Willie’s Inspirations Continue

An ambitious sausage making party down in Iowa made me think of my long ago friend, Willie Rosin. It seems he was intent on converting 100 pounds of ground pork into a variety of sausages. Willie is like that, sort of a back to an earlier era of mankind, taking on a back-to-the-basics approach to life. Old world is Willile’s world.

It’s odd that we became buddies. He’s a Lutheran minister and I’m, well, sort of a spiritual man, compelled to commune more with a seat in the woods than a church pew. Yet, we had a connection. Catfishing. When he was ministering to a couple of country churches down in Chippewa County where I was running a country weekly, we met in some fashion of which I can’t remember and learned we shared a passion for whiskered fish. So we started going to a stretch of the Minnesota River in his aluminum boat to angle for catfish, meaning there was indeed ample time to explore and share both spiritual and real life thoughts.

We even went ramp hunting one rainy morning somewhere along the Chippewa River. A member of the wild onion grouping of edible plants, ramps are rather delicious, so convincingly so that we carefully took a hand trowel to judiciously harvest a few whole plants that I would transfer here to my woodland close to a little pond we had devoted to hopefully slow the runoff through the woods. A couple of them “took” though not enough to eventually harvest.

My old friend, Willie Rosen, holds his daughter and a channel catfish!

Willie is married to Jennifer, an inspirational band teacher. When they lived downriver in Montevideo she was suddenly having students making trips to “state” and qualifying for the MSHSL orchestra. Then suddenly, out of nowhere it seemed he took a call to Northwest Iowa which brought an end of our fishing trips. Thankfully, though, not our friendship. Nearly overnight he busied himself in converting a large yard into one of his traditionally incredible bountiful gardens and plying local rivers and ponds for catfish and other Ichthyological wonders. Oh, and Willie has never shied from having his two daughters in the boat as soon as they could hold a pole, and come autumn, they would don orange hunting fashions and head to the hills in search of whitetail deer.

While Willie had them involved in his outdoor activities and venues, Jennifer firmly placed them onto chairs in the music room. You might say their girls, and now three adopted children, are well rounded and grounded. And, once again, children in Jennifer’s charge are qualifying for prestigious honors in the Iowa state musical classifications. Then Willie became one of those rare men who packs up and follows his wife’s career. Jennifer was hired as a band instructor in Muscatine, so they packed up the clan, the boats, the sausage stuffer, rods, guns, gardening gear and kids to move across state to the “east coast” of Iowa. To me, that makes Willie a bigger man than most.

Within weeks, it seemed, Willie had accepted a new call in town and the Rosins settled in rather nicely. The kids are growing in all manners and possibilities just like Willie’s gigantic and bountiful gardens, which he is already tending to. His recent Monday, though, was filled with all that pork and a handfuls of various spices as he set out to stuff casings with kielbasa, kielbasa with cheddar, classic fresh bratwurst, bulk hot Italian and a few hot Italian links, caseless breakfast links, summer sausage along with his first attempt at Nduja, a chili-based spicy, spreadable pork sausage from the region of Calabria in Southern Italy.

Willie’s sausages, except for the Nduja and summer sausage.

One of the main ingredients of Nduja is a Korean red chili powder, and for those who haven’t ventured into Korean cuisine, it is tongue-seething hot. My first college roommate was Korean, and he wouldn’t eat in the cafeteria with us. Rather, he’d cook on a hotplate in our room and the scents from his fare were tantalizing even on a full stomach. I asked to have a taste and at first he refused. “Sorry, Man,” he’d say. “What I cook will kill you.” After much pleading through the semester he finally spread a few bites of a Korean concoction on a paper plate and handed it over. One bite had my eyes watering and quickly kidnapped my ability to taste for about a week. I’m a bit more cultivated now, I suppose, for spiciness now dominates my cooking.

Says Willie of his Nduja, “These will be stuffed into 55mm Umai casings, fermented at room temp for 48 hours, then cold smoked for a total of 24 hours. Then into the fridge to dry a bit. Nduja is a very spicy, spreadable salami I just had to try.” 

Your’s truly working my 20 pounds of ground pork into Italian sausage.

To suggest that Willie Rosen is a “Renaissance man” is putting it mildly. Whether he plants his feet behind the pulpit or in front of a transom makes little difference for he is seemingly always seeking a means to mingle the joys of Mother Earth with heavenly mirth, and to spread all that joy with both his family and his parishioners just as he did so with me many years ago. I’d suggest we were an odd couple, yet I cherished the time back then and thoroughly miss it nowadays.

So on an afternoon after watching Kurt Arner attack the huge pile of storm damaged wood and my piddling around between new photography software and seeking a burning permit before the two of us ended up in court, I pulled one of Willie Rosen’s recipes from my printed pile of unorganized recipes. When I went for the burning permit to save Kurt’s and my collective souls, I picked up three healthy looking cucumbers and went to work slicing and combining a boil of sugar and vinegar along with a variety of spices for Willie’s Bread and Butter Pickles that are now curing in the refrigerator for a week. These are about the best pickles ever. As an old journalist I’m not sure there’s that heaven Willie preaches about, but if there is I’m sure his pickles are there for all those godly sandwiches.

Here’s his recipe:

3 cups of Vinegar

3 cups of sugar

1/4 cup of pickly salt

1 teaspoon of celery salt

1 teaspoon of turmeric

1 teaspoon of mustard seed

Slice and stuff the cucumbers and onions into quart jars while you bring the brine to a boil, then pour it over the cukes and onions. Refrigerate for a week. It makes two quarts or four pints.

My efforts with Willie’s Bread and Butter pickles fermenting in refrigerated jars.

Seems so simple, yet the taste is top shelf. And to top it off, we then tracked down 20 pounds of ground pork from Pastures A Plenty and proceeded to try our hand at making our very own hot Italian sausage. Although it was a challenge to mix the various spices with the ground meat, we taste tested two patties which passed the test! Only thing left is getting our own garden shaped up and to get in some catfishing along the Minnesota River.

Oh, and just for the record, here’s a complete update on the Rosin family from Willie: “I’m the pastor at Zion Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Muscatine and Jennifer is the band director at Susan Clark Junior High. Grace, our oldest, turns 20 in May and is completing her second year of college at University of Northern Iowa, early Childhood education with special needs endorsement. Isabelle, 18, graduates from Muscatine High School in May. She will attend Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University to pursue a dual degree in horn performance and music education. Lydia is in second grade and keeps us on her toes. Loves reading, writing letters and making crafts. Ezra is growing into his autistic and amazing self. Tons of personality and wit. Abner is a master of chaos who loves Hot Wheels, big trucks, playing in the dirt and all things hunting and fishing with dad.”

Life is good both here and there. Willie has his tongue sizzling Nduja and we have those pickles along with some hot Italian now in the freezer! 

Spiderweb Skies

Finally, after many long months of winter, we are welcoming spiderweb skies. Next to the Sandhill Crane migration in central Nebraska, finding the migrating Snow Geese heading into the prairie wetlands is most compelling. Thanks to the scattered and perhaps uncoordinated skeins of the Arctic-bound black wing-tipped white and blue geese, they seem to spread across the skies as elongated and exaggerated spiderwebs. What a lovely sight!  

Unlike the Sandhill Crane migrations that annually congregates in a 60 mile stretch of the Platte River, Snow Geese seem prone to finding secluded and thawed wetlands or sloughs … which in a few weeks will be long out of sight and gone thanks to underground tiling until they might be seen once again at the end of another winter … to catch a break near over-wintered stalk fields to feed up for their next jump up the globe. In early March of 2021 they chose the wetland just over the rise from my prairie where they stayed for nearly a week before moving on. They rarely seem to choose the same wetland year after year. 

On a recent early morning walk we encountered a huge flock just down the road from Listening Stones Farm scattered across a quarter section of my neighbor’s conservation-tilled grain field. As we walked down the road with leashed Joe Pye, they almost in unison, over perhaps a quarter mile of field, rose at once and took to the sky. Whites mixed in with what is termed their “blue” phase, circled the abandoned grove at the end of the road to fly off to the east. As we continued our walk another group on the far western edge of the field rose before making a slight circle before re-landing. About the same time about a mile to the east another large grouping of the geese appeared just above the distant treetops. Were those the ones we had scared? Who knows. The morning air was full of their unique sound giving us a sense of “surround sound.” One of those magic moments of nature.

One off my joys of spring is the spiderweb skies created by migrating Snow Geese.

Two days before, after talking with outdoor writer Tom Watson, he alerted us to large flock just outside of nearby Appleton. Grabbing the camera and lenses, we left for Appleton only to find a large flock just a few miles southeast of our farm. We never made it to Appleton. We considered ourselves fortunate for it’s the time of year where we often spend hours driving through the prairie watching the skies in search of the flocks. A day or two later we did so again with no success although we saw distant flocks flying or hovering over land in the huge loop we drove. We were very lucky to find the earlier flock just southeast of the farm? 

It is always more fun when they choose our local wetland, which is deep enough and still untiled so it has water standing in it year-round. On March 11, 2021, a large flock landed and adopted the wetland. That was a special event, and one I’ve hoped for each spring since — a hope that remains ever stronger as winter and snows continue deeper into the year.

I can’t seem to get enough of this mysterious beauty of spring.This was from a few days ago when the flocks seemed intent on heading toward the tundra.

When in Nebraska about a month ago there were reports circling around the birders of a huge Snow Geese flock centered on a lake outside of Alda, just north of Crane Trust headquarters. They were in the fields feeding when I ventured up. At the time large flocks were apparently in a standby mode as far south as northern Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska according to reports on internet birding sites. How did they know we were still snow and ice bound here in the Minnesota prairie? An entire month later than when that flock chose us in 2021? Such a mystery. Then this year, just as we began to thaw, our skies began to fill with those spiderweb-like skeins. Once again hopes rose that they would once again find our nearest wetland, and once again they passed us by.

On the year they chose our nearby wetland I was up long before dawn and was busy off and on throughout the day as the birds took off for distant fields, moving from day break to sunset. For most of a week the haphazard skeins rose, returned, and rose again throughout the waking hours when suddenly the silence turned heavy one midmorning and didn’t return. It was a photographic dream.

A flock in a field near us after a call from nature writer Tom Watson.

Those loose spiderweb skeins stretched across the prairie skies like they are right now on our early morning walks and as we scanned the skies near dusk this week. Some days in the past several of the skeins could be seen at once, stretching across the entire sky. They weren’t as dramatic this season. 

Yesterday morning as we neared the return to our driveway, skein after skein seemed to pass over high above us, stretching out in long lines as well as having that classic seemingly disorganization of dozens in various positions outside of, above or behind the main grouping. Unlike earlier in the week when such a skein would appear to be heading one direction until suddenly a group would veer off in a different direction, only to be followed by the rest of the flock. Not on this morning. Yesterday, though skein after skein seemed intent on heading northward perhaps drawn by an inner clock. “Tomorrow morning,” I suggested, “we’ll hear the heavy sound of silence.”

Exactly a month earlier, in 2021, a flock of Snow Geese chose a wetland just over the rise from our prairie to hole in for about a week. Such a joy, encouraging my leaving the windows open at night to hear their sound.

My guess is that their internal clock was suggesting that this spring has been rather shortened by a winter that wouldn’t end, and that it was time to get to their breeding and nesting areas in the tundra. Much like the message that seemed to have the birds “hole up” in the lower Midwest for weeks on end, we were experiencing yet another blizzard.

This has been a gracious week of extremely uncharacteristic warm weather, mostly in the 70s and 80s, and the large drift across our walkway and patio that was above our heads has melted to a little more than knee-height, all in a few days. We pulled out lawn chairs to take in the sun-drenched afternoons, and as we did we could hear and see the skeins overhead. In the grove various murmurations started by the migration of Redwing Blackbirds flitted about. Huge numbers of birds swung from the very tall cottonwoods on the northern edge of our woodland to the what we call our “south prairie.” They, like the Snow Geese, seemed to have moved along. Yesterday the Redwings were replaced by the larger Starlings, and their numbers made the Redwing murmurations seem small. All part of the skies of spring!

And off they go … until next spring!

And, yes, our walk this morning was deafly quiet. In the distance there were perhaps two smaller skeins of Snow Geese in the distant skies. Those lovely and mysteriously shaped spiderweb skies would be no more, at least until next spring. Much like the Sandhill Crane migrations, this is both a compelling and awesome adventure of spring … an avian welcoming for a new and warmer season.

Finding Magic in the Madness

What is it about the month of March, seemingly an annual body blow to the gut after a long snowy and windblown winter? And why does it have to continue into April? To borrow a term from the sports world, this is another form of  “March Madness.” We have rarely had a break between blizzards. Snow on top of snow with more snow on the way. Squirrels worked to destroy yet another bird feeder, and many migrations were still holed up south of us. Pasque flowers, one of our first spring wildflowers to appear, were still dormant beneath acres and inches of snow.

I was more than ready for a break from the madness by mid-March, so with my appropriately named Rogue packed with photography gear, it was off to the Platte River in the midst of Nebraska for the Sandhill Crane migration.

Once I crossed from South Dakota into Nebraska in midtown Yankton, my curiosity was focused on where and when would we run out of snow. It would be 60 miles due south at Norfolk, NE, meaning there was no white stuff hiding beneath bushes and prairie crevices. Reading my car thermometer caused me to lower the windows to feel the blessed beauty of fresh, warm air. The temperature continued to rise until rolling into Grand Island, my first night lodging, with an afternoon temperature of 70 degrees. My driver’s side window was open and a CD was playing some prairie soul by my buddy Charlie Roth. I was suddenly thinking I’d finally escaped from all of the madness when my cell phone suddenly erupted with a warning: A winter storm warning.

A foursome of Sandhill Cranes in a colorful Nebraska sunset.

Awaking to a drop of some 50 degrees overnight, a glance outside my motel window showed my windshield covered with a layer of sleet. Outside, a wind was blasting in from the northwest with flakes of both ice and snow. Fortunately the predicted snow didn’t last, and by the check-in time to Cheryl Opperman’s Sandhill Crane Photographic Workshop at Crane Trust, it had warmed to the mid-40s. Sun was peeking through a cloudy sky. We were just a few hours away from heading to the blinds on the bank of the Platte for a different kind of madness! 

If you’ve never experienced the crane migration, this is a healthy kind of madness. Opperman has worked with Crane Trust for several years in establishing a series of photography workshops, and apparently my invitation came thanks to a cancellation. My original intent was to secure a plywood blind where I had experienced my best crane photography to date. This is what led me to Opperman, an incredible freelance nature photographer from the Denver area. Besides the crane migration, she offers excursions to the Kansas prairie for Prairie Chickens as well as trips to Iceland, Africa and the Antarctic among others. (www.cherylopperman.com/) 

Estimates placed the number of cranes in the valley at the time close to a half million birds, so the skies were full of sound and fury.

Actually, the old blinds are no longer, for in her agreement with Crane Trust those were replaced by a couple of larger blinds surrounded by a hay-bale fortress to prevent the cranes from seeing humans despite our steely subterfuge of arriving an hour or so before their flights in from the fields in the afternoons, and we would traverse the grassy trail in total darkness when entering in the mornings, reversing those strategies on the way out. 

The workshop was a whole new world for me. I had nearly left my tripod at home, yet here I was among folks with lenses as long as my leg and tripods with strange heads. Once in the blind that first afternoon, Opperman helped set up my tripod properly for my 600 mm, and we then settled in to await the show. It wasn’t long before the familiar and heavenly sounds of the cranes began coursing in from overhead. At first they seemed headed for the shallow waters upriver. Meanwhile, I was in dire straits working my rather inflexible tripod, and finally in frustration pulled the camera to record the flyover with my smaller zoom. “Just do what you’d normally do,” she finally said. A certain comfort settled in, although one that would soon be challenged.

As interesting as the evening fly in is the departing of the river come morning, especially if eagles and other threats seem nearby.

After the shoot the following morning, Opperman challenged me to change. One, pre-set to auto focus. Two, change the head of the tripod to a devise called a gimbal. Three, use the fastest shutter mechanism you have (which sounded like an AK-whatever). And, four, before we return to the blinds, go outside and practice. Which in itself was a bit of a challenge for my practice was on a stagnant, browsing bison herd. This was when fellow work-shopper Tom Dietrich, of Laramie, WY, looked across the table and said, “This isn’t photojournalism. It’s a whole different discipline.” Opperman was pushing me completely out of my comfort zone. Putting this new “madness aside,” when we returned to the blinds for the night shoot I was adamant to do it her way.

The gimbal is an interesting and incredible tool. Complete maneuverability with the lens, and she had also given me hints on how to better track or pan with auto focus. No, this was not what I was used to, although it was fun and different. Unfortunately, thanks to this madness of March, for I must place blame somewhere, the cards containing my images from both the afternoon and morning shoots weren’t initially recognized by my reader. West Photo in Minneapolis came to the rescue, and when I finally saw the results of stepping out of my comfort I was rather pleased. 

A presistant eagle above the Platte early in the morning seemingly surrounded by flying cranes.

High among the reasons was that overnight the temperatures had dropped into the single digits, and one of my blind mates, Vicki Von Loh, informed us in a near whisper that the wind chill was a -7 degrees. I recalled photojournalist Dec Haun explaining why one of his prize winning images from the Detroit riots in 1967 was blurry. “I was shooting at 500th of a second but I was shaking at 1000th!” With northwesterly winds blowing straight into the blind my shiver was way more than my shutter speed, yet, about 95 percent of my images were free of shivering shake! Like Tom had said, “This isn’t photojournalism.” Ice plates were floating on the surface of the Platte, and by the time we headed to the vans for the last time, the river was basically a cocktail of hypothermia. 

Back home the madness of March had remained in full beast. More snow. More blizzards. Drifts had become long and picturesque dunes crossing our lawn from the woodland to the prairie. One that formed over our walkway was higher than we are tall, and would blow shut overnight. Every night! 

Cranes feeding in the nearby fields are always interesting and add to the experience and draw motorists who stop along the rural byways with camera and long lenses.

Yet, there were some beautiful moments within the madness. Besides chasing the cranes in Opperman’s workshop, there was my “artist’s opening” for my exhibit at the Kouba Gallery at the Isaac Walton League in Bloomington where many friends, old and new, ventured through the tail end of yet another blizzard to help celebrate. One was a former colleague at the Wisconsin State Journal where I spent a brief time working in 1967-8. 

Now, as we head into April the weather madness continues. That snow dune on the walkway had shrunk quite a bit until this latest blizzard, and with the drifting it was nearly as tall as before. The wind sounds like a freight train, and a trio of Juncos leaving tracks in the overnight snow on my deck convinced me to refill a feeder salvaged from the latest squirrel attack. As we headed to bed a look outside found a beautiful full moon peeking through the ice covered branches of the trees. So, yes, there is magic even in this most trying of times of a forever winter, yet as long as we can find magic and beauty we can see through the madness.