Honestly I wasn’t trying to be Maya Andelou’s “rainbow in someone’s cloud.” It was just another gray and somber day. Damp. Humid. Decidedly gray. A November day. Then she asked, “What do you find interesting about November?” At that point the snow had yet to arrive although is was seemingly forever in ominous forecasts. Days of impending gloom.

“Color,” I replied, looking out over the acres of Big Stone Lake State Park. “I just want to find color.”

I suppose you could diagnose this as my own form of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), although I feel my quest  had more to do with breaking up this bland grayness than of being a rainbow. There below us was a small grouping of leafless trees, with patches of yellow-ish, orange prairie grasses. There was a shroud of grayness in the air, especially closer to the shore of the long lake.

We were on a foray, as I call these odd little field trips made into the “wildness” of nearby pockets of nature. Hopping into a car and cruising through Big Store National Wildlife Refuge or the two decidedly different venues offered by the state park have become almost routine. Especially now, in November, as I search for requisite color.

Nuthatches are so common here and my other nature haunts.

Thus far the treatment has been subtle though effective. Tonal differences in the prairie grasses have come through to replace a blazing and colorful sunset, for this blanket of seasonal … November … grayness has eliminated sunsets for most of the month. Later we sat on the couch watching a football game with an eye on the western sky ever hopeful for a break in the cloud cover. A hint of orange-ish light gave momentary hope. It was not to be.

“This seems like a normal November,” she said. For several moments I thought about her comment. I thought of something bold and beautiful, something that might be memorable and perhaps even profound. We were then on the long loop of the Refuge with our windows down as we slowly traversed the roadways with the frigid air chilling us to the bone. On the forays I keep the windows lowered as I scan for pictures. “I realize we’re on the cusp of winter,” I said, “and how cold, damp and gray if feels. Everything seems gray. I seek color. Subtle colors. Any color.”

A clump of trees are accented by prairie grasses in the November foggish gray.

There were few birds, for most have migrated. On our drive I captured a rare bird of prey launching from a tree, and on the drive down we had passed fleeting snow buntings along the highway. Nuthatches are rather common and basically matched the terrain … white and blueish gray with a band of black. We saw numerous nuthatches and not much else.

Same with chickadees. We watched as they dodged our danger, diving deep into the grasses as we passed by. So far our avian color has mainly come from the various woodpeckers at the feeders here at Listening Stones Farm. Red Bellies, Downys, Hairys and Flickers. Sometimes skeins of geese can be seen flying over, as one did as we eyed the band of orange in the late afternoon sky. Juncos have migrated into the area and they keep giving me a stink eye. Or so it seems. As if all this November grayness is my fault!

Without the various species of bird life my forays have been more in search for an antlered buck along with the search for color. For several years I’ve scored a beautiful buck in the state park. So far I’ve been “skunked.” Both portions of the state park have yielded numerous images of does, and seem to on every pass through either Meadowbrook or Bonanza. 

A doe is surrounded by the colors of November in the Meadowbrook meadow.

Then the snows came. A light dusting, followed the next day with an inch … then overnight another inch. Over the gray came the whiteness. Usually I welcome the first snow. This time, though, the snow snuck in overnight in the midst of sleep. Awakening to an overnight dusting is missing the magic.

Fifty some years ago just before moving from Dubuque, my girlfriend at the time and I decided to walk through the fluffy flakes of a first snow as they drifted from the evening sky, painting the old river town with movie-like magic. We were on a sidewalk on the edge of the bluff overlooking the roofs of the mansions and the downtown all the way to the Mississippi. A few weeks later I would leave to move to Denver and a new job, yet still today that first snowstorm on a late November evening, along with the magic we felt, is still a vivid memory.

On the edge of the Bonanza savanna, staghorn sumac seed heads add color.

I love those moments when the snow seems to simply evolve as puffy flakes from a gray sky, coming lightly as Sandburg suggests of fog, on little cat’s feet. Silently, before moving on.

We’ve now made it to mid-November, nearly a month from the Winter Solstice. The light of our days will be constantly squeezed until then, that light along with subtle prairie colors. She asked if darkness was a bother, and I wondered for a few moments before saying that it wasn’t the darkness so much as the drab grayness of the days  ….  when I scan the prairie and woodlands for color. Where I find both hopefulness and a sense of joy. 


Was it me that startled the deer? I had stopped on the crest of the hill that was no doubt formed over time as perhaps an island eddy of the Glacial River Warren. Over the years I’ve stopped here numerous times to take in the long view of the mile or so long ravine. That is how it is known around here. The Ravine.

Ravines are huge features of the Minnesota River Valley, which was created by the long ago glacial river. Streams from gurgling trickles to actual rivers have cut through the depths of the prairie all along the river, from the headwaters to the confluence with the Mississippi. We have many right here in the headwaters and it seems they all have a unique characteristics about them. Like this one with the startled deer.

At the foot of the ravine is a huge wetland, held steady by a man-made, rock-filled earthen dam. This is where I saw the deer. As I crested the road at the top of the hill for a view I’ve loved since moving just up the road, I watched as the deer bounded toward what had been a sheet of ice throughout the winter. A stilled grayish surface still looked like ice then in early April, and the frightened deer quickly sank from view through the grayed slush. Only momentarily, for an instant later it’s head broke through the surface. 

Startled, the deer leapt onto what it possibly thought was ice, then swam to the distant shore.

Perhaps the saving grace was the hollowed body hair that provided buoyancy as the deer kicked itself forward in swimming gestures. I made several shots as it struggled toward the distant bank, eventually gaining traction as it reached an underwater foothold to push itself forward to eventually pull itself from the icy waters to the shore. Once afoot it bounded up the steep slope of the ravine and away from its perceived danger. An early morning drama so totally unexpected.

While this ravine is closest to Listening Stones Farm, being about two miles due south, it is also one of the longer ones in this area. On it’s southern bank are at least two small oak savannas, subjects of dozens of images. It stretches through the prairie for more than a mile further east, where another gravel road was bermed across its depths. 

The Ravine … a rising sun meets a seasonal fog.

Due west about five miles from my land is another favorite ravine, though more densely covered with trees. It’s a prime jewel of beauty come autumn as the deciduous trees explode with colors of the season. At the bottom is an abandoned farm site, for the remnant house and outbuildings are collapsed and weathered. From various positions above the ravine I’ve made some nice images through the years across the seasons. 

One Sunday afternoon a friend whose eyes gleam at the sight of a minimum maintenance road drove me and our dogs into the depth of this ravine where besides the remains of the long abandoned farm site is a meandering stream flowing from springs and runoff from an enclosed and perhaps self-contained watershed. An absentee landowner comes up for the deer season to camp and hunt, but otherwise the old farm site is like the buildings. Abandoned. 

One of the nice oak savannas at The Ravine …

Up the “river road” a few miles is the Bonanza Education Center, the northern “half” of Big Stone Lake State Park. Among the beautiful features are at least two trails, although there is an interconnecting path between the two. The northern trail meanders down a steep hillside into a beautiful wooded ravine with once again, a rivulet of a stream fed by spring waters. I often come here to sit on a boardwalk bridge to do some forest bathing, a meditative exercise that is enhanced by the sounds of water bubbling over and through the rocks and stones. One can easily become mentally “lost” in a matter of moments.

The other major trail is alongside Big Stone Lake, and by my count offers several deep, wooded ravines, few of which trickles through thanks to springs higher up the slope. Bonanza offers two differing ecosystems … a hillside prairie that covers the long ago left behind bank of the Glacial River Warren which hosts more than a dozen ravines of varying depths, each cutting through the steep bank and each sporting small oak savannas in the shaded areas. These drain across the divisionary gravel road into the lakeside wooded savanna, a dense woodland that stretches along the lake for miles beyond the park boundaries in either direction. 

A ravine just west of me in its autumn glory. Big Stone Lake is in the distance.

Further downriver, once you’ve passed the “chain of lakes” of the Minnesota River below the Churchill Dam at the foot of Lac qui Parle Lake, the wooded banks of the glacial and current rivers contain countless ravines. Some cut by small creeks along with others formed by actual tributaries of the Minnesota. One of my favorite and most picturesque was created by Hawk Creek once it passes through the densely farmed, three-county prairie land where it’s an official “government ditch” and remains “wild” just before US 212. After the bridge, though, it becomes a deep and lonesome canyon of a ravine stretching for miles and features a rock strewn river than meanders through a deep, enclosed ravine down to the confluence of the Minnesota River. 

The same ravine in winter …

What a beautiful paddling river, with nearly continuous paddable rapids with either steep earthen walls or deep woods on either side for the full ride. It reminds one of a box canyon, and years ago there was an political effort to place a dam near the foot of Hawk Creek that would have created a long and deep lake. Fortunately those efforts died after awhile. With the long history of ignoring soil-saving farming practices, such a lake would be shallowed by now thanks to erosive siltation which has already affected and altered the flow of the Minnesota River just past the confluence … siltation that has already blocked some of the more minor streams coming off the highland prairie. 

Indeed, this erosive action over the years have created all of the ravines, action that began with the melting of the glacier and continues now some 10,000 or so years later. 

A spring-fed “stream” in one of the ravines at Bonanza.

I sort of look at natural history development here in the prairie much as I do the incredible formations in the Utah Canyonlands, for example, and wonder what is going on now in our world (besides our planet’s own death due to wanton global warming issues) that will show up a millennia or two from now. Those minute increments of change happening a millimeter or less per year, accumulatively year after year.

In this short passage of time I have on earth I’ll likely be stopping on the hill near The Ravine in the dawnish mornings, or take a hike or forest bath in the ravines over in Bonanza, fulfilling my quest for beauty be it in God’s great colorful skies or with internal meditation. I find myself addicted to both. Easing back with my eyes closed in the depth of that far north ravine, listening to the water trickle through the rocks and stones, I sometimes think of Keats, who may have said it best: “ … the moving waters at their priestlike task … “

Ravines. What is there not to like? 

An upland ravine with its oak savanna at Bonanza.