Only a Prairie

Once again I was overcome by a gut-wrenched sadness when walking through my Listening Stones Farm prairie the other night, for I couldn’t help thinking what might have been, of what was lost and will likely never be regained. Here’s the back story: 

Back in 2017 we did a prairie burn. Our local fire department was hired to do the honors, which came with what seemed like an exuberant boast when one of the fireman excitedly exclaimed, “This is great! No more pancake flipping!” Firemen apparently love playing with fire more than flipping flapjacks. Unfortunately I seriously doubt if enough native prairie exists around these parts to burn on three to four year cycles to offset their traditional fundraising efforts. Yet, what happened after the burn was simply incredible. The flush! 

Like some magical enchantment the burn was followed by a beautiful rejuvenation of the forbs and grasses, one of unmatched beauty in our prairie. A “tired” prairie had come back to a full-fledged life. Magnificent colors throughout, and particularly in the yellows. From one end of these 14 acres to the other the color and depth was unbelievable. The yellow was then followed by a beautiful purple, a purple that unfortunately came with a price. An unwanted attention, for these were the blossoms of a fearful “weed” commonly called “thistles.”

A few days prior to the cutdown, our Listening Stones Prairie was rich with colorful forbs, from one end to the other.

With the turning of the calendar page to July all of that came into jeopardy. Apparently a complaint was filed concerning the thistles with the county weed inspector by a local farmer who spreads poisons on the field abutting our prairie by tractor or plane each season (although I’ve never filed a complaint about his reckoning with pollinators). Coincidently a farmer with an agreement from the neighboring commodity farmer arrived to mow and bale the right-of-way roadside shoulder grasses for hay and was coming through with his mower. 

Earlier in the week we had traveled down to the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge where they had brought in a mower that had simply topped off the blossoms of the offending thistles while leaving the prairie grasses and forbs tall and intact. Removing the heads prevents the thistles from going to seed, and eventually eliminates them from the prairie. What a wonderful idea, and one which was approved by the county weed inspector. So I stopped to chat with the man with the mower and explained what I needed done.

“What I need,” I told him, “is simply to top off the thistles. I do not want my prairie grassed mowed. I need the mower high enough just to top off the thistle blossoms. Can you do that?”

This was the last of the “yellows” … leveled to the ground.

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” he said while removing his hat to wipe his sweaty brow with his shirt sleeve.

“Remember, the mower blade must be high enough that only the tops of the thistles are cut. Nothing more. That’s gotta be the deal.”

In our bartering agreement he was free to mow and bale the grasses on the roadside shoulders alongside my prairie.

On the afternoon he showed up with his mower I again went through the exact same instructions, and he said he completely understood both my reasoning and needs. He headed into the prairie as I left to head downriver for a meeting in Montevideo. When I returned home a few hours later he was down to his last two acres, and my heart nearly stopped. My entire prairie was leveled as if it was a hay field. From the upper prairie down through all but the last couple of acres left on the lower. All of the flowering forbs were clipped and layered in with the grasses, all flat against the ground.

“Our agreement was that you were just topping off the thistles?” I yelled at him after running down his tractor.

“This is as high as my mower would go?”

“Why in the hell didn’t you recognize that and stop?”

Our same prairie today, a prairie that has never fully recovered from the mowing in 2017.

He shrugged as if nothing was amiss. It was just grass. Prairie grass, translated to say it meant absolutely nothing to him. Another neighbor suspected his intent was to eventually bale it for hay. What other use of prairie grasses is there? When he pulled out with his mower that was the last I’ve seen or heard from him. He didn’t even return to rake and bale the roadside brome he had leveled.

My prairie has never recovered. That prominent yellow has not been seen since, although there was hope that after our burn last spring during the pandemic that there might be a bounce back. There wasn’t, and I was reminded of that while walking through with my camera the other night. Present were ample purple and white prairie clover. Bee balm was scattered throughout, too. A handful of yellow daisies. Literally, in all 14 acres. This was not our colorful prairie of the past.

A sunrise when the prairie was in its full glory …

There couldn’t have been any miscommunication. My intent was made clear twice before he put the mower into the prairie. Yes, I agree that I should move along and get over it, yet it was about this time in 2017 when the inquiry about topping off the thistles was made. A gloomy anniversary, at best. All with the experience and knowledge that in no two years will a native prairie ever look alike. 

My interconnected paths through the upper and lower prairie are frequently taken with a camera in hand, and on this night as the evening settled in I ventured out once more and the memory of that fiasco hit home once more. This time with more force than normal. To date I’ve never sued anyone, and this incident was as close as I’ve ever come. Yet the reality is that I wouldn’t have won. Not in this commodity-rich cropping landscape, and not against a fancy attorney whose primary argument would be, “It was only a prairie.” 

Tag

Have you ever played tag with a Yellow Warbler? On an otherwise lazy afternoon the small bird tagged me by flitting into the young cottonwood next to our camper, jumping from branch to branch as if the smooth bark was coated in Tabasco. I say “he” because of his striking, bright yellow color. Colorful and bright colors in birds seems more common to the male of a given species than of a female. So I reached for my camera. Game on!

He had the advantage of the thick layers of leaves to flit and hop through, to hide with but a momentary peek over or through the foliage. Just when I thought I had him spotted and raised the camera lens to focus, he’d be off toward another hideaway. Then, just as quickly came a flash of yellow and he’d be off to another tree or to snuggle down to hide in the grasses blanketing the prairie of the Upper Sioux Agency State Park. Our little game would last off and on for parts of three days. For there comes a time when you realize there are fish to be caught or hillsides to explore.

Our simple goal was to practice trailer camper camping before a forthcoming two-week trip to Oregon and Washington, and to conveniently meet a branch of my Missouri family who had briefly interrupted their summer “Auntie Tour” to check out the Laura Engels Wilder haunts for their curious nine year old daughter, Lucy, who is an avid reader like most of our family tribe. Her great grandmother, and my aunt, created a bit of a reputation in her elderly years by purchasing book collections from decommissioned small town libraries. Her spacious garage contained rows of tables holding the books that she offered to any family member with an interest.

A pair of Chipping Sparrows did the honors of grabbing my attention away from the flashes of yellow!

Fortunately there were other distractions beyond the shy warbler. A pair of Chipping Sparrows captured my interest off and on, as did a frequent visit of a noisy Dickcissel that loved to grasp onto the highest naked perch of a barren shrub to rare back and sing as loudly as possible. It wasn’t beyond the imagination to suspect of some karma-influenced inheritance from some famous operatic soprano. There was simply no holding back of the Dickcissel. There never is.

Then, out of nowhere, came a warbler-sized mostly black bird with reddish stripes. I can now add an American Redstart to my birder’s list. Redstarts seem to have some kinship to the Yellow Warbler for it too loved to flit from branch to branch, and was just as adept at finding hideaways. Over the course of our second afternoon of tag I was able to make several brief sightings, and my quickest focusing was simply not quick enough. Neither of my two images were in focus.

Just as I was beginning to relax Mary alerted me to a new flash of yellow. Ah, yes. Goldfinches were also in the neighborhood! How could one forget? Within the blink of an eye and the leafy tree foliage it was difficult to distinguish which was which, then the male and female finches burst from the canopy and did one of those rolling tangled flights that only small birds seem able to maneuver; flights that make you wish for a nice movie camera so you could hopefully do a slo-mo later on to catch the actual acrobatics! 

A Dickcissel provided nearly a constant musical accompaniment throughout our game of tag!

Then came another flash. Whatever it was … Goldfinch or Yellow Warbler … was difficult to see. Perhaps a couple of leaves would wiggle out of the thousands that rose from a low hanging branch upwards to the top of the tree some forty feet above us. All with thick, leafy curtains that would give comfort to the shyest introvert. 

Yes, it was the warbler. And, no. Not a chance of being open long enough for a focus. A former colleague who eventually became a professor of photojournalism at a Denver-area university even sent a text message: “Auto focus!” When I offered a smite of protest he quickly answered, “Yeah, well I, too, only do manual focus.” Just for a kick, though, I tried it, with the focus bouncing around so much due to a prairie breeze tossing around the leaves that dizziness set in. 

So it was back to manual and the fate of aged reflexes. Years ago on a bluff overlooking a lake ravine near Annandale I played tag with a Blackburnian Warbler, my first ever sighting. That time I had a bit of an advantage, for I was younger with quicker reflexes, it was the middle of May and the leaves were in the budding stage. Though he was another nervous warbler I was able to capture numerous images before he tired of the game and disappeared into the distance. 

Finally, on the third morning, the Yellow Warbler was caught in our game of tag, and he seemed to sing, “It was the dew, Dingbat!”

Fortunately I’ve a somewhat recent habit of awakening quite early in the morning. Usually around 5:30 at the latest, and since we’re past the Summer Solstice this is just before sunrise. By the time I settled in with a cup of morning tea I’d had some fun working to capture a dawn fog hugging the prairie around a tipi next to our camper, so I had my camera handy when the minuscule yellow flash of bird suddenly appeared on a branch above my chair. Perhaps I can thank the fate of time for I was able to get in focus and grab a couple of photographs before he slipped through the leaves to head into the adjacent prairie grasses and shrubs.

The sort of evened the score. I was only behind something like 40 to 2 over the two days and heading into the third, yet it was just enough to up my game. Within moments he hopped up onto a prairie shrub, first turning this way, then that before hopping around to face the opposite direction, then flash … he disappeared into the grass. Suddenly he was back up on a nearby plant stem. My focus was just on when he decided to go airborne. And, I got my image! All the while he was chattering warbler language, which I actually translated to say, “It was the dew, Dingbat!” 

Just Down the Road

Since early in the pandemic our little nearby impromptu road trips seemed to take hold; times when the walls grew close and we sensed a need to breathe, to sense new air and landscape. These trips just down the road are long from being routine, for if so some of the adventure and joy might wane.

Usually Mary will make the suggestion late in the afternoon after a day of creative labor. She might have been in her “cave” piecing together one of her incredibly creative quilts, or perhaps dabbing her paint brushes into a mix of water color paints with Pandora on the Alexis. Here in my studio there never ceases to be something to work on … until it’s time to cook. I’m not a bad cook, although my wish is to create dinners with such of an array of flavors as Mary can create with a salad. Much like her quilts, her salads are rich with  both color and flavor.

Now when she suggests we hop in the car for a drive I reach for the keys along with my camera gear with hopes the battery is charged and there is room on the card. Her urgings are nearly impossible to decline for there seems to be something just waiting for us somewhere down the road. “Down the road” is somewhat like Christmas for we usually find a gift, although we simply cannot predict what might be in store. 

For years I’ve driven past this tree-lined wetland, yet on this one afternoon the light and color gave us a beautiful gift!

We’re blessed with wildlife nearly year round. We have ample whitetail deer, a few pheasants and even fewer wild turkey, plus we live on a birder’s “interstate” thanks to the ribbon of river “lakes” along the border starting with Lac qui Parle Lake, followed by Marsh, Big Stone and eventually Travis. We’re also blessed with multiple river tributaries and some steep, wooded ravines off the prairie. Across the lake in South Dakota is the Coteau des Prairies, still mostly undeveloped ­ — broad, hilly landscapes defying time.

One of our favorite drives is the nature loop at Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, although it has been closed for several weeks this summer for the resurfacing of the road. Foreman for the project is Mary’s son, Dan, which means we trust that the road will be more solid and less of a pothole haven than before.

No I don’t own a deer farm, yet there are herds of Whitetails around. This post sunset color gave us a wonderful gift!

Beyond the Refuge we have several routes through various grouping of what remains of the glacial prairie potholes to the southeast of us, and just down the road is Big Stone Lake State Park. This is the “Meadowbrook” section of the park, which is several miles from the northern Bonanza section. Meadowbrook is mostly prairie while Bonanza blends a hillside of prairie with a fine woodland that stretches along the banks of Big Stone Lake.

Nearly are many patches of restored prairie and undrained wetlands, mostly small “potholes” that are decidedly smaller than the bigger “lakes” or sloughs to the Southeast. Bless the farmers who leave them undrained!

A swallow grabbing a beakful of water on the Minnesota River provided a “minimalist moment.”

There are also some nice areas to scout near Mary’s Lake Linka cabin, too, although the ancient glacial moraine is under continued and serious attack by an ambitious farmer-barron who threatens the natural resources of the area with his conversion of the former prairie and pastureland to corn and soybeans. As an old Colorado rancher friend named Myles Craig would say, “Boys, them roots don’t grow much pointing upside down!” Yet, there is the protected Ordway Prairie, Lake Johanna Esker and Glacial Lakes State Park among other perpetual natural options bearing no names and catch-as-catch-can possibilities. The nearby Griffin Estate is one, with some of it in Nature Conservancy. 

Our late summer afternoons heading into twilight are special times for capturing interesting light and color. Almost as special as the colors of an awakening dawn, if one can awake early enough. On a recent evening we ventured to the north only a few miles and caught a beautiful cloudy and colorful sunset that set off a line of trees surrounding a wetland. I’ve driven past that wetland numerous times over the years without even as much as a glance, yet on this particular afternoon, with that light, a whole new life and look greeted us. Another lovely “Christmas” moment?

Catching the wild turkeys at roost was nearly a “bucket list” moment.

On another afternoon, after a somewhat monochrome sunset, we caught three deer in silhouette at the apex of a steep ravine that gave life and interest to the colorful sky. Again, just down the road. Then on the evening of the recent Summer Solstice we found a sky painted from a heavenly brush, strokes giving us colorful wisps of clouds hovering over a distant, curvy wetland to add a beautiful feature to the image.

More recently, thanks to the closure of the Refuge auto tour, we decided to circle the highway loop around the nearly 12,000 acre compound and caught the twilight afterglow at the Minnesota River bridge where gulls and swallows energetically swept over the river surface. A lone swallow diving for a beakful of water near a half submerged drift log brought us another wonderful gift. It was just the sort of split second moment we seem to find on these nights just down the road.

My recent Summer Solstice” image was taken “just down the road.”

Later, on the way home, as we motored past a 400 acre area section of the State Park where non-native “weed trees” are being removed and burned to release a natural fen, we caught a grouping of wild turkeys roosting in the branches of a barren tree. For years such an image was something I’ve wished to see and photograph, a quiet and unspoken moment we aged might call a “bucket list” item. Another wonderful surprise!

These gifted moments of grandeur and joy have all been just down the road, and we’re rarely disappointed. A photographer friend in Maine once asked if I owned an actual deer farm, and another artist friend once called this area a prairie paradise. There may be too much commodity farming for that to be a reality, yet having lived for years in the “black desert” of Chippewa and Renville Counties, some of the former glacial paradise remains around us. We are blessed with all of this nature and physical beauty … just down the road. 

A ‘Bumpy’ Ride of 400 Horses

It was several years ago when my artist friend, Dan Wahl, approached my cheeseburger and me at a table at Marshall’s Brau Brother’s Brewhouse with his sketchbook. “Here’s what I’ve been up to,” he said, opening the white pages to some of his first drawings of a huge personal mission. “My intent is to draw 400 horses.”

A couple of years later we were both part of a Southwest Minnesota Arts Council (SMAC) exhibit at the Hutchinson Center for the Arts. Dan had created a huge four foot by four foot “poster” of all 400 of his drawings and I found myself starring at the “postage stamp” images for much of the opening. Intrigued, and also somewhat stunned. There was so much to comprehend. Later during the initial Hinterland Art Crawl in Redwood County area, he strung fencing wire across a praireland pasture down to a small wetland and back where he hanged his drawings. Now they’re hanging on several cords across the second floor of a re-purposed building at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove.

This is an “interactive” exhibit, meaning that, as always, Dan is asking all who enter to create their own drawings of horses, which he is cataloging and keeping in a collection.

Before anyone comes to a conclusion about the exhibit they should realize that if they’re looking for 400 drawings that perfectly portray beautiful or famous horses, don’t. For this exhibit isn’t so much about the art as it is for the artist, and Dan’s artist’s statement offers such an explanation. He initially decided upon the arts project to “better understand the equine body structure” within the time line of a single year … 2015. For the record, each drawing is numbered.

“Why 400?” he asked. “Because 225 or 360 didn’t seem right. Four hundred seemed like a good, round number.”

Then something happened. And it’s all there, within all in those 400 drawings of an exhibit he calls “Don’t Doubt Your Horses.” “All” meaning the struggles he faced as an artist. This is the beauty of a well intentioned artist’s statement, where an artist treats us intimately to what and why of what they’re doing. A few years back artist Sarah Eckel had an exhibit of her paintings at the Prairie Renaissance Cultural Alliance in Morris that defied understanding until her artist’s statement was read … her paintings of hands searching over mounds of flesh, all hidden behind small black curtains, was a view you had to pry back the curtains to see and illustrated her frustrations of self image. 

Dan Wahl’s honesty was no less sobering, as reflected in both his statement and in his works … which vary from childish scribblings containing his notes of frustration to near “perfect” renderings of horses one might expect in such an exhibit, to some that would remind a viewer of a Bonnie Timmons illustration or a Picasso-like inked effort contained in flowing lines of artistic poetry. 

A few months into the project he faced what he describes as an “artist’s block. I didn’t know where to turn, or what to do. I was committed, although at that point I couldn’t continue.” Within the exhibit is drawing number 76, which looks like the circled sketches of a four year old over which he writes, “Haven’t drawn horses in a long time. I am forty-nine years old!” It was dated April 28, 2015 … a mere 69 days into the project. Wahl was some 324 horse drawings short of his projected goal. 

Dan said he journaled and meditated, and perhaps even said a prayer or two before realizing that the project wasn’t about making horse drawings, but “liking the horse drawings. If this project was to be completed at all, I would have to accept all the horses. Regardless of how they looked This was easier said than done.” Yes, it is all there in the 400 drawings, all of his angst and artistic frustration. And of the joys of mental freedom!

Yet that shift of focus from the act of drawing to the act of liking “necessitated a deeper appreciation of the horses themselves. In order to accept them I had to let them be who they were. Who they are.”

Yes, some would certainly be considered “bad art.” Those drawings an artist might either hide in their sketchbooks or perhaps even crumple up and ditch into a waste basket. “In the end,” he said, “it seemed right to include every single drawing into the one exhibit.”

To his credit this is precisely what he has done. At some point in the process Dan created a “limbo” box he used as a “repository” for his drawings. “They wanted to come out into the world but they weren’t quite ready,” he said, smiling his neon smile. “So I made them a resting place, a repository for waiting. It took me awhile to trust my horses enough to show everyone!”

The Hutchinson show was the initial “peek into the box” and thanks to a new SMAC grant, he and an aide are working on compiling both his drawings and the hundreds he has requested each and every viewer to draw. At his Walnut Grove showing a table has been set up with colored pencils and crayons and blank “postcards” for those so inspired, and many are. Along the outside walls he has hanged the drawings of the those efforts.

Every once in awhile there comes an exhibit by one of the prairie artists that requires a bit of time and effort to fully appreciate, to devour in depths of thought and eventual appreciation. Sarah Eckel’s exhibit at the PRCA gallery was one, and Dan Wahl’s is another. I have serious doubt that you can cross Wilder’s infamous Plum Creek on the way home without reliving and feeling some of the frustration, wonder and sighs of relief echoing from that second floor “repository” of Dan Wahl’s 400 Horses.

A ‘Blame’ Game

Those visible dirt particles were bellowing upwards of a couple hundred feet. With gusts up to 50 mph a brownish “fog” kissed the near horizon. Make “horizon” as just down the road not even a mile distant. And those light tan spots poking from the former prairie? Those tan spots of ever-growing exposed subsoil? We’re simply watching them grow, inch by inch, acre by acre, year after year.

It’s easy to blame the wind. Next to our small Listening Stones Farm prairie, though, my neighboring farmer, Travis Sandburg, has his soil perfectly protected with his row crops easing up through the radish and rye grasses he had recently sprayed. That 50 mph gusty wind? It was merely tickling the browned grasses while his soil remained protected from the winds as it had all fall, winter and spring. No-till planting into a cover crop. Travis even gained some of his neighbor’s dirt down the road where he had no-till planted into a stalk field. On this windy afternoon his field was mostly shrouded by a brownish haze ­— a neighboring dirt. Luckily for him he’s not an organic farmer, otherwise his status might have been compromised.

A towering haze of blown dirt outside of Clinton, MN, created by gusts up to 50 mph on soils unprotected by cover crops. Tan subsoils poke through the haze.

Millions of tons of dirt left fields across the vast opened prairie on this Tuesday afternoon, all from fields left unprotected. Those driving through the area noticed and spoke of it. It’s easy to blame the wind.

On a field just west of Clinton dirt was blown airborne in dense, swirling clouds. In the greater gusts towers of particles rose high into the sky. Through the dense darkness of the dirt cloud tan spots in the field poked through. A woman who lives in Clinton said, “It’s the ‘Dirty Thirties’ all over again.” She claimed to taste the fine particles. It’s easy to blame the wind.

Now is not the winter when snow provides a contrast to perfectly show blown and misplaced dirt. Most of it is black. Fine topsoil. That mixture is called “snirt,” and a few years ago poor farming practices provided me with a “canvas” for my photographic show, “The Art of Erosion.” I could duplicate the imagery every winter. In one field stretching across two miles of roadway about 20 miles east of here the erosion was so severe this winter that the farmer used two “tracked” tractors equipped with blades to scrape the blown black dirt back into his field before working it for planting. They worked the two-mile stretch on his side of the paved highway for days. His dirt on the ditch shoulder across the road remained untouched likely due to an inconvenience of transporting it somehow across the highway and back into his field. It’s easy to blame the wind.

Neighboring farmer, Travis Sandburg, planted a soil protecting cover crop after harvest last fall, then no-till planted his new crop into the chemically-treated grasses.

One of his neighbors further down the highway also scraped bucket loads of topsoil from a meadow overlooking the Pomme de Terre river. I don’t know what it costs to run a tractor over several acres of a meadow to collect dirt blown from a field, although it seems it would be far less expensive and convenient to simply plant a cover crop. It’s easy to blame the wind.

About the time these farmers were working to recoup their blown dirt a picture made its way into the printed media of a beautiful ancient mosaic that was discovered under tons of eroded dirt somewhere in the Mideast. This was one of many such images of past civilizations found beneath eroded sands and dirts over the years, all from cropping practices on fields cropped long before the switch from BC (a calendar era based on the traditionally reckoned year of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth) to AD (after his death). It’s easy to blame the wind.

As W. C. Loudermilk’s wrote in his published paper, “Civilizations and Soil Erosion”: “Present day archaeologists, in their postmortems on excavations of ruins of ancient civilizations, have revealed some very illuminating information. They now tell us that some former civilizations, one revelling in a Golden Age of prosperity and surrounded by magnificence and opulence, are crumbled in ruins, half buried in the dust and debris of their own destructive exploitation of the lands they once cultivated.”

A dusty haze hung over much of the ‘black desert’ as winds blasted the topsoils.

Such was a compelling and frightful theme in David R. Montgomery’s “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations” that, according to a published description, traced the role of soil use and abuse in the history of Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, China, European colonialism, Central America, and the American push westward. He described how each granule of dirt was pretty much historically ignored as it blew away until it was too late, adding to the end of previous civilizations. He warned that we’re now farming the “last frontier” of tillable soils on our planet. There is no more. It’s easy to blame the wind.

It’s the same as folks saw yesterday as they drove through what in our neck of the prairie is called the “black desert.” Fields left basically tilled and barren from the past harvest until we reach protective crop canopies in mid-June; where dirt is susceptible to blowing for nearly eight months over the course of time. Very few of those commodity farmers have adopted the practices of Farmer Sandburg by planting cover crops or even leaving stalk fields unplowed until spring, meaning they leave their and much of humanity’s soils vulnerable to the winds of winter. We watch the tannish brown areas, those hilltops of subsoils, grow ever larger, year after year. Where will the soils be when humanity reaches a point where those soils will need to produce foods we can actually eat? It’s so easy to blame the wind.

A portrait of a moraine “terra quilt” with blocks of subsoil on the rises mixed with “shashings” of black topsoils in the lowlands and valleys.

A friend who runs a grassed beef operation on an organic farm in the former glacial moraine about an hour east of here talks about how the landscape around her is now being converted from grasslands to commodity cropping. “They’re bringing their cultural farming practices up from the black desert to here on the hilly moraine, and every year there are more gullies washing away soil, and you can just watch the dirt blow away,” she said. “There is really no excuse nor need for row cropping the moraine. None.” 

As you drive through the moraine, or the “glacial shield,” even the recently converted fields have those telltale tan areas to create a terrain quilt with “blocks” of subsoil on the slopes and hilltops mixed with “shashings” of black topsoils settled in the lowlands and valleys. “Chemical farming” brings a semblance of somewhat balanced crop yields, yet those tannish brown areas grow ever larger, year after year. It’s easy to blame the wind. 

There was very little snow contrast on this two-mile stretch of highway where you couldn’t distinguish the field from the road ditch. Two tractors were used to scrape the blown dirt back into the field prior to planting, although the dirt that settled in the adjacent ditch across the road remained.

Travis Sandburg and other farmers like him, including my nephew in Missouri, Mark White, are learning the means and necessity of saving their soils from such heady winds that blasted the prairie on a Tuesday afternoon. There is even a Facebook group called “Everything Cover Crops” with lively forums and discussions among the adopters. Back in my farm journalism days we called these folks “early adopters.” Those are the folks willing to seek change for the betterment of the earth’s resources. Otherwise we have a shallow depth of life-sustaining topsoils for humanity being put at risk while we simply sit back and watch the black soil blow and the tan spots grow. It’s so easy to blame the wind.

Cluck, Cutt or Putt?

Our foray on Sunday morning was, in truth, a ritual of spring! At least for me. We were in search of the small reddish star-shaped lobes of prairie smoke, one of my traditional spring prairie plants. The site? The Lake Johanna Esker, an uneven swath of protected prairieland between Sunburg and Brooten on a curvy narrow country gravel road that courses past the Ordway Prairie, numerous unnamed wetlands and some dense stands of timber. Traversing the gravel road is a joy in itself. Then there is the esker, an untamed relic of a glacial past.

We had come on a May morning, one that was a bit chilly though beautiful. A great day for a saunter. About halfway through our sauntering foray a “clicking” sound became ever more audible. While I was knee deep in the hillside grasses focusing on a small purplish ground plum blossom poking through the duff, Mary had taken a seat on a broken branch of an old oak when we both heard the sound. Was it either a cluck, cutt or putt of an unseen possible wild turkey? Both of us heard it. If so, it seemed one was rather close with another off in the distance.

“I think that’s a wild turkey,” she said. “But I don’t see one, and I don’t know how close.”

It seems we were part of a nervous cutt rather than a fearful putt, for the wild turkey simply strided to the crest of the esker.

She was right. One was quite close though unseen. Those who brag of beard lengths and scratch slate to entice them may have deciphered whether these “clicks” signified whether the bird was simply announcing its presence to another in the flock, was aware but unafraid of something strange being in its vicinity, or if that oddness was actually a security threat. Apparently there is a subtle difference between the three differentiating “clicks”  …  which sound about the same to a mere novice.

When I stood moments later a lone turkey just a few meters behind us suddenly made several stealthy strides back up toward the crest of the ridge of the esker, stopping now and then to gaze down toward us. We were either part of the comforting cluck or the nervous cutt rather than a fearful putt … if we were to correctly read its movement and reactions. A putt would have no doubt meant a quick and noisy exit via a quick feather-fluffing flight rather than a stealthy stride!  

Yes, there was prairie smoke despite the recent prairie burn.

Our encounter with the wild turkey was at about the mid-point of our jaunt into the Pope County esker, a beautiful sanctuary for prairie forbs and birds. And, home to one of my certain annual milestones each spring, midway before the search along the Watson Sag for white ladyslippers and long after the appearance of pasque flowers on a virgin prairie hillside overlooking the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. Each is part of my annual  spring ritual. 

Over the years the esker, one of the few protected in Minnesota that is also accessible to the public, has never let me down. This saunter would follow suit for scattered throughout were the smallish reddish lobes daintily poking through the grasses, the petals forming fiery stars peeking through the ankle-high grasses. 

I loved finding the ground plum blossoms poking through the duff!

We were both relieved and pleased to have found them since large portions of the 806 acre grassy property that is protected by the Nature Conservancy and had been put through a controlled burn in recent weeks. Several stretches of the lower portion of the esker were left uncharred as was a portion of the 70 foot high serpentine ridge where we encountered the turkey. That ridge is the actual esker, comprised of an ancient sand and gravel stream bed deposited deep below the ice during the last glacier 10,000 or so years ago. For the past several centuries that old stream bed has been covered with earthen deposits supporting grasses, oaks, the stalky white blossomed field chickweed, prairie smoke and those scattered clumps of purplish ground plum. And, at least one wild turkey!

One of the nice surprises was the occasional field chickweed!

Morris area naturalist, Dave Jungst, introduced me to the esker several years ago and it has since drawn me back in a near pilgrimage ever since. Over the years I’ve made numerous images here of more than just prairie smoke. One of my favorite was of Sandhill Cranes that flew over as I sat in the grasses late one afternoon awaiting a colorful sunset as a hopeful blending background to a picturesque clump of prairie smoke. Another time I found my first showey ladyslipper near the marshy wetland on the edge of the site. And once a killdeer physically challenged the face of my camera lens as I lay belly-flat in the grasses trying to focus on a nearby flower.

One year the equally smallish white pussytoes provided a ground covering so solidly thick and white that the reddish prairie smoke lobes poking through offered a nearly perfect natural quilt that would have stunned even members of the American Quilter’s Society! Seemingly, this was a unique experience for it hasn’t happened since, and on our visit Sunday only a few small patches of pussytoes were spotted. 

The white quilt created by the pussytoes with the prairie smoke poking through was so thick it would have stunned even members of the American Quilter’s Society!

Yet, this is so true of nature. No two years are ever quite the same. Indeed, I was warned after planting my eight acres of restored native prairie here at Listening Stones Farm to never take a season, and particularly a year, for granted because no two years are the same. One year early on our prairie was so thick of yellow flowers of varied species that it glistened with a golden brightness that was nearly blinding as we crested the hill at the end of the section. The following year blues and purples dominated, and not once in the seven years since have we seen such a theme of yellow!

Before heading out to the esker on Sunday I had moments of wonder, and specifically if the prairie smoke was even in bloom. Between our house and the studio we have a small triangular native prairie garden where most years I can use it as a barometer for which native flowers might be in bloom out in the prairie wildernesses. So far the prairie smoke in my garden hasn’t popped a lobe yet this spring. 

The soft greenness of the leafing aspen along the edging was both catching and pleasing to the eye!

A few steps past the springed gate at the esker my concerns were quickly put to ease. Ample prairie smoke was spotted to photograph among so much more. The ground plum on the esker ridge, for one, was certainly a treat, and I spent long moments finding a pleasing angle with sparse field chickweed. Plus there was the soft greenness of leafing aspen along the edging of the esker was both catching and pleasing to the eye. Then there was the wild turkey “clicking away” in an undetermined language. Was it a cluck, cutt or putt? One may always wonder. 

Tease of the Tempest

Oh, April! You’re such a tempest. Teasing us with your loving and sensuous heat for a blessed moment before abruptly becoming frigid and distant. You bring warmth so satisfying and with such depth that our inner souls are soothed with comfort. Then, just as we were so nearly seduced you turned the other shoulder to show us a side of you so unwelcoming, so cold and distant we considered hiding.

What were we to do? There isn’t an answer. So we simply sat back and allowed your split personality to waver, to enjoy the momentary warming tease before you choose to freeze us away. This is quite a ride! 

Ah, yes. Those beautiful rays of sunshine that gave way to pelting rains and occasional snow. No boredom, my dear. None at all. You wavered from one moment to the next, from day to day. You brought us purplish pasque flowers on a gray day on a brown hill. So uplifting. So early. A few days later we met before dawn as the sun began to peek over this gnarly, long forgotten ridged bank of the Glacial River Warren, forever unplowed and strewn with rocks set free by the ancient icy river. 

On a recent morning a sunrise broke over our Listening Stones Farm prairie …

You actually gave off an appealing glow of warmth and happiness, offering us prairie flowers quite tiny and delicate though we’ve long known their toughness and persistence, of how they harken for spring before the other native forbs. How warming to the inner soul. On days like this, April, you remind us of naturalist and author Hal Borland who suggested “April is a promise May is bound to keep.” In a word, you give us hope. Then, as suddenly, you tried hiding all this soft bluish-violetness with whiteness. Cold and shivering whiteness.

Yet, dear April, you remind us of certain promises. One with a fly rod, or any fishing rod, with that familiar tug on the end of the line. Bluegills in the bay; Blue Bells in the woods! Bluish-gray Great Blue Herons wading in the shallows just weeks after ice out, lifting off at the slightest fear. Promises of pasque flowers and delicate blue daisies. Of nesting birds working feverishly to prepare for the future of their species. Of dark blue skies rising in the West that suggest a hopeful gentle rain, one that magically allows green to emerge in the turf. Of lilac leaves stretching away from spindly branches, and that reddish tint sparkling in the nearby woodlands and prairie riverbanks as buds venture forth. 

April brings us pasque flowers on a gnarly hill above the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.

With all this promise we tend to overlook the occasional flecks of snow, or the cold, wind-driven rain. Those happen, too. Some days we may initially don down coats, hoodies and even insulated pants before switching to shorts and a tee shirt by mid-afternoon. Galway-like days, always ever-changing with an atmospheric weather of  absolute confusion. Borland, author and son of the Nebraska and Colorado plains and prairie, offered this: “The longer I live and the more I read, the more certain I become that the real poems about spring aren’t written on paper. They are written in the back pasture and the near meadow, and they are issued in a new revised edition every April.”

Indeed!

You gave us sunrises late enough for an old man to see, with sunsets glowing in both pastel and vividness well before bedtime. All that color alive in the sky; all that spring poetry, and yes, none of it on paper. Winter has passed us, though those random flecks of snow on a gray and chilly day serve as a too-recent reminder. Spring showers bring a greenness to inspire, yet it’s those gorgeous sunny days that are the best. Warmth without the heat and humidity of summer. Another promise!

April brought us Galway-like weather … sun one minute, snow the next, with some gentle rain in the mix.

With your warmth we watch a pilgrimage to the greenhouses and farm fields. Another promise. As I write this my neighboring farmer whose commodity crop field abuts our Listening Stones Farm prairie is hard at work with spring tillage. I must take note of the your sunrises, the shape and feel of the horizon to remember in the heat of summer. Yes, April, you remind us of horizons with those moments of rapidly changing color; color in the coming and in the going. The sunrise. The sunset.

This morning you gave us a perfectly splendid prairie sunrise with just enough clouds stretching across our prized horizon to give the rising sun a stage perfect for a performance that would be cliche if not for those too many mornings when you offered us only an overcast grayness. This is when you allow us to enjoy this marriage between horizon and prairie as a magnificent bonding experience. “As a mountain is high, a prairie is wide; a horizontal grandeur, not vertical,” wrote the late essayist, Bill Holm. Indeed. 

She brought sunrises late enough for an old man, and sunsets early enough, too!

Oh, April! Your mornings, long past the Equinox and headed steadfastly toward the Summer Solstice, are the clues of an awakening of the natural world. This we’ll give you as you stretch your arms and yank back the covers on another spring. Unlike March, which is the blinking of the eyes after months of sleep, you are an awakening that now becomes serious ­— sometimes calmly, sometimes anything but. A tempest of both seduction and spite, all awaiting a calmness a calendar calls May.