the Xia Dynasty, to fend off this fearful sun-eating dragon but chose to get drunk instead. The displeased Yu then chose to have them beheaded. 

Speeding ahead toward more “modern” times, wars and even the Crucifixion of Jesus may have had ties to lunar eclipses. In and around 413 B.C., at the height of the Peloponnesian War, in a decades long struggle between Athens and Sparta, the superstitious Athens commander, Nicias, decided to hold off a safe departing because of a lunar eclipse. This prompted the Syracusians to then attack, overcome and weaken the Athenians stronghold on the Mediterranean which marked the eventual demise of Athenian dominance. 

Sometimes it’s just enough to enjoy the mysteries of our moon, especially since scientists suggest the human race is living in a unique and special time with the proximity between earth and moon.

Concerning Christ, Christian gospels suggest the sky darkened after the crucifixion which astronomers believe may have coincided with an eclipse. The “event” was apparently married to astronomical records in the years 29 C.E. to 32 C.E., records which historians have used in trying to pinpoint the death of Jesus.

So much for the past. For the time being the future looks promising for fans who seek pilgrimages for such events of the vast universe, all right here in our very own galaxy. On April 8, 2024 our next solar eclipse will cross through Mexico, the United States and Canada, from Mazatlán heading northeasterly through Texas and several other states en route to the border between Maine and eastern Canada. It’s estimated the maximum duration of totality will be about four and a half minutes. Of course, cloudy weather in the northeastern states and Canada may block views of the eclipse, so what else is new? 

Just in case you’re wondering, our next lunar eclipse is scheduled for September 7, 2025, and yes, the United States is right in the middle of the expected earth shadow. The western half of Alaska and the tip of Nova Scotia might see a partial event but the rest of us in this broad slice of the planet, from pole to pole, should have a front row seat … pending a lack of cloud cover.

Suspected paths of future solar eclipses.

Before one gets the idea that these soulful celestial events are forever certainties, consider this: Scientists conclude that we are living at an extraordinary time and place within our unique universe where total solar and lunar eclipses are even possible. They warn that this will not always be the case, as gravitational interaction between our planet and its moon is causing the moon to slowly ebb away from Earth into vast universal darkness at a rate of nearly an inch and a half a year! So within 500 to 600 million years they estimate the moon will appear much too small in our sky for there to be another total solar or lunar eclipse sighting on Earth ever again. So, folks, plan accordingly. You can’t say you haven’t been forewarned.

Confessions of a Rookery Collector

Great Blue Herons hold a special place for me. Long, sleek and grayish blue, with the dark crown angling back overhead, stalking the shallows ever the hunter. A spear-like beak that slices through both time and water, angling for a fish or frog; a portrait of animalistic stealth ­— a “water wolf” —  always on the ready. Although those that become urbanized become less shy, those in the wild have little tolerance for mankind, lifting from the river a hundred feet in front of a canoe, or lifting with sudden urge from a wetland or prairie stream to glide away, neck curbed with straightened legs, off to some realm of both safety and promise. 

Great Blues are part of my springtime wonder. They arrive early, weeks before color begins to soften the woodlands. Besides catching glimpses of the herons, this array of woodland colors of the buds of awakening trees, from the bright reds to the nearly full spectrum of greens, eases my soul. Adding peace. Adding joy. This leafing out is truly an acknowledgment that we’ve finally passed the rigors of a winter past and are now heading toward summer. This is all choreographed between bird and wood so wonderfully … until it isn’t.

Male Great Blue Herons bringing in the sticks the female will knit into the nests.

For on one of the bends of the Minnesota River below Skalbakken County Park, rather close to the confluence of Cottonwood Creek, the Great Blue Herons have adopted a piece of the wooded banks for a rookery that becomes completely hidden once the leaves of the trees appear between the rookery and the river. Besides being unfair to a hopeful canoer, there is something about a rookery that simply amazes me, and has for as long as I can remember. Could it be having a sneak peek into the inner secrets of an avarian slice of life?  

If the late counterculture poet and author Richard Brautigan could collect trout streams, then whose to say I can’t collect heron rookeries. His fly fishing pilgrimage through Idaho in the late 1960s isn’t unlike mine through the numerous crane rookeries through the years. Around our region of the prairie numerous birders make an annual pilgrimage to a rookery shared by cormorants and Great Egrets on a small island in “grotto” park near downtown Fergus Falls. Color me guilty, for I seem to make the 90 minute drive at least a few times each year especially in the spring during the collective nest building span of time. 

Beside the Fergus Falls and Cottonwood Creek rookery, that springtime canoers paddle past, another one exists about a mile or so below US 212 some miles south of Marieta surrounded by a stately oak savanna. This one, like many, is well hidden, and like many, basically the only time it’s visible is in the spring before leafing. Even then one if lucky to see it.

She awaits, as do I peeking in at their interesting society.

Over the years I’ve been drawn to other rookeries in other states. Perhaps the most notable one is the Snowy Egret rookery on Tabasco’s Avery Island near New Iberia, LA, where the McIlhenny family basically saved the egrets from extinction in the early 1900s thanks to a man-made rookery. At the time the birds were threatened due to the fashionable thirst for their fairy-like feathers. Avery Island is a magical place in the Cajun Triangle.

Another rookery I thoroughly love is within the town limits of Rockport, TX, a beautiful Great Blue Heron rookery that was pointed out to me by a local artist after I had admired one of her paintings in her front street studio. This heron community is adjacent to both the Gulf of Mexico and a brackish bay where the birds wade the waters with seemingly no concern of nearby human traffic either in vehicles or on foot. A naturalist friend tells of a well populated crane rookery in NE Minneapolis where the birds are also “tamed” by the proximity of humanity.

Not so at a rookery on a small lake in the Eastern South Dakota Coteau. A few years ago a friend and I discovered this beautiful island rookery between here and the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Like the Fergus Falls rookery, there isn’t any foliage blocking the view. Last week I ventured over after seeing a heron lift from Meadowbrook just down the road from Listening Stones Farm. This was a “they’re here!” moment of discovery, and since this rookery is about 90 minutes west between Sisseton and Sand Lake NWR, I took the drive. There the birds held me captive for nearly two hours … which is about normal. Their “secret society” feeling simply  grabs me.

The handoff …

And the rookery was alive with nesting activity. While females worked on arranging the sticks brought in by their mates high in the trees, the males flew off in search of more nest kindling, grasping mere sticks in their beaks before easing across the expanse of the lake. Amazingly, they would land on spindly branches before gingerly walking down to hand off the stick to its mate. 

Besides being mesmerized by the branch ballet, in the deft manner of not only landing on the end of a branch, and then balancing as the male eased toward his mate with the stick secured in its beak, there was the eased poetic flight over calm waters carrying sticks dogs would love. Sometimes both would work on the construction, although it seemed that moments after the hand off the male would again take flight to gather more sticks. In his absence, she would knit the stick into a maze that would become their nest. Interestingly, much like the rookery in Fergus Falls, sometimes a nearby cormorant would attempt to wrestle the stick away from the herons. Rarely were they successful.

Yes, their island rookery was shared by cormorants, who likewise were busy in next mending. Though like in Fergus Falls, I wasn’t there for the cormorants … birds that appear so old worldish with their strangely webbed feet and hooked bills that they appear to be from times’ past, as first cousins to prehistoric Pterosaurs. But, aren’t all birds? 

An overview of the rookery between Sisseton and Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

These nests they weave of random wood high in spindly trees, mostly now perished due to the buildup of guano from those that have adopted the highest most branches, are study and strong, surviving in this case, often harsh and strong prairie winds. 

In those nests she will lay three to seven greenish-blue eggs that will be incubated for about four weeks with the male and female taking turns. Chicks break through the shells with eyes open, and like all those Pterosaurous cousins, are completely dependent on their parents for sustenance – food that is regurgitated from small fish, frogs and other small animals ingested in their stomachs. Within two to three months the youngsters are ready to fly, and come late summer they will be smaller mirrors of their parents. Though less fearful of mankind, the young herons can be seen in waters near their rookery stalking the shallows with far less spookiness than their parents, a fear that will become more pronounced as they age. 

So life goes on, seasonally, and with balance and symmetry. Beautifully poetic, with their high branch ballet, and if you’re lucky you can witness all of this in a natural theatre often near water and in an early Spring before a leafing closes the curtain on this delicate and fearful society. Rookeries are rare treasures, and I for one am most happy to be a collector.

Seasons Within Seasons

Besides having her first book banned by her local library, author and poet Helen Bevington also wrote a cool little observation of the seasons of poets in a way I can understand: 

To wit: “The seasonal urge is strong in poets. Milton wrote chiefly in winter. Keats looked for spring to wake him up (as it did in the miraculous months of April and May, 1819). Burns chose autumn. Longfellow liked the month of September. Shelley flourished in the hot months. Some poets, like Wordsworth, have gone outdoors to work. Others, like Auden, keep to the curtained room. Schiller needed the smell of rotten apples about him to make a poem. Tennyson and Walter de la Mare had to smoke. Auden drinks lots of tea, Spender coffee; Hart Crane drank alcohol. Pope, Byron, and William Morris were creative late at night. And so it goes.”

Here, in the North … or the upper half of the upper half of our planet … we are seemingly blessed with four celestial seasonal changes, choreographed by sun moments. Two recognizing opposing points, two of equalization. The Winter Solstice followed by a Spring Equinox, then the Summer Solstice followed by the Autumn Equinox. Years divided by an equilibrium of days. We tend to celebrate the Solstices and dismiss the Equinoxes, the only two days and nights of the year when we’re in tune with the Equator … having as much daylight as darkness of night, or night as day. We don’t even lift a glass of wine to celebrate this human brotherhood for whatever reason!

Missing the Sandhill Crane migration, I’ve turned to flowers. Specifically Pasque Flowers.

Supposedly this organization of time would be sweet except that it’s not. Despite the time, our weather rarely coincides with this orchestrated delineation of seasonal change. Case in point, I’ve driven through snow storms in Colorado in June, and enjoyed sunny, 70 degree days in a Minnesota November. We even had a 60 degree day in January, if memory serves me correctly. Before I lose track of my vein of thought, much like Bevington’s realm of poetic seasons, my small take on the ways of the world is that there are any number of multiple seasons. 

My seasons seem to loom around significant sightings of nature. Such as bird migrations, or the appearance of various forbs in the prairie grasslands and in the woods. These past few weeks two of my typically noted seasons seemed a bit skewed. The first skew was the early sighting of a wild turkey fluffed in sexual finery back in the middle of March on a grayish, snowy day. This was followed by not seeing the first appearance of a Pasque Flower until the last week of April.

I’ve been chiding myself for missing the Sandhill Crane migration in central Nebraska this spring, and noting that the white-fronted and snow geese migrations that seemingly happened annually around here apparently passed right over us. Twice I witnessed their strange, haphazardly drawn out skeins high in the sky, stretching across our sky-wide “inner umbrella” for miles in a distant flyover. Not a single skein seemed to have taken notice of the wetlands nearby and in particular in the one just over the hill from my home prairie that has hosted several such migrations over the years. Blame perhaps can be tied to most of the nearby wetlands being frozen in multiple-acre sheets of ice. Yet, those seasonal events I typical note sped right on by.

Sometimes the “seasons” seem skewed, like seeing a wild turkey fluffed in his sexual finery earlier than one would expect.

Without the “seasons” of avian flocks, I’ve turned to wild flowers, and truthfully, this isn’t such a bad choice for I seem to follow the seasonal floral awakenings annually, typically beginning with Pasque Flowers and concluding sometime in the fall with the last of the stark blue Asters. 

Earlier in March, and then into April, I stopped by my “pasque hill” numerous times to no avail. Then, finally, about a week or so ago they poked through with their hairy stems and soft, blue to violet blossoms to awaken my springtime here on the prairie. The first day I found one. Yes, one. On the entire hill. Returning the second night there were three clumps. Seemingly there wasn’t enough warmness in the air nor enough sunshine to have the hill become dotted with the small, violet blossoms. Ah, but every year is different, and this year may go down as the grayest and dampest year in some time ­– realizing that 100 miles north they were still having snow a week ago, and 100 miles south the sun filled the blue sky with rays of hope and the grass was green.

Yet, this sighting of Pasque Flowers was simply a start. On the heels will come Bluebells in the grove, then Prairie  Smoke back in the prairie … on and on we’ll go, though the orchids and cone flowers, the bee balm through to the Asters come late September.

Once again evidence of the Snow Geese appeared overhead in skeins that stretched across the sky, though this year they passed us by.

I’m certainly not alone, for like Bevington’s poets, many of us define our seasons by various sightings within nature. For example, a naturalist friend defines her seasons on mushroom observations, and believe me, morels aren’t the first nor the only fungi found in the wild. Some birder friends gleefully exclaim joy on their first sightings. Not of Sandhills, but of warblers, for one, and wading birds for another. For my late wife, Sharon, her first sighting of Great Blue Herons was the beginning of her Spring. Our seasons are as different as we are as individuals, and what could be more defining or beautiful?

Frankly all of this is simply a lark that helps step us through a given year. Despite my rather odd recognition in the seasonal changes of nature, I have yet to turn down an invitation for a bonfire celebration of the Winter Solstice complete with a study beverage and a forked stick with deer flank searing over a roaring bonfire. Or, for that matter, a glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc on what my Swedish friends celebrate with delicious feasts of plenty and fire and call their Midsummer Eve. In the end I guess I’m simply a man for all seasons. 

Now, about those Equinoxes …