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.

Little Woody

Each morning I do my worldly, neighborly and constitutional deed … that’s when I pull the string the neighbors/renters have on the chicken coop door to pull open the latch that frees maybe 30 chickens of various and dubious layer breeds, two turkeys and little “Woody.” 

Most of the old hens quickly gather around food leftovers thrown over the tall fence, which for some seem the highlight of the day. Sometimes the turkeys join in, especially if I had made jalapeño poppers the night before. For some odd reason the two turkeys, now nearly fully dressed for Thanksgiving, love the inner jalapeño stems with all the clustered seeds. They lift the stem high in its entirety with their beaks before seemingly swallowing the whole thing in one quick gulp. It almost makes one wish for a gizzard!

Those younger chickens? Those reared this summer and are now just beginning to lay eggs, each so small you nearly need two to fill a slice of toast, rush helter-skelter past the older hens munching on those food scraps, across the huge horse pen toward the distant fir trees, wings flapping, squawk squawking and legs pumping as if there is no tomorrow. It’s as if they can’t believe they’ve been freed from their overnight imprisonment!

Are these Woody’s “parents?” Each spring two pair of wood ducks arrive to seek nesting trees, and apparently after jumping from the nest Woody got lost or was left behind.

Woody? Well, Woody does the same thing, right along with them. He runs on his webbed feet with wings flapping and squawking weirdly differently than his perceived sisters. Woody, you see, is a male wood duck and is thoroughly convinced he’s a chicken. Imprinting perhaps created the issue, a process described by experts.

Not a one of us knows exactly how Woody became lost before becoming part of the flock. Every spring for the past several years two wood duck pairs appear suddenly in the grove next to the chicken coop and pen to seek out nesting trees. It’s a laborious real estate affair taking much time, consideration and duck conversation before a decision is made and the eggs laid. So this is likely the beginning of Woody’s story.

He just didn’t drop from the sky, or the heavens if you wish, but from a nesting tree somewhere in the grove. Perhaps he was left behind as either the drake or hen herded and hustled the newly jumped from the nesting tree to the nearest wetland just over the hill from the grove. Woody either became lost or couldn’t follow directions. Hannah, the teenage daughter of the renters, found the lone duckling that was all down and hopelessly lost hunched in the grass and burdock, and placed it among the chicks in the brooder for safe keeping. There was a question of his eventual survival.

It took Woody awhile to find his way past the confines of the covered pen, he now joins his “sisters” in the larger horse pen, and even one day took flight over the fence … only to walk the exterior trying to find a way back in.

The thought was that as soon as dear Woody matured and bolted out some real feathers that he would fly away to join his likenesses in one of the wetlands, Big Stone Lake or the damed waters in the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge several miles due south of Listening Stones. As his mates, those little chicks the renters eyed for future egg production, grew bit by bit and were moved into ever larger confines until they were large enough to fend for themselves with the big hen flock, so was Woody. During all this time he was quite covert in making public appearances, of showing himself to those strange human elements that seemed to lurk at times just outside those various brooding pens.

Then the time arrived for the big merging of the flocks. At first, Woody held close to the hen house. While the old hens and the turkeys rumbled past the gate to bigger pasture and the daily food drop, the recently feathered hung close to the enclosed pen. Gradually, though, their fear abated and they followed the old hens outside, and once past the gate, they would flap and bustle in a dead run past the munching, squawking old hens and the four horses toward the back of the pen.

At first, Woody would walk along the interior chicken-wire fence trying to figure out how his many sisters and companions had discovered such freedom. Then, one day, magically, he actually followed them through the gate. Like them, he would then run full speed with wings flapping toward the nonchalant horses. “Woody,” said Hannah, “isn’t the sharpest chicken in the pen.” Well? 

Perhaps the next step is to place a mirror in the coop …

One of those mornings, a few weeks ago, something strange happened. While running and flapping Woody actually went aloft. He didn’t fly far. Not even to one of the two large wetlands just over the rises. He rose just over the fence and landed somewhere outside, then waddled over to the enclosure where he quacked and pranced in panic for a few hours until Hannah arrived to care for her horses and to put the chickens in for the night. She captured the little Woody and reluctantly put him back with his “sisters.” Where he has stayed contentedly ever since.

The entire endeavor was to safely get him to a point of maturity that he would, well, fly the coop. We see how that worked for the wholly misguided and imprinted Wood Duck. This entire endeavor hasn’t exactly gone by plan.

Woody, it seems, wholeheartedly believes he’s a chicken. Even if he doesn’t sound like a chicken, walk like a chicken, or even fly like a chicken. His one accidental flight apparently simply wasn’t enough to convince him differently. For some reason the “imprinting” has stuck. Perhaps this comes down to a simple solution … placing a mirror in the coop. 

A Landscape Without ‘Homesickness’

Glacial geologist Carrie Jennings stood at the overlook of the expansive and hilly Ordway Prairie to give us a brief lesson on our momentary view. “This is what Sibley State Park would look like without trees,” she said. Prairie, not forest; grass not oaks. Two different landscapes on the same glacial moraine, both now protected.

This came to mind this weekend in crow-flight miles to the west where another portion of this ancient glacial ridge was recently converted from prairie to croplands no one needs, followed by the construction of huge, towering grain bins and an access tower visible in all directions for all to see. Runoff from the marginal and vulnerable soils may threaten three lakes — Linka, Scandi and Gilchrist.

Then there was the hapless Ortonville, MN, councilman, who during discussions over a controversial gravel pit being protested years ago on a meadow blessed with outcrops just below the headwaters of the Minnesota River, said, “All we have are our rocks.”

Bear with me, for there is a connection. Yes, the Ordway and Sibley State Park are presumably safe from corporate and mankind encroachment for future generations to study and admire, yet the unique outcrops washed clean from the earth’s bedrock at the headwaters by the Glacial River Warren 12,000 years ago will likely never be turned into an “environmental memory pod” … otherwise known as a state park. Or, if you prefer, an “island of past landscapes.” Pods or islands where we may escape solastalgia ­— that feeling people have when home landscapes become unrecognizable through environmental change.

Within the boundaries of the nearby Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, the outcrops are likely saved for prosperity, although those closest to the headwaters of the Minnesota River may end up as rubble from future mining operations.

That was a term coined by Glenn Albrecht, honorary associate at the School of Geosciences of Murdoch University, which he says describes a “homesickness you have when you’re still at home.”

Many Minnesotans have historically escaped such feelings due to the foresight of those forefathers who invested in protecting these various islands of past landscapes, from prairies to woodlands, from bogs to trout stream valleys in the Driftless. Did they go far enough? Were particular pods of past landscapes missed or ignored? I’d suggest the outcrops as one possibility and the prairie potholes as another, both created by the last major glacier.

While I love the two pieces of Big Stone Lake State Park, divided between “Meadowbrook” and “Bonanza,” sadly those shouldered outcrops rising from the earth just below the headwaters will likely one day be little more than piles of rocky rubble from various future mining operations. Those rocks! A friend known locally as Babboo, who offers vivid descriptions on this area’s unique natural history, once gave an impromptu tour of the headwater outcrops and pointed out bison rubs so polished and smooth the granite glistened in the sun. This wasn’t unlike the gneiss and granite sample boulders polished by man-made tools at a natural history park outside of Rosendal, Norway. The difference was that one was the result of eons of rubbing by an iconic prairie animal now both rare and selectively domesticated versus that of a power tool. 

Bluemounds State Park is an “island of prairie” surrounded by commodity farming, and is one of the few places where the endangered white fringed prairie orchid exists, along with a beautiful herd of bison.

Hence, there is no shrine here as at Itasca State Park for the headwaters of the Mississippi, although the outcrops are decidedly more bold and equally as interesting. How sad. Even sadder is that there is no island of past landscapes for the prairie potholes that are now 99 percent extinct due to drainage and ditching and commodity cropping. The closest you can find to true prairie is perhaps Blue Mounds and Glacial Lakes State Parks. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to preserve something that no longer exists. Solastalgia? Maybe, but then there is likely no one alive who remembers or can describe a prairie pothole vista. Can you miss something you’ve never had a chance to know? Or, see?

One needs to look no further than to the entrance of Blue Mounds State Park to realize it’s indeed an island surrounded by commodity cropping. Glacial Lakes has huge and magnificent native burr oak savannas, yet the beautiful prairie near the horse camp is part of the same moraine as Sibley and that prairie which was recently converted to commodity cropping. None of these portray the flat former prairie pothole region that existed past the ridge of the moraine ­— pockets of water that are partially visible after an early melt over frozen ground come spring. A flight overhead will reveal a half dozen or more potholes (wetlands or sloughs) per quarter section of cropped farmland as far as you can see. 

Maplewood State Park is surrounded by tourist villages and lake homes, though the unique ecosystem of deciduous trees and lakes are protected within the park.

Many of the other landscapes have been set aside as islands of past landscapes throughout Minnesota. Sixty-seven state parks in all. Each offers a glimpse of a biome worth noting. For example, the bog at Bemidji Lake State Park offers us an opportunity to see extremely rare bog plants. The bog might have survived modern mankind, although the rest of the park’s landscape may have long been converted into lakeside cottages and a hilly, tree-lined suburbia … much like what is visible just outside of the park. 

A recent drive through Camden and Maplewood State Parks offers other examples of landscapes preserved for future generations as well as reminders now of what was. Though both are “carved up” with roads and campgrounds, as are most state parks, Camden is surrounded by six-figure homes on the edge of the bluff overlooking the Redwood River. Yet that valley within the park is preserved and protected. 

At Maplewood, which is surrounded by lakes crowded with cabins and small resort towns, it doesn’t take much of an imagination to see the same for those beautiful, deciduous wooded hills that are such a delight come autumn. Maplewood even has a motorless lake with a single, pack-in camping site that is ripe for largemouth bass and bluegill fishing. Again, a motorless lake!

We find Bemidji Lake State Park unique due to the bog walk, where unique bog plants like the Dragon’s Mouth Orchid, Pitcher Plants and Stemless Ladyslippers can be found. Otherwise the parkland might be chock full of lake homes and a minor suburbia.

Granted, nothing is perfect, and applause is awarded those who created and still create these beautiful shrines and protection for these past landscapes. These treasures should be as appreciated for what they are. Some have argued that Wildlife Management Areas (WMA’s) have served to preserve the prairie … though they are typically quite small, are basically restored rather than being native prairie and lack the potholes as well as the natural diversity common to virgin prairie. Besides, two of those WMAs near our farm are cut for hay each summer, downgrading their importance as wildlife havens. 

Albrecht talks about the importance of a positive “sense of place” in people’s lives, and of the significance of what the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan called ‘topophilia’, or “the love of place and landscape.” In these two instances his topophilia went missing.

Is this image from the Red River Valley in springtime representative of the now extinct prairie pothole region? No one is alive who know, a unique landscape ignored and long past being preserved. Solastalgia? It’s doubtful you can feel “homesickness” for a landform and ecosystem you’ve never known, and can’t.

Some will argue that Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge has saved the outcrops within its boundaries, which is true, and much of the junk vegetation has been cut and removed from the rocks to make the granite and gneiss mounds appear more natural. It’s still a shame those outcrops closest to the headwaters aren’t protected, although while still possible is highly unlikely. Setting aside the prairie pothole biome as a possible “island of past landscapes” would be impossible for its natural state is long extinct. This unique landscape and ecosystem unfortunately never reached a point of the “homesickness you have when you are still at home” – a landscape missed and thoroughly ignored.

Departures …

A good naturalist would have noted the time, date, temperature … all the pertinent circumstances and details. I’m not a good naturalist. I can’t even remember the exact month let alone the day the barn swallows departed. 

I remember us sitting on the deck on that sunny and warm morning near noon, hearing the ever present screeching “CHEEPs” from the gutters above us, and from the nearby clothesline and roof peaks of the studio and wood shop. Above the bluestem of our adjacent prairie the swallows flew in their delightful dips and dives, before suddenly making an awesome aerial pirouette. Feathered jets, mouths agape, collecting ever present mosquitoes and gnats! It is suggested swallows may be among the fastest flying birds with estimates of 64 mph. And, they’re noisy. 

We were amused and pleased as the recent murmuration touched our prairie and grove, then one morning they were gone.

We were talking, my friend and I, having a sandwich, when we looked at one another sort of startled, for it was suddenly deathly quiet. Total silence save for the rustle of leaves in the breeze. Our piece of the prairie was completely naked of sound. Not one swallow sat on the gutters, eaves or clotheslines. The prairie was devoid of the swooping jet-like birds. We were left with an unexpected silence, an even louder silence than when a harsh prairie wind, one that whips branches of even the sturdiest burr oaks, suddenly dies. Just like that even those birds that had left the nest mere weeks before were somewhere off on a flight of more than 5,000 miles to places I’ve never been.

Ah, the mysterious nature of migrations. Especially those sudden departures. Even ornithologists with emeritus status, who’ve studied bird behavior throughout their lifetimes, agree. 

On close examination you can see the amulets of the redwings … so are they stragglers or from this year’s nests?

Collectively we seem to rejoice the spring migrations here in the western edge of the Mississippi Flyway. Around our part of the prairie we have hundred of thousands of snow and blue geese populating wetlands for a few days of feeding and rest come spring. A few years ago huge populations stopped just north of here, and last year we spent the first days of the pandemic lock down about 15 miles due east where a huge flock of both (along with some swans) took over a basic farm section in ghost-like seasonal wetlands. In years past we’ve been seduced by the historic gathering of sandhill cranes along the banks of the North Platte in central Nebraska, and we once caught what seemed like a million redwing blackbird murmuration above a bend of the Yellow Medicine River late one spring afternoon.

And, there is the pure joy of seeing the first huge pod of white pelicans suddenly in contrast to deep blue skies each spring. Shore birds wade wetland edges, while warblers and other songbirds dash from branch to branch even in our small grove. We delight when the seemingly same two pair of wood ducks come each spring in search of nesting trees in our grove. Each sighting regardless of the species delightfully fulfills the satisfaction of welcoming another spring to our collective souls!

Cormorants found refuge in a small Maplewood State Park lake …

Fall migrations? While we haven’t joined the serious bird watchers with high powered binoculars at the top of the Empire State Building in downtown Manhattan to catch the flecks of jet streaming warblers overhead, we have ventured to Hawk’s Ridge on the outskirts of Duluth to wonder as migrating raptors catch the currents above Lake Superior on a frosty October morning. Those are just a couple of instances of pilgrimages for the autumn migrations that seems less eventful. Mostly it’s here one moment, gone the next with little if any fanfare. Many of the redwings you see in huge murmurations in the spring seem to simply disappear from the wetlands as did the swallows from our Listening Stones Farm. Yet, for the past few days a growing murmuration of redwings have gathered here in our grove. Stragglers? Newbie’s from this summer’s hatch? Ah, the mystery!

Recent trips through the nearby Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge indicates that several species are gathering. We witnessed growing murmurations as we crossed North Dakota a few weeks ago. Soon on a warm, fall afternoon, gulls will glide over our prairie home in poetic symmetry, either as a flock or singular as if on a string, one after another. Over on Big Stone Lake you may catch hundreds of resting coots through the bright yellow autumn colored leaves of dogwood, and the skeins of geese are larger in numbers and ever more present. 

Hundreds of Franklin Gulls in migratory flight above the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.

What we see here, though, is somewhat meaningless in the overall scheme of migrations, and after years of experience and knowledge of radar use what we see may be as interesting as it is inconclusive. “Studying the movements of one species, let alone the hundreds, is a fundamental challenge,” writes Kyle Horton of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in an article published in Science Magazine. “Because the drivers of avian migration are so complex, we need a system that captures that complexity.” 

Successful migration requires coordination of a variety of physiological, behavioral and ecological systems. “Birds must navigate accurately using multiple cues, time their journeys precisely, deal with winds that may blow them off course, find food in transient and unfamiliar environments, and often re-engineer their bodies to store energy and save weight,” added Benjamin Van Doren, a Cornell co-author of the article with Horton.

Another murmuration, this one earlier in the week at Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.

The two say environmental drivers, such as temperature, atmospheric pressure and precipitation play important roles in determining when large groups of birds take flight. With so many intermingling factors, the ecology of avian migration is exceedingly complicated — in short, it’s hard to know exactly when birds of a feather will flock together. Then, suddenly disappear. Ah, the mystery!

Each year billions of birds navigate the skies on biannual migrations, traveling great distances at tremendous heights, some thousands of feet in a night’s darkness, back and forth between breeding and wintering sites that sometimes lay a continent apart. Like ancient humans crossing vast seas, some birds plot their courses using the stars. Others follow the ebb and flow of Earth’s electromagnetic field — using it not just as a compass, but as a kind of visual heads-up display to identify their position on the globe.

Coots in migratory rest in the Refuge, silhouetted against the shimmering early morning sunlight.

Ah, the mysteries! 

Here on the ground, on our small space of prairie-land, we catch only the hints, those moments of rest and rejuvenation. For the past week our grove has harbored those hundreds of redwings in an ever moving feast taken from an adjacent harvested cornfield. We sat on the deck earlier this week, Mary with her coffee and me with my tea, watching groupings from a few to dozens skitter from the treetop perches to the field, and back again. Ever restless! That afternoon, they were nowhere to be seen. The following morning, the murmur was as loud as the geese gathering in the wetland just over the rise. Then … they were gone.

On a drive through the nearby Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, on the huge reservoir of damed water, thousands of coots bobbed in wind-blown waves. Warblers darted through the mullein and sumac. Will any be here this morning? Tomorrow? Will there be a sudden explosion of wings lifting all from the water, in seeming chaos, blocking the moon or sun, as some force beckons them into the air? Like the redwings here?

On Big Stone Lake, coots in rest through the yellow of fall foliage.

Beyond the mysteries I find a certain sadness about autumn migrations … a feeling so opposite that of the promise of summer felt during spring migrations when the arrival of snow geese are as welcomed as pasque flowers on a prairie hill. Now, though, it’s not unlike watching the taillights of your lover’s car disappearing down the road, a feeling that was so vividly realistic on the afternoon the swallows left so abruptly that they left behind such a startling silence. Or, of waking this morning to discover the grove was completely empty of the murmuration. 

Ah, Maplewood!

Helplessness is a feeling I so thoroughly dislike, yet one that is seemingly ever present. As I drive through the countryside I see signs around me posted in yards and along the highway promoting a president who has done so little to bring our diverse population together during racial protests, turmoil and a health pandemic that has killed more than 200,000. So much “political popcorn” that I’m reminded of the 1975 publication of Alvin Toffler’s “EcoSpasm,” which, in part, described the economic situation in Germany in the 1930s that gave rise to Hitler’s dictatorship. 

More recently we have watched from afar to witness how Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán can now rule by decree for an indefinite period of time. That such an erosion of democracy could happen openly in the heart of Europe has caused an uproar, with many questioning what, if anything, the European Union can do to stop one of its own from undermining the very values that underpin the bloc, according to the Atlantic. My son, Aaron, who lived for years in Budapest said, “The scary part is that Orbán’s rise was all done legally, by their constitution. And, it could happen in the States …”

Our president has offered unveiled hints of achieving just that, and so much is in place for it to happen: gerrymandered polling districts, closures of polling sites in areas heavily populated by people of color, voter suppression tactics particularly in Republican states, and most recently an attack on mail-in balloting and the U.S. Postal Service. There are more creative tactics almost daily, plus a Senate that apparently loves sitting on their respective hands!

To escape this current onslaught of chaos and helplessness I find I must head to spots in the timber and prairie where there is a semblance of peacefullness and order; places that offer a convenient and medatative calmness. One such place is Maplewood State Park. Ah, Maplewood!

“For the first time in my life, and maybe for the first time since the Civil War, the fate of constitutional democracy in the United States is on the line, and it’s on the line because the president has put it there,” said William Galston, chair of the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program. “It is a clear and present danger.”

Ah, Maplewood!

“This is unprecedented for us — the scope and scale of the size of these wildfires and the impact they are having on people around the state,” said Dale Kunce, who heads the American Red Cross Cascades Region in Oregon.

Ah, Maplewood!

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who championed women’s rights — first as a trailblazing civil rights attorney who methodically chipped away at discriminatory practices, then as the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, and finally as an unlikely pop culture icon — has died at her home in the nation’s capital.

Ah, Maplewood!

The Postal Service, long an afterthought in the political process, has been drawn into the fray after its new leader, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, implemented a series of cost-cutting measures that delayed deliveries nationwide. The changes have sparked a flurry of legal challenges and caused concerns over the agency’s ability to handle the anticipated crush of election mail this year, although DeJoy has said it will be the Postal Service’s top priority.

Ah, Maplewood!

The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus topped 200,000 Tuesday, by far the highest in the world, hitting the once-unimaginable threshold six weeks before an election that is certain to be a referendum in part on President Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis.

Ah, Maplewood!

America’s worsening climate change problem is as polarized as its politics. Some parts of the country have been burning this month while others were underwater in extreme weather disasters. The already parched West is getting drier and suffering deadly wildfires because of it, while the much wetter East keeps getting drenched in mega-rainfall events, some hurricane-related and others not. Climate change is magnifying both extremes.

Ah, Maplewood!

With Siberia seeing its highest temperature on record this year and enormous chunks of ice caps in Greenland and Canada sliding into the sea, countries are acutely aware there’s no vaccine for global warming. “We are already seeing a version of environmental Armageddon,” Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said, citing wildfires in the western U.S. and noting that the Greenland ice chunk was larger than a number of island nations. This was meant to be the year “we took back our planet,” he said. Instead, the corona-virus has diverted resources and attention from what could have been the marquee issue at this U.N. gathering. Meanwhile, the U.N. global climate summit has been postponed to late 2021.

Ah, Maplewood!

Revelations that President Donald Trump is personally liable for more than $400 million in debt are casting a shadow over his presidency that ethics experts say raises national security concerns he could be manipulated to sway U.S. policy by organizations or individuals he’s indebted to. New scrutiny of Trump, who claims great success as a private businessman, comes after the New York Times reported that tax records show he is personally carrying a staggering amount of debt — including more than $300 million in loans that will come due in the next four years. “Americans should be concerned about the president’s debt because it’s a national security risk for our country,” said Donald Sherman, deputy director of the nonprofit government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). “This is information that the president has aggressively and repeatedly tried to keep away from the public.”

Ah, Maplewood!

Given that Trump’s eldest son has a documented track record of trying to corrupt our elections and subvert the national interest on his father’s behalf, it’s not surprising that Donald Trump Jr. is now actively trying to supply that rationale by calling for an “army” of volunteers to join a campaign’s Election Day security team. 

Ah, Maplewood!

The president of the United States has declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the 2020 election — ratcheting up previous rhetoric baselessly casting doubt on the legitimacy of what polls suggest is a likely defeat.

Ah, Maplewood, where breezes riffle leaves in the silence of timbered wood far distant from the printed page and muted radio; where autumn leaves are colorful and bright, and skies seem clear and often blue. All of which is reflected in the numerous lakes and potholes hidden in the wooded hills; hills with surprises tucked in the timber, and waters with swans adding a sense of poetic grace to the overall peacefulness. How great thou art! 

Notes from Montana … and Back

Not knowing what to expect, from the time we left Listening Stones until we reached our first camping spot at a state park near Madera, ND, our camper rode like a poorly built hay wagon, whipping across the rear view mirror like the shawl of an energetic belly dancer. Jack Griffin said later over the campfire at Madera that he had never driven his camper in such heavy winds. Radio reports estimated the wind was blowing crosswise at 40 mph, with gusts up to 50 mph. And this was my first day.

“If you can drive through that,” he said, “you can drive it through anything.”9.16.20-montana96

Up until this trip I’ve been a tent camper, then Mary spent much of the Covid lock down researching campers, and we liked the layout of this one so much that I traded 20 acres of Missouri timberland to buy.

There were lovely moments despite the tension. Over the many miles of North Dakota plains we saw several murmurations, and each brought a lovely smile to Mary’s face. Murmurations are a theme in her paintings, and these were just as poetic. None were excessively huge, yet large enough that the “bird clouds” were impressive. Murmurations seem to play out more poetic than chaotic, and each offered a moment of wonder and delight, a pause from our wind-whipped stress and tension.

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Shortly after passing Billings in our search for Cooney Reservoir State Park we encountered our first snow of the coming winter. It was Monday, September 7. It wasn’t so much a blizzard as a snowfall, and the Pilot and R Pod bounced heavily on the washboard gravel. Then we crossed a hill and saw our first mule deer, with their huge ears held high like tall, elongated antennas. The park was interesting, although we dined inside that chilly night with Trish’s delicious chicken drumsticks and rice. Our camper was cozy, and for the second night I was pleased not having to pitch a tent considering the elements.9.16.20-montana12-1

The following morning the reservoir was alive with migrations. On a dead tree were perched dozens of blackbirds, and in the long, damed reservoir, hundreds of geese trailed through the deep center of water. Geese was an educated guess since they were too distant to catch a good identification even with binoculars. There was a singular loon, and a pod of white pelicans, too.

Later, as we drove away we drove past the reservoir dam and below, deep in the valley, was the remains of the beautiful, winding river … a small tributary to the Yellowstone, perhaps. It meandered through a picturesque valley of ranches, peacefully green and poetic, a visual postcard of early morning beauty. It offered a view that rendered the reservoir obscene. Sadly so.

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It turns out the first day of wind wasn’t our bigger problem. When we arrived at Placid Lake State Park, our Montana destination, we discovered that our “slide” wouldn’t slide, We were surrounded by the other six couples with either family ties on Mary’s side, or those who had been in college together at the University of Minnesota-Morris. All hands came to help us try to solve the slide issue. At this point I wasn’t overly impressed with the camper that also had door latch issues, a non-charging battery and a few loose screws. And, I couldn’t find the “D3” or towing gear, so we were averaging about 8 mpg from Minnesota to Western Montana. Yet, we were able to sleep comfortably and make our meals. If only we didn’t have such cramped quarters!

*******

Jack Griffin, Joe Jost and I decided to ply the nearby rivers with fly rods. Jack was using the Powell 5wt I inherited from my late uncle, George Cowan. George and my aunt Helen, known by her friends as Satch, were both instrumental in the Manhattan Project, and lived into their 90s. They had been instrumental in building the Santa Fe Opera House, and were world travelers. Then George, by then a widower, apparently died after losing his balance going down the steps into his wine cellar. My cousin, Nancy Burke, grabbed the rod for me because of my passion for fly fishing.9.16.20-montana29

Joe was using a St. Croix I had built, also a 5 wt. This left me with the 3 wt I had also wrapped. Incredibly the river we were closest to was the Blackfoot, one of the iconic Montana trout rivers. The Blackfoot was the river used as the backdrop in the movie “The River Runs Through It.” When I posted on social media, my former exchange student and fly fishing fanatic, Erlend Langbach, seemed to shed tears back home in Norway, and posted this message: “I am haunted by the waters.” Norman Maclean would have been proud!

As we traversed Montana into Idaho later in the week we would cross the Yellowstone and the Madison, and several places we scooted over the Missouri. The Blackfoot yielded two small rainbows, meaning I’ve caught trout in three states and still three countries … Norway (thanks to Erlend), New Zealand and the U.S.

*******

I was hesitant to say anything, for it appeared from my seat in the back of Jack’s Volkswagen that we had passed a painted but weathered stump. There seemed to be more peeking through the Montana woodlands so my eyes weren’t playing tricks. Jack broke our momentary silence by asking if I had seen the painted stumps.

“Larch trees,” he said. “A cousin of our tamarack trees. They were cut near the turn of the last century and people have painted them to commemorate their past.”9.16.20-montana59

Joe Jost, sitting shotgun, added.” Sap from the trees settled near the base, so when they tried to float them down the river the ends would sink. They wouldn’t float. They would cut a notch in the base about three feet up and insert a ‘spring board’ where the sawyers would stand to saw through the tree, some of which were six feet across. It might take them 10 to 15 minutes to saw through.”

Now those stumps, standing for more than 100 years, are painted as spirits of the forests, poking through the pines.

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The fellow at the fly shop gave us a elongated map showing the access points along the Blackfoot, and suggested we use hopper flies. He circled in pencil the accesses where we could walk along the bank since none of us had waders. Our first stop, noted by two mail boxes, one white and the other black, was the Scotty Brown Bridge. I would fish until my ankle pain proved to be too painful from the uneven terrain, and I climbed back up the bank to rest. I spent the next hour or so just sitting and looking at the scenery, listening to the sounds of the river below. Purer meditation likely doesn’t exist. For the first time in what seemed like years I felt a perfect peace, sitting there at the Scotty Brown Bridge.

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Our Friday was almost pure purgatory, a state of consciousness between the unknowns of heaven and hell. Mary was experiencing uneasiness because we were “freelancing” a possible destination which I described as “somewhere along the Snake River beside the Tetons” as well as both the elation and sadness of selling her home of more than 30 years back in Minnesota. My hopes was to meet old friends from Idaho at West Yellowstone for lunch on Saturday. We were nearly there and feeling tired of driving when I pulled into a private campground just short of West Yellowstone. The woman ahead of me got the last camper spot, and the proprietor suggested a quicker route to the Tetons was found by taking a highway about ten miles back up the road. Which we did … but not before passing Earthquake Lake with white weathered trees standing in sparkling blue waters for seemingly miles on end.9.16.20-montana62

“Ninety minutes, top,” he had said. A conversation I would play mentally for what felt like endless hours because 90 minutes later Google Maps indicated we were still ninety minutes from Jackson. Mary found a possible campsite at a state park some 20 miles off the highway, so we turned and started up a beautiful two lane paved road with the back of the Teton range to our right. We passed huge sweeping fields of grain being harvested, and valleys blessed with beautiful quaking Aspen … all before learning that the state park didn’t allow camping. We had at best spotty cell phone service, and seemingly finding any campground was impossible. Eventually we passed, did a quick turnaround, and pulled into a US Forest Service campground several miles down the highway. There were no sites available, the camp host told us, but we could make camp in an overflow meadow at the end of the road.

There we discovered we had no battery power, and there was no electrical hookup. We shared the meadow with two tent campers, a parked and humming  semi tractor and us with our battered camper. Both of us had hopes our day would end up heavenly, which would have played well with the metaphor. Our pillows were securely planted in purgatory!

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Ah, the Tetons! As much as meeting up with the Morris crew in Montana, and the unexpected thrill of fishing the Blackfoot, my personal intent was seeing the Tetons once again. We were turned away from the National Park byway, and had to return to Jackson and take the commercial highway. I wasn’t pleased, for the byway offered tremendous photographic opportunities. One of those images that would haunt me was late in the afternoon when the range would be in an evening blue and possibly reflected in the quiet waters of the Snake River.

Neither of us wished for another day of purgatory, so we remained positive and continued up the highway. We stopped for some bison, and for several views along the way. Then I saw the first “picnic pullout” and was intrigued. Picnicking isn’t something we do much of anymore as a society. When I was a child picnics were a big deal. Mom would prepare at least a day ahead of time, and our picnics usually included cold, fried chicken, crunchy vegetables and either cookies or one of her incredible pies. What happened? Fast food chains? Not enough free time? No “picnic pullouts?” Mom always brought a picnic blanket and placed the food in the middle of the blanket, and we sat on the edge making sure our feet were nowhere near touching the picnic blanket.9.16.20-montana86

Far up the valley, and perhaps only a few miles from leaving the Tetons and entering Yellowstone, we pulled into perhaps the last of the picnic pullouts. While Mary gathered the edibles I sat out our camping chairs, and we took our sweet time with our first picnic with the view of the northern most peak of the Tetons reflected in the lake. Mom would have appreciated the moment … the taking of a break, the view, and most of all, the sense of peace that was pure Zen like.

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Gaining a day offers both pleasure and regret. While I didn’t get my late afternoon picture of the Tetons, there was the goodness of being through Yellowstone and on the way home. Our stop: Wapiti, Wyoming, just short of Cody. Mary found a nice cabin in lieu of camping, for the lodge had no more camping sites available. We would rest in harmony within a log cabin, with the only downfall a yellow jacket sting on the lip. Who knew those bastards liked Cabernet?

We had a great overview of a bend of the Shoshone River, yet as equally fascinating was a ridge across the way that appeared to have three distinct geological eras showing. I wished to have Carrie Jennings at our side to translate, as she does so well.wyo copy

Years ago I read the interesting John Mcphee book, “Rising from the Plains,” where he traveled throughout Wyoming with geologist David Love and reported the dialog they shared along the way. Before we left Wapiti I was able to make some interesting images of the nearby mountain scapes, although I kept returning to the distant ridge and the three different “landforms.

After an overwrought breakfast that included a deep pile of scrambled eggs, two sausage patties along with two biscuits smothered in a rich sausage gravy, I kept stalling in hopes of photographing all three of those landforms with ample sunlight. Below us the Shoshone bubbled over fields of rounded river stones. My only downfall was the swollen, droopy lip, although the knowledge that I could eat without food falling from my mouth was welcomed. Then the sun came out!

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Our drive home was to be about 12 hours from Wapiti, not including the time zone change. Yes, we were a day ahead of where we might have been had we found an open spot in the Tetons. But we were basically limping home with a hurting camping trailer and a weariness that comes with too many long days on the highways. After an overnight in an Aberdeen motel noted for Covid cleanups, we were still two to three hours from the farm. Although we had seen hints of autumn in North Dakota, Montana and along the Snake in Wyoming, we were still taken back a bit. If those murmurations in North Dakota, and the birds congregating in trees and resting in the reservoir of the Montana state park hadn’t been fair warning, the ravines in the Coteau told us all we needed to know … the seasons were changing.9.16.20-montana90

Not far from the town limits of Summit we started passing the ravines of the Coteau where autumn was in full swing. Leaves were turning, which added to the hundreds of geese and duck we had seen in the wetlands and lakes along the highway near Webster. It was fair warning that fall was encroaching, and that those wonderful times afield might be coming to an end. We hold hopes of having a repaired camper by October, for we have a  dream of camping in Maplewood State Park before the real snows come.