Our Weather ‘Up Top’

For awhile after the New Year I began to wonder about how to encourage my creative soul; if venturing out into the depths of a challenging winter would be worth my time. Typically I follow various seasons through the year, such as the beginning of the migrations to the pasque flowers popping up on a near barren hillside, of the easing into the delicate blossoming beauty within the woodlands … and so forth through the various wildflower appearances through to the vibrant colors of autumn. But winter? A winter like this one we’re experiencing?

Seasonal changes are among the joys of “flyover” living, and I’m usually seeing various seasons through to the end. Our winter, though, is beginning to test my resolve. This past week had us hovering around minus ten with intermittent staunch prairie winds that chilled to the bone. There seemed to be no end. Just walking from the house to the studio wrapped completely in sweaters and down outerwear was a continual test to that resolve. 

In case anyone should ask, I’m now officially tired of winter despite the knowledge that we’ve now moved into February and there is seemingly hope for more humane weather in the near future. We’re now about 40 degrees warmer today than we were at this time last week.

Wild turkeys few to safety on the edge of a frost covered ravine.

We’ve had a though winter. Those chilling days where we rarely were over zero, then about two weeks of hoarfrost, foggy snow after blowing snow, and eventually an uncharacteristic icy rain that turned all of that snow into crusted ice. The winds have taken us to an entirely different level. When we have “weather” a dear friend who lives along Big Stone Lake will often send a message: “How are things up on top?” She is about 11 miles due west of Listening Stones, and yes, her home and silver-smithing studio sits along the shores in a wooded hollow beside the big lake while “up top” we’re in the flattened prairie. Recently I received a lesson on the differences in our diverse ecosystems.

On that day of friendly conversation we were shrouded in a frozen dense fog here “up top,” which in these frigid temperatures means a hoarfrost, so my mind wandered to the Bonanza Education Center and its beautiful mix of an oak savanna and hillside prairie, all of which is located about a mile up that “coast” from her studio. My wandering imagination visualized the savanna deep in fog with tunnels of snow and icy frosted limbs and sticky branches of the majestic oaks being silhouetted against an endless and deep whiteness. As my car closed in on the edge of the prairie the denseness of fog began to dissipate. In another mile to the turnoff into Bonanza I was suddenly driving in clear blue skies. So yes, her “down below” is often much different than my “up top.”

For more than two weeks a hoarfrost seemed to cover every possible surface.

Before the hoarfrosts, blizzards fueled by staunch winds have reminded one of a freight train with blowing snow blanketing the ground. One of the blizzards was a three day affair with no interlude. White nothingness just past the mailbox at the end of the driveway. A deep drift was created across the edge of the woodland that blocked any possible traffic, a drift nearly five feet tall and about twice as wide. When the winds finally died down and the snow ceased, I tried to cross over the drift on foot to reach the mailbox and overturned garbage container. Those initial steps were across glazed, hardened snow and held my weight. Near the crest the snow gave way to drop me thigh deep into the powdery dune. By the time I had finally stomped and worked my way out I was famished.

After being bladed we had a day of possible “freedom” had there been a need to go somewhere, and sometimes just the going is therapeutic. Then the winds returned, and when they came they did so with a vengeance, hurling and tumbling snow crystals across the prairie; movement of snow like a desert sand. Over the years of living in the prairie I sensed there might be some natural art created by the wind, much like you would see along the sea coast or in an inland sandy dunescape. Yes! Dozens of interesting and beautiful snow waves awaited. Later hoarfrosts provided feelings of being surrounded by a whitewashed, frosty landscape. We were mired in a winter wonderland … if you cared to look. And, I did.

One of the images of the “dunes of winter … “

The other morning while laying under the deep comforting pile of blankets, I listened to the wind rumble outside with health advisories from Weather Bug concerning the ominous and intense and unbearable chill. At moments like these, among the possible positive vibes is knowing we’re protected, that we’re not homeless and trying to survive beneath a thin nylon wall of a camper’s tent in some wretched neighborhood. I can’t imagine how one would survive under such conditions and I’m forever grateful not to be in that situation. 

Then the aspects of art came to mind. Discovering beauty created by such horrid conditions filled the mind. Snow dunes and whispery formations, both of which can become even more pronounced and interesting when bathed by sunlight, and especially in the ambient light of a colorful sunrise or sunset. Hoarfrosts can coat everything in deep frosty ice crystals, and there were ample opportunities to capture many images here in the Listening Stones prairie and beyond. One of my favorite images from the hoarfrosts was of a flock of wild turkeys that flew off away from the roadside to safely land at the edge of a hazy, snowy savanna. 

Beyond the art some idle moments are spent at the computer dream-watching of trips to island beaches or another trip to central Nebraska in March to once again experience the sandhill crane migration. Will I find accommodations for an open blind to spend another night in what seems like a touch of prehistoric magical dawn along the Platte River; that drifting to sleep deep in a sleeping bag surrounded by the unique sounds from another age-old era? One must dream, for this is the other side of a deep winter when the conditions are such that you dream not so much of art as of escape. 

One of the rare occasions when we had a sunrise, this over the Listening Stones prairie.

In a few weeks the pitchers and catchers of the big league baseball teams will gather in Florida and Arizona, and the snowbirds will be abandoning their card games and margaritas to head back home with partial tans. They may wonder why some of us have stayed behind, thoughts we may suffer to find an appropriate response. Then, there’s this: come summer, when heat waves make us think of cooler times, I’ll search through the files of the snow dunes, the random icicles and come across the image of those turkeys seeking safety on a thoroughly frosty afternoon. I was there, here “up top,” and captured that image forevermore!

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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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