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.

A Fog of Make Believe

Let’s make believe that these year-beginning days of fog were like a theatre play featuring our new year with the stage curtains closed. Undrawn, closing off our view as far as one can see; mere feet in some cases, a curtain of grayness extending to places unseen. As Jaimal Yogis writes in his book of self discovery, “Saltwater Buddha,” “There is this sly strip of fog ­— water in it’s most mystical incarnation — slithering over, around, and through the hills, making everything look ancient and unsolved.”

So on the opening morning of the new year, and the day after, and now trice again in a week, long after the sparks and cinders have faded and cooled from New Year’s fireworks, we have faced an almost metaphorical and mystical beginning of 2021. Fog that made everything seem ancient and unsolved, unlike this bookended year we’ve hopefully parted from. This sad and seemingly unending tale.

Hoarfrost glittering like a queen’s crown with the lifting of the fog …

A year filled with a deadly pandemic and political unrest, with true-life scenes and scenarios in our very own White House and capitol, scenes not unlike what Peter Sellers’ character faced in his Inspector Clouseau films. What seemed so funny in film fiction didn’t translate so well in real life, not with the egging on of bigotry and political unrest caused by hardcore, home-grown terrorists bearing weapons intended for human carnage and encouraged by the president; not with a completely mishandled pandemic that continue to costs us more lives per day than died in 9/11 and now numbering nearly 400,000; not with lock-downs, masking and a complete social shutdown for the covid conscious. Not with all the attacks on our environment; those oil leases on previously federally protected lands among other autocracies and the sale of National Park lands.

Our past year was both terrifying and life changing. As a society and as a country we’re anticipating a curtain being drawn to life more seemingly “normal,” although we have no knowledge of how our new normal may look, of how the new story will unfold. That is all behind the undrawn curtain; behind the fog of our metaphor. As our fog eases in over us perhaps in the lifting we will ease into more settled and compassionate times.

Poetic “personalities” of individual trees rise from lifting …

As the curtain is slowly drawn the lighting begins giving mystical joy to this metaphorical stage, for in our temperate part of the country, with below freezing temperatures accompanying this dense and impenetrable grayness, we find a magical hoarfrost coating every inch of fog-touched surfaces, coatings of star-shaped beautiful icy clusters. On trees and prairie grasses, coating every twig and blade as if dusted by a fog fairy. Edgy at a glance, though comforting in a glossy beauty.

All of which begs for a journey within the ancient and unsolved, where those stark heavy branches of oaks and cottonwoods are suddenly jeweled, where the nuded bulbs of solitary cone flowers glisten as if donning a queen’s crown, where leaves of big bluestem curl poetically within the depths of a prairie, dotted perfectly with frost as surely as they’re coated with poetic drops of dew in a summer sunrise. All magical and mysterious moments.

A bluestem prairie all aglitter thanks to the hoarfrost …

Sometimes just inside this curtain a solitary tree allows it’s unique personality to show, one that is too often blended into a woodland or hillside much like a beautiful woman blends into a dance floor crowd. By itself its trunk and limbs become silhouetted and solitary, a wood-thick personality often stark and challenged in symmetry. As the curtain eases further open it blends into a grove or cluster of trees, as the curly blades of bluestem does in a sea of browned and crusty outlined prairie grasses. All offering a widening visual world beauty now seen as if for the first time. 

Curled leaves of big bluestem dotted with frost …

As the sun begins the eventual burning away to slowly draw further open the curtain, this shortened visible world grows wider around us, becoming ever more slowly revealed. Initially a fog forces us to focus on the near, for there is no afar. We trust it exists beyond the curtain, and as it is slowly unveiled we maybe see our world differently than we had before. 

Finally, and with gradual aplomb, a hazy light begins to peek through the gray … a hazy stage light beginning as a softened, unfocused circular globe before easing into a more focused yellow richness. As we lay back to look straight above us, this grayness yields to deeper tinges of blue, a canopy of space undefined in the broadest of senses. 

A savanna glistens as the world widens with the lifting of the foggy curtain …

Rarely does this curtain remain closed for long, perhaps until midday as Carl Sandburg’s iconic cat starts rising on silent haunches before moving on. 

As this metaphorical curtain spreads open we wish this “moving on” bring us greater joy; an ability to see one another unencumbered with chaos and distrust. Will those crystallized out-linings fit for a queen allow each of us to evoke more warmth from what we know is both numbing and cold? 

Though a fog blankets us with a mundane gray we must still seek beauty, for it is there. In our world. Our familiar world, that which is ancient and unsolved, yet beauty that is ever widening in the unveiling. 

Could Have Been Worse

Twenty twenty. Covid and a comet, masks and what those folks in Grand Marais call “staying a moose apart” caused many of us to seek safety among those who stubbornly refused to call Covid little more than a hoax. And, in the end, it perhaps surpassed 1968 as the most eventful year of my lifetime. And, it could have been worse!

We’re now just a few weeks from having new sheets on the beds of the White House, a change which will hopefully bring some semblance of peace, compassion and calm from the past four years. With it, too, perhaps an end of this deadly pandemic that is now costing us more people per day just in the United States than who died in 9/11. 

Despite the precautions and worry, we still had an eventful and full year. Our highlight was that within our circles of friends no one has died from Covid-19. We discovered, as did many, Zoom “Happy Hours.” With summer came “driveway” gatherings. Bonfires at the lake. Mary’s sister, Trish, a retired nurse, devised a plan where servers for our “potlucks” divided portions into per couple servings, a strategy we carried with us on our multi-couple “caravan” gathering at a Montana state park in September. By then I had “traded” a 20 acre, land-locked piece of timber for a R-Pod camper trailer that Mary and I used for trips to state parks in Minnesota as well as on our trip to the “Big Sky.” 

Art-wise, I had a single exhibit at the Marshall Fine Arts gallery. No Meander, nothing much at all.  This didn’t stop the “creating” for both of us, thankfully, and what had become an annual pilgrimage to the Lake Bemidji Lake State Park in search of the Dragon’s Mouth orchid finally paid off. Rather than being too early or too late, we actually found and photographed three of them. 

Our nature visits were godsend. Not just in the bogs. We had some splendid moments in the prairie as well. For about a week we made repeated visits to a couple of “melt” potholes where a huge flock of snow and blue geese had stopped for rest and refreshments. We made it to the Johanna Lake Esker at different times, and walked both our prairie here and the Griffin land near Lake Linka. The nearby Big Stone Lake State Park and the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge were visited regularly. We also journeyed to the Gunflint Lodge for a Northern Lights event that didn’t happen, with a highlight of watching a wolf chomping on sunflower seeds well after midnight that we had dropped just outside our window for the birds.

All those trips, and especially the two major ones ­— to Montana in September and our pre-pandemic Texas through Virginia journey in January — were really the highlights personally and photographically. We had just begun the rehab following Mary’s knee replacement when the pandemic lock-down began. Here is my annual “display” of some of my works for the year. Here’s to a more normal new year: 

Whooping Cranes on a remote island at Aranas National Wildlife Refuge, Rockport, TX.
Sumac and aspen, near Spicer.
White Egret at the Grotto in Fergus Falls.
Ah, my Dragon’s Mouth Orchid peeking through the foliage at Bemidji Lake State Park bog.
Sometimes one gets lucky. A starling caught near my feeder tree in a moonrise.
Sunset through cottonwood.
Soft Showys near Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge.
The comet!
Dove … through the trees here during a smokey sunset.
Grace in Autumn.
Fog over a wetland.
Sunrise at Glacial Lakes State Park.
Beautiful buck at Big Stone Lake State Park.
My annual Winter Solstice image on a nearby wetland … in the shades of Charlie Beck!

Gray Christmas, Continued

Yesterday I posted a blog titled, Gray Christmas, which focused on the windblown dirt particles that were deposited after the big blizzard. Many of my friends responded with photographs of their own from all over the West Central area of the Minnesota Prairie. From the roadsides to their places in towns. Some wrote to say they’ve never witnessed a worse snirt storm … that combination of snow and dirt … in their memory.

We each have our individual experiences, and I can date back to being so fed up with such poor care of precious farm land back in 2014 that I made a series of photographs that became my “Art of Erosion” series that was exhibited at numerous venues and was part of a traveling Smithsonian water exhibit.

Not much has changed since, and every winter since I could have replicated the photographs from six winters ago. Then on Christmas day Mary and I took the dogs for a stroll through our prairie, then later the woodlot, and there was hardly a square meter of clean snow. It was gray from wind blown soil from somewhere. This led to my blog on Gray Christmas, and since readers from all over the prairie had sent pictures they’ve taken. So far we have images from Big Stone, Chippewa, Stevens, Kandiyohi, Pope, Renville, Lac qui Parle, Yellow Medicine and Lyon Counties. Photos were taken along roadsides as well as in towns, and includes what was previously a white kitten!

Although I’ve included some of the original photos, here is a more complete gallery:

From a farm site in Kandiyohi County, a white cat dirtied by blown dirt … dirtied snow is visible behind the cat.
While we’re in Kandiyohi County, a yard and highway shoulder smothered in snirt.
A Stevens County organic farm may have barely been spared a wind-blown compromise, for the dirt may possibly be contaminated by pesticides and other farm chemicals that would have ruined the farm’s certification.
A fenced pasture on the right side of the fence line and the Pomme De Terre River below are inundated with blown dirt in Stevens County just a few miles south of Morris.
It was hardly surprising that a recently converted glacial moraine to cropland in Pope County exhibited the affects of blown dirt.
A roadside view from a car window in Chippewa County …
A farm site where the buildings and piled snow were covered with snirt …
Stairs of a Clara City home is covered with dirt ..
This lawn of a rural Clara City organic farmer, with no tilled acreage, is literally covered in snirt …
In Renville County …
An in-town window in Olivia …
A roadside near Dawson in Lac qui Parle County …
A country lawn west of Clarkfield in Yellow Medicine County …
And, from Lyon County near Ghent …
A front porch seating area on a farm near Murdock in Swift County …
Shadows and snirt from our prairie here on Listening Stones Farm in Big Stone County.

There are many more, but perhaps the point is made. Poor farming practices throughout the prairie region leave soils susceptible to being blown … land that is laid bare by tillage practices in late October and November, and left bare until spring planting some seven to nine months later. What’s to go wrong?

As one of the correspondents, Tom Kalahar, a retired technician for the Soil and Water Conservation Service, wrote, “So much for a white Christmas in corn country. $50 billion the last few years in farm subsidies should buy us a better environment. Hard to support an industry that seems not to care enough to protect our soil and water.”

That about sums it up.

A ‘Gray’ Christmas

Many of us living in the temperate zone dream of having a White Christmas. Crooners have given voice to Irving Berlin’s “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas …” lyrics on nearly every holiday album for several decades across two centuries, from Bing Crosby and Perry Como to the Surfers, Bob Marley and even Lady Gaga. 

Thanks to the “weather gods” we were all set up for having our iconic white Christmas thanks to a blizzard that blew through the prairie two days before our celebration for the “birthday child.” It was to be our first snow since early October. The horizontal snow came with 40 to 50 mph winds, though, cutting across millions of acres of croplands bared to the skies since early November. And that snow for our “white Christmases” acted just like fingerprints at a crime scene … showing us in stark detail the ills of deep and dangerous farming practices. Yes, Virginia, dirt lifts into the heavens even without the snow, for the snow only shows us the devil in the details.

A Christmas wreath in Swift County, MN, covered with grit!

Here on our Listening Stone Farm prairie, evidence of blown dirt was visible throughout in both our restored grassed prairie and in the grove despite the effort of the farmer across the road who planted one of the extremely rare fields of cover crops over his harvested soybean field back in September. We know this fine sheen of black dirt didn’t come from him, yet from whom? Ah, ha! That’s the mystery, and opens a curtain to an old prairie tale that says, “It’s really no big deal if ‘dirt’ blows around. Because it will just end up in someone else’s fields and make their land better.”

How’s this for a friendly front porch setting … in Swift County, MN.

Tell that to all the historical civilizations that are no more because of eroded and blown dirt! Have you ever seen a picture where relics of past civilizations have been uncovered by several deep feet of dirt? Ever wondered where that might have come from? 

In September this was a barren soybean field the farmer then planted to a cover crop to keep his soil in place.

So, we were certainly not alone. On a day when you would expect pictures of smiling families filling the feeds of Facebook we had pictures of people in other prairie localities sadly posting pictures of dirty snow. No, not yellow snow, but grayed snow. Dirt covered snow. We first noticed it going to town the day after the blizzard just down the road. Said one farmer over in Chippewa County, “It’s hard to say our farm is organic when the neighbors send us their dirt.” Their yard on Christmas morning was simply blanketed with windblown dirt.

Dirt blown in Big Stone County, MN, sometimes offers interesting patterns of what is popularly known as “snirt.”

Which is hardly surprising, actually, for if one were to travel from Milan to Willmar on County Road 40, those 41 miles are almost completely laid bare by fall tillage practices. If you take State Highway 7 from Hutchinson to Dawson you would be hard pressed to see a single field like the one across the road. It’s all bare, mile after mile after mile. If you take Highway 12 east out of Ortonville, you won’t pass a single tilled field protected with a winter cover crop to Benson, nor from Benson to Willmar, then from Willmar to the Twin Cities. Let’s choose another route … say from Clinton to Glenwood on Highway 28. Same story. Or, from (pick a town) say, Wheaton south on the King of Highways, U.S. 75, down to Blue Mounds State Park, itself a “grassland oasis” surrounded by plowed fields, the fields all black and barren. So, let’s go east a bit to Highway 71, from Sauk Centre to the Iowa border … it all looks the same, thousands upon thousands of acres of plowed fields that are left open to blow from November until the next crop is high enough to protect the soils. For most, this comes in June. That’s nearly a full term for the birth of a baby.

This was the lawn of a Chippewa County organic farmer on Christmas morning.

It’s not just dirt, either. As a friend who lives in the middle of this “black desert” west of Clarkfield, says, “Unfortunately, the ‘new’ soil particles that cover our entire place is most likely laced with glyphosate.”  The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified glyphosate as “probably” carcinogenic to humans, and it is blamed for non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Another farmer who focuses on growing organic barley for the brewing industry, lamented, “We have ugly gray snow all around. A snowy dust bowl!”

A wind “poem” on my Listening Stones Farm prairie … accented by a layer of gray grit!

A retired Soil and Water Conservation Service technician in Renville County, Thomas Kalahar, wrote, “So much for a white Christmas in corn country. $50 billion the last few years in farm subsidies should buy us a better environment. Hard to support an industry that seems not to care enough to protect our soil and water.” Later he added, “Cover crops would eliminate it. Depending on the percentage of residue left, minimum tillage would lesson the erosion. But we keep paying them so why should they change? We get the landscape we are paying for! We demand nothing in return for our generous subsidies. So it comes down to us.”

Shared from a friend who lives west of Clarkfield in Yellow Medicine County, MN.

David. R. Montgomery, in his frightening book called, “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations,” wrote: “Projecting past practices into the future offers a recipe for failure. We need a new agricultural model, a new farming philosophy. We need another agricultural revolution. Unlike the first farmer-hunter gatherers who could move

around when their soil was used up, a global civilization cannot.”

This is where we’re at after celebrating a Gray Christmas, accepting whether we wish it or not, gifts of grit from our nearby neighbors. Several years ago I put together a series of images for my “Art of Erosion” exhibitions, a series I could repeat year after year. Montgomery, as well as a vast number of other scientists and authors, have long warned us of the frightening ills of these farming practices. It doesn’t have to be this way, for there are ways to avoid losing soils to the winds ­— as inexpensive as simply not plowing down the corn stalks to using cover crops, as my neighbor has across the road.

And in Renville County, MN, this is a roadway on Christmas morning … a scene that could be shown on any number of country highways. So, are you counting? These images were all taken on Christmas morning in Big Stone, Swift, Chippewa, Yellow Medicine and Renville Counties, pretty much the heart of prairieland farming.

A few years back in an interview with Redwood County farmer, Grant Breitkreutz, he spoke of his trepidation of planting his first cover crops before realizing the benefits far exceeded saving his soil from wind erosion. He had better water retention, that worked wonders for his crops later in the summer. He reduced his use of chemicals and realized increased tilth and soil health. “We have eliminated erosion and improved water infiltration, which means we now keep the water where it’s supposed to be,” he said. “What could be better than that?”

Not just the water, but also saving the soil … while bringing an end to gray Christmases like we just experienced. And what could be better than that?  

The Scent of Christmas

I’ve a love affair that has survived for seven decades. And I have a hint on how it all began. This love has manifested itself in curious ways, and each time it does so with the same sense that leads to fully dedicated sales counters in the best of boutiques and fancy stores. Meaning, the perfume counter fortified by finely dressed women armed with small, delicate sample bottles designed through various engineered methods to emit just enough scent to convince the buyer of the amorous love promised by the whiffs within.

My loved scent certainly lacked the promise of amorous love. It has affected me much differently, and has carried me through the building of numerous Adirondack chairs, 18 canoes and a couple of tables; a scent that also helps line haughty closets and the most desirable wooden saunas. Confused? No need to be, for I speak, of course, of scent of cedar. Like the young woman in the ridiculous car ad, “I love it!” 

My hint dates back to my childhood when on our farm in the wooded hills of Northeastern Missouri we would choose, then saw what we hoped was a perfect Eastern Red Cedar for our Christmas tree, and how later, once squeezed through the door and clamped into the red holder with the green legs, the scent of the small tree would suddenly fill the rooms for a few weeks of magic.

It took awhile, and a bit of driving, but I finally found a cedar tree around here that would pass the family test!

Of course, I feel deeply in love!

Cedars were our choice of trees for Christmas, and frankly, we knew no other. My town friends had oddly looking trees bearing little if any such scent, and I wondered how they could possibly miss such an aromatic sense on a beautiful holiday season. Just recently I surprised to learn that most of the evergreen trees sold at Christmas are actually harvested in the heat of the summer and placed in storage until it’s time to go to market. Which means like potatoes, peanuts and an amazing array of other items, these tress are obviously preserved with a smörgåsbord of chemicals to keep them “fresh.” This offers a fair possibility of why when we bought a tree for Christmas when my own children were small I would suddenly develop a “Christmas cold!”

Looking back over the years, though, there wasn’t much about those trees, regardless of species, that brought a tear of memory or a smile of joy. They were just, well, trees. Our cedar trees back home offered a real scent rather than some faint Pine-sol smell that was likely sprayed onto the trees to mask the preservatives. 

Nowadays, due perhaps to the warming climate, our idled lands along the unfarmed hillsides around here are being invaded by these same Eastern Red Cedars, and, indeed, they are quite invasive. Those lovely hills around the outcrops of the Minnesota River from Granite Falls on downriver seem inundated with hundreds of the invasive Red Cedars per acre. This led to some pretty heavy eradication efforts over the years, which has been somewhat successful. We’re now seeing more and more of the same invasion around here, and yes, some are very tall and mature, meaning they have been here for awhile.

Many of the cedars had been feasted on by deer in our immediate neighborhood, meaning a decorated step ladder might have been a better choice!

In our neck of the former prairie you would be hard pressed to find one worthy of display for the deer have rendered most helplessly too ugly for a Christmas tree harvest. The very tops may have survived the munching though not the heart of the tree. 

We didn’t see the same affect back home. For us back on the farm it wasn’t unique to make note of Christmas tree possibilities throughout the year while doing chores and farm work. Among the criteria was having a well rounded confirmation, meaning there were no “holes” in the girth of the tree. A perfect cedar rarely existed. If a portion of the tree did have a “hole,” that part would be turned to the wall and away from view. 

Indeed, there was some debate and conversation shortly after Thanksgiving on which of the trees we’d noted to cut. Each of us seemed to have the perfect find. A hay or feed wagon was hooked to a tractor along with a saw on a Saturday morning and off we would go tree hunting until one passed consensus. Besides confirmation a perfect tree couldn’t be too tall nor too wide to push through the door, though those accommodations were often addressed on the front porch. 

A good pounding was alway necessary to shake off dead needles before the tree was hoisted into the wagon and would be repeated just outside the door for good measure before the tree made an inside appearance. Sometimes that sufficed, although most times it seemed that the squeeze through would fill a dustpan at least once. 

While the outcrops and hills down river are inundated with the invasive Eastern Red Cedar, there are signs that the warming climate has created an opening further north.

Once the right height was reached, which meant taking the tree back outside at least once or twice, causing more needle drop, the tree was then “screwed” into place by the three screws in the stand and stood in place. Hopefully it stood straight without cause for further adjustment. By then the cedar scent would be filling the air as we stood in admiration and typically proclaimed this was our most beautiful tree ever. Then the decorating would begin, which as the years rolled by, typically fell to my now late brother and sister. 

We were not unique, for over the years of putting together a story for Christmas for the various newspapers I’ve learned there were many alternatives used for the celebration. In the High Plains ancestors of the original settlers used sage brush or tumble weeds. Locales offered different ideas and concepts such as artistically stacked branches, wall hangings, chalked drawings and even decorated step ladders. Santa apparently didn’t care whether it was cedar or chalk, stacked branches or even the step ladder, for Christmas didn’t always center around the commercial fir, spruce or pine trees.

This is more typical of the invasive Eastern Red Cedar on a nearby hillside.

Our last Christmas together for my parents and siblings was in the late 1970s and we once again found a beautiful small cedar to decorate my parent’s old farm house. This was in the midst of the Mother Earth News era, and we made garlands of cranberries and popped popcorn which my nephews, then in grade school, seemed to love stringing. Yes, they had driven in from Virginia, as did my brother and his partner from Houston, my sister and her husband from New Mexico, and us from Colorado. A few years later my brother would die of AIDs, and my brother-in-law would suffer a “Monday morning heart attack.” 

Yet that one Christmas, my last with a cut cedar, was full of joy and love, with family cheer and laughter and my mother laying out a beautiful spread of her traditional food … all fully accented by a scent I’ve carried with me for all these years  — that unmistakable scent of cedar. That Christmas cedar!