Chasing the Light

When the alarm went off I was deep in the warm comfort of my bed as I peered through a hole in the covers to search for the time on the distant alarm clock. With the Solstice sunrise expected at 8:02 a.m. eastern prairie time, I would need at least a half hour to reach my preferred destination, the inward passage of the Little Minnesota River as it crossed the South Dakota border just past Browns Valley. That was my chosen spot for my annual portrayal of the Winter Solstice. 

When I finally made my half roll and groan to get onto my feet there was about am hour before I would need to arrive for some choice ambient light that comes as a prelude to an actual sunrise. My favorite time of the morning. Of course, the drive would depend on how much snow and or ice had accumulated overnight. A glance out my window quickly dashed my spirits, for it appeared we would have a solidly grayish sky.

This wouldn’t be my first chasing of Solstice light, lasting until the darkness of night settled in a mere eight hours away. This would be my annual effort of sighting and capturing an artful image of dear Sol on this my favorite Pagan holiday. 

No sun, no problem. My chosen Solstice image for 2022.

Being “ever hopeful”, there was some venturing out onto the roads seeking something with the eternal hope of having a break in the dense cloud cover. A handful of pheasants working a harvested field now frozen over with wind crusted snow for some semblance of grain greeted me, as did a pair of deer in the ravine, rushing off in fear, bounding over bush and clumps of grass. Trees glistened with poetic remnants of the overnight blizzard. A lake barren of ice fishers was a sheet of gray ice with gusty “waves” of windblown snow.

My image from last winter’s Solstice was made on a somewhat eerie day as well, when the sun eventually broke early before the clouds came in before blessing us with a poetic sunset that was extremely beautiful. Would I be so lucky? As the “golden” moment approached on this Solstice evening I stood at my kitchen window hopefully eyeing the western sky as darkness eased in over the grayness of a nondescript day. My chasing of the light had been rather uneventful.

This quest of an “eventful” Solstice image began years ago when I ran a small country weekly. Perhaps it was just me, for my colleagues at other prairie papers seemed to ignore what for me was a significant moment in the year, our shortest day of daylight along with, of course, our longest night; that Pagan moment in lore that suggests a leading into some significant religious and cultural celebrations such as Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. As challenging as it was this year, it wasn’t the first sunless Solstice over those many years.

A quick review of my captures of Solstice pasts showed similar cloud covered days in 2015 and 2018 without even a peek of the sun. I was hopeful of years like 2010, 2014, 2016, 2020 and even last year when there would be a brief break especially near sunset when some ambient color would appear in the skies. In 2014 my chasing the light concluded with a breakthrough just moments before dusk at a wetland just east of the Ortonville junction, and again two years later when I caught a last minute gasp peaking through the split rock, an almost timeless image linking our geological past with that day’s setting sun. 

Each Solstice seems to have an adventure or story into themselves. On some I was chasing the light. On others there was barely a challenge. In 2009 the roads were ice packed with chilling temperatures, and my image was of a field across Hawk Creek taken in my backyard in Clara City. The sun was barely showing through a snow-hazed sky on a far southeastern arc — a sky with almost a magical Arctic hue.

A year later the Solstice was dark and gloomy, although a hint of nearly a rainbowish color graced a picturesque field in the blue hour. In 2011 we faced another horribly cold day with bright sunshine when I caught a grouping of pigeons in flight against the arc of a sun dog. It was a moment that suggested a hint of flight and freedom in the heart of a beastly winter.

In 2012, the year my wife died, my image was taken in the moonlight during my first drive through Bonanza Education Center. My mind wasn’t on the Solstice, so it was a coincidental moment of magic and personal change. A year later my image came from a momentary stop at the spillway dam on the east pool of the Refuge of wintering gulls in flight over a cover of snowy ice. A “white on white” capture, one that also spoke of freedom, of a personal breakthrough. Once again, a hint of flight and freedom in the heart of winter, of a forthcoming move into both a new relationship and area of the prairie.

The image from 2018 spoke of an interesting late December warmth that produced a fog stretching across the landscape from Benson west creating a magical hoarfrost, a winterish wonderland where a reflection of frosty branches in the open stilled waters on a bend of the Pomme de Terra River caught the eye. 

Some years there simply was no chasing of the light. No real challenge. Thankfully I’ve been blessed with some interesting cloudy sunsets that provided interesting a hint of flight and freedom in the heart of winter. This was even true last year when I chose as my image one that came on the dune of a windblown snowdrift in the basin of a former pothole lake within the Steen Wildlife Management Area a couple of miles east of Listening Stones. It was an image that seemed mysterious and rather fitting for the Pagan celebration.

My chasing of the light on this Solstice was joyful in that despite the snow and the ominous forecast, the roads were reasonably manageable. As the blue hour approached I watched in the warmth of my kitchen with hopes of catching a last minute capture of dear Sol. For many of those past years, Audrey Arner and Richard Handeen would host a Solstice gathering on their Moonstone Farm near Montevideo, complete with a couple of bonfires and strips of venison we would sear over the coals on freshly cut willow sprouts. It wasn’t happening this year because of the weather and roads, so capturing a hint of the sun was my last grasp of holding onto my personal Solstice traditions.

It didn’t happen. So I scanned my imagery of the many past Solstices, recalling memories I’d forgotten of some of those sunless, socked in days. As I looked through my captures I decided that despite my shivering grasp of the camera, that the plight of the pheasants on a wind-chilled frigid, frozen-over prairie field would serve as my new Solstice image, for it seemed to accurately portray the essence of a wintry moment on a pagan celebration. 

Hopefully your Solstice was special, and that the rest of these celebratory religious and cultural seasons are fine as well. 

Joys of ‘Forced Nothingness’

My ever-hopeful and joyous “hound” Joe Pye found the blizzard much to his liking, leaping in bounds through snow as deep as his legs and digging his snout deep into the drifting. We were out for a short hike, me with a camera, he with his joy. Truthfully, this blizzard this week was a joy for us both. His was of a playful nature, of actually tracking down one of the sunflower thieves he can’t catch on bare ground, and me for the utter standstill of life, a time of “forced” nothingness, of reading, of conjuring up interesting dinners for a dear old friend “stuck” here with me, of us being able to concentrate on knowing one another much deeper, and really, just stopping.

That, in essence, is a blizzard. Just stopping.

It’s beyond beautiful here at Listening Stones with a deep coating of snow covering nearly every possible surface. Let’s call it what it is, a winter wonderland. We were caught in this two day (going on three) with the constant blowing) blizzard that began with a strong easterly wind that brought a coating mix of rain and snow four days before. 

My south lawn is a winter wonderland, a beauty only a blizzard can create!

True blizzards are somewhat unique to the prairie, and while it closes you off from the outside world I find it preferable to tornadoes that struck the southern portion of the country and included one of my favorite areas, New Iberia, LA. This town, a little ways south of I-10, has been a settling point for me for years of travels both professionally and personally. My late wife, Sharon, and I tent camped there in a small city park along the Bayou Teche in the 1980s, and I’ve been there several times since. Just a bit southwest of New Iberia is the home of Tabasco’s Avery Island, a 2,200 acre picturesque park where Snowy Egrets were given sanctuary in the early 1900s, back when the beautiful birds were near extinction due to the love of their “finery” feathers.

Here, and throughout the range and prairie regions of the “north country,” blizzards are somewhat frequent … with perhaps one or two of the “show stoppers” arriving each winter. Oh, there were times before moving to the “high, wide and lonesome” where we received what the television forecasters had called “blizzards.” Nope, those were snowstorms. And, sometimes, big ones. Dumpings, if you will. Although as a child I read stories and books that seemed to have a plotting moment concerning a blizzard. As a boy those mental images of blizzards were based solely on imagination. 

Joe Pye was beside himself with joy.

My first real experience on the frightening effects of a blizzard was when I drove from Denver across Nebraska to Des Moines in January of 1982 en route to St. Paul and an editorial position with Webb Publishing. I was fortunate, or perhaps extremely lucky, to reach a Holiday Inn in Des Moines, for once past Omaha I could barely see where I was going on the four lane interstate. Blowing snow came like waves, one after another, constantly whipping the small foreign made car as I tried keeping on the road. Eventually I “hooked” onto to the taillights of a slow crawling semi and stayed just safely enough behind it until I finally reached the outskirts of the capitol city and pulled off to find the motel. I was stuck for two days.

Ten years later we moved to a small prairie town where I would run a country weekly. It was there I learned both the beauty and full fury of blizzards.

With one forecast the following February I ventured into the local grocery store to find it uncommonly packed with anxious customers stocking up on milk and what the grocer called “blizzard meat.” When I asked Roger, the owner, what that meant, he simply said, “Ham. People buy ham because it won’t go bad if they lose electricity.”

I also quickly learned that “blizzard” also meant completely closing down. Like on my trip from Omaha to Des Moines, blowing snow meant no visibility on roads leading nowhere. City hall, school gyms, church basements and the town’s only truck stop were crammed full of snow bound “refugees” from as nearby as a dozen miles or less to far flung places found in an atlas. People who just couldn’t get home. Local churches would gear up their kitchens to feed those stuck in town. Prayers were uttered for those who might have been caught stranded on the highways.

Wind blown snow on the first hours of the blizzard cut across the prairie.

January of 1997 was particularly rough. Our local school was open for students all of five days. Some of those were partial days. Winds drifted snow into town from the “black desert” with no barriers and completely buried the house of the local baker. Drifts were house high on the northwest side of town with nothing to curtail a constant blowing northwesterly wind. On US 23 a single lane was eventually cut through such a drift that dwarfed semis that had closed both the highway and the adjacent rail line for much of a week. I was soon learning the truths of blizzards, facts rather different than the poetic plot lines of juvenile novels.

Now in retirement here on my small prairie “farm,” there is no going anywhere any time soon. Despite the physical beauty the storm has created and left behind, it has also contained us for the time being. Although I’ve had deeper drifts here, I couldn’t start my snow blower and I’m beginning to feel somewhat “antsy” in our isolation. Today is fine for we have no plans. This all changes over the weekend. 

Everything including this wind vein was covered deep in snow.

Yet, there is time to write and time to read. Chili is being readied for dinner, the principal ingredients were canned late in the summer for just such a moment. We call it “saving summer” and there is no better time to enjoy such savory treats. Hopefully we two can find as much joy and contentment as Joe Pye finds in his thrashing about in the deep snow … where his tracks from even this morning have already been erased by the prairie winds carrying ever more snow.

With freezers full and shelves of canned goods from the garden and farmer’s markets, we are in fine shape. Survival isn’t a worry. I’m halfway through the reading of two very long novels, and with the fireplace ablaze those winds beyond the walls seem rather distant despite their fierce roar. Hopefully we’ll be plowed out before noon tomorrow. By then we’ll likely be as pleased to find mobility as we were to face our “forced” isolation due to this  first blizzard of the season. 

Back in the years, back in our first prairie blizzard, the townsfolk called it “a shortened world.” And that has been so true here where for most of the week we haven’t seen the lower edge of the Listening Stones prairie. Those distant tree lines a half mile or so in the distance were oblivious thanks to the blowing white out. An ever compassing white out. Yes, we’ve occasionally seen the “snow globe” drifting flakes, although more common are these horizontal, wind-blown flakes so mindful of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s take so many years ago when she wrote, “… you can count the first three flakes, and the fourth. Then, language fails, and you have to settle in and try to survive the blizzard.”