Count me among those who can tell the difference between luck and serendipity. Just for the record, and without a drop of DNA proof, I’m not of Irish descent although I do know luck when I see it, or experience it. Luck is when a five dollar raffle wins you a kayak, or an incredibly beautiful quilt fashioned by state park manager Terri Dinesen for a $2 raffle ticket through the Pezuta Zizi Environmental Learning Center, Friends of Upper Sioux Agency State Park.

Then there was that “win” of a Final Four bracket thing back in the late 1990s at a local bar just before losing  most of the windfall through the custom of buying rounds of drinks afterwards. Luck? Because I didn’t know who two-thirds of the teams in the bracket.

Being serendipitous is an entirely different matter, for that is when unexpected fortune falls in your lap. As an example, take Wednesday afternoon of last week. I had been tagged to present my 18-minute “film” of  images, fashioned together beautifully by artist friend, Lee Kanten, for the newest class of Minnesota Master Naturalists at nearby Lac qui Parle State Park who were here for the 40-hour course on the Prairie Pothole Biome. 

Round three of my serendipitous afternoon overlooking Big Stone Lake and an incredible storm front.

This was an afternoon without humidity, which nowadays is counted as one of the blessings of a Minnesota summer. For which we were lucky! I left the farm with ample  time before the potluck mainly to make sure our technologies matched up correctly for the presentation, which gave me some leeway for possible fun in the field. For one, surrounding the state park’s office and headquarters is a beautiful native planting with gorgeous prairie flowers. So, yes, this happened to be in my thoughts. This was neither luck nor serendipity. This was knowledge.

A prairie meadow at the base of the turnoff from the state highway to the state park headquarters, however, wasn’t part of the plan. Last fall area prairie lovers lost one of the most beautiful prairie meadows in the river valley, located just a few miles further down the highway. Apparently the CRP had played out so the owners, who had the land for sale along with their beautiful house, had the prairie converted to cropland. Nearly 80 acres of perennial prairie turned upside down with soybeans supplanting coneflowers … meaning once harvested that former prairie will be exposed and vulnerable to the winter winds. So much for combating global warming.

The doe and fawn appeared suddenly on the turnoff, and she bolted to the apex of the hill, soon joined by one of the two fawns. Round 1!

Seeing this new meadow, now in full bloom, was a stopper. I knew I had time to spare so out came the camera and lenses to play with various compositions and textures. What fun! Unexpected fun! Yet, I wouldn’t quite label this as serendipitous. With an eye on the clock, it was soon off to the headquarters and the obligations. Once the technical issues were squared away, the prairie garden surrounding the office beckoned. More of the same. Playing with imagery through wind-blown grasses, which typically give me a sense of stilled softness along with color. 

My luck would continue with an incredible potluck by the naturalists, many from the Cities, that included fresh mozzarella bruschetta, dolmes and a two-grape “salad” that I couldn’t get enough of. Plus the main “course” was “pulled” roasted chicken with a dandy BBQ tangy sauce on the side. Not your typical church basement potluck.

Those “students” were very kind after the presentation, and two women provided wonderful comments even I was climbing into my car for the drive home. My afternoon, my actual serendipity, awaited down the road apiece. All those native wild flower images and an incredible potluck were simply a prelude.

At the base of the hill, I found the doe and one fawn in the creek, joined by another door. Round 2!

As I turned off the “lake road” a couple of miles from home it suddenly happened as a doe and two fawns turned suddenly in surprise as they were crossing the road. The fawns scattered as the doe bounded to the apex of a sharp bank cut by the Glacial River Warren back in “geological time” where she stood poised with concern before being quickly joined by one of the fawns. Perfect! I was able to capture three or four images while silently hoping the second fawn would join  its mother and sibling at the crest of the hill. Then, just as quickly, they disappeared over the top. 

Up the road about 100 meters while looking over the leeside of the crest I spotted the deer family in the small creek at the base of the steep incline. Oh, man! More pictures, with both the crested portrait and the creek images being rather special, for although deer are quite common around here, these two rather unique images was, well, serendipitous.

I could hardly wait to drive the two miles home to get into the card. Then further up the gravely road my eyes were diverted to a towering set of clouds to the west with the sunset looming. Turning off on one of the narrower country gravel roads, I began searching for one of my singular “lone tree” possibilities. Corn covered both sides of the road for a full mile, so at the first junction I turned north. More of the same, and the sky was becoming ever more interesting and dramatic. Knowing how quickly this all drama changes, I became more frantic.

Capturing this image of a prairie rain was my final image of my special afternoon. Round 4!

Nothing but corn, which is now nearing 10 to 12 feet in height. Tall enough you can’t see tree bases, let alone a horizon. I made it to the “colony road” and headed west. At the “T” up ahead about three miles beyond the colony were meadows and a possibility of something interesting in the great, low valley panorama of an oak savanna. The light was wrong, so I sped down the hill back to the “lake road.” The cloud bank was ever changing and  becoming ever more dramatic. The sun had moved behind the heavenly high curvature of what was shaping up as a huge storm cloud with sunset mere moments away.

Speeding up the hill from Mallard Point I thought of the Bonanza Educational Center shorelines, although at the crest of the hill I realized the drama, including the setting sun, wouldn’t last that long. When the picnic turnoff appeared, I pulled in quickly and jumped from the car, camera in hand. Suddenly the cloud broke into two different rain events across Big Stone Lake over the South Dakota Coteau. The drama of the skies was amazing. A handful of images were captured just as the deluge hit on this side of the lake, rain so thick that distant vision was impossible. 

And, it all began with the wildflowers earlier in the afternoon!

Was this the same quiet, beautiful Minnesota summer afternoon I had experienced just an hour earlier? Of shooting pictures of a pristine and picturesque prairie meadow? Or of the doe and fawn on the crest of a hill, and just seconds later as they waded in a shaded stream?

As quickly as it hit, though, the rain stopped, so it was off toward home on the “Clinton road.” As I drove a  tremendously heavy rain was descending from the towering grayness off to the north. Yes, more “drama in the  prairie sky  —  now a wall of grayness and a down-pouring of rain, and I captured my final image of an incredible afternoon and evening of unexpected imagery.

No doubt there is a thrill in being lucky, though the difference lies in your involvement. Experiencing serendipity is different for this is when things magically open up in front of you with no expectation whatsoever. Having just flowery meadow appear would have been enough. The deer? Such a dramatic sky, and the gift of the heavens that just kept on giving? As actor Charlton Heston was quoted as saying: “Sometimes life drops blessings in your lap without your lifting a finger. Serendipity, they call it.” Indeed!

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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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