via Lemonade Girl
Over the years emerging prairie naturalist Nicole Zempel has become the “lemonade girl.” Allow me to explain … using her own observations and writing.
Early last summer Zempel invited me into one of her sanctuaries. Surrounded by craggy gneiss and granite outcroppings, this was a mix of wood and prairie along a bend of the Minnesota River. It’s a stretch of the river the two of us have paddled past numerous times, although I had not entered the adjacent countryside until her invitation. Columbines, grasping nooks of the outcrops, and other forbs were in full bloom. Some in wood, others in grass. Along the course of our foray we were quick to point out our respective observations.
“Ever snap a picture of something and come to realize you are looking at yourself?” she asked. Ah, the enlightenment and wonder. The quirky laugh. The shared visions.
A few years ago Zempel ventured into the wooded prairie similar to this behind a house she had purchased. “In the woods I am fully present – absorbing the sights and sounds. My thoughts fixed only in the moment – not beyond or behind. The woods show me freedom,” she writes, then later adds, “Fear is a beast and robs us of what could very well be our most valued and rich life experiences. As with anything, the more we surround ourselves with and learn about the things (we think) we fear – we tend to fear less. Some of the most important moments in my life have happened outside of my comfort zone.”
Zempel and I first met nearly 20 years ago when she was hired as a personal assistant of a non-profit entrepreneurial organization when I was on its board. We’ve been friends since, helping one another through various personal triumphs and turmoils. We have shared the prairie and woods, paddled many of the area rivers along with opening our souls over glasses of wine. She has an incredible ability and talent to make lemonade out of battery acid; to see silver linings in the darkest of situations.
“Through out my childhood and into my twenties I carried within me an overwhelming sense I can only describe as not being at peace. Eventually this became debilitating. Today, we in the west call this anxiety and depression. These are the blanket terms we use to describe the sensations of a mind not yet still. I have often wondered if a more fitting diagnosis might be something like ‘affliction brought on by society,’” she wrote in her blog, Wild Roots MN.
Initially I was surprised when she “took to the woods” for she seemed to love and absorb a rich social life. She was often the life of the party, and there are dozens of “Nicole Moments” her friends still share. Eight years ago she purchased her house on the edge of Granite Falls that nestled against a native prairie and woodland. “My life expanded the instant that I ventured into the remnant swath of prairie land just beyond my backyard,” she wrote. “It was just a few years ago when I took my first well intended step onto the land that has never known the destruction of the plow or the intrusive, often misguided hand of man. How it has remained spared from development – I do not know. Save for patches of invasive buckthorn and other changes brought about by time – it is as it was.”
She adds, “It’s a magical place just out my back door.”
What has transpired since has been both fun and amazing. She has discovered a talent for writing — simply, poetically and descriptively, and her photography with just her cell phone has already graced the walls for exhibitions. She says it started with the prairie.
“Even as a young girl I always had an eye and was quick to see things in nature before my dad or brother on our road trips along the river. Then I literally and figuratively went into the woods for a few years. When I decided to emerge I found I had discovered another world that I wanted to share with others,” she said. Zempel entered this mysterious world with guide books, and perhaps more importantly, with wonder. That wonder has opened an incredibly diverse world for all who know her.
She writes: “When we glimpse beyond the description in a book – we begin to see and share in a more intimate relationship with our surroundings. For instance, I’m 5 ‘ 2” and a half inches tall. I have sandy blond hair, blue eyes and weigh around 123 pounds … on a good day. Does this description encapsulate me as a living being? Not even close? Why should it be any different with plants?”
Nicole was writing of her thoughts on an obscure and lone wild onion plant she had come across in her prairie. What was this plant’s history? How did it evolve right there in the little piece of unplowed land? Was it a remnant of past generations? “The spiritually charged lands of the prairie are powerfully magical,” she concluded.
From the prairie she discovered fungi and “slime mold” — all among the many wonders offered in wood and prairie, and not just in what we call the “good months.” She suggested that if you crave a little color during the winter, then head to the woods. “Sometimes winter helps us to see what is right in front of us. The unseen becomes seen.”
Like many, her mushrooming began with morels, then she discovered an expanded universe of fungi, some so small they exist in a crevice of gnarly bark. All those many mushrooms, along with the non-mushroomy slime molds and lichens … minute details that takes both observation and wonder to discover. Those mushrooms have created from her wonder and delight numerous adventures in cuisines, amazing photographs, spore prints and other art, all of which has led to gallery hangings and numerous presentations. “When things feel dark, use it. Never stop creating!” Lemonade!
Zempel says she entered the woods seeing leafy canopies. “Not any more. For reasons unexplained, in this stillness there is a heightening of the senses. Ones ability to hear seems amplified. The scurrying of a squirrel can easily be mistaken for some forest giant, the snapping of a stick will let you know that you have company, you will hear the winged motion of an eagle flying just overhead,” she wrote. “Allow nature to play you a tune … your soul will lead.”
She writes of the eagles she sees, and of the increasingly mysteries of, well, slime mold. Mushrooms are a constant wonder. She was once stopped by a spider web seen in dewy prairie grasses … “once you do you take notice of their web weaving art.”
Then this: “The bald eagle reminds us of the long view. The tree, sturdy and strong, reminds us to allow the long view to delight upon us. The river reminds us of the last of which has passed and all that is yet to come.”
Often times the author of this wonderfully written and illustrated blog, Wild Roots MN., more closely resembles Aldo Leopold than of another fellow who went off into the woods for self-discovery, Henry David Thoreau, and she readily admits being influenced by Minnesota naturalist and writer, the late Sigrid Olson.
“In these quiet moments I wonder… who once walked right here? Did that person lay in the tall grasses and watch the clouds too? I close my eyes and I imagine the land – not as a remnant swath – but stretching as far as the eye can see. A time I’ve never known,” she writes, then adds, “Any day in the woods is a good day, but some are more exciting than others. I can think of few things in this life that bring me greater joy than a walk through the woods with the warmth of the sun at my back.”
Ah, just as sweet and aromatic as lemonade.
All we could see was a singular small white blob of white seemingly meshing in the middle of the “liquid” mass of brownish, grayish sandhill cranes. We were among a growing yet revolving group of birders pulled off on the shoulder along the paved highway south of the Crane Trust headquarters near Wood River, NE, and most, like us, had binoculars and long camera lenses trained on that small patch of white.
Small? Yes, for to the naked eye the white “spot” was roughly the size of a rounded head of a sewing pin. Through our binoculars or my 600 mm lens, the patch was about the size of a pencil eraser. Though surrounded by literally thousands of sandhills, coming and going, it was this one whooping crane that seemed to hold the most interest. This was especially true for my traveling companion, Mary Gafkjen.
Fortunately this wasn’t my first sighting of a whooping crane. Years ago an organic farmer friend who I had featured in a story for Money Magazine loaded me into his pickup to drive to the edge of a dry gulch on his San Luis Valley (CO) farm. Our goal was to sneak up on the sandhill cranes he had noticed in one of his fallow fields. “Don’t slam the door, and once we’re in the ditch it’s all hand signals,” warned Greg. “They’re really jumpy.”
The gulch was sandy, so we could creep along rather quietly toward the field, and after about a quarter mile through the canopy of overhanging cottonwood limbs, Greg signaled that we should lay against the edge to peek over the gulch bank. The sounds of the cranes were voluminous and rich, and there were hundreds of sandhills milling around. Much to our shocked surprise (and later celebration) was a singular whooping crane strutting around right in the middle of the flock. It stood out from the rest in both color and size. This was in the 1970s when whoopers were much closer to extinction then than now.
Whooping cranes are still incredibly rare. In the 1930s, due to hunting and habitat loss, the numbers were estimated in the 20s. When Greg and I saw the one in Colorado the estimate was about 70. Thanks to some innovative efforts that included adoptive incubation in sandhill nests, among other ideas, the numbers now range between 500 to 750 birds. However, their wintering in the coastal marshes of Texas, Louisiana and Florida are subject to hurricanes and other threats, including rising tidal waters due to global warming. A number were killed when Hurricane Harvey, with 132 mph winds, hit their Mustang Island wintering home within the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Hurricanes are still a major threat.
Back in December when we were talking about a midwinter road trip, Mary discovered the Aransas Refuge online, learning of their wintering area along the Gulf Coast of Texas near the small town of Rockport. Further research found a boating expedition into the depths of the Refuge specifically for birdwatchers. This meant those on board might have an excellent opportunity to possibly see whooping cranes up close on Mustang Island. We quickly booked a pair of seats on the launch as well as an Airbnb in Rockport.
In his introduction prior to pushing off for the three hour boat trip, the captain (who was also a naturalist) said there was an excellent chance of seeing whooping cranes, along with a vast number of other birds on the launch. He warned us, though, that we would likely be just close enough to the whooping cranes that they would appear the size of his small fingernail. “They’re now in pairs, and quite shy. We’ll try to be as quiet and inconspicuous as possible,” he said. “We should have them here in the Refuge for another couple of months before they migrate northward. Tagging shows that most of those we see will migrate to Canada.”
Along the way and into the islands numerous bird species were pointed out by both the captain and sharp-eyed birders on board. I would mark several off my mental birder list including an oyster catcher. There were curlews and ibises, and terns and gulls — all too numerous to remember. Herons and other waders, too. Then we reached the first of the many islands of the Refuge, and it wasn’t long before the first sighting of a whooper pair was made. They were slightly closer than the singular one we had seen in Nebraska. Then came the surprise, and such incredible luck.
A pair were just off shore, slowly ambling along the potholes and brackish vegetation less than 100 yards distant. He slid the boat into the muck and cut the engine, making loud whispering descriptions of what we were witnessing. Using my 600 mm I was able to get some very nice closeup images of the birds as they ambled past us, stabbing at morsels at the edges of the pockets of water.
Once they had passed, he started the engine and slowly backed us out off the mud bank to move on further up toward the end of the island. Amazingly, the pair continued coming along, seemingly paying no attention to we onlookers until there was no island left. They stopped and turned toward us, appearing to chat between themselves. They might have been 35 yards away. As the birds communicated, I pulled back on my focal length, for I sensed they were about to fly. Then suddenly, in a heartbeat, they lifted into the sky and were gone.
As they circled away, our boat captain said in a full voice filled with wonder, “We were very, very lucky. It’s quite rare ever being this close to a pair. This was just incredible.” He took off his cap and smiled before starting the engine to back off the muck. As he did so those with cameras began looking through their digital images. Mary even had some good images on her cell phone, which indicates how close we had come. What a rare and special experience.
Unfortunately, with such low numbers, whooping cranes continue to face any number of threats as efforts continue to introduce them to new and different habitats such as fresh water rice areas further inland.
In a Bird Watching Magazine article by Matt Mendenhall, Wade Harrell, the whooping crane recovery coordinator at the Aransas refuge said, “Things could get tight in terms of habitat available on the coast. I would say that’s a rather conservative model in that our assumption behind it is that (the birds) continue to just use coastal marsh habitat. Historically, that’s really the only thing that we can model on going forward. But if we look at some of our other reintroduced populations, we see them using a wider variety of habitat types, including agricultural habitats. (For example,) the Louisiana birds are using rice agriculture pretty heavily.
“The best-case scenario is not only will they use coastal marsh but that they will spread into other habitat types farther inland. We’ve seen a little bit of that during drought periods.” During a recent drought, he noted, many cranes spent several months at Granger Lake in central Texas, showing that the birds can winter at a freshwater reservoir. “So, they certainly have a capacity and capability to use other types of habitats. It’s just a matter of will they as their population pushes beyond the marsh?”
What they face along the coastal marshes in terms of rising seas and possible hurricanes are not the only threats, he added. “I’m not complacent to the fact that we have great dangers with sea-level rise, with the threat of contamination from an industrial accident and from the tar sands developments in Alberta, which are just south of Wood Buffalo National Park, with hundreds of acres of poisoned lakes created by the effluent that the cranes could land in and that the fragile arctic ecosystem could be screwed up by.”
So, yes, the bird numbers have risen from near certain extinction to still under 1,000 birds — a rare species still on the edge of extinction. Our opportunity to not only see them in person, but to see them so close was a memory for life. We were quite blessed for this was indeed a rare and special experience.
It was one of those chillingly cold windy days in February, and I hadn’t been in Minnesota for much more than a month. A group of us from Webb Publishing had migrated after work to a St. Paul watering hole where some of us joined a table where one of the writers was sitting with a young man, who she introduced by adding that he had recently moved from Russia.
“Oh, where in Russia?” I asked.
“Actually Siberia,” he said.
“Siberia?” Having had recently read a couple of Alexander Solzhenitsyn books, where he so painstakingly described the cold, nearly unbearably harsh Siberian climate, led me to ask: “So how does our weather compare to Solzhenitsyn’s descriptions of Siberia?” It was meant as a joke.
“Man, it’s the same thing,” he said. “The same climate. This is Siberia … in America.”
Once again winter is upon us, and a recent road trip through the South made me realize just how interesting it can be here in the former prairie pothole region - here in our very own Siberian outback, if you will. Deep in snow and, for the past few days, fog. Our soils are not bare like in the southern states where we traveled. We’re not surrounded by grayness, brownness or whatever color portrays their winter.
Ours is white. Snow came around Thanksgiving and is still here. We made it home from our road trip by sliding between storm fronts, and we’ve seemingly been in some sort of white winter since. This morning I awoke to a fog. Again. The fourth or fifth day running. Fog in winter translates to hoarfrost, which gives our trees and countryside a magical beauty.
Winter is the one season some folks seemingly despise. Even those who live here. Sometimes I’m one of the crowd. Most other times I’m not. If asked between Christmas and New Years a year ago, when the bird feeder tree not 40 feet from my office window was the extent of visible earth for all but one day of the seven, or six days of blizzard conditions, I most certainly was one of the crowd. Admittedly that was a rather rare circumstance.
Which brings me to what the Norwegians call “koselig,” translated as a sense of winter coziness. Years ago I visited a dear friend in Tromso, a small city located in the fjord country above the Arctic Circle. My goal was to photograph the Northern Lights, which by the end of the week had appeared for all of 15 minutes just after midnight in the middle of my stay! There were some sleepless nights waiting for a clearing. Yet, much of what I witnessed in that week of February was between being amused and amazed. At that point there were just a few hours of “sunlight.” During the “day” the sky was in a lightened, pre-dusk aura, with the sun occasionally peeking on the horizon far to the south. Peeking as our sun does here in a sunrise or sunset. Yet, people were out on the sidewalks, talking and sharing animated smiles and laughter. Few were seen huddled over to ward away the chill or supposed depression. It was not what you see in many northern U.S. cities, if you see anyone at all!
One morning we rode a cable car up a mountainside to Sherpatrappa, a beautiful park on top of the mountain overlooking the Tromso bay. The wind was howling, blowing snow to a near whiteout at times, yet the park was crowded by those who were exploring and being playfully active. Yet, as my friend, Hawre, told me recently, “You make Tromso seem like a Disney something. It sure is beautiful here but we do complain. Some of us even get depressed during the Polar Night.”
Beyond the occasional reindeer and soccer-crazed “Laps” Hawre introduced me to, there was still a sense of winter comfort in Tromso. Life was going along completely normal which led to my amusement. This is a somewhat uncommon feeling here on our little piece of prairie.
For me, horizontal, windblown snow, icy roads and the long, whiteout days are the hard times of winter. Snow that drifts down quietly from the heavens, though, seems rather magical and peaceful. One night back in 1969 on a bluff-edge sidewalk overlooking downtown Dubuque, IA, a friend and I watched the snow drift silently over the streets and harbor, glistening like minature Christmas lights in the street light cones below, a moment so spectacular and peaceful that we stopped for several moments to take it all in.
I can feel the same magic here in a forest or prairie. Like when starkly darkened oak limbs are covered with fresh snow, which if you’ll free your imagination might remind you of a royal sword salute at Buckingham Palace. Now in a hoarfrost everything appears as sweet as if sprinkled with powdered sugar. In my upper prairie the tall stems of big bluestem that was well over my head a few months ago are now pinned gracefully to the ground, glistening from the hoarfrost.
So, yes, there is some magic in our version of Siberia … once you free your imagination.
We each have our sense of wintertime cosiness, our koselig. Or, perhaps what the Danish call their hygge. There was much to amuse us on our road trip beyond visits with friends and family. Some beautiful nature, and the continued witness to climates so foreign to us in a north country winter. Now back home we can appreciate and find comfort in what is ours, a prairie and nearby woodlands alive with the magical beauty of winter!
You realize just how fortunate you are when you can consider Great Blue Herons as a bonus. And, yes, this is what happened on a recent trip to Rockport, TX, with fiancée, Mary Gafkjen. Our goal was to be up close and personal with Whooping Cranes, which came together better than even the captain and guide of our birder launch could have anticipated. The Herons happened next, and totally by chance.
After our launch and lunch we stopped at an artist’s studio where we both became intrigued by a painting class that was in session. On the wall, though, was an halting painting of Great Blues rising above an interesting mass of treetops. I couldn’t escape the beauty.
“That,” said the artist, “was my interpretation of the rookery down by the bay.”
“Near here?” I asked excitedly.
“Yep, and the Herons are here now,” she said, and promptly gave us directions to the rookery.
That’s where we headed next, our first of several visits over the course of a couple of days, including sunsets and sunrises. Great Blues lend themselves to the muse and imagination of artists in nearly every culture. Interestingly, about a week later we would be in my brother’s family room/porch in Richmond, VA, where he had a large framed print of the iconic John James Audubon painting of a Great Blue. Yes, the classic, the same one engraved on the wooden greeting sign at his Oakley House outside of St. Francisville, LA. It was there years ago that we learned that Audubon’s painting were typically portraits of dead birds, and yes, this one appears to have a flattened wingspan common to one laid out upon a table.
One of my favorite paintings was by local artist Deb Bates Larson that she displayed at a Meander years ago. She eventually had a clothe bag made for me bearing the painting. There are so many, including the one by the Rockport artist. Although I have photographed Great Blues in the past, I have yearned to join the crowd. To have images kissed by moody light. The Rockport Rookery would give me an opportunity.
So it began, starting along the beach of the bay using a long lens and simply sitting there watching. We returned a few hours later in the late afternoon light, when the bay had calmed. First I focused on the apex of the canopy, then on a solitary bird wading in the brackish backwater with pairs of fly fishers in waders. We had interesting cloud cover, although the sun was setting much further south of the rookery. Oh, but that light!
Herons were flying in from different directions, and flying off the dense canopy seemingly at will. There were no desperate measures. Simply walking around looking for different angles and imagery, watching for incoming birds and watching the light. This as unlike the rookies dotting the Minnesota River where the birds are shy and jittery. Here they paid no attention to nearby human activity. It was wholly different ecology.
At these times your mind plays on memories. Of the Great Blues I’ve photographed rising from the cattails of our nearby Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, or one of my favorite of a Great Blue about to land on an old bridging peer in the flooded backwaters outside the boundary. Or the one that steadfastly refused to leave a wooden dock on Camp Lake as I paddled by in my canoe while fly fishing for bass one early morning.
I thought, too, of my late wife, who ignored the typical greetings of spring, that of the bouncing Robins in the lawn. For Sharon Yedo White’s spring began with her first sightings of a Great Blue rising from a prairie wetland, or one she had seen gracefully crossing the sky. In a way, I agreed. Spring or not, I am soothed by their grace and spindly stature, of their colors. That little black hood feather that wavers poetically in the wind.
Now in the depths of winter, I guess I too wish a first sighting of a Great Blue rising from the wetland over the rise of my Listening Stones Farm, with warm memories of a recent Texas afternoon and sunrise morning.
It’s not like we haven’t had our fair share of rain. And here we were once again, though this recent rain was hardly a downpour. More of a steady rain a little beyond a drizzle. It was of long duration, though, and if it had been a blizzard, since an inch of rain calculates to 13 or so inches of snow, we would still be digging out from about 20 inches of the white stuff. Since this was midsummer, there were no worries.
About halfway through my reading of the online morning newspaper I noticed the rain clouding the window screens. Outside, diamond-like sparkles of drops were calling … clinging to the leaves of the prairie grasses. Not far away is the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, and within the huge prairie meadow of an “island” in the middle of the three-mile motor loop is an impressive bloom of countless native flowers including a recent full bloom of Purple Coneflowers. My thought of finding one adorned with rainy jewels was enough to get me up, out and through the door.
Having such anticipation is often a curse, for you visualize an image and in many instances set yourself up for disappointment. As a photojournalist you learn to go with the flow, looking closely for images and react accordingly to the circumstances. These thoughts actually crossed my mind as I drove toward the Refuge dressed as if I were going kayaking … since I thoroughly dislike actual rain gear. So, yes, a splash shirt, swimming shorts and sandals.
There was enough beauty in the meadow to cause me to pause several times along the way. The spiky yellow Mullein was in full bloom. The tall plants rose from the outcrops like hands raised in an attentive classroom. Rainwater clung to the blossoms defying gravity, adding a diamond-like luster to the beautiful blossoms. The plant is not native, brought across the ocean in the 1700s. Yet the Native Americans found early medicinal uses for the plant, making a tea that helped suppress coughing, reduced the affects of diarrhea, and when smoked, was a stimulant for the lungs. The soft leaves were used as lamp wicks, toilet paper and even placed inside shoes for warmth and softness. It’s said Romans dipped the dried stalks into tallow to use them for torches, giving light to the night. Legend has it that similar torches were also used to ward away witches in olden times. Me? Fodder for a rainy day photo subject.
Further along the trail the bloom in the island meadow was both wide and deep with a richnesses of colors. Yellows. Purples. Blues. No matter which way I looked there was something to catch the eye, glistening with sparkling wetness. Rain droplets trickled off prairie grasses and flowery petals. It seemed that every few feet I would stop, hop from the car and seek a new image. As an added bonus, towering above the flowers were the first “turkey-foot” shoots of Big Bluestem. August was near!
So much visual poetry is hidden deep in the grasses, sparkling as if a jeweler had slung a tray of diamonds over the prairiescape. I enjoy most using a long focal length lens and using it to nose around and through the most delicate nooks of nature. This was a day when sauntering through the prairie offered so much to the eye. Thankfully there was no need to lay in the soaking wetness to find imagery, although I did kneel numerous times for different angles. Regardless, I was soaked to the skin, and happily so.
All of this and I was still a mile or so away from my intended subject. This was one of those numerous times I praised the invent of digital photography, for if I were shooting and developing film I would have gone broke long before reaching the Coneflowers. And, for the record, they were a disappointment … well past the bloom.
In every direction the tips of the silken, spindly blossoms had browned, and many appeared completely dried and shriveled. So you make do, and in the dampness there was still beauty. The natural grayness from the rain seemed to add a solemness to the meadow, perhaps even suggesting a requiem to the end of a season … as another awaited. As the Coneflower season edged stage right toward the curtain, perhaps the stage was open for the Big Bluestem, where even the slightest breeze gives rise to a grassy ocean of waves, of fork-shaped dancers etching the skies like weightless ballerinas. Whatever season is entering makes so little difference, for the prairie is ever evolving and in constant change. Actors come, and actors go, from Pasque Flowers to the last of a milkweed fluff, clinging tenuously to a browning pod as in the yield of an autumn wind.
For this one morning, in this soft and gentle rain, the prairie was rich in greenness and vivid colors. Even if we’ve had our share of moisture, capturing all the senses of this particular rain made one feel prosperous and sated, from that classic smell of rain to the muted sounds of the droplets hitting the leaves all around you, and of course, the colors … all those colors in the spectrum of pastel softness.