Good Timing

Call it maturing, or perhaps a sign of graying, for among the “life” things I’ve discovered is that it is more fruitful if not more relaxing to solve the world’s problems in the bow of a canoe rather than on a bar stool.

More evidence of that realization came Sunday while mixing a little catfishing with canoeing and bird watching on the Minnesota River with long-time friend, Tom Cherveny. Although our put-in at Kinney’s Landing south of Granite Falls was somewhat delayed with a misplaced tackle box, once we were on the river life and conversation seemed to ease right along with the natural flow of the passing waters.

Who could ask for more? Well, a stringer of catfish didn’t seem to hurt, either.

Although we weren’t serenaded by the continual blasts of Canadian geese, which is a somewhat common sound of the early trips on prairie rivers within the vast Mississippi Flyway, we had ample bird life to admire. Especially wonderful was watching the spiraling glides of the recently returned white pelicans high above us. Belted kingfishers traversed between riverbank perches, and an occasional eagle added interest to the paddle.
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We skipped from deadfall to deadfall, anchoring in the deeper holes, dropping weighted and baited offerings to the depths of the muddy waters. One of the highlights of river fishing is not knowing until a hooked fish breaks water alongside the canoe just what you might have on the line. Besides the tasty catfish, we also brought into the canoe several carp of various sizes, buffalo and freshwater drum. “We should smoke these,” we kept telling one another before releasing them back into the river.

Our trip just happened to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1997 flood, when waters kissed the treetops we were paddling beneath. Since I was busy doing stories and occasionally helping with sandbagging efforts on Hawk Creek, a tributary upriver of the Minnesota, Tom was covering the efforts in Granite Falls. As we passed the former Firefly Casino grounds, he explained the efforts the native Dakota went through to secure their homes and businesses.

We talked of subsequent trips we had made that spring after the flood waters had receded, of pointing out to others the rafts of grasses still entangled high in the treetops; of how canoers, especially exchange students, would look up at the high tufts then back down to the river, mentally measuring the differences of depth.

Oh, the subsequent trips. We have typically done a paddle not long after ice out. This year it was the first Sunday of March. We talked of fishing on that trip since a young friend had told me he had been catching channel cats all winter long due to the rivers being open.

Earlier trips are often referenced on our paddles. One I’ll never forget was several year ago when I took my kayak and Tom paddled with his son, Eric. The Minnesota was particularly high that day with a massive and dangerous  backup of waters from the Granite Falls dam … for several miles back upriver. I’ve never been so frightened. Not before, nor since. The river was a mass of spinning whirlpools, and my only motive was to paddle from one whirlpool to the next without spilling, keeping the bow headed as straight downriver as possible. A misplaced paddle causing a flip in that churning water would have been disastrous.
Another early season trip was more fun, one in which we recorded both photographical and written reports on the state of the official DNR Minnesota River designated camping sites from north of Montevideo down to Frederickson’s, an island just above our pull-out on Sunday. At the first, which was overgrown in buckthorn and a fire-pit mounded with siltation, we found the skeleton of a deer that we surmised had hidden from a hunter only to die of wounds within a “fort” of buckthorn. I retrieved the skull that hangs here in my office. Between Churchill Dam on the Lac qui Parle Lake down to Morton there are five such designated riverine campsites, at least two found on remote islands. Our reports were logged before the 50 year anniversary of the making of the campsites so crews could do the cleanups and necessary refurbishing.

Not unlike the barstool conversations, our conversation treaded on politics, issues that created the incredible siltation of the river, chiding while offering encouragement of a catch, pointing out wildlife and bird sightings to one another, and so on. As we neared our take out we passed the third such campsite, then pulled between two deadfall for our final dunking of worms. As we waited rain began to fall. Off to the west came the intermittent roar of thunder.
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“Looks like we have good timing,” said Tom.

We caught a few more fish, and watched the skies. Finally we reeled in and padded a few hundred yards to the take out. Moments after we were out of the canoe and on dry land, lightning suddenly broke through the clouds just above us. It was still better than a bar stool.

Bliss in a Blind

Yesterday I was thinking about Tuesdays, which for a long number of years were “headache” days. Tuesdays were deadline days of my country weekly for 20 plus years. Tuesdays nights were city council meetings. Before that Tuesdays were years of nights on the road when the excitement of yet another business trip had waned and Friday seemed so far away from flying home. Lest I not forget, for a few years Tuesdays were men’s bowling league nights, a sport I tolerated because of friendships, cold beer and an occasional strike.
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So where was I this past Tuesday? Cocooned inside my pop-up “outhouse” photography blind on the edge of a wetland in the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge listening to the first of the spring peepers, watching an industrious muskrat working a raft of cattails, waiting for ducks to not just fly in, but edge closer to within camera range. Perhaps most of all, simply enjoying an intermittent warm breeze on a sunny afternoon as small, puffy clouds floated by on a palette of deep, blue spring sky.

There I sat with two unzipped windows facing the south and west as the sun made a slow passage toward the horizon enjoying both the solitude and my peaceful existence. Time for deep, unlabored breathing. Time for reflection. Time for nothing but waiting and watching. Time on a breezy and sunny afternoon.
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An occasional car would venture slowly around the bends of the auto tour road doing as I’ve done dozens of times myself since moving here. Windshield observations, and most of the time serving as a “movable blind” with the camera at hand.

At the distant southern edge of the wetland was where it seemed the ducks congregated, and as I’ve seen from behind the windshield, as soon as a car approached all pushed frantically away from the road or burst away in flight. Once in the air they flew west away from the road before turning back to fly high overhead toward the dammed backwaters of the Minnesota River, only to circle back and glide back into the same pool moments after the car had eased safely away. Time after time. A cheap mystery solved.
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Time made me wonder if my camouflaged blind was too tall, or too visible, or if the pool in front of me was too shallow. Often when placed in the woods it takes a long half hour or so before the sounds of nature begin to fully return; when squirrels and woodland birds ease fully back into nearby branches. Was it the same here at the wetland? And if so, how long would it take? In the hours that passed, little changed. Those ducks stayed beyond camera range. Refuge employee Jason Ballard had told me that putting up the blind was fine as long as it came down by the end of the day, or that I could do what others had done … create a hiding space within what nature offered on site.

Then an interesting moment came. Off in the distance came the sound of motorcycles. That broken muffler sound common to Harley’s. Due to the location of the wetland, in the valley below Highways 7 and 75, traffic noise for the louder vehicles melded with the peepers, especially that from the random motorcycle and semi. This was steadier and easing closer. As the sound neared, many of the ducks and a pair of geese rose from the waters in flight. Then suddenly two motorcycles appeared over the rise, moving slowly. One with a hard rock radio station blaring. One of the riders then shouted loudly to the others, “Isn’t it great being in nature?”
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Ironically, most of the nature had flown away before they motored into view, although I’m sure the ride through the Refuge was blissfully beautiful on such a lovely Tuesday afternoon. To each our own.

A runner with his dog jogged along the distant roadside before passing behind me about ten minutes later. Earlier, not long after I had set up, a young woman on roller blades swish-swished by. I’d passed her as she was starting off from the parking lot just outside the entrance gate and was amazed in both the distance she had covered as well as the speed in which she had done it. Interestingly, the distant ducks simply skirted further from the roadside when both the roller blader and runner passed by. Observations on a breezy and sunny afternoon.

To break those occasional moments of monotony I raised the camera to take photos of the ducks flying over on those frequent escapes, or the shimmering sun-fed glaze of the pool in contrast to the silhouetted swamp grasses. I had watched a distant eagle float in invisible towers of air currents over the distant native prairie. Then there was my buddy, the muskrat, who wasn’t shy about his frustration and disgust in not being able to climb aboard the floating mass of cattails right in front of the blind. Oblivious to my being there, it has swam and dived around in front of the blind for much of the afternoon.
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My initial plan was to sit until sunset, which would have been another couple of hours longer. Then, as I focused on another flock of ducks, wings spread in descent, lowering toward the distant waters, my camera battery died. Suddenly I was as frustrated as the muskrat. With a final deep breath, I stood to fold the blind and make my way back to the car. All told, though, it was a beautiful afternoon. An incredible Tuesday afternoon.

A time for reflection. A time for nothing but waiting and watching. Time spent on a breezy and sunny afternoon.

March Madness

One of the joys of living is learning from others their personal signs of Spring. Seems as if robin sightings are high among the signals of this refreshing break from the holds of winter, as evidenced at a St. Patrick’s Party last night, even if climate change has convinced these beautiful orange-breasted yard hoppers to stick around for most of the winter.

Everyone seems to have their own sighs of relief signaling the change of seasons. My late wife, Sharon, kept her eyes on the few wetlands of Chippewa County in search of great blue herons. When asked why herons, she said, “Because when they’re here it’s usually warm.”
Many of us also search the wetlands for redwing blackbirds, for they usually start perching on the area cattails in early March. They’re traditionally one of the first migrating arrivals, soon followed by the graceful flying Forster’s terns, which I spied for the first time this year on the wetland ice this morning. Courtships of wild turkey?

Birds are not the only hints given by nature. An appearance of pasque flowers is a signal of seasonal change for many. Pasque flowers are also called “mayflowers” by many, although they begin peaking out on the prairie hillsides much earlier. Even as early as March. Ramps peeking from the leafy carpets excites some, although the asparagus in the road ditches comes later … a sight viewed by some as a true sign of spring. How about morels? Dutchman’s britches? We’re all different, and have our own signals of change.

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Ah, but come March! Sports tournaments aside, nature’s March “Madness” is quite apparent in the countryside right now. Open rivers are corridors of multiple geese species and ducks that crowd the ridge ice along the banks. For years my friend, Tom Cherveny, and I canoed down the Minnesota River from Wegdahl to Granite Falls on the first weekend after ice out, usually in March. This year he made the trip in mid-February with another friend, Scott Tedrick, although Tom and I hooked up the first weekend of March on a 70 degree Sunday afternoon for a paddle down the Chippewa River and its confluence with the Minnesota. Again, we shared the river with squawking geese and ducks, with surprised deer running along the banks just ahead of us, and numerous eagles soaring aloft in the rising air currents.

On these trips we usually recall a trip we made several years ago, the year Sharon and I hosted Jinyoung Hwang of South Korea, which was also the virgin paddle on the river for Scott, a young writer then new to the area. We pushed off from Wegdahl in the early afternoon, and the trees lining the river were full of song of birds. Their chirping and songs were nearly deafening. Because of the high water we actually paddled across a field of native prairie to avoid the traffic sounds of nearby State Highway 7, and encountered hundreds of geese and ducks. We came around a bend down river where three mature bald eagles perched in a tree suddenly swept from the branches just yards in front of our canoes to take flight. “Wow!” screamed Jinyoung.
Wow, indeed. I cannot recall ever being closer to an eagle, and witnessing the vast wing spans as they glided off the branches was something you can’t easily forget. Count eagle migrations as another sign of seasonal change.

Scott surmised that this was a normal paddle on the river, and that he had come across an incredible slice of unexpected natural beauty. True, although the bird life on that paddle had not been equaled in our previous spring paddles, nor since. This was truly an special and actual moment of March Madness.

Here in the age old Prairie Pothole biome of western Minnesota, we often point to the near poetic choreography of the murmurations of redwings and other black bird species, or the skeins of geese venturing from the lakes, wetlands and Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge to feed in the untilled stalk fields. Spring is indeed a renewal of life in the natural world around us, and comes in many forms. It seems much of the awakening comes in the month of March. All of which brings a smile onto the faces of old men and women, for we have survived another grayish winter and so appreciate a reawakening of the natural world around us whether by wing or blossom.

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Truly, this is a March Madness that is so welcomed.

Ah, Autumn!

Walking into the kitchen after a road trip to pick up pork at Pastures of Plenty for our local Granary Food Co-op reminded me of another prime reason for loving this time of year. Rebecca’s roaster of tomatoes and other vegetables were simmering down to make her signature Smoked Eggplant Tomato Sauce. So intoxicating! So autumn!

Sumac shines in the early morning sun just down the road, one of the sure signs of autumn..

Sumac shines in the early morning sun just down the road, one of the sure signs of autumn..

Actually, just smoking the eggplant felt autumn-y in itself … although a couple of racks of ribs might have been even more appealing if not satisfying, with that curling scent of bluish apple wood smoke drifting away from the chimney. We are seasonal eaters, with exception of what we don’t can or freeze, so apple wood has become a staple. As have apples, the prime fall fruit along the wooded river hills around here. Cider. Apple sauce. Apple butter. Pork simmering in a curry with tart apple chunks. Ah, the joys of autumn!

Driving up the Lake Road this afternoon offered numerous signs of the changing of the season. Even in our yard, which isn’t all that close to water, the leaves are losing their chlorophyll, meaning of course, their greenness. We are a few weeks from the peak, yet when I sat on our listening bench in the loop of our grove last Saturday a constant sprinkle of crinkly leaves rained down around me. Although we are hundreds of miles from real woods, there was the smell of a fall even in the grove timber. A crispness. A crinkling, dry feeling. With sunlight filtering down through the canopy. Then, unexpectedly, a wren … small, nervously alert, and beautifully brown, like those dried leaves … flitted onto a nearby branch. Ah, autumn.

The little wren popped up amidst the sprinkling of leaves in the grove.

The little wren popped up amidst the sprinkling of leaves in the grove.

On the prairies around us big bluestem and Indian grass are browning, and those clubbish, naked seed heads of cone flowers defy the prairie winds that give the grasses their freedom of beauty. Golden rod is starkly peeking through the brown. You will likely not find a better time to stroll through a grassy prairie, wading through this dance of autumn as a staunch breeze batters you from the side. I wish I could hear better, to perhaps hear the subtle rustle of the blowing grasses.

Cone flower seed heads stand out from the browning prairie grasses.

Cone flower seed heads stand out from the browning prairie grasses.

Just above the grasses you’ll still see a few dragonflies, although those sweeping, acrobatic swallows have departed. Last year their leaving was much more dramatic. I had been working in my wood shop, which is in the former goat barn of the previous owners, and the swallows had been after me all morning. Buzzing in and out, sometimes swooping within inches of me above the saws and the router in their daring-do. That afternoon the barn was abnormally and noticeably quiet before the sudden realization that the swallows were gone. In a heartbeat, perhaps, the signal had passed among them that it was time to go. To migrate, that great innate passage and mystery science is still trying to unlock.

Golden Rod peeking through the big bluestem on a recent pre-dawn morning.

Golden Rod peeking through the big bluestem on a recent pre-dawn morning.

This fall, though, they flew away without so much as a morning of pronouncement! Just disappeared as abruptly and mysteriously as they so suddenly appeared back on that warm, May afternoon. So, no, the swallows are no more, and the few insects out over the prairie grasses are being seized by those dwindling squadrons of dragonflies.

One early morning this week we both stepped onto the deck off our kitchen with our tea and coffee to an almost eerie hum. It was loud enough that we were sort of looking at one another in question when a sudden “swoosh” erupted from the grove as a murmeration of blackbirds rose in unison from the treetops. Hundreds. Perhaps a thousand. You can’t count a murmeration. Last fall I had posted a picture of a nearby rise of the blackbirds from an oak savanna down the road and an old friend wrote, “I’m so glad you now live out here and can see these things.” Of course, she was right. In talking with people my age who grew up before that last great ditching and tiling of the prairie pothole region in the 1960s, back when there were enough prairie potholes of significance, they reminiscence of murmerations so thick of birds that the sky was blocked by a canopy bird blackness. I’m not the only photographer who has recorded a ribbon of murmeration blackness, and certainly not the only one who can wish for experiencing such a moment from the past … one that will likely never be no more, one mankind has erased from the earth forever.

Thousands of blackbirds rise from the trees ... a murmeration.

Thousands of blackbirds rise from the trees … a murmeration.

Although our neighboring farmers with the pothole wetlands planted corn this year, which now block our views of those wetlands, we can still hear the geese as they begin to gather. A month from now along with the dust of harvest the skies will be full of the sounds and skeins of geese as they seek recently harvested fields to gorge their gizzards before the last long flight of the year. Ah, autumn!

Moments ago we took our nightly mugs of wine out on the deck, and witnessed a small murmeration, the skittish flight of a few dragonflies, the distant honking of geese, and still another sign of the approaching autumn … a distinct chill in the air. A fall wind. Autumn was all there for the taking, for the filling of the senses. Now is a time you begin the morning with a sweater, then work off the layers as the sun climbs in the sky. Cool mornings, balmy afternoons. We call this an Indian summer for some reason.

Our windows are open at night allowing the breezes to caress us with coolness. While it is still warm enough not to send chills down your arms and legs, you awake in the morning realizing that at sometime during the night you must have unconsciously reached down to pull up a quilt; that you had snuggled deep into the warmth of the bed and up against one another.

Ah, autumn!


Moments like these give me cause to believe I may be a man of faith. So begins a writing that may see the light of day …  since its being published depends on the beaming up of our internet. I’m happy to report that yesterday we were connected most of the day, which was the first time we’ve enjoyed a full day of service in what seems like weeks. “Months” might be more accurate, but I write as a man of forgiving faith.

Despite becoming on a first name basis with our designated service rep, Chad, we awake each morning wondering if life on our farm will reach beyond our small prairie. We are at the mercy apparently of a universe beyond our blue planet, as explained by Chad. Sun spots. And this: “If you can see the Northern Lights, forget the internet.” I haven’t seen them here on the farm, yet we still lack a worldly connection. So sun spots and Northern Lights are among the culprits. So, too, are tree limbs, rain and fog, and the other day, the talkative young man suggested we keep the modem out of the sunlight. We moved it from the top of the printer where we had anxiously monitored the status lights, which blink like a Dallas disco … all except for the little designated light of wonder, which barely and rarely comes to a full summer green.

Among the culprits of our outlandish internet issues is the sun ... on the modem, spots out in the universe, and the cosmic rays producing Northern Lights!

Among the culprits of our outlandish internet issues is the sun … on the modem, spots out in the universe, and the cosmic rays producing Northern Lights!

Chad and I took a walk through the lawn that morning when he was here, and it was still early enough we collected a drenching dew on the toes of our boots. He studied the angle of the technological arrow protruding from the corner of our solarium and the distant tower, then eyed the tree line that had previously been deemed perfectly fine. “Leaves. Look at those leaves,” he said, pointing toward the tower. “I see interference.”

When the system was installed the sight-line was deemed as perfect. Back in the day he and another tech rep both considered the signal so strong they somehow toned it down, fearing perhaps that my iMac might explode from the overwhelming wealth of beamed, wireless data. A few weeks ago, on a rather frustrating Sunday morning just after returning from the BWCA … where the lack of technology was a blessing, I might add … the crisis line fellow took me through all sorts of technological guts to measure something he called “pings.” Making it simple for such a technological moron, he painted a picture for me of watering my garden when 53 percent of the water had  leaked from the hose before reaching the nozzle. “I’ll make a report to the office,” he generously offered.

Apparently his report was lost in the email … provided the company’s crisis center uses its own internet service to communicate between their offices. Since I’m a man of faith, this seems a logical possibility … sans sun spots, the Aurora Borealis, errant tree branches, a non-shaded modem, or that our nearest neighbor a mile and a half to the south baking a cherry pie.

So far, the bee balm in the prairie have escaped scrutiny.

So far, the bee balm in the prairie have escaped scrutiny.

I told Chad I would saw off those wayward limbs from three of the trees. “Don’t do the evergreen,” he interrupted. “I love evergreens.”

Ash, elm and basswood must offer more interference than spruce, which pleases me, for like Chad, I also love evergreens.

Meanwhile we “limp” along with our “smart” phones. We could probably survive our social media addictions and email with the phones, although they’re a bugger when you’re trying to read the morning papers. Yes, I do subscribe to the papers, so when the internet isn’t up, those cyber dollars reek of a bad investment. Rebecca does the majority of her office work here on the farm, and how she can manage her anger so well is beyond my limited faith.

For me it seems I’m always doing some sort of research. For example, yesterday I spent a good portion of my day trying to repair our rider mower by making Google searches for such things as owner manuals, mechanical repair sites and You Tube repair videos. Time was also spent seeking information on making stainless steel table tops for Rebecca’s commercial kitchen, and in looking for greeting card stands and other ideas of photographic marketing. Every day seems to bring new ideas ripe for necessary research, and since I lived in a small Minnesota town with a state-of-the-art fiber optic internet system, perhaps I arrived here on our little spot of prairie hopelessly spoiled. Like most who lived in the drive-past berg, the town’s system was certainly taken for granted.

Yes, fog is suspected!

Yes, fog is suspected!

Indeed, when we bought and moved to our farm here in the Minnesota Bump we didn’t even think to inquire about internet services. While I can’t speak for Rebecca, my assumption was that the entire state was equally blessed with broadband speed. We both were given an abrupt wakeup call, and in our first full year here we tried three services before we found one that was functional. It was owned locally by a middle aged fellow with severe physical limitations due to his many falls from his towers, and who basically relied on his sweet mother for the business side. His last tumble was rather seriously disabling, and more than he could handle pain-wise, and he simply wrote a letter to his customers saying that by the end of whatever month it was, he was shutting the system down.

Who could have guessed that his service was the best of the rest. This time we did a more thorough search. It came down to one area phone co-op with a rock-solid reputation and the Dish Network. Since we could “bundle” with Dish, we went that way. Their system was installed on a Tuesday, with the technician patting the iconic gray disc with pride while telling us our internet issues were certainly a thing of the past. On Thursday, less than two days from his paternal patting, the router began blinking. On Friday the lights went out all together. Calls were made to the company. On Tuesday, exactly one week later, that tech still had not returned to take care of the problem, so we called again and canceled the service.

The next day we contacted the local co-op, which is actually a multi-county co-op, to sign up for their wireless service, since they had not hardwired this portion of the county. We celebrated that night with a fine wine and a delicious dinner. Our internet issues were supposedly behind us. Oh, how my faith has been tested since. We were advised that they were one of the rural internet services being considered for a huge broadband grant within the state, and amazingly, a year later they were chosen. After another delicious dinner with celebratory wine, we began our latest wait for connecting with the world beyond our plat lines.

In the BWCA, technology wasn't even a thought.

In the BWCA, technology wasn’t even a thought.

Then a letter arrived from the co-op admitting that their wireless system was severely inadequate. They offered to lower our monthly fee against a blindfold allowance out of the three-year contract we had signed. With great adherence to faith, we stuck with them and have since become ever closer to dear, talkative Chad.

And, come each early morning as the sun rises above the bluestem, I’ll turn on the system to watch the blinking beacons of communication. I’ve still not seen the Northern Lights, so I comfort my soul by watching our modem blink instead. Chad excitedly says the hard wiring in our half of the county has begun, starting in a small town six miles northeast of our farm. Instead of heading this way, however, the crews are spider-webbing across the former prairie toward the northwest ­— that top half of the Bump.

“You’ll get it,” he promises. “It might be late next summer or fall, and certainly by the following spring of ‘17. Once you have it, it’ll be beautiful.”

So, if you happen to have seen this writing, realize that for one blessed moment that single status light was beaming bright and beautifully green. And, that my friends, is the essence of my faith … a single tiny green light about the circumference of the cross section of a broken-in-half round toothpick.

Later this week I’ll saw off those errant limbs before kneeling on the prayer rug.

Life … from Fire

A few weeks ago a friend wondered why patches of established prairie were set ablaze each spring. She worried about the birds and animals, and hinted this seemed such a waste of time and energy. Her question came shortly after she had attended an Earth Day Celebration at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center where visitors were greeted with an amply charred hillside as they turned into the facility.

Yes, it could have been considered ugly … unless you had an understanding of the process and reasoning.

A controlled burn on a Renville area prairie lit the night sky.

A controlled burn a few years ago on a Renville area prairie lit the night sky.

Thankfully I have many who have helped me with both, beginning with Audrey Arner and Kylene Olson. Several years ago, just as I was in the early stages of gaining an appreciation for this last one percent of native grassland, Arner hosted a prairie walk on her Moonstone Farm in early July on a small patch of prairie that had been torched just a few months earlier. We rode a hay wagon from the house to this nearby field that was lush with growth. This wasn’t a “tired” prairie. Thick prairie grasses provided ample carpet and support for the prairie forbs popping out all over. A common question among we visitors was, “You really burned this land this spring?” As the group waded through the greenery, Olson, executive director of the Chippewa River Watershed Project and a prairie plant specialist, provided identifications of various grasses and flowers, and she gave us all an education on the beauty of and the aftereffects of the burn. At one point a rare butterfly appeared, fluttering through to land on bright orange blossoms peeking through the greenery.

Few of us recognized the butterfly, or even knew it of its endangerment, which like the formerly ever present prairie chicken, is due to the loss of prairie habitat. Yet the reaction of Olson and Arner in seeing it flutter from flower to flower was just as intriguing as it was exciting. Indeed, the entire experience was enlightening, as if an entirely new world had opened up. Well, in fact, it had.

Reminiscent of the Peruvian Nazca

Reminiscent of the ancient Peruvian Nazca “air strips” are the game trails revealed on this recently burnt prairie.

Among the others who have helped with this journey of education were Tom Kalahar, now retired from the Renville County SWCD; Kurt Arner, Audrey’s brother and a long time fire crew member; and Dennis Pederson, who for years headed burning crews for Pheasants Forever in the Upper Minnesota River watershed. This journey of discovery basically coincided with the beginning of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) that restored a few thousand acres of prairies and wetlands to the former prairie pothole biome. Kalahar was instrumental in evolving that program in Renville County, and would switch over to “personal time” as a frequent prairie fire crew member. The three kindly called to tell me of a planned fire, and Pederson and Kalahar, in particular, spent much quality time in explaining the cautions taken and the reasoning behind the timing.

Wind speed and direction, location, optimal burning conditions, and nesting seasons were all key in their burning decisions. If conditions were wrong, a burn was called off. As for the animals that make a particular prairie their home, there is ample time for escape to safer pastures and nearby groves.

Burning a prairie is all about the soil and the native prairie plants. A prairie is often described as an upside down forest due to extensive root systems which not only anchor the plants in the soil, but also creates an entire soil-based ecological environment and allows for the storage of often limited water resources. Those same roots allow the plants to withstand the intense heat of a searing prairie fire. Since prescribed burns typically are planned in the spring, the brown duff and leafy matter are dead and useless to the plant. Before Euro-American settlement, when tillage, ditching and later, drainage tile, converted the vast millions of acres of natural grasslands to fields for commodity crop farming, prairie fires were mostly a natural consequence of nature. Lightning set most of the fires, although fires were also set by Native Americans to refurbish a prairie to attract wandering herds of buffalo.

Roots from native prairie grasses and forbs run deep ... creating an

This poster shows how roots from native prairie grasses and forbs run deep … creating an “underground forest” that allows them to survive the surface fires.

“Refurbishing” is the key word. Over time that duff and dead leafy matter cause prairies to become clogged, or bogged down, choking out more and more species, especially perennial forbs and flowers. With the ash adding nutrients, and with choking duff burned away, dormant seeds and freed roots are given new freedom to sprout and flourish. Grass species seem flush with more vigor, too. Besides this regrowth, there is another benefit. Fires also help reduce invasive wood species such as Eastern Red Cedar … which, if you’ve visited the area around and south of Granite Falls, you will notice acres upon acres of the small evergreen trees that have completely overwhelmed the prairie grass hillsides.

A lone tree after a recent prairie burn ...

A lone tree after a recent prairie burn …

... and later, the greening prairie emerges.

… and later, the greening prairie emerges.

A friend with a beautiful prairie near Montevideo complains, however, that recent fires did little to stop a cottonwood invasion in her grasses, although we are anticipating a fire on our prairie will hopefully put an end to the weedy elms that are thick in patches. Students of prairie ecology know, too, that burr oak, which will cluster in savannas on the shaded northern slopes of native prairies, escape damage due to deep rooting and thick bark growth.

An oak savanna on the lip of a refurbishing prairie.

An oak savanna on the lip of a refurbishing prairie that was burned earlier this month.

In reality, we have an eye on a prescribed burn here at Listening Stones Farm. We’re at least two years out from our first burn, yet Rebecca mentioned a “window” for planting specific native flowers she hoped would have ample time to set root before a necessary  burn. “Next year will be too late,” she said when returning with her digging trowel. Having a native prairie is a moveable feast of nature, for as yellow as our eight acres of prairie was last summer, we haven’t a clue what to anticipate this summer … or the next, or even in the year following that when we expect to do a burn.

It’s fun and educational to watch a controlled prairie grass burn. Thanks to their kindness, I’ve watched these professionals at their craft, and I’m still amazed at how well they do their work. It is perhaps more of an art than craft, for after a burn you can see how they have completely contained their burn area, working delicately around homesteads and fences right down to the “nth” degree with back burns and fire breaks. We can see evidence of their “art” just down the road from our farm, where odd shaped, long neglected prairies were burned for the first time in many years these past couple of weeks. Driving past the charred hillsides has given me renewed respect for their precision and work. One of those fields is already flush with life in ways we’ve not seen since we’ve lived here.

It didn't take long for this burn to green at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center in April.

It didn’t take long for this burn to green at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center in April. Notice how the burn sweeps around the remaining, unburned prairie to the right.

Oh, and that patch of burnt prairie at Prairie Woods ELC? A few days after her comments I sent her a picture showing the greening on the charred hills that had caused her questions and concern … a greening that came within days of the initial burn.

A Yellow Warbler sings on a charred snag from a two year old burn ... life from the fire.

A Yellow Warbler sings on a charred snag from a two year old burn at the Bonanza section of Big Stone State Park … life from the fire.

Her reaction isn’t unique, for like most of us alive today, the millions upon millions acres of native prairie was gone long before she were born. Indeed, less than a percent of the original prairie remains in one of the most thorough conversions of a natural landscape anywhere on earth, all within less than a century of human settlement. While prescribed burns may seem harsh, in reality these fires are breaths of fresh air to the ancestral plants native to our land. From such fire comes life.