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.”


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. 

Chasing Cats

Along with the ease of my paddle slipping into the murky waters came a comforting sense of once again being one with the Minnesota River. An intermittent facing breeze riffled the waters as we pushed off from the Wegdahl landing between Granite Falls and Montevideo heading upriver. This was my first paddling of the year and my shoulder weakness, particularly on the left side, was apparent.

“Tom,” I said to my longtime friend, paddling and fishing partner, outdoor writer Tom Cherveny. “Give me a little time to find my rhythm. It’s been a long winter.”

A split second after taking this photo of the woodland stream, a big deer bolted from the woods to leap across the stream as I was placing the cell phone in a secure plastic bag.

“No problem,” came his response. This wouldn’t be the first time he has “pushed me through.” We’ve paddled canoes for many years of our friendship. On the Minnesota as well as the other upper Minnesota River tributaries, on several area “motor-less” lakes and in the BWCA. Cherveny is an experienced and excellent paddling partner, and on this lazy Saturday afternoon our quest was to bring home a stringer of channel catfish.

For years we would slip into a canoe in his hometown of Granite Falls and paddle downstream to the then Minnesota Falls dam, which we would portage around before having a picnic lunch while angling in the waters below the dam. Fortunately the dam is now only a memory as the river has been returned to a natural state of interesting rapids. Typically that trip would happen in April or early May, which meant it was usually the second or third of our annual springtime paddles.

Outdoor writer Tom Cherveny unhooks a channel catfish on an earlier outing on the Minnesota River.

For many years we would tackle the stretch between Wegdahl and Granite as soon as the river was freed from ice, and sometimes that meant putting in as early as the first weekend of March. Death water, and only once did it cause heart palpitations. That was a spring of extremely high water, and the current from above was colliding with the water being backed up by the dam to cause our canoe to rollick and roll in the frigid waters. No one would have survived a capsize in that combination of unrestrained currents and the near freezing water temperature. Otherwise it was a wonderful trip for observing geese, ducks and eagles, which seemed plentiful on every bend of the river. 

Eagles were scarce Saturday afternoon, and we saw only a couple of pair of Canada Geese. Wood ducks were plentiful, though, and broke often from the wooded banks and from the trees on the entire paddle upriver to the first major turn after the straightaway … probably a couple of river miles upstream. 

Reflection #1.

The water wasn’t extremely high on this jaunt, yet it was high enough that we canoed easily over the rapid field as if it didn’t exist. Tom’s idea was to paddle upriver against the current to the bend heading due east. This bend heads into the long lower leg of the wide “u” that then takes two 45 degree turns before the river cruises beneath the Highway 212 bridge toward Prein’s Landing just outside of the city limits of Montevideo.

It wasn’t long before my shoulder muscles warmed up enough to ease into the routine so I could take some of the paddling pressure off Tom in the stern. Our route was accented by dimpled reddish hues of springtime buds on trees along the banks of the river, adding to the beautiful fleeting color of the wood ducks … perhaps the most beautiful of the duck species if not the entire avian universe. 

And certainly, after all of the rain these past few weeks, seeing a cloudy yet sunny sky was a blessing. If there was a “down” on the afternoon paddle it was the drone of traffic on the parallel highway. When I’m driving on the highway, though, passing this stretch of the river brings back many memories of paddling through here over the many years; along, of course, with the many fishing memories. Our afternoon would add to those, no doubt.

Reflection #2.

In high water a temporary island appears on the first turn after the Wegdahl bridge, and just past the island along the bank is a deadfall that seems to always produce some nice catfish. This would be our last stop on the way home a few hours later. 

When we eventually reached our intended destination at the top bend of the straightaway, where a small stream eases through the woods to empty into the river, I pulled my cellphone from the Ziplock to take a picture of the stream. A split second later as I was slipping it back into the bag, a deer suddenly bolted from the woods and leapt across the stream. “Shit!” I shouted. “That missed picture will haunt me for the rest of my life!”

“It probably isn’t your only missed picture,” came the response from the stern. How true.

Reflection #3.

Once tethered to a branch of a deadfall, our lines went into the waters and the wait began. Fishing is another term for the wait, and conversations between old friends and writers ensued. These are some of my favorite moments. Tom has paddled probably every lake in the BWCA at some point, and has hundreds of stories. I’ve begged him for years to put those memories into a book. 

Here’s one: Years ago a Scout Troop leader, Dan Stephens, inexplicably left his canoe and group in search of a portage, and lost his balance hopping over a rock in the deep woods and was knocked unconscious, resulting in confusion and a concussion. His was one of the two stories in the book “Lost in the Wild” (by Cary J. Griffith, Borealis Books). Griffith writes of a paddler’s group that was stopped by rescuers and asked to break down Stephens’ camp and drop off his tent and other items at the headquarter’s office in Ely. That “group” was Cherveny and his sons.

Reflection #4.

On Saturday he had another interesting tale involving a bear hunting companion with serious health issues who joined him on a hunt in the BWCA this past September. When Tom returned from his post his friend was nowhere to be found, and due to his friend’s heart condition and bad knees, the time of day and temperature, Tom called for help from the search and rescue squad. This resulted in a massive manhunt that included manpower on the ground plus a helicopter and float plane. Around dusk he was found two lakes and a muddy marshland away, and hopelessly lost when the helicopter pilot spied the man’s campfire. 

I mean, what better way to spend a springtime afternoon than catfishing and listening to another Cherveny tale? Not all of the stories, though, are as dramatic as these.

The haul! And a couple of dinners promised! So yes, “A great time was had by all!”

As the afternoon passed, we began bringing catches to the gunwales. We normally do rather well with the rods, and this was no different. Tom was in the stern last summer and netted my 8 lb. walleye, and years before he witnessed a great hour of wilderness walleye fishing below a falls in a BWCA lake when I used a deer hair jig I had made. On this afternoon I personally landed three different species of fish, including a nice channel, and Tom did even better on the catfish as we worked our way back down river toward the landing. Wood ducks, and a huge turkey tom, made their appearances on our way back before we stopped at the deadfall just upriver of the island.

Besides the fish, a few reflection photos found their way onto my cell phone to help ease the pain of my missed photograph of the leaping deer. Little did any of it matter as much as simply being out on the Minnesota sharing a commune of nature with an old friend. As a late prairie wordsmith and colleague, Whoopy Warrings, was prompt to say, “A great time was had by all!”

Cranes and Cottonwoods

From the photography blind on the North Platte River last week while awaiting poet William Stafford’s “far wanderers,” my view was of a nearby horizon of cottonwoods extending across the wide, shallow and flat waters. Huge limbs reaching skyward from the tall trees, strong and stately, were silhouetted black against the dull gray rain-drenched sky. Cottonwoods, like the sandhill cranes, have a way with me, and on that afternoon in central Nebraska was no different as I sat and awaited the magical arrival of the birds.

Staring at the trees, awaiting, briefly took me back to my childhood home in Missouri where we had a beautiful and stately cottonwood near a farm pond, one I could see while laying on my bed in the upstairs sleeping porch. Much like when he was a young boy growing up about 30 miles west of my Missouri home, Walt Disney spent hours laying beneath the canopy of a huge cottonwood he called his “dreaming tree.” So here we were seeing dozens of them.

Sedges continued to fly in and land on the other side of the cottonwoods despite the shallow waters and sand islands right in front of my blind.

These “dreaming trees” across the shallow river would be stage-front of my next 16 hours of sandhill crane viewing and photography. Later, as that unmistakable melodic chorus of the sandhill music filled the prairie air across the North Platte in the chilly, rainy wind, I was eagerly prompted to open the side window of the blind and peer through the hazy moistness at the cottonwoods hoping the cranes would begin landing on my side of the trees. My section of the river was shallow, too, with sandy islands just like on the opposite branch of the river. A half dozen bald eagles attested to that.

A satellite view of my photo blind at the Rowe Audubon Center … the small brown square in the lower righthand corner!

Hope and patience are typically virtues you need when entering a photography blind, especially with sandhill cranes as your subject. Both would be necessary virtues claimed the volunteer driver who escorted me through the scrubby browned prairie grasses toward the photography blind at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary earlier in the afternoon. We were drenched by a rain that wouldn’t abate until the following morning, with winds rocking the front of the blind at speeds alternating between 20 and 30 mph. The temperatures were in the high 40s. 

This was my second sandhill crane migration within this funneled stretch of the North Platte where ancestral birds have passed through on migrations northward for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Eons. After arriving around 4 p.m. and setting up the cot and organizing the layout, I eased into the camping chair with little to do but wait for when the birds might appear. “Might” is the key word, for once again the warning was issued that the birds had thoughts of their own on where they might overnight. Meaning, that they might decide to eloquently drop from the sky right in front of the blind, or somewhere different. Like across the river and behind the curtain of dreaming trees.

The dance of courtship was prevalent as we passed the many stalk fields filled with cranes.

“We have no way of knowing,” offered the volunteer. “We can’t make promises other than that you will see birds. At last count we had more than 645,000 in the valley.”

Our driving around the area earlier gave his comment credence. Thousands of them filled the stalk fields, wading in puddles and performing their dancing preludes of courtship. That wasn’t a promise of having them overnight right in front of the blind, though. Three years earlier we learned the importance of patience. We were in a Crane Trust blind downriver some 40 miles near Wood Lake, NE, and had received a similar forecast and warning before watching helplessly as sedge after sedge drifted down from the heavens around a bend a half mile to the west. Mary preached patience, and on that night her calming reassurance was that the birds would come. Then, with the sun truly sinking below the western horizon, a huge sedge suddenly drifted down directly in front of our blind not 30 meters away. This sedge was followed by seemingly thousands of other sandhills. Would I be so rewarded this time?

In the morning the sun peeked through the clouds as the smaller sedges filled the skies.

As the wind and rain battered the small, 6 ft. by 8 ft. blind at Rowe, I was holding onto both hope and patience as I glanced out a covert slide-down window on the side of the blind protected from the pelting rain. Above the stately skeletons of the bared cottonwoods on a slip of land just across the Platte, hundreds of sandhills were coming to roost. Sedge after sedge. Occasionally there would be an “explosion” when literally thousands of the cranes would suddenly erupt to rise above the cottonwoods before returning behind the separating spit of land.

My patience was not rewarded, although sitting comfortably in snow pants and a parka staring across the river at the distant cottonwoods and cranes was still relaxing in a Zen-like way for I was sharing a moment repeated in geological natural history spread over eons, and I was a witness. Just being in the blind observing and hearing the cranes, a chorus accented by the blustery wind, was sweet music. After all, I was dry and warm, and would remain so despite a fitful night of sleep. 

Sometime early in the morning, with the skies still in complete darkness, I was jerked sleepily from the warmth of the sleeping bag when a sudden crescendo of sandhill wings and calls filled the sky. Outside the blind window, deep into the dark pre-dawn mazarine sky, barely visible black crane silhouettes filled the air as if I were inside of a sky-wide umbrella. Oh to have had any semblance of light! It seemed the entire universe, all 645,000 of cranes by the volunteer’s count, had taken to the sky as one.

The “far wanderers” flew with grace and beauty.

With the coming of dawn, though, there were still numerous sandhills around as sedge after sedge rose from the river through the framing of the cottonwoods. My volunteer said someone would come once the cranes had departed for the nearby grain fields, and that it could be anytime between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. As at Crane Trust, the birds continued to fly in small sedges up and down the length of the river. With the sun finally peeking through the clouds and a wind now eased into a slight prairie breeze, I opened all the blind windows to watch, going from one to the other with my camera, capturing what I could while watching with wonder and admiration.

No, they wouldn’t ease down to overnight right in front of me despite my hopes and patience. There are worse fates, and our trip was delightful regardless. We met with friends from near here for one of the few times since the pandemic to share a lunch and a trip to a delightful art museum before meeting later on a state park bridge with other birders with more hope and patience as we once again waited for the sedges of sandhills to land on the nearby shallow sand islands of the North Platte. A grouping of a half dozen white-tailed deer played in the river as the sun graced us with a most colorful and beautiful sunset. There was no need to question the definition of magic. 

From the bridge we caught several sedges in the sunset, adding magic and wonder to the moment.

Yet, there we were, witnesses of the entrancing wonder of a spring crane migration, of which Stafford writes in his poem, “Watching Sandhill Cranes:

Spirits among us have departed ­— friends,

relatives, neighbors: we can’t find them.

If we search and call, the sky merely waits.

Then some day here come the cranes

planing in from cloud or mist — sharp,

lonely spears, awkwardly graceful.

They reach for the land; they stalk

the ploughed fields, not letting us near,

not quite our own, not quite the world’s.

People go by and pull over to watch. They

peer and point and wonder. It is because

these travelers, these far wanderers,

plane down and yearn in a reaching

flight. They extend our life,

piercing through space to reappear

quietly, undeniably, where we are.

Celebrating an Odd Anniversary

Isn’t this where we came in last year? Back in March? With the Snow Geese and White Fronteds flying through? With murmurations of black birds poetically gracing the skies? With something called a coronavirus threatening worldwide mankind, a pandemic creating fear not seen in our lifetimes? 

Now, a year later, with similar plans to head to Nebraska for the Sandhill Crane migration, a trip that was canceled last March because of Covid-19, we move hopefully forward with less fear and a sense of confidence for the future. Thankfully a year ago our human consternation didn’t halt the Sandhills nor did it stop the murmurations or those stretching skeins of geese gliding noisily overhead. It stopped only us.

Finally, thanks to vaccinations and covid consciousness, we seem to be closer to our former normality. A couple of weeks ago it seemed warm enough to invite friends home from Texas for a steak fry. Not warm enough to break a sweat, yet with enough warmth to carry the deck table and chairs from the studio and the bag of charcoal out to grill the first steaks of spring. All of us were vaccinated and we still practiced social distancing. It was a glorious and welcomed night. Then, a couple of days later the deck was once again covered with snow. 

The skies, stretching from horizon to horizon, were dotted with skeins.

Yet, what a week! The warmth. The “political calm” that has seemed to settle in since the inauguration. Beautiful arrays of sunrises and sunsets that have been both joyous and spectacular. Plus we have watched nature awaken around us. On a recent morning a male pheasant, with those red eye patches in contrast to those startling green facials, was striding through the path where half-melted cross country ski tracks were cast in twin shadows. His stride was as if he owned the prairie, which I suppose he has as much right to ownership as I. 

Then suddenly came a second rooster, and a third. I called for Mary, and we watched a parade of male pheasants, perhaps ten, as they followed one another in near military formation up the path cut through the tall bluestem. It’s not that we don’t see pheasants in our restored prairie. Usually a sighting comes on a startled flight after being flushed by Joe Pye.

Thus the curtain was drawn on the breaking of Spring, of our highly anticipated anniversary when the sight of normality seems within our collective grasp. In the intermittent warming, with quilts flapping on the clothes line, our first small murmuration of redwing blackbirds circled the grove, scurrying from tree cluster to tree cluster, then into the bluestem for nutrition. Later, on the way home from picking up a borrowed cot for our trip next week to central Nebraska for the Sandhill Crane migration, we passed a murmuration stretching as far as we could see. It was a blackbird vortex rising from a field into the sky. One of those had we been distant would have been pure feathered choreography.

For more than a week the Snow and White-fronted have been in the wetland just over the rise from our prairie.

What has been so rewarding and entertaining for us, though, has been the unexpected arrival of a massive flock of Snow and White-fronted Geese that chose the wetland over the rise from our prairie to recoup and recharge on their way to their Subarctic and Arctic homes. They began arriving on a Sunday afternoon while I was on a call from nature at Maplewood State Park. Just two hours after having a solo picnic in a parking lot overlooking a frozen lake that was surrounded with hillsides of snow, I walked out of the garage to see a skyful of skeins overhead. As with the pheasants, this is just something that causes you to pause in appreciation. 

The skeins continued to fill the sky for a couple of hours. Thousands upon thousands of geese, high in the sky, all heading northeasterly. After sitting on the deck with a nice white wine (a prelude to summer, right?) while watching them for quite some time I finally broke down and headed to my studio to fetch my camera. There was both ample time and opportunity in the skies above. We have no way of even guessing how many flew over, though they were in the thousands.

We passed this huge murmuration of “black birds” that would have been poetry in the skies is seen from the side, stretching for as far as the eye could see.

Then the surprising magic occurred as they began filling the melting wetland just over the rise. We could hear them at night, and in the morning as the sun rose. They seem to be feasting, noisily, in adjacent fields, with as many arrivals as there are those leaving. It’s a constant movement that has now lasted for at least a week and a half. In time silence will announce their departure. 

Having such closeness to the natural world reminds us of life unencumbered by a human pandemic and the ills of our human existence as reported in the news. We can now offer a sweet sigh of relief as this anniversary, marked by the timeless migrations of our feathered nature, that a blip of our human history, one churned by ugly politics and those that questioned the reasoning of science which might have saved countless lives, is seemingly evaporating in front of us. 

What a joy of watching this seasonal ritual of nature unfold before us, helping us celebrate this odd anniversary of our personal human survival after the pandemic.

We should rejoice in this odd anniversary of mankind that we’ve survived to hear the geese as we lay for sleep, that we can watch with wonder with their coming and going from the nearby wetland, that the winged poetry of the murmurations are still in the skies and that within a week we’ll be seated in an overnight blind witnessing once again the magnificent Sandhill Crane migration in central Nebraska. All is most welcomed. 

A Continuing Disaster

March is said to be the month of winds, which perhaps means the originators of the saying didn’t live in a prairie for we seem to have winds all year long. Especially in the wintery months. When you subject that constant with farming practices that perhaps began with the first of the early settlers you can only imagine the result. Well, you really don’t need to imagine, for a drive along most any rural road will illustrate the sad results.

If it were not for the contrast given by the snow perhaps the unaware would likely miss seeing all the fine particles of dirt blown into the roadside ditches and across the windswept prairie. A few days ago my friend and fellow blogger, Jim VanderPol, and his wife, LeeAnn, drove to the edge of their mostly grassed farm where they raise hogs and cattle on perennial grasses to catch a glimpse of a late February wind and the results of a winter’s worth of windblown soils from a neighbor’s tilled and bared field.

LeeAnn filmed a short video of Jim walking into the muck covering his grasses where he bent down, grabbed a handful chilly mud before disgustedly wiping it off his hand. Behind him the near horizon was a hazy brown, which for Chippewa County is far too common. The mud blanketed his grass for nearly 40 feet fron inside the fence (catch the video on his blog at http://www.pasturesaplenty.com). 

Jim VanderPol with a handful of mud from his neighbor’s tilled field. Behind him the dust storm erodes even more of the topsoil.

Several miles north of the VanderPol’s, on a hillside overlooking the Pomme de Terre River, so much dirt has blown off a field that the complete hillside, which is a grassed meadow, is entirely blackened with the dirt blown from an adjoining crop field. This is a valley hillside of the Pomme de Terra River, meaning that some of that dirt will eventually seep into the river. If not the soil, then the washable nutrients placed on the crops and embedded in the dirt are certain to drain into the river. 

Roadside ditching are thick with wind-eroded dirt. Some on both sides, and on one stretch of a county road near here there is more than a mile long where drainage ditches on both sides are blackened with wind-eroded dirt. So thick you cannot tell where the field edge exists. Not on the same road is a farm home where an entire yard was encrusted in black through the winter. Dirt that had blown across the highway to become clogged in the drifts of snow duned by the trees in the adjacent grove before lapping around the northwest corner of the house and into the front lawn. Besides the house, the only object not covered in blackness was the propane tank! All from a field across the highway. 

These on-site observations comes on the heels of a report published in late February by three geoscientists from the University of Massachusetts … Evan Thaler, Isaac Larsen and Quin Yu … called “The Extent of Soil Loss Across the U.S. Corn Belt.” Their use of high definition satellite imagery across an eight-state Corn Belt swath, including Minnesota, showed that A-horizon (nutrient-rich topsoil) was essentially no longer present on convex slopes. If you’re crossing the former prairie and current commodity crop complex this evidence are all those tan or light brownish spots you see on the rises in the fields where the topsoil has eroded ­– what VanderPol was holding in the palm of his hand in the video. “The A-horizon was almost always gone on hilltops,” says Thaler.

The geoscientists calculated that about a third of the crops in the eight-state Corn Belt are being grown on erosion-prone, B-Horizon soils … evidenced by the tan colored soils shown here. That estimate is far higher than those published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “I think the USDA is dramatically underestimating the amount of loss,” Thaler adds.

The low areas are medium to dark brown on the satellite imagery, which is where some of the A-horizon soil has eroded to. When the prairie was first broken a century and a half ago, those soils, including what you now see as tan B-Horizon sub-soils, was covered with about a foot and a half of fertility rich topsoil. By the mid-1970s nearly half that topsoil had already been lost to both wind and runoff erosion. Despite such conservation efforts as contour plowing and various set-aside strategies that paid farmers to keep marginal land out of production, the soil losses continued. This was more than 50 years ago and the erosion continues on soils that are left bare from fall plow-down in October and November until there is some sort of plant protection by the following June. In other words, soils are left unprotected for nearly nine months. 

The geoscientists calculated that about a third of the crops are being grown on erosion-prone soils. That estimate is far higher than those published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “I think the USDA is dramatically underestimating the amount of loss,” Thaler adds.

This isn’t a pretty sight, and it’s also a dangerous one. In his sobering book, “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations,” David R. Montgomery wrote, “Projecting past practices into the future offers a recipe for failure. We need a new agricultural model, a new farming philosophy. We need another agricultural revolution. Unlike the first farmer-hunter gatherers who could move around when their soil was used up, a global civilization cannot.”

Wind erosion is only a part of the issue, as evidenced by this image of clear water (below) entering the Minnesota River from Beaver Creek near Renville. The outline of dirt edges the clear water as all enters the perpetually muddy Minnesota.

In other words, this is it: we are growing crops on the earth’s very last productive soils. “The estimated rate of world soil erosion now exceeds new soil production by as much as 23 billion tons per year, an annual loss of not quite one percent of the world’s agricultural soil inventory. At this pace, the world will literally run out of topsoil in little more than a century,” adds Montgomery. “It’s like a bank account from which one spends and spends, but never deposits.” 

Once again there are farming techniques that might preserve these last few inches of productive topsoil including using cover crops. Those farmers who have bitten the bullet to integrate cover crops into their cropping repertoire have reported some significant benefits even beyond protecting their soils from erosion. Better water retention, a disruption of weed issues and less compaction, among them. Perhaps what is known as “conservation tillage” has helped in some degree, although driving past those fields indicates “not much.” Perhaps the least expensive alternative is to simply leave the corn stalks untilled until just before planting … when the soil is worked once again regardless. On soybean and sugarbeat fields, there is little to no protection whatsoever.

“Don’t these guys even notice the erosion?” Apparently not.

Someone even suggested that perhaps a solution to change would be to forbid those guilty of such erosion should lose their crop subsidy benefits. Regardless, too much of the remaining topsoil is subject to both wind and runoff erosion, and there appears to be quite a lackadaisical attitude among those who tend to the land. How many times have we asked one another as we drove past those miles upon miles of dirt covered roadside ditches, “Don’t these guys even notice the erosion?”

Apparently not.