Awaiting a Hummingbird

So here I sit on my little old and weathered wooden deck awaiting a hummingbird. My main effort in today’s 96 degree heat was to replace two of the feeders that aged to leak extensively, to a point where I became concerned about the price of sugar.

My Sauvignon Blanc is chilled which helps with the heat. So far, and perhaps due to the drought provided by the previous distributors of sugar water, no hummingbird has happened by. A pair of oriels flew past, noted my presence in the Adirondack chair, and alit in branches of the nearby tree to express their displeasure. I use the phrase reluctantly because at any other time I would call their peepy chants a protest. Protest is a word to be used selectively in such times.

My time now on the deck, despite the horrid heat, is necessary for in a few weeks the neighbor’s corn will reach such a height that my horizon will disappear until harvest. This happens with 12 ft. high corn, which clues tell me is of the GMO family. A few days ago the son, who I suppose is now the farmer of record, covered the rows with a spray which I assume is Roundup. I worked long enough in the agricultural public relations field to realize that the chemical is within the contact classification, that his corn will pass it through their cells and reach for the heavenly skies. My main issue with GMO crops is the Bt insecticide chemicals “bred” into the cell structure. Which, bottom line, is lethal to bees and other beneficial insects as well as the nasty ones.

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Making photographs before or after the sun appears offers some nice color surprises.

His crops contrast my prairie and the native plants here in my gardens. It is what it is. Long story short, without my work as a freelancer and later in the advertising industry I couldn’t have afforded to buy this patch of earth that now hosts an eight acre native prairie. My joy is being a thorn in the side of what is considered “modern industrialized agriculture.” My Art of Erosion exhibit was one such thorn, a sort of penance for the ills of my career.

In the distance come the “barks” of pheasants, and around me songbirds are vocally active. My small Listening Stone Farm has been somewhat of a refuge these past few months as we now enter our fourth month of coronavirus. As restrictions are being lifted, our North Woods-looking “lodge” restaurant down the road has opened the patio along Big Stone Lake. We have tried to spread our takeout buys over the course of the lock down. About once a week we buy from one of the restaurants we would normally visit. Hopefully all can survive and resume their fare.

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These Prairie Smoke were in silhouette on the Lake Johanna Esker. Thanks to digital technology I was able to pull the color out of the shadows.

All is not well, though, due to the blatant murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop last week. Cities and smaller communities around the globe are in protest, and in some situations, violent ones while our un-presidential president fans the flames of discord and bigotry. Perhaps waiting for a hummingbird in such times seems so childish, yet I wonder what good would an old white man be on the streets. Years ago, in the mid-1970s, a black roommate took me on a drive one warm Sunday afternoon to give me my first lessons on white privilege. We were headed into downtown Denver when he pulled into a convenience store. “Let’s get something to drink,” he said.

When we entered the store the clerk addressed John, my roommate, asking if he needed any help. I walked on by without giving it a thought or question, pulled a cold Diet Coke from the cooler and went to pay. John had a helper following him around the store, being “helpful,” and later back in his pickup he asked, “So, did you notice any difference in how we were treated?”

“You got service and I didn’t,” I said.

“No. I got attention and you didn’t. Let’s try a couple of more places.” Same thing. As we neared City Park we passed a young black man running on the sidewalk. “See him?” John asked as he pulled over. “Now, did you look in front to see where he was going, or behind him to see if he was being chased?”

A starling flew close enough to almost feel the breeze from his wings en route to the light colored driveway to drop a poop sac from its nest. They’re like soft-shelled little white eggs but aren’t. A few years ago starlings raised such ire with some owners of suburban swimming pools that letters were arriving at the big dailies asking what course of action should they take. My guess is that such questions about bird behavior are easier to write than on how one can be more compassionate to a neighbor of color. Maybe I missed those letters. Perhaps it’s just easier to phone 9-1-1 to report a possible assault.

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After pulling the color from darkness with the Prairie Smoke, I tried the same with a Columbine here on the farm. It seems there is a “Valentine” heart as a backdrop.

Like during the pandemic lock down, some of this time during the protests has been used to go afield. The other morning before dawn I was photographing an emerging Prairie Smoke. Later while processing from RAW to a usable image, I lightened the flower just enough to expose the seemingly latent color. Rather than a silhouette I then had an image that was almost magical … appearing as a rediscovered Impressionistic painting perhaps. That night I tried using the same technique in the fading sunset, pairing up a Columbine image with the one of Prairie Smoke. A few evenings ago I tried the same technique with White Prairie Ladyslippers. This is what we do. In troubled times we create. Perhaps bringing the color out of the darkness was a subconscious move. It wasn’t a conscious effort for George Lloyd or any of my friends of color.

Besides, what is an old white man going to do on the streets of Minneapolis? Eight hours of highway time, round trip? What effective means can I add to the protest? This is everyone’s “battle” … learning to not just accept our neighbors of color, but to also adjust to a necessary equalization. One of where an old Native man, or an elderly Black man, can sip a chilled beverage on a faded, worn wooden deck awaiting the feverish flight of a hummingbird without worry. Without concern for his children, or his children’s children; that they can have equal opportunity for good jobs and a life free of worry and confrontations of “white privilege” or any form of police brutality or lynching. It’s 400 years too late in coming, but maybe like a hummingbird, it may come.

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A prairie meadow in dusk across the road from the patch of White Ladyslippers.

It’s a nice day out. Hot, even for this time of year. A news story hidden among the protest stories told of how global warming has extended Minnesota summers by at least a week. That’s on top of higher heat indexes, and if we pay close attention we can observe even more subtle changes in nature. Climate change is now a younger person’s battle. My generation … we “hippies” or members of the “counter culture” …  tried creating and leaving a better world for our children and grandchildren, yet many of those victories in our time have been reversed by greed and corporate favors. We can only hope those moving into their decision making years will have solutions and more success in saving both our humanity and our planet, in creating a worldly environment of peace and equality for all regardless of race, gender, age or religion.

So it comes down to this; this old man sitting on the deck along a restored prairie with a sparkling new plastic sugar-water feeder waiting for the arrival of a hummingbird, and realizing how joy may sometimes be found in something so minuscule and fleeting.

Beside the River

Some days you don’t know when you need to be beside a river. Until you’re there.

Times when you become quite wrapped up in worldly traps and concerns. Times like we’re now facing as a worldwide species under attack from an unseen and unpredictable virus, a threat so small yet so huge we can’t see it nor know how to combat it. Times like now.

For me sitting along a river doesn’t seem as an isolation. Does this makes me different?

If truth was to be revealed, I didn’t turn my bucket upside down for a front row seat alongside the river because I was seeking meditative moments. It was more selfish, for I did so because I was hungry for a requisite first springtime meal of pan-fried channel catfish. Over the weekend we had stopped at the local bait shop for our new licenses and somehow ended up back in the car with a carton of earthworms. An underpinning of the subconscious? After spending a portion of the day at the computer preparing for an upcoming board meeting, I decided to go fetch that meal. And I know of a place right on the bend of the nearby Pomme de Terre.

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One of the first creatures seen was the Belted Kingfisher, that took a perch on the bend with views both up and down river.

I was not well prepared. Or, should I say, organized. I had my carton of worms and cell phone. My river rod wasn’t in the car. Finding it took a good 15 minutes. So instead of leaving here at 3 o’clock it was now a quarter past. Since I mainly fly fish I didn’t have my river tackle box, so another 15 minutes or so was spent searching for that. Naturally it was where I had first looked, though it was upside down and hidden beneath some stuff. The edge of one corner wasn’t enough for proper identification. Just as I was ready to back from the garage I noticed the bucket, so I stopped and went to fetch it. Sitting on a bucket far outweighs standing alongside a river. Especially at my age. By now it was 20-to, and the river bend was a half hour distant.

Some kind soul from either the county or township had backed a weed-whacker over the course from the gravel road to the river bank, so it didn’t take long to climb down to the river edge to cast a line. Fishing for channel catfish takes patience for you bait up and try to place your bait on a cut of current and wait. As much as you try to find them, it is actually the other way around. Using their sensory barbels, also known as “whiskers,” they come to you on their own murky schedule … usually taking their own, sweet time. You try to find some slow water coming back toward the current where fish can lurk for a passing meal. Catfishing means you mostly wait, and the waiting gives you cause to look around. It was while looking around that I began to breathe and take note of the surroundings, that I realized my need all along was to be along a river.

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All around buds were breaking out in the trees lining the river, adding Georges Seurat styled dotings of red and yellow liveliness to this background of remnant bleakness and brownness of the past forestal winter.

Moments into the quietness a pair of wood ducks winged by within the awakening canopy. This was my wakeup call. A small wader took a bath on a spit of wadable mud, then flew off right past me down river before returning several moments later for more wading and bathing. Its colors were much like a killdeer, though it was a smaller bird. Next came a belted kingfisher with its dippy dive of flight. The blue and whiteness clamped onto a branch across the river, choosing sightlines at the bend for both up and down river, the colors a contrast to all around it.

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Flitting in and out was a few Yellow-rumped Warblers, adding a trilling lift to the river’s symphony.

Below my feet in the river itself, small rivulets provided a Zen-like sound. This is not the rhythmic crashing of a surf but rather a burbling ­— quite soft and as equally hypnotic. Clear waters rolling over small, river-rounded weathered stones. Across the way, beneath the bridge, yet just distant enough that the sound blended with rather than overwhelm, was a louder rumble as the previous burbling waters now crashed around a bridge buttress before crescendoing over a log. Two completely distinct water sounds. Distinct yet symphonic. Then I noticed the “barks” of pheasants in the nearby restored native prairie, and from downriver came the honking of a pair of excited geese. Yellow-rumped Warblers added a trilling lift, while across the river and down the ravine came the staccato syncopated drumming of an unseen woodpecker. It was a natural spring symphony worthy of Aaron Copland!

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Almost magical, an ever changing reflection on a small, abandoned oxbow right on the bend.

In the midst of all of these sounds and sights of nature a five pound channel cat came to the hand, though intended, it now seemed an unexpected bonus. All around buds were breaking out in the trees lining the river, adding Georges Seurat styled dotings of red and yellow liveliness to this background of remnant bleakness and brownness of the past forestal winter. Suddenly there was a sound. Somehow a pair of wood ducks had landed unseen just around the bend, and by standing and peeking through the underbrush I could see them fighting the current as they weaved their way around a deadfall.

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After hearing an interesting sound I found a pair of Wood Ducks had landed just around the bend, and I stood to see them through the underbrush.

I wondered if all of this sound and beauty had been here all along and if it was me who needed to adjust in order to notice, or if it was nature that had somehow adjusted to an intruder in its midst before coming out of hiding? In my similar intrusions into the woods it always seemed so deathly quiet for several long moments … seemingly a half hour or so … before a nuthatch or chickadee flutters to perch on a nearby branch, or that a red squirrel suddenly full of courage races across the detritus to scurry up an oak; that above it all is a redtail hawk drifting in the bluish sky. It seemed that way here, along the river.

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This bend of river on the Pomme de Terre is a special place for a stranger to allow his senses to align with surrounding nature.

Whether sitting in the duff with my back against a tree in a forest on a warm, sunny autumn afternoon, or along the bank of the Pomme de Terre river come spring, I feel I must use the time and patience of meditation to fully appreciate all within my surroundings … of how I as the stranger may comfortably fit into this momentary and meditative slice of nature. It seems that in the silence I’m accepted, and in unlabored breathing my senses eventually align with the surrounding nature. What better place than on a bend of the river?

Happy 50th, Earth Day

For many reasons, not the least of which is the current lockdown strategies of Covid-19, I’ve been thinking of Earth Day. Yes, it’s the 50th anniversary, which is somewhat surprising in how it ages me. For it was 50years ago while working for the Denver Post that I helped cover the initial Earth Day celebration at the old Auditorium.

Some are old enough to recall those times when a nasty, grayish hazy smog was so heavy in most major cities, including Denver, that it was difficult to breathe. Just the year before the Cuyahoga River erupted into a blazing fire raging through downtown Cleveland, and out in Santa Barbara an oil spill spewed three million gallons of crude oil into the ocean to create an oil slick some 35 miles long. It now ranks as the third worst oil spill in human history. No longer the worst, but third worst!

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One of the images from the “Art of Erosion” exhibits.

There was no EPA. Here in Minnesota, there was no MPCA. Mats of algae and sewage was so prevalent and thick pundits jokingly suggested people could walk bank-to-bank across the Mississippi between St. Paul and Hastings. A year later, and just a month before the initial Earth Day, a huge soy oil storage tank ruptured at the Honeymead Soybean Products in Mankato sending 2.5 millions gallons of soy oil into the streets and the Minnesota River, eventually reaching the Mississippi downriver where just a month prior to that an oil plant rupture in Savage had already sent about a million gallon of crude oil into the two rivers. Into all that algae and sewage.

Environmentally the world was a damned mess. A mess that a lone senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, used to motivate activists across the country to organize that first Earth Day celebration on April 22, 1970. There were a couple of bands and numerous speakers, and seated in the front row was a fellow I wouldn’t have expected being there. When I uttered my surprise, he said, “Why wouldn’t I be? This is important.”

His presence and comment gave me just enough impetus to view the story with an added importance. Since I have found some way to celebrate subsequent Earth Days, be it a column written for my former country weekly, or a picture and caption with reference to the significance of the day. Twice my “Art of Erosion” photojournalistic effort was featured in Earth Day exhibitions, which includes 20 large canvases depicting dirt erosion along with several educational panels. Somewhere through the years, and it might have been at the initial Denver celebration, it was mentioned that there is “no Planet B.” There still isn’t.

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Thanks to conservation efforts species like the near extinct Whooping Cranes are hopefully making a comeback.

 

Seemingly this singular message has either been lost or ignored by many, including our current president, his advisors and too many members of the Republican Party. Sometimes I think of Gaylord Nelson and wonder what he would think now, some 15 years after his death, of how the many safeguards and efforts to slow the degradation of the environment have been cast aside for basic greed. That lack of environmental goodwill sadly continues to erode and come under attack by President Trump and his cronies. But, I digress …

A few years after the initial Earth Day, Nelson was the keynote speaker at a National Farmers Union convention in Laramie, Wyoming, which was consequently hit by a blinding blizzard during the first night of the event. NFU president John Stencil after the evening events opened his suite to Nelson, Walter Mondale and other key figures, and offered me an invitation.

Although we had a wonderful time, especially late in the evening when Nelson and Mondale started swapping stories from the Senate and Washington, as we stood by a food tray I asked Nelson if those Earth Day efforts had met his expectations. Nelson, who was both gracious and quick with a smile, said he was surprised by the initial response which reportedly was celebrated by some 20 million people from grade schools to large community events like the one in Denver.

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Thanks to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” another book from the 1960s, Bald Eagles are now almost commonplace even here in the prairie.

He explained that he had initially met with some of the more influential protest leaders in Madison, where he had served as governor before being elected to the Senate, and the strategy was established that the key to success would be for it to be a grassroots effort coordinated in local areas rather than something being originated from Washington. “We needed to convince people that we were facing an environmental crisis,” he said. “What has happened to date is hopefully just a start.”

In a later interview he told a reporter, “We felt if we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force the issue onto the national political agenda. It worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor the resources to organize the 20 million demonstrators who participated from thousands of schools and local communities,” he said, before adding, “That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.”

And led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency nationally, and consequently from state to state formations of departments like the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency … all of which are seemingly targeted for being dismantled by the Republican Party.

Meeting and covering Nelson helped inspire my own environmental consciousness. Soon afterwards I would interview Dr. Stephen Schneider, then with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, for a story in which he explained a scenario that would later be termed “global warming.” I don’t recall where it was “played” in the paper that following Sunday, although it didn’t make the front page. About that time Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” landed in my lap, adding a poetic background to my becoming a “tree huggin’ environmentalist.”

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With less than one percent of the original native prairie remaining, we need to continue our efforts of “earth care” rather than dismantle the programs and agencies that protect our planet … efforts that began when 20 million stepped up to “celebrate” the first Earth Day 50 years ago.

I might add that this is a label I thoroughly enjoy and take seriously. It is also a path that led me to become a long time board member of CURE (Clean Up the River Environment), a Minnesota Master Naturalist as well as an artist with an intent to capture what remains of the last one percent of the native prairie and its natural wetlands in what was the most thorough and devastating dismantling of an ecosystem on planet earth. Perhaps this lifetime journey began with covering that first Earth Day 50 years ago, and a friend who said, “Why wouldn’t I? This is important.”

Into the Fog

Earlier this week we awoke to a fog so heavy and dense we could barely see the bird feeder tree some 30 feet or so from the bedroom window. Foggy mornings, a special treat of environmental “softness”, generally pull me outside to commune with nature’s many offerings. Most times with a camera in hand.

You see, I bank ideas. Image thoughts. Sometimes as we’re driving I’ll pass something that makes me think it will make a subject in the right light. Like in a heavy fog, perhaps. A tree down the way in a bit of a prairie hollow I’ve passed probably 100 times always make me think of fog. And now just south of town is a hill of emerging pasqueflowers going into spring bloom. I sensed an early morning calling. As we gathered around the steaming water pot for morning tea and coffee, a particular pasqueflower image came to mind, of the pastel purplish flower blending into the softness of fog. This is easier to visualize than explain, and perhaps it’s something Georgia O’Keeffe might have painted were she a prairie artist.

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The tree down the road has beckoned for years, searching for a portrayal in fog. And, it nearly worked.

So we quickly loaded up for the drive to my favorite patch of pasqueflowers, a route that conveniently took us past the tree down the road. And past the wetland up on the hill above our upper prairie that sometimes offers me framing for Northern Lights minus light pollution from farms to the north of us. Driving in dense fog is often chilling, for in my newspapering days I covered too many accidents, including some fatalities, on foggy roads. Seems there is always some asinine fool who quite possibly thinks to him or herself that they can see just fine without headlights in dusk, blizzards and fogs … and in every single fog wreck I covered it was because an unaware driver couldn’t see a car coming toward them because the other driver didn’t have on their lights.

Thankfully we safely survived our way several miles due south of here to the pasqueflowers. The gate had a beautiful long resting necklace of heavy dew drops stretching across the horizontal rounded metal beams. Across the hill itself tiny blossoms poked through scraggly grass that perhaps had never seen a plow, and hopefully never will. I don’t remember ever seen pasqueflowers on a restored prairie, and certainly not on mine here at Listening Stones Farm. This isn’t uncommon among prairie forbs, and many of which are so rare they’re on an endangered species list. Dense grasses also seem to crowd out the delicate rooting systems of pasqueflowers.

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Once getting past my visualization, the disappointment disappeared and the beauty appeared.

With the O’Keeffe inspiration in mind I began scouting for just the right blossom, one that angled freely toward the gray sky. Most were hugging the slope of the hillside too closely for my visualization. Such disappointment  isn’t rare. For years I’ve carried a mental image of a series of four or five pasqueflower blossoms pointing away like a small choir of bonneted singers. Not once have I found a cooperative bunch. One blossom will be pointing off in a different direction, or one or two will be split just far enough away that the focal range isn’t right. That is the will of nature, for it is rarely there for our beck and call.

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Once I began to look around, the beauty appeared. Dew droplets clinging wherever possible, glistening like diamonds.

My writer friend, Tom Watson, calls my affliction, these unmet visionary dreams, “the Dulcinayas to my Don Quixote photo quest.” Perhaps he’s right, although these visualizations fuel my “artistic fires” enough to get me into the field. Time and time again. I’m not a painter. I must work with nature as it presents itself. I cannot create a nature I cannot see. Painting is not my art.

Maybe, though, I was looking for the wrong things. Rather than dealing with the dissatisfaction of not finding my pastel blossom high and free enough of the lay of the land, perhaps I should think and look more metaphorically … to seek imagery within this vast fogginess much like we are all searching for hope within the fogginess of our coronavirus pandemic. While Mary and I are somewhat fortunate in our age that we are settled in our respective ways, we are no different than anyone else in our search of hope. Could this dense, foggy morning on the hillside overlooking the Minnesota River serve as a metaphor for our lives right now? In finding positivity? Hope?

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Trees seemed to disappear ghostlike into the grayness, silhouettes shading away into oblivion.

That simple change of thought altered my view significantly. Looking at the broader view, of challenging myself to see within the grayness the small things, small pasqueflowers seemed to appear in all directions. A near carpet of them. Nearby, as if magic, dozens of birds appeared as leaves on a tree truly barren of them. Being partially deaf I had not heard them, and up to that moment when I started to look around me I hadn’t seen them. Dew droplets, clung to the dried dormant autumn-browned plants, glistened like miniature diamonds even in the gloomy grayness. Trees disappeared ghostlike in the grayness, silhouettes shading away into oblivion. All of this brought a deep and reflective sigh. I had not found just a single Dulciana, but rather many that surpassed my thoughts of a simple if hidden beauty …  Don Quixote be damned!

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Nearby, as if magic, dozens of birds appeared as leaves on a tree truly barren of them.

As we delve deeper into the weeks and possibly months of the pandemic shutdown and social distancing, seeking  elements of hope and beauty becomes paramount for our individual health and harmony. This is what we need, individually and collectively, as we traverse this health fog that has settled upon all humanity. We must find and concentrate on jewels of hope beyond our limited vision. For now our personal survival depends on finding the small pasqueflowers and murmurations resting in treetops … however hope may be defined to us individually. Those small tokens of hope and beauty are all we have at this point and time; absolute yet small, but beauties to grasp just the same.

 

Lotuses in our Sea of Fire

As we head into our third … or is it our fourth? … week of pandemic social distancing, our local Big Stone Arts Council is challenging us to promote something so severely needed throughout our souls and communities: Hope. A church in town has those four letters prominently displayed in windows facing our main street of commerce.

Unfortunately, for some, fear has become an overriding mental hurdle that seemingly overshadows a sense of hope. Some cannot pull themselves away from the constant news and propaganda channels, hanging onto numbers, breakouts and disgruntlements of the political arena. Some feel locked in with few, if any, avenues of escape either physically or mentally. Some are virtually paralyzed by fear … that they might contact the coronavirus and die; that life as they knew it will never be the same; that there are family members they’ll never hug or touch again; that financial ruin and joblessness awaits each and every one of us, and perhaps even for mankind, world-wide.

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Hope, from the church windows facing Ortonville’s main street of commerce.

All are valid concerns, and I have them as well. Yet I’m also feeling hopeful, and much of that hope has sprung from our artist community. Poets are posting themselves reading poetry. Painters are displaying some of their works since being sequestered. Many musicians are posting videos to cheer us up daily with free, online songs and music concerts. Away from the worldly touch provided by artists via social media, Spring is coming to life outside our windows and walls. That outside world is still vivid, valid and real, or as Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.”

Feathers and perches! Songs without words! Out past our windows a Wood Duck drake and hen returns to the grove. Goldfinches appear at the feeders in full mating plumage. Swans and geese continue to fly over, and out beyond us are reported sightings of Great Blue Herons and Sandhill Cranes. A single Pasque Flower was seen sprouting on a nearby hill. Ah, yes, beyond fear is a world of life continuing. A natural world showing us hope!

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A painting of “hope” from my artist friend, Mary Taffe … among the many artists who are using their talents to give us some of the medicine.

Fear and hope are both rather basic to our human spirit. And, yes, it’s natural to feel fear in such a time of uncertainty. Hopelessness didn’t limit the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who penned a book after he was exiled in the early 1960s during the devastating war in his native Vietnam called “The Lotus in a Sea of Fire.” It’s theme? Hope.

Thich Nhat Hahn, known affectionately to his followers as “Tay,” led a remarkable life in exile. Shortly after leaving his birth country Tay taught Comparative Religion at Princeton University in 1961, then spent the following year teaching and researching Buddhism at Columbia University before heading to Paris. Eventually he formed the first Buddhist temple in the “Western World” in the Bordeaux region of France he called Plum Village, which still exists. Teachings continue today during this worldwide pandemic via social media, and, yes, “hope” is still the basic message.

Tay is also an artist, and was once a nominee for a Nobel Peace Prize. Martin Luther King was among his close friends. His life was full of both immense challenge and incredible success, surrounding his visions of peace and hope, starting in his youth at 16 entering the monastery to his eventual return after 39 years of exile to Vietnam following a massive stroke in 2014. And, yes, he was intimately aware of the perils of politics. “In order to rally people, governments need enemies … if they do not have a real enemy, they will invent one in order to mobilize us,” he wrote.

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A lone Pasque Flower breaks through the winter duff on a nearby hill.

Yet, there was always that four letter word. “Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”

Our worldwide human society is now in uncertain times. We are both mandated and encouraged to practice social distancing in hopes of “lowering the curve” on a pandemic that may cost hundred of thousands of lives in the U.S. alone. We have been asked to remain homebound with prospects of having a completely different “normal” if and when the Covid-19 crisis is abated and/or controlled. We face this uncertainty with fear, for we have no model to look toward in searching for a future. Right now hope is a thread we must grasp.

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Even on our window sill, a mum plant that at one point appeared completely dead and was watered just for the hell of it, is once again about to bloom.

Said Tay: “People sacrifice the present for the future. But life is available only in the present. That is why we should walk in such a way that every step can bring us to the here and the now.”

Here are a few more thoughts from Thich Nhat Hahn as we edge along in our quest for a hopeful future:

“We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing. We worry too much. We don’t allow our bodies to heal, and we don’t allow our minds and hearts to heal.”

“People deal too much with the negative, with what is wrong. Why not try and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?”

“Enlightenment is always there. Small enlightenment will bring great enlightenment. If you breathe in and are aware that you are alive – that you can touch the miracle of being alive – then that is a kind of enlightenment.”

“It is possible to live happily in the here and the now. So many conditions of happiness are available – more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.”

Here on our little piece of the prairie we grasp threads of hope within our well of fear. We often find it in the little things. Prairie Smoke poking up through gray winter fallow in our small native prairie garden. Those Wood Ducks, that even just days before I’d given up hope of seeing in our woods this year, are seen perching on a heavy branch. Even two promising buds on the mum plant on the kitchen window sill. Waking each morning knowing we here for one another for another day.

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Outside our windows nature gives us any number of reasons for hope, and yes, the loons are back. (Photo by my artist friend, Debbie Center of Nevis, who is an excellent musician, painter and photographer!)

“Why not try and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?” Thanks, Tay, I needed that. So now we spend unprecedented time with our families, sequestered in homes some of us return to only to escape corporatism. We are becoming acquainted with our children, schooling them in ways we hadn’t imagined, and rediscovering the whys and ways of our closest relationships. We are not spending what is really unnecessary cash in bars and restaurants. And collectively, worldwide, we are rarely driving anywhere so we’re giving the planet a bit of healing time. And, more than all of the above, we are finding within ourselves a stout resilience and a real sense of compassion and care. Adding hope to those simple traits are perhaps our “lotuses in this sea of fire.”

A Comfort in Isolation

I must confess. I’m a lousy hermit. People have even accused me of being just the opposite. An extrovert. A social animal. Someone energized by crowds. A man who shivers with fear of being cast aside, of ever being alone!

Another confession: As I aged my life as a night-prowling animal has also changed significantly. Now I’m decidedly a morning person with sunrises as my goal rather than challenging myself to a Herculean effort of making “last call.” Loud music has given way to prairie winds; delicate Prairie Smoke looms above the glittering crowns of barroom goddesses.

All of which places me squarely in a yin/yang situation. Someone has suggested that this Stay at Home Order has the potential of making me seem a “caged animal!” However, the “yang” of my “yin” is the nearby prairies and woodlands where we’ve been given governmental license to go to ease the mood. The skies, too, have blessed us recently with a steady flow of geese flybys. Nature has come to my (our) rescue.

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Oh, but the skies … blessing us with a steady flow of geese flybys.

Nature has long been a refuge. I grew up fly fishing farm ponds for largemouth bass and bluegills, hiking through nearby woodlots and horseback riding over the hills on our farm. Nature excursions have never been too distant. Back in my young professional life friends wondered how I could fit it all in. Prowling the bars into the wee hours, yet being ready a few hours later for an outdoors adventure. Looking back, I also wonder. Maybe I began maturing. When I moved to a publishing position from Colorado to Minnesota, which caused some friends to also wonder, I rediscovered country living. First along the St. Croix River, then the Little Vermillion River across a highway from the Prairie Island wilderness with close access to that beautiful little river.

With time and further change, and not necessarily of my own calling, we ended up in the flat Minnesota prairie where I ran a small country weekly for twenty plus years. It was 23 years ago this month when fate introduced  me to the ghosts of what Missouri author William Least Heat Moon called “PrairyErth” ­—  a friend, then the chief of our small town’s volunteer fire department, asked if I wanted to take a short flight with him to assess the flood waters inundating our small towns. It was on this flight that I noticed hundreds of pockets of standing water as far as the eye could see that I hadn’t seen before … sometimes several in a single quarter section.

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Among the varied species of geese were numerous Tundra Swans.

“Wetlands,” said the fire chief. “Those are all drained wetlands.”

That was the moment when I realized there was an ecosystem here that was no longer. Less than one percent of the native prairie remains, and much of that is replanted like mine here at Listening Stones Farm. Fewer of the “potholes” or wetlands the glaciers left behind remain due to ditching and drainage tile. These are the  “ghosts” of “God’s” creation of earth you see here in the former prairie pothole region during a spring melt.

This is the back story of our rather secluded life here on a “pinpoint” patch of that glacial creation. This is where we reside now in our third week of pandemic shut down. Truthfully we have been basically homebound since Mary’s knee replacement, so, yes, we are maintaining the mandated social distancing.

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Social distancing wasn’t in the plans for the Greater White-Fronted Geese that blocked a “minimum maintenance” gravel road near here.

Not much has changed going into this hopefully short period of self quarantine. Friends returning from their winter sojourns to the south are immediately going into self-quarantines themselves, so there are no man hugs (nor woman hugs, for that matter). Our few social moments find us standing a good distance apart. Which in this region of the prairie, settled mainly it seems by American-Norwegians, social distancing is a rather traditional sociological trait. Even in more typical times folks stood about ten feet apart looking up at the sky and discussing the weather.

Oh, but those skies! Look into those skies! Here we have seemingly constant waves of Canada Geese skeins. A bit further east we’ve seen huge flocks of Snow Geese in their multiple phases, along with the Greater White-Fronted Geese. In our efforts of social distancing we’ve been chasing a huge flock of both species several miles east of here.

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Swans and several goose species congregated on a “ghost” of the prairie past, a wetland recharged with spring runoff!

For this confirmed extrovert, this safety in social distancing has been both satisfying and tolerable. We have not been isolated from one another, and indeed, I feel we may have even grown closer together in this shared intimacy of caregiving. Mary, the introvert, and me, the extrovert, along with our shared senses of nature and the bounties offered even in this strangest of times for mankind worldwide.

In his book, Blue Highways, Least-Heat Moon wrote: “With a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion that I lived in an alien land, I took to the road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected.”

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“With a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion … I took to the road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected.”

For us, down the road wasn’t all that distant. It was touchable in our isolation, and comfortable in its remoteness, offering to us a sense of nature that life continues without us … despite us. That we could share in that for even a few moments brought calm to souls now challenged with change we cannot fathom, an uncertainty for mankind health wise and otherwise in ways we cannot comprehend. We can only hope this change does not mean ruin, or even death, and that in time, man and deeds will once again connect.