Only a Number …

Well, my goodness. I’ve been flipped! And, I’m not alone.

After a few years of being “Number One” in the annual Meander Upper Minnesota River Art Crawl, I’m now “Number Thirty-nine!” Good news, though … I’m still the same old “me.” “It was time for flip the tour,” said Kristi Link Fernholz, who oversees Meander “business” for the Upper Minnesota Regional Development Commission. “It’s all in fairness.”

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There … the proof is in the pudding! 


Here’s the hard part: This was the first time ever that I can recall being Number One! Although this had nothing to do with talent, age nor artistic offerings. The designation was based solely on my Listening Stones Farm on-farm gallery being at the very top of the Meander tour. And, now the “bottom,” if you will. This September 29-30 and October 1, my studio/gallery is listed at the very bottom of the brochure. Old friend and carver supreme, Curt Soine, and his darling and hilarious wife, Paula, heads the numerical listing this year down at the other end of the Meander in Granite Falls.

And there is the real flip. Ortonville/Clinton to Appleton area has been listed at the top of the annual brochure for the past few years while Granite Falls and Montevideo, at the other end of the upper Minnesota River valley, was listed at the bottom.

It’s all fun and fair, yet there is a certain fear. Will meanderers see us up here as being “too far out?”

Interestingly, the Meander is often seen in three parts: The upper, the middle and the lower. Those many artists between Danvers and Dawson are seen by many as being the middle. Or, as one mid-tour artist told me recently while giving me a tease, “We’re always stuck in the middle. That doesn’t make us mediocre.”


Curt Soine’s beautifully carved swan. 

That “middle” has some incredible artists. People such as Gene and Lucy Tokheim, Jean Menden, Woody Peet, Tom and Delite Ludvigson, with Martha Alvarado, J Berndt and K. Lohse at the vineyard, all near Dawson. Milan is also a who’s who with Malena Handeen, Kristi Link Fernholz, Katia Andreeva, Diane Trew, Patrice Geyen, Pamela Gubrud and John George Larson. Deb Connelly shores up the eastern end in Danvers.

The “south” ­— or the top of the 2017 brochure — starts in Granite Falls and includes the Soines, Melanie Gabbert-Gatchell, Gene Stukel, Bradley Hall, Claire Swanson, Dale and Jo Pederson, and returning artist, Dale Streblow. Monte has A to Z Letterpress, Flying Goose Quilters, Doug and Brock Pederson, and Moonstone Farm with Richard Handeen and Audrey Arner. That, too, is a load of talent exhibiting some beautiful and creative art.


An artist’s display at the Red Barn from the past.

Not to be outdone, my place and the Red Barn are just a bend in a country intersection apart, or a distance of only three miles. Seven artists will hole up in Stattelman’s iconic red barn — Liz Rackl, Kris Ninneman, Anne Dietz, Pam Stueve, Beverly Schultz, Carol Knutson and Neva Foster. Edie Barrett and Kathleen Marihart will be almost next door in downtown Ortonville. Odessa, just down the highway, will feature hosts Valerie Berg and Rob Rakow. Appleton, considered the “window” of the upper Meander, lists three more artists — Kerry Kolke-Bonk, Deborah Moorse and Nancy Bergmann. In all, 13 artists! Meander brochures contain a map of the various studios and artist locations, along with highway routes meandering through the prairie.


My studio/gallery at Listening Stones Farm isn’t quite ready for the Meander, even at Number 39!

Regardless of our numerical listing, those who meander through the annual Western Minnesota arts crawl will have an excellent selection of medium to view and hopefully purchase. Just don’t forget that far out, old Number Thirty-nine! Ol’ 39 is just pleased to be among those juried as being worthy of being included as a Meander artist! Being Number One doesn’t mean I’m Number One no more than being Number Thirty-nine means I’m Number Thirty-nine.

Or as someone my age often hears, “It’s only a number.”


Robbie’s Wren

One couldn’t miss Robbie’s wren. From the moment we sat to sip a chilled white wine on her wooded deck in the late afternoon until we were enveloped by darkness while she worked a comforting bonfire, the little wren hopped from perch to perch and did so with constant chatter. From a Kon Tiki-like lantern to the crook of a shepherd’s hook, from the apex of the little wren house where his mate perhaps hid from his verbal onslaught, to a tall sunflower nearby, the little brown wren hopped from place to place, filling the silence.

Said Robbie’s husband, Harland, “That’s the male. He never shuts up. The lady of the house never says much of anything. He, on the other hand, sings from the first light of morning until darkness.” Conversations. Earlier on that Friday I had erected my pop-up for the annual Cannon Falls Arts and Wine Festival. It was five years since I’ve seen Harland and Robbie, and even more since I had been in the Cannon River valley. This would be like “old home week” once the festival began the following morning. So we sat, catching up and enjoying an evening of remembrance while being serenaded with songs from Robbie’s wren.

“Last year their first hatch yielded three birds. When grown, two left the next. Both within an hour of one another,” Harland explained over the constant wren chatter. “The third would come out onto the perch waiting to be fed. This happened for a few days. The female would scrounge for food and come back to feed the last of the batch, who by that time was the same size as she was. Then one morning the male started fending off the female from feeding the full grown chick. He sat there on the perch, face to face, scolding that full grown chick, really letting him have it. Finally, after about a day of not being fed, the chick finally flew away.”

“Did that stop the noise?” I asked.

Harland laughed. “Not in the least. But the old man had made his point.”

Many times a day Robbie and Harland pause to watch their active bird feeders.

Conversations, random or otherwise:

* He was middle aged, and from the chumminess and familiarity with the fellow with him, they may have been “partners” or husbands. As he eyed the canvases and framed prints, he said, “I never saw this beauty when I was growing up in Wheaton. Apparently there was a native prairie next to our family farm. I just saw it as grass. Nothing like what you see here. I didn’t see the beauty in it until recently, not the way you and other artists have portrayed the prairie.”

“Probably a restored prairie.”

“No,” he countered. “I’m told it was never plowed. I should have said virgin prairie. That’s what it was. Virgin prairie. Right next to the farm where I was raised.”

• “What’s interesting,” said the near retirement-aged farmer and long time friend, “is that my neighbor is putting in a 10,000 head dairy, which means we will now have 40,000 head of cows in CAFO dairies within a 10 mile radius of my farm. I’ve known my neighbor since he was a kid. The only animal he has ever had was a dog. What’s he going to do with 10,000 head of cows?”

Praire enthusiasts seemed to enjoy images of prairie flowers.

• Over the years I’ve wondered what athletes and various celebrities got out of hospital visits. Oh, there is that thought that of the viscousness those over the hill second string, junior high tackles who have since become more knowledgeable about football in middle age than Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, visiting terminally ill children in a hospital perhaps offered a nice relief. But, a reward? Then I went to visit Mariah, Robbie’s daughter, who is in the latter stages of MS. Named for “the prairie wind,” she can no longer walk. After the show closed on Saturday I dropped by her condo on the way back out to Harland and Robbie’s. When I walked in I was taken aback. Here was the lively and beautiful teenager who was seemingly always on the move now stretched out prone on her back, barely able to move.

“You probably don’t remember me,” I said, telling her my name as I bent to give her a hug.

“Oh my God! I can’t believe it!” she said, breaking into the most incredibly and beautiful smile I have ever seen, one that radiated across the room. A smile I’ll never forget. Genuinely pure and so rich. Now I think I know what the professional athletes mean when they talk about how special they feel when making hospital rounds. It’s those smiles.

• She was the artist in the adjoining pop-up, a young mother with impressionistic and intimate paintings of prairie flowers. She is quite multi-talented, for when a musician strolled through with his cart of instruments, she played a nice piece of a concerto on his violin as he joined in. Their playing was so welcomed on a hot afternoon after visiting with seemingly hundreds of would-be buyers. She sold a number of tee-shirts decorated with a collage of prairie flowers representing different areas of the state. “I’m now concentrating on pollinators,” she said. “My mother-in-law has a beautiful prairie where I get my inspiration. The more I’m there the more I see. You just can’t glance at a prairie and see the infinite and intimate details. I can sense that in that way we’re soul mates.”

I smiled. Much like the musician smiled as they played the concerto.

Exhibiting multi-talented artist Heather Friedli played a short concerto with a strolling musician.

• Driving back to Robbie’s farm late Sunday afternoon after packing up to return their borrowed chair and to pick up my belongings before the drive home, I passed Mariah’s little condo and remembered my late friend, Foster Hall. Foster, also an artist, often spoke of finding and marrying his “dream” of an “exotic” woman. Eventually he met and married a sweet, dark-complected Jewish girl from New Jersey with wild and frizzy hair who possessed a flair for adventure. She was indeed “exotic” to Foster, an only child of an older Sante Fe couple. Not long after their wedding he was diagnosed with ALS, and his decline was rapid and sure. We were visiting about six months after he’d lost he ability to walk, and several weeks before his death. No, you never really know what to say, or to talk about, so to fill the awkward spaces of silence I asked Foster about his dreams. “Running,” he said with drawn out effort, his words slurred by the disease. “All I ever dream about is running.” I wondered about Mariah’s dreams.

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Robbie’s little wren on the apex of the Shepherd’s crook.

• Robbie and Harland were sitting on their deck when I arrived late in the afternoon. “He’s still at it,” Harland said as I carried the chair up the hill and joined them for a few moments before starting for home. Sure enough, there on the Kon Tiki lantern was Robbie’s wren, tail angled at a sharp 45 degrees, as he tilted back with a song deep in his heart. Seconds later he flitted up to the apex of the Shepherd’s crook, his highest point of the many perches he preferred, looking this way and that, singing his song of the ages. I wondered why. I wondered how could he keep this up without seemingly ever stopping, day after day, all summer long. Was he singing a warning? Re-establishing on a constant basis that this beautiful deck surrounded by wood was indeed his marked territory? Or, perhaps, was he simply uncomfortable with silence?




A Miscommunication?

Since I’m not a Gold Finch, I have no more love for thistles than many of my neighboring farmers despite the colorful purple blooms. There, the start of my story …

About this time a year ago an older man arrived in the farmyard with a threat: If I didn’t take control of those colorful blooming thistles in my restored native prairie I would be subject to both a fine and the cost of having the prairie mowed by an outsider. That’s where the SWCD man came through, for he convinced the County weed cop that the thistles would help provide necessary “fuel” for the proposed prairie burn we would do this following spring.

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The lush prairie in a sunset a few days before the cutting.

So the weed cop relented. And we had a very good prairie burn, and as happens following a burn, a gorgeous and lush regrowth of both forbs and grasses followed. Yes, and thistles. For a few weeks the eight acre restored prairie was a mixed blanket of purple and yellow, each providing color and background for the other. Indeed, after that initial growth a most colorful mixture of other prairie flowers began poking from the ground. Cone flowers. Different varieties of native wild clovers. Clumps of beebalm were scattered all through the emerging grasses. Big Bluestem was close to heading out, and there even were a few instances of its signature “turkey foot” seed head dancing in even the slightest breeze along the trails we have continued to cut through the upper and lower prairies. Yes, and the thistles.

I’ve been expecting the weed cop to show any day to once again bellow his threat. Then, on the Fourth of July, one of our neighbors came through with a rake and baler to bale the shoulders of an adjoining road ditch. I jumped into the car and went with an offer … my ditch shoulder hay in exchange for his topping off the thistles. The idea came after a motor trek through the nearby Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge where it was obvious this is what they had done.7-8-17 myprairie3

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” said the man over the noise of the tractor he was using to rake windrows of mown fescue and brome, the common ditch bank plantings in the area. We shook hands on the deal.

There was no word or cutting of either the road ditch or the prairie since, and with each passing day I expected a visit. Who would arrive first? Weed cop or farmer? Finally the farmer pulled up in his pickup and rapped on the door. “I’m here to cut those thistles,” he said, and then filled me in on his frightening moment on the rather steep approach to our driveway on the north side.

“Remember, what I need done is for you to top off the thistles and leave the rest standing.”

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Acres of grasses and wold flowers …

He nodded, and said, “That shouldn’t be a problem.” Once again, we shook hands on the deal.

While working in the studio a little later the sound of his tractor came from the north side of the grove. I then left for an appointment in town. When I returned he was about to head into the lower prairie, which is when I noticed that he was not topping off the thistles as we had agreed. Rather he was mowing the prairie as if it were hay. From the narrow strip of prairie facing our deck all the way up the hill toward the upper prairie the once lush prairie was laying flat just inches from the ground. I was stunned, and felt as if I had been kicked in the gut. What didn’t he understand about our two conversations? Our deal? How could he have misunderstood my requests? It was really too late to say or do anything, for the damage was done for the most part.

A few hours later my friend, Wanda Berry, arrived for a dinner she wouldn’t eat. “It was just starting to look like a Monet painting out there,” she tearfully lamented, adding that she hadn’t been this upset even when she sold her home in Robbinsdale to move back to the prairie. Later she would walk through the damage picking up cut morsels to create a “cut flower” bouquet.

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What didn’t the mower understand about our conversation?

Yes, I made a posting on a social media site about what had happened, and many friends from around the countryside responded, mainly to suggest that we should relax, that it will grow back. That I realize, yet all that lushness is laying flat on the ground. The support was lovely, yet they had not nurtured this prairie for four years. They hadn’t fought the near takeover of sprouting Chinese elms that the hot controlled burn seem to kill, of the long effort to get a good propagation of beebalm going throughout the acreage. Nor had they listened to the pheasant families that had taken roost and raised families in that grass.

Regardless, the clipping at ground level wasn’t part of the deal. I realize there seems to be few people who respect a native prairie, or perhaps to even understand the necessity of perennial grasses. Otherwise there would likely be more than just one percent of the original prairie stretching from the plains of Canada to the Piney Woods of Texas. To some it’s just grass, a wasted bit of land that should be in some commodity crop. Something useful. That isn’t the case for us here on this little oasis of native prairie, miscommunication or not.

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Wanda and her “cut flower” bouquet of the yellow cone floswer, beebalm, native clovers and Big Bluestem..

“What I don’t understand,” said Wanda, “is that he knew what you wanted. You told him twice, yet he went right ahead and leveled it right down to the ground. If he realized he couldn’t do it, why didn’t he just stop and tell you? Why did he just keep right on mowing it down?”

I could offer no answers. Some days are like that. And, yes, sometimes there is miscommunication. All I could offer was that this time there wasn’t.

Roadside Attractions

A year ago last May when returning from a fly fishing adventure in Ontario, I decided to cut across to Detroit Lakes from Park Rapids on Highway 34 rather than continue along the windy Highway 71. Apparently cutting over offered a shorter route on the way home.

About halfway to Detroit Lakes, on a native grass meadow, a sea of red graced the green, a color that seemed to simply explode in beauty. For whatever reason my rush to return home gave me adequate reason not to stop and investigate. This year, returning from a similar week-long fishing trip to Ontario, I passed the meadow again. Once again the red danced above the greenness of the grasses, and once again I drove on by. Then, further down the road, the same flowers graced a roadside shoulder, accompanied with a contrasting white prairie flower. This time I stopped. Roadside shoulders are public. Meadows are not. The red? Indian Paintbrush in all its startling flush of redness.

Since this trip home was a week later, and according to some with adequate knowledge of prairie forbs, it seemed as if this was about the time to capture images of the Minnesota State Flower, the Showy Ladyslipper. As I traversed across the state I had already made cell phone calls to the state parks in Bemidji and Itasca, and a woman at Itasca suggested I was at least a month early. Remembering the progression cycle of plants from my college days, I then placed a call to Maplewood State Park, which is another hour or so south of Itasca. Maybe the Showys’ were starting further south.

They weren’t, said the park manager, who then added, “She’s right. I’d aim for the end of June. By the way, if you are looking for something closer than Itasca, the roadside on Highway 34 between Park Rapids and Detroit Lakes typically has some wonderful clusters. I would start there.” I told him about finding the Paintbrush. He wasn’t surprised.

About two weeks later, Morris-area naturalist Dave Jungst posted a few pictures of the Showy he had discovered near the Johanna Lake Esker, a Nature Conservancy site adjacent to the Ordway Prairie in Polk County. This is on the edge of the Glacial Shield. Not knowing if there would be another opportunity to photograph the Showy, I took that route on the way to the Studio Hop in Willmar, where I was scheduled to set up for the weekend exhibit and sale. My desire was to complete a four-card set of Minnesota’s native orchids.

Having never seen the Showys before, I imagined they would appear much like a few of the other native Minnesota orchids. Small and delicate, content in the comfort of surrounding prairie grasses. Instead the stalks stood tall and defiant, bursting from adjacent grasses with solid plant pride! The esker plants were sparse and scattered, and walking along the roadside they were easy to spot and photograph. Keeping an eye on the time, I jumped into the truck and popped over the hill where a couple of cars had pulled off the gravel road next to a nice clump of Showys. More pictures.

So, yes, I had images. Yet, images that were more botany-like than artistic. With plans to meet a film crew for a segment on kayak fly fishing for bluegills for Prairie Sportsman at Glendalough State Park, I decided to bring my camera gear along should we be released from filming early enough to scout the park for Showys. Harsh, 20 mph winds and intermittent rain forced a cancellation of the filming, and since I had already planned the day off the farm, I left and headed north. My plans were to be at Itasca State Park early afternoon. At Fergus Falls I decided on a whim to skirt to the west and head toward Detroit Lakes and Highway 34, heeding the advice of the Maplewood park manager.

Wise decision, for I had barely got onto Highway 34 before I found a cluster of about 200 or so Showys. They blanketed the shoulder in all directions. After wading across several feet of soggy mud and cattails to reach them, I made an effort to capture them in all their glory and beauty. This was just what I was looking for, and for about an hour I worked various angles to capture the essence of this beautiful native orchid.

Later, as I drove away more species of native flowers graced the shoulders, along the same area as the paintbrush. I realized that the park manager was right, that Highway 34 is a treasure trove of native flowers throughout the summer. And, that this short stretch of road offers us some beautiful roadside attractions.

Elements of the Esker

A couple of weeks ago Morris-based naturalist, Dave Jungst, posted some of his true-to-scale photographs showing Prairie Smoke nestled amongst an interesting looking white flower.

After some thought I asked him about the flower and his location. Moments later he responded with the name not only of the flower (Pussy Toes) but also the location. That turned out to be the Lake Johanna Esker, a glacial sand and gravel ridge about two miles east of the Ordway Prairie in Polk County … both part of Nature Conservancy holdings.

Though it is a challenge to locate, the esker is no secret. Yet it is new to me. Thankfully Dave is open to sharing these sites with me. Last summer he led me to some Yellow Lady Slippers, one of the flowers I’ve wanted to photograph for years, although he was very protective of both the location and of the flowers. This remains a secret site between us.

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We didn’t have sufficient light for a deep image with good depth of field on our first visit.

He did seem a little taken back when I published the images. “Wow,” he wrote of the short prairie orchids. “You made them so huge!” As a true naturalist Dave’s intentions are to record photographically in correct dimension and ecological accuracy. My work is more impressionistic, blending form, light and composition into hopefully an interesting image. Our work is different though complimentary.

A week ago my first trip was made to the esker, and after several attempts at trying to find the correct country road I rediscovered the beauty of cell phone communication. Once Dave established where we were he was able to direct us to the correct county gravel road. We were several miles off, actually. Even with that we nearly passed right by the little parking lot. Once we were out of the car and walking across the gravely terrain, the carpet of wildflowers was unbelievable in richness and number. Pussy Toes dominated the area with as many Prairie Smoke poking through as I’ve likely seen in my lifetime, a perfect pinkish and spiky contrast to the muted whiteness of the Pussy Toes.

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A Killdeer was nesting among the Pussy Toes and Prairie Smoke on our first visit to the esker.

Although we began the trip from Listening Stones Farm to coincide with the lowering evening light, we barely had 30 minutes to really work with the camera before dusk settled in. Too many gravel roads, I suppose; too much indecision and exploration. My images were made with a nice softness, yet just a little more light would have surely helped create a deeper depth of field.

This past Sunday we were greeted with a hazy whiteness that seemed to linger through early afternoon, a day that began with my meeting up with my dear friend, Tom Cherveny, and his granddaughter, Ella, to paddle and fly fish Mountain Lake at Glacial Lakes State Park. A gusty prairie wind made it challenging to hold positions for long, yet a nice largemouth fell victim to one of my fly presentations as did several small bluegill. Tom and his family planned to leave shortly after lunch, and my thoughts turned to the esker and the Prairie Smoke. The two Prairie Smoke plants in my native prairie garden was just starting to show tendrils and had sparked an idea.

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Just a fascinating site to visit, as evidenced by the use of a long focal length and selective focusing to enhance the colorful softness.

What, I wondered, would an image look like if you could combine this hazy whiteness of light with the just emerged tendrils of the Prairie Smoke, surrounded by the vast carpet of white Pussy Toes? So I ventured through the countryside from the State Park through Glenwood, down 104 toward the Ordway Prairie. This time the gravel road was much easier to find, and it weaved through the woody hills of the glacial shield toward the esker. As typical for photographers, my concern was the light. Was there enough for contrast? Would there be too much contrast to offset the softness? Would the Pussy Toes have disappeared into dormancy?

My first impression after hopping out of the River Truck was that I was both too late and too early. From the appearance of the Prairie Smoke, it appeared I was too early. Very few had moved into the tendril stage. And, yes, the Pussy Toes that had dominated a week before had pretty much shut down. Especially on the higher ground.

Fortunately there was enough emergence of new flower species to help offset my disappointment as I ventured over the esker. After about an hour of shooting and looking I actually found just what I was looking for … albeit a bit muted. There were enough Pussy Toes to give a sense of whiteness, though nothing like the week before.

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While I was hoping for a greater influence from the white Pussy Toes, this is close to the image I had envisioned.

I laid in the prairie focusing, waiting out wind gusts, and eventually made about four of what appeared to be sharp images of three finely placed Prairie Smoke spikes with wavy tendrils. That was it. No matter which direction I turned I could find nothing to match these three. While the images weren’t exactly what I had envisioned, and what had inspired my driving another hour east further from the farm, as I walked toward the River Truck I was feeling rather pleased.

That happens when you’ve come close to capturing an image you’re envisioned. Overall it was a pretty nice day. One spent with an old friend fly fishing a motor-less lake, lipping a really nice bass on a fly, capturing my image in soft whiteness, then sharing a good, dry white wine on the deck of the farm house with my dear woman friend, Wanda. Life, as they say, is good.