Forgive me as I pay homage to the cloudy heavens now that another calendar page has been turned. As an artist friend recently told me, November skies are when the sky comes to cover earth. Indeed! How appropriate and descriptive, for it is a month of transition from the colorful hues in the leafy timbers of September and October, and before the serious darkness of the Winter Solstice settles in around us. Yes, these past days in November offered us some splendor in the skies.
Canadian singer K.D. Lang was thinking of November skies when she wrote: “The sky is an infinite movie to me. I never get tired of looking at what’s happening up there.” Nor do I.
Her comment so describes the heavenly show above us. Not just at sunrise or sunset, when many of us make artistic due thanks to the colorful dawning mornings and early evening light. For me afternoons are prime time for finding interesting clouds, those blankets that come to cover earth. A week or so ago while driving upriver from Montevideo I was just mesmerized by the ever changing shapes and colors of the clouds across the entire horizon with the sun barely, if ever, fully peeking through. Sunlight seemed to break through crevices and peek through cracks.
Yet, there was really no place offering a foreground or “centerpiece” to make an image complete, for I’m not a painter who can create with a brush and imagination. Depth, content and light must merge for me in “plein air” compositions.
Later in the week at our cabin on little Lake Linka the ever-changing light and clouds entertained me for hours on end. If someone had asked, “Whacha doing?” as I sat to seemingly staring off into the distant skies as if I was immersed in dark moments of despair and depression, I could have simply said, “Look! November skies!” I get lost in them.
This past November was a bonanza for sitting back and simply enjoying the heavenly beauty of those near, earth-hugging near-winter skies. Some were peaceful, while others brought a sense of ominousness. Some were gloomy, others colorful and some deep in calming pastels. One morning driving home from town a tubular stormish looking cloud laid across the sky like a strand of pearls; pearls of the necklace appearing as huge, bowling balls stretching from the Dakotas to who knows where. Since I was north of town a few miles when the clouds were at the height of massive awesomeness, I searched for a bit of prairie for a foreground while realizing had I seen the string early enough the Stony Creek valley just east of town on the state highway would have been perfect. It was not to be.
Clouds offer fleeting opportunities. Here one minute, vanished the next. A constant transformation. Which I was reminded of on that drive home from Montevideo, for there was a portion of the sky that was nearly straight out of a Van Gogh … and again, no prairie. Nothing but blackened plowed fields, never ending, miles upon miles of them. The same while driving north of town. Off a county road heading east I knew of a dog kennel surrounded by acres of beautiful golden prairie grasses, which is where I headed while my eyes darted from the skies to the nearby roadways for possible authorities, either the State Patrol or county sheriff. By the time I reached the kennel turnoff the “bowling ball” lineup had nearly dissipated yet maintained small hints of definition. That constant transformation! Down the road past the kennel’s long driveway was a nice wetland that gave me hope. And, I pulled over.
Should someone ask, “So, what’s with your aversion to crop fields? What’s wrong with plowed fields?” Those who know my work should know better than ask. My art is in trying to portray the remnants of the prairie pothole ecosystem, or biome, which is essentially adverse to most things mankind including plowed fields or fields ladened with commodity crops come summer. Those are for others with brush or lens, although I will admit to taking a photograph now and then of a flock of geese or deer in a stalk field – paying homage to Terry Redlin, perhaps.
So give me those golden grasses in field of prairie, the stilled waters of a wetland and bring forth some of those transforming clouds gracing the November skies. For I never tire of looking at what’s happening up there!
Time, it seems, has had it’s way with me for some of the details escape me. These past few days have been a mix of nostalgia and regret. Regret that due to this Covid-19 pandemic and the deaths of the last remaining aunts on my mother’s side of the family in the past couple of years that our annual jaunt to Missouri for Thanksgiving won’t happen this year. I thought we had gone last year, but I was reminded of the weather. Either on our end or their’s. So we didn’t go. Those are among the details escaping me.
Replacing the gathering back in my home country will instead be a Zoom trivia contest among family “teams,” one of which includes the expats, my son in Norway and a niece in Mexico. We’ll likely “zoom in” just to see the familiar faces. I’ll miss staying at my sister’s place, her glassed-in backyard solarium and walks in the nearby state park and the landlocked 20 acres of timberland as part of my inheritance.
While I loved the inherited timberland, there were a few points in my life when I thought it would be a perfect place to settle into at my now age. There was a lovely deep ravine that if damed would have made a lovely little lake surrounded by woods comprised of spindly shagbark hickory and mighty oaks. A guy with a bulldozer wasn’t sure that the right kind of clay needed to hold water was present. As beautiful as those trees were, we lacked an easement and we had no way of actually knowing if the reticent neighbor who owned the three sides abutting the land closest to the gravel road would have been willing to an agreement. Lawyer fees on top of the costs of bringing in “rural water” and electricity were too concerning, so those dreams died this year when the other neighbor abutting the fourth side of the woodlot bought it … which more than paid for our new camper trailer. We’ve already had more use from it than I’ve had from the woodland in all these years. Count your blessings!
We didn’t make many of the Thanksgiving trips back from Colorado, although that changed when we moved to Minnesota in 1982. The trip down was half as far as the trip from Denver, and the weather (for the most part) was usually less of a risk. One year a blizzard ended our trip south about an hour into it, and another time we were stranded in an Iowa motel on the way home. Then there was last year. The blizzard on either our end or their’s.
I’m reminded of traditions within traditions, and one that was turned over to me years ago was the oyster dressing (stuffing). Sometime in the late 1800s my grandmother’s family would send a gunny sack of fresh oysters by train from the Boston area … well, to be frank, from Salem. These would arrive shortly before Thanksgiving and were shucked and used in the Thanksgiving dressing before they spoiled. Sometime in the 1950s my mother took over the making of the dressing, and then later, in the 1990s, the “chore” became mine. When I make it for the second year here on our farm, the tradition continues into its third century, and perhaps for 140 or so years within our family.
Admittedly, I don’t make it like my dear mother, who measured ingredients by pinches and fistfuls, monitored by solely by taste with the tip of a spoon. Well, that last part hasn’t changed. It’s all in getting the right blend of cornbread, chunks of dried bread and appropriate spices, although the spices are rather simple. Ample amounts of sage (remember her fistfuls?), a bit of pepper and salt and ample melted butter. Just enough eggs to mold it into a soupy mixture before adding the canned oysters. Onions were always added … until I tempted tradition a few years ago to remove them so my sister and the husband of a cousin, once removed, could enjoy the fare.
My generation carried the old family tradition for several years even as moves from our old hometown began creating family separations. My adult cousins maintained a sense of “residence” while my aunts and their mothers charged on. Now they’re spreading out as well, and the “dinner” portion of the tradition was taken on by the daughter of one of my cousin’s daughters – the third generation to host the family gathering within my lifetime. These past two years the dinner was in Kansas City where the cousin-mother and daughter now live next door to one another. By now they might have even changed the menu to local KC-styled BBQ instead of the smoked and “straight” turkeys of our past. No one would have heard a discouraging word from me if this is the case. For you see, traditions are precarious and subject to change … or even come to an end.
My mother began some of those by ending our Christmas traditions back in the late 1970s or early 1980s when all of her adult children and their families crossed the country to come home. My older brother’s family, including his three sons, drove in from Virginia as did my sister and her husband from New Mexico. Our baby brother came up from Houston with his partner, and we crossed the plains from Colorado. It was a joyous affair, and my sister had hand-knitted sweaters for all her brothers. Her husband helped the nephews put together their put-together toys. We shared great laughs and a wonderful traditional dinner, including the oyster dressing. We didn’t realize at the time, though, that this would be our very last Christmas together as a family, and it also was the Christmas that inspired mother to tell us it was time for all of us to start our own individual traditions. The stress she felt until she knew we were all safely home was just too much, she said.
A few years after that Christmas our baby brother died of AIDs down in Houston, and my sister’s husband had a devastating “Monday morning heart attack” at work just before leaving on a business trip. I went through a divorce, remarried and moved to Minnesota to work as an editor for a publishing firm.
And, now, Covid. Social distancing and warnings from medical experts to dial down the gatherings. It now appears our extended family’s Thanksgiving tradition has moved from a lively shared, in-home reunion filled with an incredible array of food, Scrabble and joyous stories and laughter to an international and out-of-town Zoom. Cousin’s Brad’s smoked turkey and the pumpkin pies, the crock of creamy chicken-infused homemade noodles, Cousin Nancy’s homemade pumpkin pies ladled with heaps of whipped cream, and yes, the oyster dressing will perhaps be no more.
With one son in Norway, and another in a group home lockdown, it will be just the two of us here at Listening Stones Farm. We have our dark meat leg and thigh simmering over wild rice in the crockpot, and Mary baked a great pie. She has some traditional staples she’ crafting now in the kitchen, and I have the zesty ingredients for the oyster dressing set aside for I’ll be damned if that tradition dies! Seems there is no snow in the forecast, and we have a lovely November day outside, which as a dear friend claims as when the “sky comes to touch the earth.” We’re looking forward to a quiet and shared Thanksgiving, one of many I am hoping we’ll share for years to come. That, too, is hopefully a tradition worth sharing and saving!
Lately I’ve been wondering if Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pa and pioneers like him took a moment to appreciate the hidden and intricate beauty of the prairie before the cold and grayish drudgery of winter set in. Did they appreciate the grasses and wild flowers in summer, the murmurations of blackbirds so thick in the spring and fall they blackened the sky, or an Orchard Oriels pulling dabs of fluff from cattails abundantly common in the wetlands on a dewy June morning for their nests? Or, the artful beauty created by wind and ice come the beginning of winter.
Perhaps their focus was solely on surviving the thick hordes of summer mosquitoes and the need of warmth and basic survival above all else once the days became short and the temperatures way below freezing.
I was thinking of the Pa’s of the olden days recently when I caught the ethereal beauty now on display thanks to the art of ice; of how wind helps create such beauty in these last one percent of the surviving prairie potholes, or wetlands. Students of the prairie know full well that 99 percent of the wetlands are no more, ditched and tiled from existence, plowed over as part of a commodity crop coup by Pa’s generational descendants. Winter offers a special moment to catch this exhibit of nature’s natural beauty in the “canvases” of those remaining wetlands.
Experience tells me this natural art will eventually dissolve into drudgery, that all this beautiful magic, this “winter wonderland,” will soon fade into a chilly boredom of snowy sameness. Those powerful arms of burr oaks highlighted with fresh snow will blend into a jigsaw of darkened clustery shapes, those beautifully well hidden prairie poems written by the wind and penned by the tips of bent bluestem will be erased into a blur of colorless whiteness, and the wetlands will thicken into “hard water” sheets 18 to 24 inches thick.
Now is when this magical art is near us, yet after years of observations you’ll find that no two years, let alone even two days, are ever alike. This is an ever-changing exhibition in form and in light, in design and color. What is here today will likely be erased or “painted” over by the whims of nature’s brush. All we can do is observe and appreciate, day by day.
So let’s traipse along the edge of a wetland to scout along the reeds and cattails as the wind caresses the last of the algid waters to create small ice villages, exotic trapezoidal pyramids, or what might appear to be a flotilla of sailing ships set a sea in ancient times. Say the Swedish Navy in the 1500s. It’s just fine to allow your imagination to soar. Mine does.
Winds may create ice “knuckles” at the base of cattails that rise above a blueish liquidness of a yet to be frozen wetland, perhaps reflecting the ambient colors of either a sunrise or sunset, or that richness of late afternoon light. These icy toes may be misshapen, uniquely designed by wind direction and speed. A few years ago on a nearby wetland the wind shaped ice around waterborne stumps in a way they looked like Hershey’s candy kisses. Nearly the same color as the foil wrappings, though with stems dark and tall.
Similarly, there was an afternoon at another wetland when the tips of a willows were blown in such perfect wind circles they formed “teapots” nearly as perfect as if they were from clay molded by a master potter. As the wind continued to blow the pots skimmed the surface in concise circles, growing ever larger, millimeter by millimeter. The next day? Gone.
I once observed an early winter sunset along the edge of a wetland where intimate “sculptures” formed by wind and water captured the waning and colorful late afternoon light to offer magical ice and wind art that graced the prairie waters in a place far distanced from the hallowed halls of the Louvre. Pick your own art museum if you wish.
Recently an interesting geometrical design was left behind in a wetland surrounding an elevated glacial rock. So unembellished, yet so reminiscent of paintings found in a modern art gallery. Subtle in a natural minimalist design, awaiting the viewing of a prairie passerby.
In late afternoon drives during moments of “Monet light” these freeze/thaw cycles leave behind acres of art subjectively designed the whims of wind, designs abandoned and frozen in cursive detail in brief moments of time, colored by ambient light of a lowering sun, yet so fickle and vulnerable come the sunlight of another day.
Now, as we ease into a new winter … which for some, including myself, seems a might too early … this artistic display is now open for viewing. As an observer of nature, and in particular the prairie nature and wetlands around me, I’m finding this interesting and ever-changing beauty so fascinating.
I don’t know if Pa and the settlers like him, nor those in the Native nations before them, appreciated a similar beauty, for I’m sure that it was there as it is here now, and in those times this artful beauty would have been so much more prevalent with the thousands of wetlands surrounding them. I’m also painfully aware of what a special eye one might need when facing tragedy and survival in turbulent times just as we are as a species now trying to survive a deadly pandemic. I’ve no doubt that some did, that they stopped ever briefly to marvel at the nature around them.
Perhaps these observations are absolutely necessary in our time now, where even a moment spent near unmasked humanity could prove fatal. Maybe this is the escape I needed in this frightening world, places I can hide away ever briefly, to view and perhaps even photograph this ever-changing art of ice and wind found in what remains of the relatively few and rare surviving prairie potholes.
The wait begins. Perhaps bringing an end to these past few weeks of uneven sleep, unexplainable anger, the short temper and issues with focusing, and above all, the “doom scrolling.”
Yes, I’m guilty, for the doom scrolling is nearly as hypnotic as it is fruitless, and above all it’s overwhelmingly hard on the soul. Doom scrolling is fervent on the social media sites I frequent. Admittedly there are so many positives for the site that I am hesitant to leave. Just last week for my birthday I received nearly 300 greetings from friends from a dozen countries, and it’s the heart of the marketing efforts for my art. Yet I seemingly spend long moments of time, though not hours as some do, scrolling through the feeds that are full of doom and dread.
Television isn’t much of an escape, and never was for me. Political ads are mostly awful. My avid morning newspaper reading finds me skipping over some stories for I know our president will be quoted. Driving to town isn’t much of an escape for I see neighbors I feel I should trust flying Trump flags, and when I see one next to an American flag my blood pressure spikes.
So how do you escape? Henrietta Couillard, a therapist at The Family Partnership in Minneapolis, says, “Going to a calm place in your mind can help to ground you in more positive thinking.”
This what I’m needing, and what I seek. During our cold and windy days of the forthcoming winter here on the prairie I have found escape going through old image files when we’re not on a photo foray. Sometimes I will stop on an image to re-crop it, or work with the contrast. To somehow make it different. More appealing than the last time around. Doing so has helped me relive past trips afield. Then I would move on. Something revised, perhaps saved, wondering if any of it would ever see light beyond. For now, though, it is both an escape and a hope.
Both escape and hope were present when we went to a friend’s art opening over the weekend. Beautiful plein air watercolors from her travels around the world. Everyone was masked making it difficult for me to engage in conversations, for over these past seven or eight months I’ve learned that lip reading is a significant tool for my understanding conversations. Often I would be away from the small clustered conversations, engaging instead in Joan Eisenreich’s paintings. Seeing those colors, so bright, so hopeful.
Then it returns. This dread and doom, this gloomy existence. I was raised in a democracy. Yet over the past several years we’ve watched as what was at once an honorable conservative party create innumerable ways of suppressing voters of their democratic voices. Political pundits suggest that a fair and democratic polling process would end their reign at the White House and in the Senate. That is apparently their fear. And it doesn’t stop. Less than a week from our election day a federal court overturned an agreement reached during the summer between both parties. Two of the three justices ruled that ballots received after 8 p.m. on the election day wouldn’t be counted even if postmarked on November 3. Understand that in their fear they’ve also packed the courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
The day prior to the art opening news came of several pickup trucks surrounding a Biden/Harris campaign bus between San Antonio and Austin, which according to numerous reports attempted to push it off the road. Their fearful efforts were applauded by the president. He also blessed efforts in other areas of the country where road blocks to balloting sites were blocked by his supporters. Voters standing in line have been pepper sprayed and harassed. Armed terrorists have been recruited by the president’s son and others to patrol what they call “rough areas.” Do you need a translation? Placing armed white guys outside polling sites in non-white areas. Intimidation. Arming to create fear. We’ve become a Third World country.
Let’s be blunt: this political party is so thoroughly convinced that victory is near impossible without these various voter harassment and suppression efforts. In retrospect I think of post-WWI Germany and the rise of Hitler, of Cuba with Castro, and more recently of Sarajevo, a multicultural city where residents seemingly lived in such peaceful harmony it was paraded as near Utopian when the Olympics were held there. Then came the rise of a Serbian takeover that turned neighbors against neighbors, friends against friends, and family against family. Sound familiar? Is this happening here, with us, in what until four years ago was a beacon of democracy worldwide before our current president, his party and his cultish followers have turned into an international joke, and a fearful one at that.
Thankfully I have friends who are more positive and hopeful than me. Over the weekend Sara Wolbert was helping her partner track down a deer he had shot when they came across a dead eagle … our national symbol of strength and she offered a possible metaphor: “Even in times of uncertainty, there are opportunities to find strength. I’ve heard that some apex predators transition when the world needs their help.”
Seeing hope within a deceased eagle, which by the way is en route to a Native nation.
So, the wait begins. I’m nervous as are most of the people I know including my friend, Allison Maraillet. She, a child of the prairie, married a Frenchman and lived in France for years before they recently moved to be near their daughter in Quebec. This weekend she shared this quote from Napolean: “Je ne peux vivre sans champagne, en cas de victoire, je le mérite; en cas de défaite, j’en ai besoin.”
Translated: “I can’t live without champagne, in case of victory, I deserve it; in case of defeat, I need it.” So we wait with the tremendous hope that we’ll deserve it!
While we couldn’t determine if the road was paved, or even if it was an official one, we followed the single snow packed lane along the edge of the marshy, 22,000 acre Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in a slow and deliberate search for a Whooping Crane sighting. This was before we met the wobbling, jogging skunk that provided an unexpected flair and perhaps a metaphor for our latest Whooping Crane pilgrimage. This all began thanks to a report of a pair of the rare and beautiful birds being spotted at the Refuge last Saturday afternoon.
Just past a farm house adjacent to our winding and rather desolate road, a pickup was threading its way toward us from the opposite direction. “This ought to be interesting,” said Mary, since the road was barely wide enough for one car. We edged as close to the marsh as safely possible to wait. As the truck drew alongside the driver’s window lowered. It was the Refuge manager, a friendly and helpful fellow.
“Oh, yes,” he said when we told him of our venture. “A pair was spotted yesterday afternoon down by the Wilke’s farm, just past one-seventeen. Best to head back to 10, then take the county road south that goes past the park entrance. Probably the way you came.”
Our hopes were buoyed significantly since we had threaded past an interesting ecosystem and saw several bird species along the way. Then, just around the corner and up the road we met the skunk in the middle of the road. On our narrow, snowpacked road. One car width wide with deep snow and icy marshland on either side. That’s how it is with Whooping Crane fever. There are adventures you simple don’t expect and can’t anticipate.
Yet, these birds are so rare, so majestic and beautiful that when there is even a remote possibility of seeing one we seemingly cannot help ourselves. Whooping Cranes are among Mary’s birding passions, right up there with poetic murmurations! I discovered her passion a few years ago when we stopped across from a distant stalk field alongside the North Platte River near Wood River, NE, during the annual spring Sandhill Crane migration. Amidst the hundreds of Sandhills landing and leaving the flat, stalky field was a “blob” of white observers with much higher binocular resolution than ours claimed was a Whooping Crane. She could hardly keep her eyes off the blob, and her excitement was contagious.
About 18 months later, as we were making plans for what has become our annual southern mid-winter road trip, Mary discovered a Whooping Crane launch out of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Rockport, TX. On the launch we were actually quite close and personal with a pair of Whoopers on a remote island on the edge of the brackish Refuge. The boat captain claimed to be both shocked and amazed we could actually be so close, and told us how blessed we were for such a unique experience. Indeed, more fuel for the fever!
Then came a report of the sighting last Saturday just a little more than two hours to the west! Since the Sand Lake NWR office was closed due to the pandemic, we couldn’t verify the sighting beforehand. According to the updated reports on the Refuge website the previous Tuesday, though, five Whooping Cranes had been spotted. A strong possibility existed … if they hadn’t already flown. A report posted two days later listed no Whooping Cranes although “approximately 50,000 ducks were observed on the Refuge yesterday, consisting mostly of Northern Shovelers, Green-winged Teal, and Mallards”, along with several thousand White Fronted Geese.
Our debate of “shoulds” and “should we nots” continued until early Sunday morning due to the weather. We awoke to a misty, gloomy grayish morning more attuned to prevailing coastal climates. Our mist, though, was intermittently snowy and icy, decidedly different than a warn trade wind coastal mist. Ominous weather is a deterrent at our age. “Should we drive through this?” we asked ourselves. Around mid-morning we’d decided and quickly sliced ham for sandwiches, collected our binoculars, camera gear and off we went. The fever had won us over.
Digital mapping offered three distinct routes, and we gambled on taking the highway straight out of Sisseton along the northern South Dakota border. Just past Browns Valley the gloomy mist began giving way to a more open sky, and west of Sisseton a yawning patch of blue sky opened to the northwest. Somewhere between there and Houghton the sun broke through. Beautifully. It was now up to the Whooping Cranes. And the ranger had given us hope.
Then we met up with the skunk, which turned to “jog” ahead of us up a tread track in the snowy road. He wouldn’t budge, hugging the road while stopping occasionally to turn and look at us, before lumbering off again. Slowly for us, though likely heart thumping for the striped, Mephitidae mammal. We were a couple miles south of 10 and wondered if we would have to follow the stinky beast all the way to Houghton. About a half mile (and a half hour) later it cut across to the other track, and we eventually found a spot wide barely enough to quickly squeeze by … without being sprayed. Which we did. Successfully! Then we were off to Highway 10 and the Wilkes’ farm, which was noted with a huge yard sign.
Doggedly we searched, on both sides of the highway, and I even gave a thought of heading up the Wilke’s driveway … which Mary forbade. We saw numerous though not thousands of ducks, a handful of Bald Eagles, a swooping Falcon and even a couple of Wilson’s Snipes that dipped and swooped too quickly for my aging focusing abilities. Though no Whooping Cranes. We took our picnic lunch while gazing through the windshield at the interesting marshy meadows before giving it another try, driving slowly up the county road past the Wilke’s driveway to 117. We took that road cutting across the Refuge and over a bridge and caught another Eagle sighting before turning around and heading back out the road.
We took a different route home, past Webster and Waubay … both noted for their immense migrations of Snow Geese come spring. Such is life with Whooper fever. We escaped our “four walls” along with what appeared to be a long, gray and gloomy day. One that would have passed ever so slowly with the NFL and political ads (infinitum). The blue skies and sunshine were indeed awakening, yet soothing for the soul. Adding to that, sometimes it comes down to a hopeful sighting, a delightful windshield picnic and following a wobbling skunk down a snowy, one path gravel road.