In the stairwell heading up into my home gallery are numerous printouts of memes related to the creation and necessity of art. Often visitors will ease up the stairs rather slowly while reading first one side and then the other. These were meant as some form of inspiration for me and perhaps for others. These are, in a way, walls of will, something needed in these times of uncertainty.
One example: “If you feel like you don’t fit in, in this world, it’s because you are here to help create a new one.”
Another: “Blessed are the weird people … the poets & misfits, the artists, the writers and music makers, the dreamers & and the outsiders, for they force us to see the world differently.”
There are quotes from Dylan, the Beatles and Kurt Vonnegut, among others. There are even a couple of Charles Schultz Peanuts’ cartoons.
Some days one or another of the printouts will garner my attention as I climb up the stairs, or am on the way down, and I sometimes wonder why? Why a particular one out of all the others?
Not long ago a friend asked how my work was going through the political turmoil and pandemic. I was lost for an answer. Some days I’ve struggle with desire to create. Sometimes I wonder if I should even bother. Then I go afield and a sense of peace seems to gain ground on torrid thoughts. As much as I enjoy those private moments, like many in the arts I long to have my works seen. I was actually fortunate enough to have an exhibit at the Marshall Area Fine Arts Center in late May and June that will apparently be the extent of the exhibits and shows for the year thanks to the pandemic. All the others were canceled, including the Upper Minnesota River Arts Meander that is typically a capstone event for those of us in the upper river valley.
So this comes to mind: Is the point of creating art for myself or for others via the various galleries and art shows? Truthfully I do want my work to be seen and hopefully appreciated. I wish it to be meaningful, to hopefully inspire someone about the intricacies of that last one percent of the prairie, of the necessity of a natural environment. I want them to see this visual voice of an ecosystem of the past, one basically destroyed to make room for commodity farming. Yet, there is the selfishness of seeking a sense of peacefulness that comes when I’m become lost in the creative process.
Which brings me to another taped meme on the stairwell, this one by Louis Bourgeois: “Everywhere in the modern world there is neglect, the need to be recognized, which is not satisfied. Art is a way of recognizing oneself.”
Which caused me to look over my own work, for I have chosen to escape to not only the prairie but also the “big woods” and bogs these past several months of isolation … places distant from political turmoil, vicious out front and perpetrated racism along with the fears of the coronavirus pandemic. Places where social distancing is a respectful part of nature itself. Places where the prairie grasses speak of resilience; where birds soar and fly with independent freedom; where native flowers and butterflies pull you in with often solitary beauty; and where trees stand strong and defiant, breaking only under only the harshest of winds.
Looking through my files over the past few months I see a vacillation between minimalist simplicity and broader “communities” of gaiety; a “yin/yang” of inner peace and beauty along with an individualistic desire of being surrounded by communal color and life: the seeking of any hint of lightness against that sometimes unbearable heaviness of being. The trees, birds, butterflies and prairie grasses; those beacons of light in the murkiness of life.
On the stairwell this from Anais Nin stopped me for whatever reason: “And the day came when the risk to remain in a tight bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
via Fair Warnings
You can’t say we didn’t have fair warning. For nearly all of it, from paddling from Skalbakken County Park right down to the catch of a nine pound walleye. Blame Kalahar. That would be Tom Kalahar, the fellow assigned to Renville County 30 some years ago as a conservationist and who vowed to spend no more than 12 months before searching for a job in a locale more closely attuned to his native Ottertail County.
Ottertail had more than 1,000 fishable lakes and one of the best smallmouth fishing rivers in a state known for great smallies. Renville County? None of the above. Yet, there he was in the heart of Big Ag working for the SWCD (Soil and Water Conservation District). “Then I discovered the Minnesota River,” says the avid hunter and fisherman in one of his many entertaining stories. “And we’re still here.”
Kalahar and I have shared guiding duties on this stretch of the Minnesota over several years, from a Hollywood director to avid fishermen to clean water advocates, with a few kids and nuns in mix as well. I’m the cook, he’s the entertainer. Nothing has changed on that aspect. What has changed is the river itself.
On my first canoe trip from Skalbakken through Patterson Rapids to Vicksburg County Park in 1993 began in the actual current flush against the northern most bank above the Skalbakken picnic shelter. Due to the flushing of waters off the upper prairie via Hawk Creek, the put-in point is now a placid backwater. Thick, deep siltation has shifted the river current some 200 meters south of the former channel. Downriver many of the tributary creeks are no longer shallow, rocky creeks, but rather now so choked full of siltation that if you didn’t know of the previous location you would paddle by without a second glance.
What has remained basically unchanged, and what Kalahar found so attractive so many years ago, is that this river is thoroughly an under appreciated resource. In all ways, by “big ag” farmers and by sports people alike. You can paddle the length of it and maybe see one or two other fishers, and those most often sit shaded upon the bank in a lawn chair. The river is too shallow for most boats nowadays. Some may use a small jet boat engine, while Kalahar’s partner, Ben Hillesheim, uses a long tiller made for shallow waters on his jon boat.
The other unchanged melody is that the fishing remains fantastic. On our “fair warning” trip a few weeks ago I was able to reel in a nearly nine pound, 28 inch walleye, a twin basically to Kalahar’s catch later on this trip. His just downriver and around the bend from my catch. My fishing partner, Tom Cherveny, an outdoor writer for the West Central Tribune, and I both brought in channel catfish weighing close to three pounds along with a few others of smaller size on both trips.
As Kalahar says, “Most times you’ll have the river to yourself. And, it’s great fishing! Caught my first sturgeon here. Smallmouth. Walleye. Catfish. And tonight we’re going after the big girls!”
The “big girls” are flathead catfish, some nearing 60 pounds according to DNR tagging efforts over the years. Near noon six of us in three canoes launched from Skalbakken and headed downriver, leisurely paddling, stopping behind random deadfall to drop a weighted worm, and taking in sights that included eagles, pelicans, a couple of forlorn-sounding Canada geese and a host of immature great blue herons. Herons so young they didn’t realize they should be wary enough to lead us downriver.
Kalahar and Hillesheim brought the serious stuff up from Vicksburg in a motorized jon boat to the sandbar where we would gather for our overnight camp, and a spot to rest before going into our serious afternoon fishing mode. We needed enough fish for the tacos I would cook for the riverine feast. Enough were caught even without Kalahar’s huge walleye, for very morsel was devoured before we settled in for the big show, one led by Kalahar’s nephew, Max Dzubay. The big river rods were fitted with cord-like lines and triangle weights heavy enough to keep the bullheads used for bait in place across from a deep river hole littered with tangling deadfall. At night the flatheads roam, cruising above the washed away loam.
As the evening crept in over the river we men of advanced age were once again awestruck by the appearance of stars, and satellites were pointed to cruising across the darkened heavens. In the midst of our celestial wonder, Alexandria’s Marv Boerboom’s rod was the first to take a big bend, and Kalahar’s shouts of joy may have been heard on the Sacred Heart bridge a few miles downriver. Though not one of the “big girls,” it was an impressive and hefty channel cat in the 10-pound range. A few hours later a second 10 pound channel was pulled in by nephew Max.
In the olden days, beer would have brought on a sluggish sleep. On this night, at our age, not so much. A thunderstorm with crackling lightning filled the skies to the north of us, and cell phones were pulled for the weather aps. Comforted by technological radar “balloons” indicating a miss by several miles allowed us to settle in for a lightning show that lit the river bend with distant, split second flashes of electrified light. We had the Milky Way off to the south, the lightning show to the north and east of us.
Around midnight we three writers … Cherveny, Scott Tedrick, of the local weeklies, and your’s truly … headed to our respective tents. We’ve social distanced like this long before the coronavirus pandemic. Along the river’s edge the serious fishers would man their rods and weave their man stories of hunting exploits and fishing wiles through the long night until dawn, all while anxiously awaiting attacks from the “big girls.”
Not long after midnight some ATVs appeared in the woods behind our gravel bar. Their loud roar along with what we might have recalled as beer-encouraged shouts of joy came without refrain. We were briefly surrounded by a different sort of storm, and from my tent the wavering lights bouncing through the bank of trees offered hints of both trepidation and wonder. Then, as suddenly as they appeared, the riders headed off back toward the county highway.
In a few months I’ll turn 77, and while I take smug pride in tent camping on a riverbank at my age, there was little comfort to be found on the sandy pile of rocks. There were intermittent dreams so I know there were moments of sleep, but when Max hooked his 35 pound “big girl” the shouts of celebration from the rivermen would have awoken Morana. No one was more thrilled than Kalahar. His nephew tagging the huge flathead was the capstone of our collective night on the river. For all of us. Even the sleepy ones.
Later Max would admit to suddenly having to reel like lightning to keep up with the flathead that made an interesting run straight toward him. “Truthfully,” he said, “it wasn’t much of a fight.” His work as an IT specialist has apparently helped him develop intense focusing skills, for his eyes were constantly focused on the rods … his and those of the other fishermen … for most of our time fishing on the sandbar. In the afternoon, through the taco dinner and even as dawn brought a seasonal fog to the river’s surface early the next morning. His rewards were just. A 10 pound channel cat and the 35 pound flathead, two fish for the lifetimes for most of us.
All the big fish were released, just for the record.
Our “fair warning” on the beauties of this overnight camping trip was just a few weeks ago when Kalahar led us down this same stretch of the river on a Saturday afternoon. He hoped this would be a grand overnighter for us all for over the past several years our plans for such an overnighter have been on hold due to the high waters that are turning this river into a “far northern Platte” … shallow and increasingly widened, with banks being eaten away by raging currents caused by flushed waters upstream.
All of us on the overnighter have experienced many canoe trips down this stretch for nearly 30 years, and we’ve caught uncountable numbers of fish while witnessing a river change right before our eyes. By now those changes should be expected, yet there was really no accurate fair warning of the degree of how much change would happen despite former Governor Arne Carlson’s 1992 edict calling for a change of cultural practices on the ills of this precious river resource.
What hasn’t changed is that most of those up on the plateau of the prairie don’t seem to care, for the Minnesota River has seemingly never been seen so much as a resource as a conduit for excess water. This hasn’t changed for several generations, and likely never will. And that is a “fair warning” in a strictest definition of the phrase.
There’s been a death in the neighborhood. She was most lively especially with the fading of winter, when she brought much life and joy to a prairie springtime. She made her home just down the road. This time of year, in the midst of what we call a calendar year, she was awkward in dress with sometimes a shriveled skin, yet come autumn … especially in a wet autumn … she would seemingly bounce back.
Birds loved her, especially in the spring. This past spring a pair of Sandhill Cranes briefly stopped by. Geese came by the dozens. Ducks. Wading birds. Gulls and terns. She loved her frogs, too. Come autumn, her life through the accompanying harvest seemed to become more engaging as new goose families would drop in for a brief rest. Sometimes three or four. Other times a half dozen, and maybe more. Depended on how many of the newly hatched had survived the snapping turtles, coyotes and other predators that skim their hopeful hideaways.
As soft down gave way to emerging feathers, and the molting of the parent birds that seemed to magically coincide with that phenomenon of maturity, the short flying stints began. No long distance flying yet. And they would come to her, and sometimes waddle into the harvested field for random kernels of grain that slipped past the gear works and screens of those huge harvesters that arrive as wide as the road they tread.
Earlier this week the first oversized semi-truck lumbered down that same road as did the tillers, planters and later the combines. It stopped near her and a man climbed from the cab and began working the hydraulics that somehow detached the main portion of the trailer from the tractor. As he did so, two more semis and trailers bearing different but huge gouging equipment arrived, as did smaller trucks hoisting largely coiled rolls of black drainage tile. Shortly another worker emerged from a pickup truck to balance a laser unit on a tripod.
Then, without further ado, the various workers with their neonish shirts and vests climbed aboard their different machines and all the equipment lumbered into the soybean field. And her death was imminent.
She was a small wetland. Some years when the spring rains didn’t come she was planted over, though yields from those small acres undoubtedly were smaller than the average of the unsaturated acreage. These past few years, though, years that have been called “overly wet”, prairie winds created waves of water left standing in the wetland well into summer and sometimes even freezing over in winter. Those were the autumns when the goose families would arrive before joining forces with the flocks of the main migration.
It was in the spring when this little wetland, no more than a few acres and barely a couple feet deep, came to life as the migration along this flyway of Minnesota River was so vivid and alive. A call was made to the farmer this spring after the Sandhills arrived. On my walk the morning after a rain their footprint tracks were mired in the softened mud alongside the shoulder of the road adjacent to her. The following dawn their unmistakable bugling was heard through the opened bedroom window, and later, after waking, we witnessed their lifting from the wetland and flying across a marshy area seen from the kitchen window. When he was told of the sighting he said, “Oh, cool! Hopefully they will stay.”
That they didn’t likely had no influence on his decision to tile the wetland, to drain the last vestige of mystery from his portion of the cropped quarter section. The workers did a thorough job. A couple of rings were made, first around her outer circumference and then a smaller more concentrated ring a few meters closer to the middle, and finally a very large pipe was dug into the muck right through the middle of her, from one end to the other. The dagger, if you will, right through the heart.
This morning there were only tracks of where the machines had been along with the scars across her bow. Come spring all that will be blended into the quilt of commodity, and she will no longer be a visible rest stop for the migrating birds. My neighbor’s “eyesore” and the angst he must surely have felt over the years will be as forgotten as the missing of her will be to those of us who took notice and appreciated the brief magic she gave us … and those before us perhaps since the melting of the glacier … as part of a balance of life and nature. A nature of a vanished ecosystem scholars have labeled as the “prairie pothole region” of Western Minnesota.
She was just a wetland, a prairie pothole, a seasonal slough, (whatever the name), and another of the millions like her that have succumbed to corporate agriculture through the years. Yes, she has joined the 99 percent of her sisters that have likewise been tiled, ditched and drained for as far as the eye can see. I can’t help but feel a sense of sorrow. Sisters of her have met similar fate across our nearby but former prairie these past few months, including three just up the hill on our country road. She was more personal, though, for she was close by.
Like any death in the neighborhood, she will be missed. Her varied voices … of the Sandhills, the migrating ducks and geese, of the explosive rise of the gulls, of the spring peepers and other vocal though latently invisible amphibians … all those voices of her uniquely individual nature are now silenced. It will be a strange silence.
How strange to witness a sky race, one between an incoming storm front and a wandering comet … a heavenly phenomena named Neowise that is said to appear in earth’s viewing path every 7000 years or so. My seat for this apparent and unique dead heat was the front seat of my car where I hid from swarms of mosquitoes.
We had been here the previous night after a friend posted a picture on social media. This was after 11 p.m. when normally I would have been into my second hour of sleep. So we arose from our comfort, pulled on some outdoorsy clothes in the event there might be a crowd on our gravel road, and headed to the top of the prairie where a neat little wetland has survived being drained for corporate agriculture.
Last winter I discovered the nighttime beauty of this little patch of prairie water after returning from a distant foray to capture northern lights. What makes it a delightful spot is not just the proximity to my little farm, for it is literally across the road from my upper prairie, but even more conveniently there is seemingly little if any “light pollution” from the north. No visible roads or security lights … which was not the situation that same night on a wetland a few miles north when during the best flurry of Borealis activity some fool came driving down the gravel road adjacent to ruin the long exposure!
We were just as fortunate after crawling from bed, for everything you could ask for … almost … was there for both our humanistic and photographic enjoyment. First of all, Comet Neowise was clearly visible just above the tree line. Secondly, there was neither wind nor clouds, so we had both a perfect view and even a clear reflection in the mirrored waters of the wetland. And, finally, no pollution from errant lights from beyond!
So, what was the problem? Upon a serious and frantic search, my tripod that is normally in the car simply wasn’t. For some odd reason there was a cushion for a lawn chair, so that was laid across the hood of the car so I could hopefully secure the camera for a long exposure. Ten seconds at the very least, and perhaps 30 seconds at most … something I cannot do “hand-held.” Back in my youth I could do up to a three second hand-held with a very wide aperture, though no longer.
While the pillowed security helped immensely it was still a distant cry from having a secure tripod. I loved my imagery and the quaint though faint reflection of Neowise in the placid waters. Meanwhile some of my photographic friends were posting pictures of absolutely perfect Neowise pictures .. from the mountains of Oregon to the hills above our nearby beloved Bonanza prairie.
This time I would be prepared. Oddly enough the tripod was discovered collecting dust up in my studio-gallery, so that was gathered. I charged the battery and made sure the correct setting was made on the camera. For the “techies,” this meant finding the BULB feature in the manual settings, and on advice from the youngest naturalist I know, moved from my mid-range zoom to a 20 mm wide angle lens.
With that accomplished I decided to do a bit of research since this passing of a noted celestial celebrity had completely gone, well, over my head. If Julia Ahlers, my friend who posted the original picture, hadn’t gotten us out of bed I might not have even known there was a flyby! So this is the brightest comet since Hale-Bopp in 1997, and is apparently visiting earth’s sky for the first time since those folks were pushing elephant-sized quarried rocks in building the pyramids in the Egyptian dessert! Astronomers estimate that Neowise is basically a ball of ice five kilometers wide … a shade over three miles in width. That was the estimated size of the dinosaur killer that squarely hit earth some 65 million years ago.
So Neowise? What’s in a name? Here you go, for it’s an acronym for NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer … or Neowise.
Neowise drifted from a dark part of the solar system known as the Oort Cloud — an icy graveyard billions of miles out that is filled with ancient comets and asteroids. It shot into the inner solar system as astronomers watched as it passed the sun at a distance closer than the planet Mercury. Although it survived this close encounter with our sun, it’s the sun’s rays that are making it visible even to the naked eye.
Visible, yes, but like with northern lights, it helps immensely to make long exposures to draw out the magic! On this subsequent night, like a hunter loaded for bear, I headed up the hill after the sunset to await Neowise in the northwestern sky. This is somewhat of an aversion for me. Typically when these special celestial moments appear in the heavens they become shrouded by clouds. Every single time. Even the last solar eclipse was a cloudy affair for me. Not only am I typically shaded by dense cloud covers, I now must contend with the knowledge that to see Neowise again I would need to live another 6800 years or so. Fortunately for the healthy among us the brightly blessed Hale-Bopp, which as you may recall came through 23 years ago, will make another appearance in 4380. That is merely 2360 years from now!
As I awaited darkness, peeking through the clouds of mosquitoes eagerly eying my choice red plasma just out of reach inside my car windows, the streaky fingers of a weather front began inching across the northwestern sky. I’m told there is nothing longer than a watched clock 20 minutes before quitting time. If that’s infuriating you should watch a race between an approaching storm front and darkness with the appearance of a wide ball of sun-enlightened ice with an amazingly long tail that comes through once every 7000 years as the finish line.
Every competitive parvocellular moment was greeted with glee as first one, then a second, star appeared with the glacial-like shrouding of darkness. Peeking first over my shoulder to the southern skies, which were gathering some serious darkness, then through the passenger window to the northwest to notice that the front was moving more rapidly than the darkness. It was about three minutes to quitting time when just a faint hint of Neowise began to peek through, and now mere “inches” from the emerging edge of the incoming front.
I clamored quickly to climb from the car to grab the tripod with attached camera and set up as rapidly as possible. For whatever reason the race was gathering speed, so much so that in the end I was able to capture three ten-second long shots before Neowise was covered by the front. Three shots!
This morning I awoke to a completely overcast sky and noticed rain had come overnight. Word is that Neowise will be around for another week or so, rising ever higher into the sky as it passes us into the oblivion of galactic evermore. That is almost as good as being told by the astronomers there is no way possible that this erstwhile glob of ice will hit earth and rid us of worldwide nationalism and a treacherous pandemic. I guess we should be as thankful for that as we are hopeful for clear skies between now and then.
Several years ago Natalie Warren loaned me a special canoe paddle for an unexpected trip down the Minnesota River, and it was the most beautiful paddle ever … until a recent visit to Legacy of The Lakes Museum in Alexandria, MN, where area artists put their creativity to work onto and into nearly three dozen wooden canoe paddles.
Of course, Warren’s paddle has some authenticity these creative paddles lack since her’s bore the York Factory brand … with the F being part of the right wing of the staunchly thick Y … signifying her and Ann Raiho’s completion of the challenging “Canoeing with the Cree” trip from the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers to the Hudson Bay. The college buddies were the first two women to complete the trip made famous by Eric Sevareid’s 1935 report of his trip that has served as an inspiration for many. Just holding it would have been enough, but her encouragement to go ahead and use it was unbelievable.
Those on display at the Alexandria boat museum are of a different breed and of varied medium.
Carol Swenson, the curator of the Legacy of the Lakes, who this spring prior to the coronavirus situation, put a call to artists to create paddle art as a fundraiser for this unique boat museum (which was a treat to visit even before the paddles!). The paddle art she received almost defies imagination. For an example, Quincy Roers titled his “Padd’led to the Bone” and not only carved a skull into the blade, but continued the carving up through the handle! How many of us have felt like this paddling across a blazing hot lake in the BWCA in the middle of summer?
Many artists painted lake scenes or used a Viking’s motif. There was an imitation of an Alaskan Tlingit paddle. Kristin Roers made a waxy aurora borealis encaustic painting that was eye-stopping. There were wood burnings, a collage and even a couple of paddle sculptures. Mary, my fiancée, painted one of her beloved Sandhill Cranes on her paddle blade, and mine was a “paddle river” created by using a curved “current of grain” from a maple board.
Swenson found it interesting in the many ways artists responded with their affiliation with nature and native peoples, of how artists saw the “canvas” in the blade and stopped there, or saw the blade and the handle as the canvas as a whole. Some artists worked with the characteristics and colors of the wood of the paddle to create an artwork. “Since it was the first time we’ve done something like this, we didn’t know what to expect. But we believed that community artists’ responses would be awesome and they were,” she said.
This was intended partially as a fundraiser for museum with artists paying a small fee to enter, with an option for the paddles to be sold at the end of the exhibit. Some will be, although many opted to keep their creations. Although there was more to it than that. “We have talked about the front of the museum having a temporary gallery being used for art in recent years, and last year we featured the framed prints of woodcuts by the late Charles Beck,” said Swenson. “So we were looking for ideas.”
A member of the museum’s Exhibits, Education and Collections Committee, Jack Driscoll, suggested “applying the concept of ‘mail art’ with paddles being the focus to incorporate art into the exhibit. This sent us on a mad internet search and quickly discovered https://algonquinoutfitters.com/event/ao-charity-paddle-art-auction/ which included samples their beautiful paddles,” she added. An idea was born, or more accurately, shared.
“Blank” paddles were ordered from Cabela’s, and the call was put out through the local Artist’s Guild, for one, along with word of mouth within both the boating and artist communities, and the fun began. As the paddles began streaming in, mostly during the pandemic lock down due to the coronavirus, Swenson and her team got a huge lift mentally, as well as a bit of trepidation … the same sort of fear and concerns most of us had during that time. Would the museum be opened in time for a tourist season … if there was going to be such a season. The museum actually opened on July 1, with the paddle art being part of a temporary exhibit on “Slo Boats” that includes a historic dugout canoe, among others.
“Our original thought was to allow a couple of weeks of People’s Choice voting and then announce winners of that category as well as the Artists’ and Jury’s categories,” said Swenson. “Because of the pandemic, we started rethinking how that will be done, but there will definitely be a public recognition of the project and the artists sometime in the future. Unfortunately, there are a lot of ‘to be determineds’ which is very frustrating.”
Despite the challenges she and the museum are facing, the hangable paddles have been hung in various fashions on darkened panels, with the paddle sculptures placed nearby. While social distancing and masks are requested, the Legacy of the Lakes is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, and from noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Besides the paddle art, an immense fishing lure collection and an interesting variety of boats, the museum also has a picturesque park with formal gardens. Legacy of the Lakes is located on Third Avenue West at the very north end of downtown Alexandria.
“It’s been fun and makes an interesting and rather unique display,” said Swenson. And for us, it was fun to be a part of the creative exhibit. No, Natalie Warren’s special canoe paddle isn’t part of the display and is a beauty into itself, but the array of artistic paddles is well worth a visit.