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.

Forest Bathing

A standing joke among us “forest bathers” this past weekend was to “not forget your fig leaf!” This form of ecotherapy translated as “forest bathing” was one of the multiple-offered courses at the Minnesota Master Naturalist’s Gathering Partners conference on Prairie Island. One of the two leaders, Kristen Mastel, had lived in Japan where she handled her cultural stress by venturing into an eco-antidote practice called “shinrin-yoko,” translated to mean “taking in the forest atmosphere.” Or, as it’s now known in the U.S., forest bathing.

Rather than fig leaves, we students were advised to wear sturdy but comfortable walking shoes and to be prepared for unpleasant weather along with a bit of a hike. Our leaders used the term “slow walking” at the beginning, although this was later amended to “sauntering” after being told that naturalist John Muir used “sauntering” for the same gait. 

“I don’t like either the word or the thing,” wrote Muir of hiking. “People ought to saunter in the mountains — not ‘hike!’ Do you know the origin of that word saunter? It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre’, ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”

Our saunter near the Mississippi River town of Redwing certainly had towering bluffs, though no mountains. We were on a portion of the Cannon River Trail that meandered through an aged deciduous forest and seemed perfect for sauntering. We didn’t know quite what to expect in the course, although after a few stops I began to realize that our pace was rather similar to the numerous nature “saunters” my artist friend, Lee Kanten, and I have done on numerous occasions: Sauntering through the woods, and somewhat similar to Muir’s ideal saunter, the rugged outcrops at the headwaters of the Minnesota River in the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. Age, perhaps, had more to do with our decision to saunter than a meditative mindset.

Like many meditative practices, certain disciplines awaited us, and sound can interfere. How would we handle the nearby highway noise with semis barreling through, or even the St. Paul to Chicago freighters rolling on the rails. Neither proved insurmountable.

Initially we gathered at the head of the trail and took a few minutes to engage in a deep breathing exercise quite similar to yoga breathing. With heads bowed and eyes closed, we drew in a deep breath, held it for a long moment before releasing. This came rather easily. That nearby traffic noise became rather muted the longer we practiced our meditative breathing. “In Japan,” said Mastel a bit later as she explained the discipline of forest bathing, “we sat on a mat to meditate. Shinrin-yoko, which is roughly translated into forest bathing, helped me handle the stress of being in a different culture along with a language barrier.”

As we sauntered along we would stop to practice a different discipline, or sense, along the way, concentrating on each until the next stop. Interestingly, “seeing” was the last of the disciplines, meaning I was forced to use senses rarely used in the saunters that Lee and I have done through the years. Photojournalists and artists are somewhat adept at seeing, and as we sauntered through the picturesque trail, composition and lighting emerged all around. Yet I kept my camera zippered inside my backpack … until a couple of the other students eased their cell phones from their pockets, one to photograph a wild flower, and the other a well hidden lichen. 

At one of our stops we were encouraged to smell. I admitted to the group that this was rarely one of my practices, yet when I forced myself to pay attention, the sense of smell came alive. First there was a rich muskiness, interrupted several steps later by a sweetness of a tree in bloom. There were other scents I couldn’t identify although there was an awareness. 

My weakest was that of hearing, for not only have I suffered a hearing impairment since I was a teenager, and have only recently found hearing aids that actually work well, I’m not used to “listening” when afield. Again, forcing myself to concentrate on the different sounds of the forest such as having the birds high in the canopy come to life. A rustle of leaves in the slight breeze. Then the sound of running water in an adjacent stream on private land close to our trail. On our walks in the Bonanza Education Center, spring-fed rivulets in the deep ravines do come to life and we make it a point to reach such a stream on the lakeside trail just to hear the sound of running water. And, yes, for meditative purposes.

My pivoting in different directions attempting to find a singing bird might have been counter-productive to the exercise although I wasn’t alone in doing so. Momentarily I recalled the audio rapture over the years … of the “jungle-like” sounds in the “blue hour” before darkness at the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in western Louisiana; the volumness of the sandhill cranes through the night in a blind on the North Platte River in central Nebraska; and of sea lions on a remote island near Juneau, Alaska. Those sounds were so dominate that hearing aids were unnecessary, and perhaps loud enough to rupture any thought of quiet meditation. On the Cannon River Trail, though, Mastel and her partner, Leah Masonick, had awakened another sense.

When the time came for awakening the sense of sight there was a feeling of comfort, for permission was now granted. One of the other Master Naturalists on the saunter shared thoughts of walking through various and ever changing compositions of nature all around us, and there was comfort in this sharing of likeness. 

Masonick said forest bathing encourages you to slow down, to cultivate a sense of presence and deepen your connection with nature … that it is done intentionally with a hope of engaging all the senses to stimulate creativity and to inspire wonder and awe. At the end we shared a comforting herbal tea and spoke of our individual awarenesses and awakenings.

I found myself in a zone, making it difficult to switch gears heading into my afternoon activity … about a four mile hike through a nearby Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) on the lip of the Driftless Area. I was ambling along (sauntering?) in a peaceful daze among others who were seemingly in a rush of aim and discovery. Meanwhile I was stuck in my “sight” mode, mainly, while listening for birds I couldn’t find and bending to smell native flowers along the path of whacked buckthorn stubble and in the narrow prairie hillsides. My eyes were drawn to the beautiful sturdy limbs of burr oak and the contrast of stark white birch against a greening, leafing out forest covering the deep ravines between the hilltops. And wildflowers a man of the prairie rarely encounters.

Here I was using old, under-used senses with renewed vigor, and I couldn’t have been more blessed. Interestingly, the fig leaf was unnecessary.

Earth Shadow Thoughts

Here’s the thing ­— whenever there is one of those celestial events it seems as if 99 percent of the time we’re greeted with thick, impenetrable cloud cover. This was my reasoning upon returning from the BWCA a couple of summers ago when the huge solar eclipse turned everyone I seemed to know into sun god nomads. A photographer friend made a beautiful horizontal portrayal of the eclipse, and others still talk about it with delighted wonder. They speak of a 360 degree sunset I can barely imagine and the thrills of actually being in such an eclipitical moment.

Me? I ventured over to the Prairie Wood Environmental Learning Center and squatted in the bluestem prairie waiting for perhaps some of the magic. Obviously on the extreme edge of magical bliss. I found it sorely lacking, no blame to the ELC. I hopped in my car and sped up Highway 71 to Sibley State Park, where the park naturalist, perhaps feeling sorry for me, loaned me her solar safety glasses. It was just in time to see the last eighth of the moon shadow. 

Eclipses aren’t the half of it. Twice I’ve made trips to photograph Northern Lights. Once was flying to visit a former exchange student and friend in Tromso, Norway. We would rest much of the day before heading out into the nearby mountains away from the city lights and into deep early February darkness in hopes of catching one of those outlandish dancing rays of other otherworldly pigmentation. In our nearly week-long excursions we had about 15 minutes of visualizing the lights peeking through small holes in windblown clouds. My other trip was to a resort on the Gunflint Trail along the Minnesota-Canadian border with a beautiful exposure to the north across a barren, ice-choked lake. Unlike farm country, the wilderness was free of light “pollution.” Well, we did catch a glimpse of a wolf, although the skies were either completely clear with no Aurora or blanketed with a dense, snowy cloud cover.

Our “blood moon” in the midst of the lunar eclipse on Sunday.

Thankfully the last comet that came through lasted nearly a month in the darkened universal canvas, long enough to plan some pictures including reflections in the calmed surface of a Minnesota lake.

Several years ago, though, in my last (and incredibly short) marriage, we sat outside of what has become my patio in lawn chairs with a bottle of Cabernet, holding hands as we sat through a visible lunar eclipse. Afterwards I made a social network comment expressing my second thoughts about not recording the eclipse with my camera. To which an old friend and chief photographer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Brian Peterson, wrote, “Sometimes John it’s perfectly okay to simply enjoy such things that happen in life. You don’t always need to have a camera in hand.”

This time I was fully prepared, although I must admit my trepidation after watching schooner clouds pass by all afternoon. Which brings me to our very last lunar eclipse this past Sunday night. Fortunately the first half of the show labeled as the “blood moon” lunar eclipse was going to happen within a time frame conducive to “old men hours.” Amazingly we hit that special one percent of cloudless skies so I could see and photograph such a special milestone in the adventures of larger life! However, there was no hint of spine-tingle that I was acutely aware of, although seeing the moon turn bloody looking was both interesting and special.

What transpired mentally as I sat in the chair typically used in my photography blind was trying to imagine thoughts of those preceding us in both time and technology. With the earth’s shadow slowly but surely edging over the surface of the moon I wondered if there were thoughts that perhaps the world was coming to an end? Were there thrills the following morning to awaken to find yet another day had arrived complete with blue skies and sunshine?

Historians believe one of the earliest “recorded” eclipses happened in November of 3340 B.C. after a series of circular and spiral shaped petroglyphs were found in County Meath, Ireland, along with charred human bones beneath a stone basin of what is now the Loughcrew Megalithic Monument. Scientists have wondered if there is a correlation, although they have no answers. Apparently the charred humans weren’t part of the petroglyphic history.

A thousand or so years later was one of the earliest solar eclipses, believed to be in 2134 B.C., as recorded in ancient Chinese documents, an eclipse event that supposedly was believed to be the result of a large dragon eating the sun. This nearly corresponds with Hsi and Ho, two royal and supposedly loyal astronomers who were ordered by Yu, the first emperor of the Xia Dynasty, to fend off this fearful sun-eating dragon but chose to get drunk instead. The displeased Yu then chose to have them beheaded. 

Speeding ahead toward more “modern” times, wars and even the Crucifixion of Jesus may have had ties to lunar eclipses. In and around 413 B.C., at the height of the Peloponnesian War, in a decades long struggle between Athens and Sparta, the superstitious Athens commander, Nicias, decided to hold off a safe departing because of a lunar eclipse. This prompted the Syracusians to then attack, overcome and weaken the Athenians stronghold on the Mediterranean which marked the eventual demise of Athenian dominance. 

Sometimes it’s just enough to enjoy the mysteries of our moon, especially since scientists suggest the human race is living in a unique and special time with the proximity between earth and moon.

Concerning Christ, Christian gospels suggest the sky darkened after the crucifixion which astronomers believe may have coincided with an eclipse. The “event” was apparently married to astronomical records in the years 29 C.E. to 32 C.E., records which historians have used in trying to pinpoint the death of Jesus.

So much for the past. For the time being the future looks promising for fans who seek pilgrimages for such events of the vast universe, all right here in our very own galaxy. On April 8, 2024 our next solar eclipse will cross through Mexico, the United States and Canada, from Mazatlán heading northeasterly through Texas and several other states en route to the border between Maine and eastern Canada. It’s estimated the maximum duration of totality will be about four and a half minutes. Of course, cloudy weather in the northeastern states and Canada may block views of the eclipse, so what else is new? 

Just in case you’re wondering, our next lunar eclipse is scheduled for September 7, 2025, and yes, the United States is right in the middle of the expected earth shadow. The western half of Alaska and the tip of Nova Scotia might see a partial event but the rest of us in this broad slice of the planet, from pole to pole, should have a front row seat … pending a lack of cloud cover.

Suspected paths of future solar eclipses.

Before one gets the idea that these soulful celestial events are forever certainties, consider this: Scientists conclude that we are living at an extraordinary time and place within our unique universe where total solar and lunar eclipses are even possible. They warn that this will not always be the case, as gravitational interaction between our planet and its moon is causing the moon to slowly ebb away from Earth into vast universal darkness at a rate of nearly an inch and a half a year! So within 500 to 600 million years they estimate the moon will appear much too small in our sky for there to be another total solar or lunar eclipse sighting on Earth ever again. So, folks, plan accordingly. You can’t say you haven’t been forewarned.

Confessions of a Rookery Collector

Great Blue Herons hold a special place for me. Long, sleek and grayish blue, with the dark crown angling back overhead, stalking the shallows ever the hunter. A spear-like beak that slices through both time and water, angling for a fish or frog; a portrait of animalistic stealth ­— a “water wolf” —  always on the ready. Although those that become urbanized become less shy, those in the wild have little tolerance for mankind, lifting from the river a hundred feet in front of a canoe, or lifting with sudden urge from a wetland or prairie stream to glide away, neck curbed with straightened legs, off to some realm of both safety and promise. 

Great Blues are part of my springtime wonder. They arrive early, weeks before color begins to soften the woodlands. Besides catching glimpses of the herons, this array of woodland colors of the buds of awakening trees, from the bright reds to the nearly full spectrum of greens, eases my soul. Adding peace. Adding joy. This leafing out is truly an acknowledgment that we’ve finally passed the rigors of a winter past and are now heading toward summer. This is all choreographed between bird and wood so wonderfully … until it isn’t.

Male Great Blue Herons bringing in the sticks the female will knit into the nests.

For on one of the bends of the Minnesota River below Skalbakken County Park, rather close to the confluence of Cottonwood Creek, the Great Blue Herons have adopted a piece of the wooded banks for a rookery that becomes completely hidden once the leaves of the trees appear between the rookery and the river. Besides being unfair to a hopeful canoer, there is something about a rookery that simply amazes me, and has for as long as I can remember. Could it be having a sneak peek into the inner secrets of an avarian slice of life?  

If the late counterculture poet and author Richard Brautigan could collect trout streams, then whose to say I can’t collect heron rookeries. His fly fishing pilgrimage through Idaho in the late 1960s isn’t unlike mine through the numerous crane rookeries through the years. Around our region of the prairie numerous birders make an annual pilgrimage to a rookery shared by cormorants and Great Egrets on a small island in “grotto” park near downtown Fergus Falls. Color me guilty, for I seem to make the 90 minute drive at least a few times each year especially in the spring during the collective nest building span of time. 

Beside the Fergus Falls and Cottonwood Creek rookery, that springtime canoers paddle past, another one exists about a mile or so below US 212 some miles south of Marieta surrounded by a stately oak savanna. This one, like many, is well hidden, and like many, basically the only time it’s visible is in the spring before leafing. Even then one if lucky to see it.

She awaits, as do I peeking in at their interesting society.

Over the years I’ve been drawn to other rookeries in other states. Perhaps the most notable one is the Snowy Egret rookery on Tabasco’s Avery Island near New Iberia, LA, where the McIlhenny family basically saved the egrets from extinction in the early 1900s thanks to a man-made rookery. At the time the birds were threatened due to the fashionable thirst for their fairy-like feathers. Avery Island is a magical place in the Cajun Triangle.

Another rookery I thoroughly love is within the town limits of Rockport, TX, a beautiful Great Blue Heron rookery that was pointed out to me by a local artist after I had admired one of her paintings in her front street studio. This heron community is adjacent to both the Gulf of Mexico and a brackish bay where the birds wade the waters with seemingly no concern of nearby human traffic either in vehicles or on foot. A naturalist friend tells of a well populated crane rookery in NE Minneapolis where the birds are also “tamed” by the proximity of humanity.

Not so at a rookery on a small lake in the Eastern South Dakota Coteau. A few years ago a friend and I discovered this beautiful island rookery between here and the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Like the Fergus Falls rookery, there isn’t any foliage blocking the view. Last week I ventured over after seeing a heron lift from Meadowbrook just down the road from Listening Stones Farm. This was a “they’re here!” moment of discovery, and since this rookery is about 90 minutes west between Sisseton and Sand Lake NWR, I took the drive. There the birds held me captive for nearly two hours … which is about normal. Their “secret society” feeling simply  grabs me.

The handoff …

And the rookery was alive with nesting activity. While females worked on arranging the sticks brought in by their mates high in the trees, the males flew off in search of more nest kindling, grasping mere sticks in their beaks before easing across the expanse of the lake. Amazingly, they would land on spindly branches before gingerly walking down to hand off the stick to its mate. 

Besides being mesmerized by the branch ballet, in the deft manner of not only landing on the end of a branch, and then balancing as the male eased toward his mate with the stick secured in its beak, there was the eased poetic flight over calm waters carrying sticks dogs would love. Sometimes both would work on the construction, although it seemed that moments after the hand off the male would again take flight to gather more sticks. In his absence, she would knit the stick into a maze that would become their nest. Interestingly, much like the rookery in Fergus Falls, sometimes a nearby cormorant would attempt to wrestle the stick away from the herons. Rarely were they successful.

Yes, their island rookery was shared by cormorants, who likewise were busy in next mending. Though like in Fergus Falls, I wasn’t there for the cormorants … birds that appear so old worldish with their strangely webbed feet and hooked bills that they appear to be from times’ past, as first cousins to prehistoric Pterosaurs. But, aren’t all birds? 

An overview of the rookery between Sisseton and Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

These nests they weave of random wood high in spindly trees, mostly now perished due to the buildup of guano from those that have adopted the highest most branches, are study and strong, surviving in this case, often harsh and strong prairie winds. 

In those nests she will lay three to seven greenish-blue eggs that will be incubated for about four weeks with the male and female taking turns. Chicks break through the shells with eyes open, and like all those Pterosaurous cousins, are completely dependent on their parents for sustenance – food that is regurgitated from small fish, frogs and other small animals ingested in their stomachs. Within two to three months the youngsters are ready to fly, and come late summer they will be smaller mirrors of their parents. Though less fearful of mankind, the young herons can be seen in waters near their rookery stalking the shallows with far less spookiness than their parents, a fear that will become more pronounced as they age. 

So life goes on, seasonally, and with balance and symmetry. Beautifully poetic, with their high branch ballet, and if you’re lucky you can witness all of this in a natural theatre often near water and in an early Spring before a leafing closes the curtain on this delicate and fearful society. Rookeries are rare treasures, and I for one am most happy to be a collector.

Seasons Within Seasons

Besides having her first book banned by her local library, author and poet Helen Bevington also wrote a cool little observation of the seasons of poets in a way I can understand: 

To wit: “The seasonal urge is strong in poets. Milton wrote chiefly in winter. Keats looked for spring to wake him up (as it did in the miraculous months of April and May, 1819). Burns chose autumn. Longfellow liked the month of September. Shelley flourished in the hot months. Some poets, like Wordsworth, have gone outdoors to work. Others, like Auden, keep to the curtained room. Schiller needed the smell of rotten apples about him to make a poem. Tennyson and Walter de la Mare had to smoke. Auden drinks lots of tea, Spender coffee; Hart Crane drank alcohol. Pope, Byron, and William Morris were creative late at night. And so it goes.”

Here, in the North … or the upper half of the upper half of our planet … we are seemingly blessed with four celestial seasonal changes, choreographed by sun moments. Two recognizing opposing points, two of equalization. The Winter Solstice followed by a Spring Equinox, then the Summer Solstice followed by the Autumn Equinox. Years divided by an equilibrium of days. We tend to celebrate the Solstices and dismiss the Equinoxes, the only two days and nights of the year when we’re in tune with the Equator … having as much daylight as darkness of night, or night as day. We don’t even lift a glass of wine to celebrate this human brotherhood for whatever reason!

Missing the Sandhill Crane migration, I’ve turned to flowers. Specifically Pasque Flowers.

Supposedly this organization of time would be sweet except that it’s not. Despite the time, our weather rarely coincides with this orchestrated delineation of seasonal change. Case in point, I’ve driven through snow storms in Colorado in June, and enjoyed sunny, 70 degree days in a Minnesota November. We even had a 60 degree day in January, if memory serves me correctly. Before I lose track of my vein of thought, much like Bevington’s realm of poetic seasons, my small take on the ways of the world is that there are any number of multiple seasons. 

My seasons seem to loom around significant sightings of nature. Such as bird migrations, or the appearance of various forbs in the prairie grasslands and in the woods. These past few weeks two of my typically noted seasons seemed a bit skewed. The first skew was the early sighting of a wild turkey fluffed in sexual finery back in the middle of March on a grayish, snowy day. This was followed by not seeing the first appearance of a Pasque Flower until the last week of April.

I’ve been chiding myself for missing the Sandhill Crane migration in central Nebraska this spring, and noting that the white-fronted and snow geese migrations that seemingly happened annually around here apparently passed right over us. Twice I witnessed their strange, haphazardly drawn out skeins high in the sky, stretching across our sky-wide “inner umbrella” for miles in a distant flyover. Not a single skein seemed to have taken notice of the wetlands nearby and in particular in the one just over the hill from my home prairie that has hosted several such migrations over the years. Blame perhaps can be tied to most of the nearby wetlands being frozen in multiple-acre sheets of ice. Yet, those seasonal events I typical note sped right on by.

Sometimes the “seasons” seem skewed, like seeing a wild turkey fluffed in his sexual finery earlier than one would expect.

Without the “seasons” of avian flocks, I’ve turned to wild flowers, and truthfully, this isn’t such a bad choice for I seem to follow the seasonal floral awakenings annually, typically beginning with Pasque Flowers and concluding sometime in the fall with the last of the stark blue Asters. 

Earlier in March, and then into April, I stopped by my “pasque hill” numerous times to no avail. Then, finally, about a week or so ago they poked through with their hairy stems and soft, blue to violet blossoms to awaken my springtime here on the prairie. The first day I found one. Yes, one. On the entire hill. Returning the second night there were three clumps. Seemingly there wasn’t enough warmness in the air nor enough sunshine to have the hill become dotted with the small, violet blossoms. Ah, but every year is different, and this year may go down as the grayest and dampest year in some time ­– realizing that 100 miles north they were still having snow a week ago, and 100 miles south the sun filled the blue sky with rays of hope and the grass was green.

Yet, this sighting of Pasque Flowers was simply a start. On the heels will come Bluebells in the grove, then Prairie  Smoke back in the prairie … on and on we’ll go, though the orchids and cone flowers, the bee balm through to the Asters come late September.

Once again evidence of the Snow Geese appeared overhead in skeins that stretched across the sky, though this year they passed us by.

I’m certainly not alone, for like Bevington’s poets, many of us define our seasons by various sightings within nature. For example, a naturalist friend defines her seasons on mushroom observations, and believe me, morels aren’t the first nor the only fungi found in the wild. Some birder friends gleefully exclaim joy on their first sightings. Not of Sandhills, but of warblers, for one, and wading birds for another. For my late wife, Sharon, her first sighting of Great Blue Herons was the beginning of her Spring. Our seasons are as different as we are as individuals, and what could be more defining or beautiful?

Frankly all of this is simply a lark that helps step us through a given year. Despite my rather odd recognition in the seasonal changes of nature, I have yet to turn down an invitation for a bonfire celebration of the Winter Solstice complete with a study beverage and a forked stick with deer flank searing over a roaring bonfire. Or, for that matter, a glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc on what my Swedish friends celebrate with delicious feasts of plenty and fire and call their Midsummer Eve. In the end I guess I’m simply a man for all seasons. 

Now, about those Equinoxes … 

Bent Branches and Illogical Consequences

Late Sunday afternoon Lin Brimeyer re-entered my life, and it couldn’t have come any time too soon. She came by printed page thanks to her husband, Jack, who had promised to publish a booklet of their too-short life together. Sunday was the 25th anniversary of Lin’s death at age 45 due to cancer. It had been awhile. Lin and I hadn’t seen one another since their wedding at Eagle Point Park overlooking the Mississippi River in Dubuque over Memorial Day weekend in 1972. I took pictures for their wedding.

Lin was a young woman embedded with an old soul, and for some reason those rare folks aren’t around us for very long. Rarely long enough. When she hugged you she enveloped you with that inner soul, wrapping you with comfort and joy. Jack and I were “cub” reporters at the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, and for a time we were roommates. When Lin and Jack walked down the street in front of you it was hard to guess who was who for both had beautiful, long brown hair women envied that reached nearly to their waists. Eventually I would move on to the Denver Post, and Jack would leave a few years later to become the managing editor of the Peoria Star Journal. 

Lin had a wonderful outlook on life, and never seemed to take illogical consequences too seriously, which bode well for me on Sunday. The afternoon before I had just returned from a five-day stay in a hospital with Covid, and where I spent too much time contemplating life, along with irrational thoughts of what my son might see if he picked up my old Nikon were I to die. Would the last picture be worthy? Unworthy of being saved? Indeed, the wile and ways of illogical consequences, like a mother worrying if her child had on clean underwear in case of being hit by a fire truck.

My last image from my April 11 foray to Big Stone Lake State Park, taken on a wetland just north of my Listening Stones Farm …

“If you’re going to obsess, save it for something truly important and work is usually not that important,” was among the thoughts Lin had shared with Jack over the years.  

You see, Lin had many such views concerning life which Jack shared in his booklet: and a piece read at her memorial service explains a lot about her, a piece written by Dick Schneider and published in Family Guideposts in 1981: “They say that if you creep into an evergreen forest late at night you can hear the trees talking. In the whisper of the wind you’ll catch the older pines explaining to the younger ones why they’ll never be perfectly shaped. There will always be a bent branch here, a gap there …”

Besides the numerous eulogies, milestones and anecdotes he shared in his beautiful booklet, he included a number of “Lin-isms” they shared that said so much about her philosophies of life, a life she had devoted to helping others both personally and through her career in social work. Among them:

Love your family unconditionally; they’re the best you’ll ever get. If people offer to help, it’s your duty to let them. You should dance on a table at least once. When in doubt, plant more flowers. All you Redhats: You can never overdo Christmas. Things done at the last moment are somehow more gratifying. Don’t judge people harshly; they’re probably doing that themselves. The fun of fishing is lost when you actually hook something. You can never have too many books. It’s not enough to simply love someone; you must be able to tell them why. When you’re under a lot of stress, you’ll probably wreck your car. It’s best to have many best friends. Serve more food than anyone can eat and don’t forget the rolls. Time spent on the phone with friends is not deducted from your total allotment. If you put in a swimming pool, size it for family and friends, not for yourself. Take long walks but never alone. Every vacation must include a visit to a flower garden. Always carry aspirin. Newspaper people are much nicer than other people think. Anything made by your mother is better. Don’t throw out memories; rent more space if you have to. Islands are always better than the mainland. It’s OK to have lots of stuff. Nephews and nieces are never boring. Be sure to designate a favorite aunt. For really relaxing music, turn on a purring cat. You should never be too busy to listen and never too scared to talk. Weed barriers don’t work, dammit. Let others in on your dreams. We’ll never stop needing toys. It’s mostly in the genes and that’s not fair. Dirty jokes are usually funnier. Chocolate is best at breakfast. When you stop learning, you stop. Never rush a river, for rivers have a flow of their own.

My first image on the foray, of fishermen at the State Park access. Taken the evening before I was admitted to the Sandford Hospital in Sioux Falls with Covid.

And then there was this one Jack wrote that they both learned after attending too many funerals where the dead person was never mentioned in human terms, and sometimes not even by their known name: Remember the dead with laughter if you can, and tears if you must. But do remember them.

For some reason, two really struck home: “Never rush a river, for rivers have a flow of their own.” And, “Islands are more interesting the mainlands.”

Over the years I’ve been more “island” than “mainland,” and I never felt either more alive or free than when I was a freelancer, when every moment and conversation seemed loaded with possibilities. Years later, when working as an editor for a magazine in an office, the “mainland” was a grind, seemingly staid and stifling. Some sense of freedom returned after moving to the prairie to run the small country weekly, which I “married” to a coordinator’s position with an international student exchange program. I had found the freedom to write and photograph whatever I wanted along with earning international travel and making friends all over the world. We were also surrounded by a river valley of people who themselves were “islands” off the “mainland” of humanity. This became home, and remains so for that very reason.

My second image … a murmuration at the entrance of the park …

There, too, is a natural rhythm of life … a river, if you will … that plays itself out within the currents of time. Moments come when the currents are narrowed, becoming rolling rapids over boulders of stress at the height of a stream. We, too, edge into eddies from time to time, yet somehow ease back into an ever flowing current. Never rush a river.

For some scary moments laying in the hospital bed I did obsess over some things of serious nature … including fears that a rough rapids could occur quickly. Perhaps my fear of death from Covid was a bit overwrought. And while there were alternatives to laying in thought (especially of those silly illogical consequences), or staring out a window at a barren sky … which I did on occasion on my last afternoon … mine was a quiet room, an eddy in time, and I rested in relative comfort in realizing that the staff was comforting, professional and caring.

I hadn’t met up again with Lin Brimeyer as yet, but when we did gather the following afternoon she came with a smile and a soul deep with understanding and care. Just as I remember her doing all those years back in the past.

My third image was of a lone tree on the crest of a ravine …

Toward the end of her life, Lin and Jack found an old part of a oak-shaded cemetery where they secured a plot, and where he would place a marble tombstone onto which he had etched an Emily Dickenson poem, one so appropriate to her enriched and beautiful soul:

“If I can stop one heart from breaking, 

I shall not live in vain; 

If I can ease one life the aching, 

Or cool one pain, 

Or help one fainting robin 

Unto his nest again, 

I shall not live in vain.”

All Call, no Beck …

As we loaded up for a short hike though the darkened prairie to a turkey blind he had set up a few days before, Tom Kalahar sniffed the pre-dawn air and said, “If I had to choose between hearing a chorus of heavenly angels sing and the music of wild turkeys, I’d take the wild turkeys every time. There is no better music.”

Last week we had made a “date” for Kalahar, perhaps the most avid turkey hunter I know, to hopefully place me in position to take photos of the fluffy, sex-starved toms. We met before dawn Sunday morning beside a patch of CREP land near Minnesota Falls. We had parked on a minimum maintenance gravel road, gathered our respective gear and started our hike, traversing on a barely visible, worn deer trail.

This field, like so many others in Renville County, is a solid part of his legacy as former director of the county’s Soil and Water Conservation District. He was noted among his SWCD peers before retirement for converting the most cropland into the perpetual conservation easement CREP program several years ago. 

A trio of wild tom turkeys in full display a few years ago.

“The turkeys, if they’re around, won’t be far from us,” he said. “There just isn’t that much habitat around for them anymore, and this is one of the rare spots.” 

We hiked for maybe 700 or so meters through the dormant grasses past a finger of a tree blessed gully and a deer stand tucked on the inside corner away from the road. We then cut across the pasture to the next finger of the tree engulfed gully where he had put the blind. As he set up a couple of decoys I readied my camera gear and got situated inside the blind. 

Sunrise was at about 6:48 a.m., and we were safely ahead of schedule as he pulled down the panel pieces for camera angles and viewing. Moments later he pulled out his slate and began chirping a hen cadence. Immediately he got an answer, and moments later a tom gobbled in return as well. Their roost seemed like it was mere meters behind us in the wooded gully. It was a conversation that would continue for an hour or more giving us a sense of hope and promise.

Tom Kalahar works his slate call in the blind Sunday morning near Minnesota Falls.

As the dawn approached and eased into the morning light I continually adjusted the metering of the camera. If the turkeys came into our view I wanted to be ready. There might not be time for adjustments once they arrived. As the light continued to brighten I realized what a fine choice Kalahar had made for our shoot. This open prairie was like a stage with a beautifully contrasting muted woodland as a backdrop. Easing over the tree line was a nearly perfect three-quarter backlight with a comforting softness. All we needed was the turkeys.

Meanwhile Kalahar kept working the call, and the responses were nearly immediate. “They’re close by,” he whispered. Several moments later he again whispered, “They’re now off the roost and on the ground.” No sooner had he spoken when a chickadee lit momentarily on a dead tree branch just outside my side port window. Suddenly another appeared, then about four more. Just as quickly they were off toward the inside curve of trees, all before I could raise my camera. 

Pheasants “barked” almost off and on while Kalahar and the turkey hen continued their bantering back and forth, with the tom occasionally joining the conversation. Then, abruptly, all went quiet save for the distant pheasants. And would remain so for the rest of the morning. We whispered an intermittent conversation about turkey hunting. He counted seven different states where he has hunted, including on my family’s farm in Missouri. 

This was also from a few years ago in a field overlooking Big Stone Lake.

When I expressed my admiration of how the tom’s fluff themselves in their finery, he said, “It is impressive, especially if you’re bow hunting. They’ll fluff their feathers this full,” he whispered, opening his hands the width of a bushel basket, “while inside that fluff of feathers is a body like this.” Now his hands had narrowed to the width of a football. “There isn’t much to shoot at.” It’s that display of puffiness I was after with my camera.

Our time would pass peacefully. We would not reconnect with the brood, for they must have found more CREP land habitat down the way. “You never know,” Kalahar explained, still in a loud whisper. “It can be quiet like this then suddenly in all the quiet they appear. Now, while the hens are laying their eggs, there is more group movement. The hens come in and the toms follows. Once the eggs are laid, then the hens separate themselves from the flock to incubate the eggs. The toms are more or less on their own and will be moving more. That comes later in the season. Right now they’re still following the hens.”

Another flock of wild turkey with the hens on the move. This was taken last week in a wooded ravine near Listening Stones Farm.

Our morning in the blind went slowly quickly, and while that might sound as a contradiction, it is as described. “Patience is the entire key to turkey hunting. Maybe 20 percent of the hunters score a bird and those that don’t are basically impatient. Me? I have unlimited patience. I can sit here in a blind from dawn to dusk, and really, there is nothing better. This is by far my favorite game to hunt. For moments in nature just like this.” In his “man cave” back in Olivia he will bring forth an impressive collection of turkey beards from his years of hunting. “I’m pretty picky. Mine is a selective harvest,” he said.

Contemplation over much of nothing comprised my morning, which was chilly enough without activity yet warm enough under down outerwear that there was no shivering. Watching a morning awaken is a delightful experience especially in a prairie meadow surrounded by dense wood. A few times I would see something of interest and shoot a picture. Tom intermittently worked either his slate or squawk box, though the answering had long before stopped.

This wasn’t going to be the day despite our honor of patience. Entering Kalahar’s world for a morning was something to cherish, a world filled with the nuances of nature from chickadees to distant hovering buzzards, from conversations with an adept turkey hunter and his distant prey to the continued “barks” of pheasants, also in the trials and tribulations of springtime romance. 

One of my “contemplation” images while in the blind, with backlight highlighting one of the trees in the fingered gully across them our patient wait.

“This is one of my temples,” he would say at one point as we waited. “I have many such temples, though none better than this. There is nothing better than turkey hunting. Nothing.” It would be a morning of all call and no beck, and we both honored these timeless nuances of nature between hunter and prey. 

As we loaded our respective gear in our vehicles near noon, some six hours later, he extended the invitation to join him in the blind on another day. Perhaps I had passed the “patience test,” although he added, “Just be prepared, for next time you might be next to a shotgun blast.” His preferred hunting season was just three mornings away whereas mine seems perpetual, and like his, spring after spring.

Two Old Guys

“Our doctors would be having nightmares if they could see us now. Two old guys with questionable balance climbing over these precarious rocks!” came the soothing words of encouragement from dear friend and musical artist Lee Kanten in the midst one of our occasional saunters. Our climbing and balancing acts were on the ruggedly beautiful virgin outcrop terrain rising from the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. True, neither of us are wholly well-balanced, and Lee has more bionic joints than I can remember. Me? I’m just old.  

But, who cares? Those unnamed physicians were busy elsewhere, and arguments could be made about the just rewards of job security.

When we made our plans for our most recent saunter the sun was shining and blue skies with dotting clouds covered most of the earthen canopy. By the time we reached the Refuge a strong wind from the west had blown in an umbrella of grayness stretching to the edges of our horizons. We were not to be denied, especially after being told by a previous hiker that an unexpected waterfall was to be witnessed at the end of the paved trail off the central parking lot. So, off we went, each of us with a hint of a limp which we kindly pointed out to one another.

This bur oak catches my attention every time.

We had debated on whether to hike the Refuge or the lake trail at Bonanza, and opted for the hike on the trail through the outcrops, bedrock exposed by the ancient Lake Agassiz flood. At the apex of one of the more distant outcrops is a broad horseshoe-shaped bend of the Minnesota River that courses through the Refuge. That was my goal, at least, although I anticipated a reflection of blue skies glistening off a mirrored surface paired with colorful budding of riverine tree life. Perhaps another day.

Finding the waterfall wasn’t much of a challenge, for the paved walk took us directly to the bench next to the river (a perfectly rather secluded spot for self reflection). The falls was visible through thick woods off in the distance, and Lee surmised that it might be melt water being pumped from the gravel mine nestled next to the Refuge.

We weren’t long at the end of the paved path, and decided to climb up the craggy face of the adjacent outcrop to the walking trail we knew existed once we scaled the face. Up above the wind had a more wintry bite. The trail is one of our favorite for it winds through the picturesque outcrops and an oak savanna, and at various points offers great vistas of the Refuge prairie off to the southeast along with that vast flooded waterway that attracts migrating geese, ducks, wading birds, white pelicans, coots and other birds en route to their eventual summer environs. On our adventure the waters were basically barren of migrating birds save for a few coots coursing through the flooded grasses. 

The waterfall viewed through the timber.

Eventually we meandered through to the top of the next outcrop where Lee suddenly stopped to verbally wonder about the power of the Glacial River Warren, the name of the breakthrough river of Lake Agassiz some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Geologists surmise that when the ice dam fractured waters sped through the glacial till like a cleaving sword at speeds of more than a million cubic feet per second. Till was tossed aside and scoured away down to the caprice, leaving behind a washed out valley of bedrock that varies in width at points of more than three miles wide, and is a gneiss and granite wonderland from the headwaters of the Minnesota River, that now courses through that trough of the old glacial river some 213 plus river miles from here to Mankato. 

That scouring began just a few miles upriver from where we two old guys were climbing, and all these outcrops were laid bare by the flood. What’s fun is finding little holes in the gneiss where pebbles were spun by the raging waters leaving behind pockmarks in the stone you can easily still see thousands of years later. I’ve seen similar pitholes in outcrops as far southeast as Morton. These continuing outcrops give the Minnesota River Valley a special natural landscape not unlike the Boundary Waters … were it not for the polluting of the river waters themselves.

We played tag … until I caught it in the grasses.

To crawl, walk and climb through such events of our natural history is daunting. Lake Agassiz covered what is now most of central Canada including all of Saskatchewan, North Dakota and northern Minnesota and was in it’s day larger than any existing lake in the world including the Caspian Sea. Remnant waters include Lake Winnipeg, Lake of the Woods, Red Lake and Rainy Lake, among others, as well as the Great Lakes. 

The breakthrough drainage with River Warren was so disrupting and of such magnitude that it significantly impacted climate, sea level and human civilization. The huge freshwater release into the Arctic Ocean near Hudson Bay was believed to have disrupted oceanic circulation and caused a temporary global cooling. Yet these outcrops, here in the Refuge, was where it all began, and we two old guys were traipsing through what Lee called “an eye blink in time.”

Before Euro immigration this valley was home to various Native tribes, and local historian, Don Felton, often known as Babou, points out areas within the refuge where campsites were set up by the wandering tribes in  search of bison and other game. He can also point out bison rubs where a fine sheen glistens off the granite and gneiss in the sunlight some 150 years after the last bison were believed to have grazed prairie grasses in the valley. There is even evidence of Petroglyphs hidden within the outcrops, but Babou and others are reluctant to show them for fear of vandalism.

The horseshoe bend of the Minnesota River from the top of the outcrop.

We didn’t see much bird life on our saunter. A few robins and a Downy Woodpecker. It was a bit early for the warblers and Cedar Waxwings, which love to tantalize a man with a lens on such saunters later in the year. A small brownish bird flirted with the photographer by hiding in the dormant grasses and blitzing behind oak branches along the trail. I did capture an image yet have no clue of its identification. 

When we finally reached the more distant outcrop where the horseshoe bend of the Minnesota River beckoned, the wind was fraught with a pelting of occasional raindrops. Some felt like sleet against the cheek, and we hurriedly began making our way back through the rocky maze toward the car. Although it might require a vivid imagination to suggest we two old guys made a sprint for our safety and comfort, we did make it back mere seconds before the rain actually hit.

Meandering through this landscape left naked by glacial waters rushing at speeds we can barely imagine is humbling, offering much in similarity to viewing of the Milky Way on a moonless night when you can grasp the insignificance of both human life collectively on what appears to be a most unique planet in a limitless universe, along with your own life within it. That “insignificance” pales, though, when you can also vividly view and hear the destruction of what remains of this unique planet in ways far more morbid and everlasting than that caused by the Glacial River Warren. We two old guys will long be gone by the time earth will become uninhabitable if current trends continue, as earth becomes a wasteland planet that global greed has forever failed to yield.

Sweet Music of Spring

Ah, yes, the sounds of spring! The music! I can now hear it as my annual “yard river” broke through to begin flowing this week, and my, what a lovely sound. More of a narrow ripple than a growling rapids, though sweet nonetheless. All of us live in a watershed, thanks to gravity, and gravity is the conductor! Listening Stones Farm is no exception. 

Water droplets from the melt begin the journey in clumped drifts in the bluestem on the hilltop of the upper prairie, tunneling beneath the prairie grasses to join singular droplets off icicles hanging from branch tendrils in the grove and the melt from the feet of the cottonwood, dogwood and maples. Some course downhill from the crest of my neighbor’s crop field, all of it joining just above the wood shop to course toward the first of two small retention ponds we’ve had dug here.

Enough of the melt, which came rapidly thanks to the suddenly warm temperatures, offers a bit of what naturalist John Muir called “snow that melts into music.” Yes, the small stream courses through the yard as all this melt rushes through to the foot of the grove and an eventual escape into the county road ditch and with luck, perhaps even to the Gulf of Mexico. We just happen to be on this side of the Continental Divide that cuts across the “roof” of nearby Browns Valley, itself the “roof” of Big Stone Lake.

A lullaby created by the water moving through our prairie, yard and grove.

Hearing the soft lullaby here in the lawn made me wish for more. Not too distant is the Bonanza Education Center, the northern “half” of Big Stone Lake State Park and located a bit south of Browns Valley and the Divide. Bonanza is composed of a high bank cut through the prairie by the Glacial River Warren when the ice dam at the foot of the massive Lake Agassiz broke free near the end of the last glacial period. Much like the rest of the cut through the prairie, from here southeast to Mankato, the Minnesota River system, of which Big Stone Lake is the first of a chain of “river” lakes, are full of these ravines. Some include actual waterfalls.

In Bonanza there are at least three rivulets coursing through these wooded ravines fed by springs that keep water moving throughout most of the year, even in winter. Now, with the melt, waters are raging through these ravines, and the music becomes more “concerto” than sleepy lullaby. A full symphony may occur further downstream in the actual river … provided there is enough for bank-high flooding. This week the concerto was lively as the melt waters spread out onto the frozen ice sheet to create a beautiful mosaic of melt and left over ice and snow. Solitary and stubborn ice fishermen still dotted the lakescape even as the sun lowered into a recent sunset.

A lone ice fisherman braves the melt and elements on Big Stone Lake.

Our melt has come quickly, or as weather columnist Paul Douglas noted in his midweek column in the Star Tribune, “We might be skipping straight to April weather.” This time last week temperatures hovered near freezing, and my yard and driveway were covered with a thick layer of hard, matured ice. Hard and gray, speckled somewhat at the fringes. I spent quite some time trying to break through an ice layer on the sidewalk between the house and studio, finally breaking through the last six-inch deep by four-foot long stronghold Monday afternoon. Ice on the driveway finally began to yield to the Bobcat delivering hay bales for the horses a day later. Then came the warmth, and Muir’s music.

What a lovely sound.

Trees from the grove reflected in the melt water in the yard.

Here, though, it was rather ambient compared to that of Bonanza, and later on at the small creek just down the road that cuts along Meadowbrook to Big Stone Lake. All of it was lovely. All of it announced the end of winter. All of it opened arms to the warmth of spring and a change of seasons. All of it offers muse to the poets, and as Henry Williamson, the British author of Tarka the Otter, wrote years ago, “Music comes from an icicle as it melts, to live again as spring water.”

Indeed, this music is accompanied in the skies as Redwing Blackbirds, Snow and Blue Geese and their nearby cousins, Canada Geese, return to their northern breeding grounds. With the pleasing music of moving water, the sounds of the migrating birds offer us the woodwinds and brass to complete this orchestration of spring. Such blessings are so welcomed, so appreciated. 

What a lovely sound! 

The geese and ducks add to the orchestration of the spring melt.

Water in our small watershed is indeed alive and moving, dripping away from icicles and snow to course through our prairie island en route toward the Minnesota River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. Daunting, isn’t it? In this freeing of the grip of winter, I doubt if I’m alone in feeling just as free as the melt itself. How heavenly such freedom feels. And, how lovely and satisfying is that orchestration of spring!