Mysteries of Migration

It was during one of those late summer, early autumn tea breaks on the deck when I noticed the swallows. How can you not notice swallows with their jet-like, acrobatic flying? Oh, what joy it might be to spend even just a few minutes of your life with such a freedom of flight! To think that the youngsters were emerging just weeks ago from the hollowed mud nests their parents like to mold to side of the house and wood shop, to now seeing them flying about like their parents. Actually it’s hard to tell them apart as the lessons and endurance of flight seems so important now.

Their flight from the studio elm into the adjacent prairie and back was the tipoff, for they would swoop off and make a loop or two around the studio, and maybe a short jaunt over the big bluestem, before heading back to perch and rest in the treetop. Not being privy into “swallow talk” they seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. 

My deck almost seems like the center line of the flyway highway, and my old friend was here for a visit and had joined me for a glass of wine as we watched distant murmurations skitter across the prairie sky, then later as hundreds of distant birds careened across the farm fields with little hesitation and much determination. 

Swallows swooping over the canopy of the old elm mere moments before they suddenly disappeared on their autumn migration.

It is that time of year, and you can see it along the wetlands as well as the pools at the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge with geese, ducks and even the wading birds. Especially with the geese, for they’re now making flights across the prairie as family units. Up at the North Ottowa Impoundment geese families are spread along the banks, one family platoon after another, all along the water. They’re now all equal in size, yet the parent geese have their necks stretched a bit higher supposedly in the watch for danger. They’re likely here for awhile yet.

So the fall migration is upon us, and began with the redwing blackbirds back in early August. It seems bird species are here one moment, gone the next. Mysteriously disappearing. Sadly so. Poof! Gone! I find it the opposite of springtime when each new arrival is a reason for joy. Up go the grape jelly feeders for the oriels. Then it’s to Google to recall the mix for the hummingbirds. My sunflower feeders are up all year making the nuthatches, sparrows and finches happy, and the new arrivals make it seem a reunion.

This once again was a colorful summer here at Listening Stones Farm. Goldfinches and oriels were joined by shy brown thrashers, wood ducks in the grove, a couple of yellow warblers and rose breasted grossbeaks all around. The swallows were here, too, although their flight is more remarkable than their addition of colorful feathery. 

Great egrets are gathering on the edges of wetlands in small groups. Is this a clue to a near migration?

Now autumn beckons and whether we’re here on the deck overlooking the prairie skies or, as we did on a recent afternoon at the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge where we sat as seeming hundreds of Franklin Gulls swept overhead in a steady stream of migration. We were seated on a comfortable, shaded bench next to a beautifully carved natural wetland surrounded by outcrops as the gulls navigated the flyway highway. Looking toward the north we could not see the birds, but as they came over us suddenly they became visible. And they kept coming and coming.

Driving around you’ll see the gatherings of great egrets on the edges of wetlands. Not just the singular bird wading in the mucky edges, but three or four. Perhaps they’re the quickly matured of the summer’s hatch. Who can tell? Soon they and the smaller shorebirds will all have headed south, and along with the ducks and geese, and the wetlands will be barren of bird life as we await winter.

Hopefully I’ll have one more trip this fall, on the first week of November, when sandhill crane enthusiasts gather near Baraboo, WI, for the fall gatherings of the beautiful birds. This will be along the Wisconsin River near Aldo Leopold’s sand farm that became a shrine with the publication of his book of essays, The Sand County Almanac. Last year when visiting his old farm on the bend of the Wisconsin and near the International Crane Foundation, we learned about the annual fall migration of humans to witness the concluding gathering of the sandhills. After a few visits of their annual spring migration in central Nebraska, this seems like a pilgrimage I’d love to join.

A small sampling of franklin gulls flying over the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge this past weekend, a steady stream that seemed to last forever.

Now, though, back home on the farm, murmurations sometimes land here in the grove as birds fly en masse from one set of treetops to another, back and forth, until suddenly they’re gone. Poof. Ah, yes! The mystery. 

It’s said all birds migrate. Some like the thumb-sized hummingbirds travel from these parts to southern South America. Others, like juncos and perhaps the snowy owls, from a colder region to one less chilly. There seems to be no concrete knowledge of why or when, and food supplies, moon phases, available light and any number of other human-based theories exist and are utterly unproven. 

For a few weeks now we’ve witnessed hundreds of swallows on the gravel roads, neatly rising when a car or pickup approaches, all safely gliding off in different directions. And here we were sitting on the deck watching as swallows glided around the old elm and the studio, coming and going, landing and swooping off again and again. I told my friend about such a moment years ago when another friend and I had been watching such a scene with the swallows, although those seemed more prone to land on the eaves of the wood shop and studio, on the clothesline or on the gutters above us on the lips of the roof rather then in the old elm.

Geese families are gathering in places like the North Ottawa Impoundment, feeding and practicing their flying before their huge fall migration.

“We had gone inside for a sandwich at noon,” I said, “then came back out here after eating. The swallows were still swooping and making their crazy racket when we sat back down to watch. We were still sitting there when my friend suddenly asked, ‘Hey, where did the swallows go?’” 

Our piece of the prairie was suddenly deafly quiet, and there wasn’t a swallow in sight. Not on the gutters nor on the eaves of our outbuildings. They had suddenly and simply disappeared, and that was that.

So here we were, the two of us with our respective glasses of wine, when my friend looked over at me and asked, “Like now?”

Looking around I suddenly realized that the mysteries of migration were still alive and well, and all that cheepy chatter was perhaps just “swallow talk” … that chatter of excitement we all seem to have before we embark on a huge journey. “Yes,” I said. “Like now.” 

Bathing at Bonanza

My apologies to Tony Menden, the fair and fine husband of my silversmith artist friend, Jean Menden. He had invited me to share a meal of baby-backs I had smoked for him the day before and this was my moment of delivery. With a temporary loss for words, it was several moments later after I drove away that I realized I was just feeling funky. Seemingly there are two widely held definitions; one where you feel aligned with the spirits of the soul, or when you aren’t. My alignment was certainly off.

The Mendens live about a mile south of the Bonanza, or northern portion, of Big Stone Lake State Park, and is basically an oak savanna nestled against a bank of the old Glacial River Warren. This is where I turned when I pulled from the Menden’s lakeside gravel road. Heaven knows why I turned toward the state park, yet there I was slowly navigating the park road along the savanna aimlessly looking for deer. Or, so I thought. When I reached the Education Center I stopped, parked, grabbed my camera and headed off into the woods.

Obviously they were calling. Initially perhaps it was to see if I could find a puffball mushroom, for photos of the prized mushrooms have started appearing on social media sites. What could be better than a juicy, grilled steak alongside a slab of buttery and garlicky puffball? 

The weathered path at Bonanza meanders through the savanna.

Then, less than a hundred meters down the path came the realization that what I really needed was to do some forest bathing. Based on a physiological and psychological exercise that emerged in Japan in the 1980s, and is called “shinrin-yoku” in their language, forest bathing combines yoga-like breathing, meditation and awarenesses while sauntering through the woods. A few months ago I took a class at the Minnesota Master Naturalist’s Gathering Partners “convention” at Prairie Island outside of Redwing. Although I’ve thought of forest bathing several times since, I just haven’t.

So I stopped and sat down off the weathered trail and slowly began taking in and releasing deep breaths. After some 40 years of doing yoga, meditative breathing is nearly second nature. With my eyes closed to concentrate on the meditation, to temporarily close out all that surrounded me, some of the funkiness began to fade away. My mind was feeling freer, and I was feeling, well, even a little “high.” Yes, that kind of high.

Among the keys of forest bathing is to bring awareness to all of your senses so you can experience the timbered environment on all levels. Smell was my first concentration, as it had been in the class. Then I began concentrating on sounds. Although the sounds of boats came through the canopy there was no real interference. It was then I realized my hearing aids were still in the charger back home, so perhaps the worst was not being able to hear the birds. Honestly, this isn’t much of an issue for sometimes bird sounds are simply too much for me to handle, and my goal was to relax, to ward away the funkiness in search of some internal peace. 

Like an eye in the forest poking out from a long dead and prone oak …

Those exercises seemed to have helped, so I stood, reached for the camera and headed down the trail. I found myself stopping ever so often to breath in the cool, morning air, that search for smell, to search more deeply for various scents of nature. Yes, there was a muskiness, especially as I neared a stream meandering through the wooded ravine. Searching the treetops, I started seeing the fleeting flights of brownish birds although I couldn’t make the species. Little did it matter. 

My strongest sense is sight, and there was much to see. Wild flowers dotted the path, and I became keenly aware of the ever changing treescapes, both along the forest floor and in the canopy above. The path led through an overreaching canopy of burr oak, dogwood, ash and maple, traversing down the hill toward the small stream. There a new wooden walkway had been built over an older bridge, and the two created a nice, comfortable place to sit for a rest while listening to the hypnotic sounds of rustling water. It was perfectly meditative, giving me a sense that mentally I was feeling more free of any lingering stress or mental discomfort. My forest bathing was working wonders. Something about a saunter through the woods and a burbling creek.

Visually I was becoming increasingly more aware of the small wonders of the forest, things I may have overlooked on another day. One was an incredible view inside the soul of a downed oak, peeking out at me like an eye of the forest. And there was a flower beside my knee that strangely and suddenly introduced itself, a streamside orangish flower I couldn’t recall ever seeing before. iNaturalist suggested it was an Orange Jewelweed. In the woods White Snakeroot poked through the grasses to create small, woodland “meadows” around the bases of tree trunks, and even a view of a hillside of sumac caught my attention, the reddish berries poking up from the green carpet of leaves.

As usual when I’m in an oak savanna, above me the stately limbs of the oaks once again fascinated me. There, deep in the woods, a sense of comfort came from being surrounded by the haunting beauty of a rich, oak savanna. Although I’ve made numerous images of oak limbs over the years here at Bonanza and in other savannas, here I was raising my camera again and again. As J.R.R. Tolkiem, author of the Hobbit tales, wrote:

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”

The worn pathway curved alongside the lake for a few hundred feet before angling back toward the heart of the savanna. Suddenly I sensed some familiarity as I began to recognize different features from past walks and photography events below the Education Center. There would be a climb up the hill, although thanks to the deep breathing before and intermittently throughout the saunter, the walk up the hill was hardly a bother. Memories of an art and science camp with fifth and sixth grade students began to come to mind, bringing brief smiles of recollection — one of many memories gathered here.

I can never seem to have enough of the stately limbs of the oaks.

Then I thought of the Mendens, and felt fresh misgivings of my turning down their kind invitation. I simply wasn’t ready, and in the brief conversation we had as I handed off the bag containing their racks of ribs, I realized that without knowing why. As I reached my car I felt rejuvenated and mentally free, far different than I had felt nearly two hours earlier. It was then I realized that not all who wander are lost, and the old that is strong does not wither. And that the shackles on my soul were lifted.

Drive-by Shootings …

Yes, I carry. Nearly everywhere I go. Right close to my hip. Having it so close severely reduces my anxiety. I’m seemingly intent of seeking an opportunity to secure my rights and my sense of freedom. At home or on the road. Especially on the road. With it I can whip off several shots per second. Come nightfall I can peer into the darkness like the sharpest sniper to get off a shot depending on the target and lunar light. Through the years I’ve made hundreds of drive-by shootings!

Ah, so there’s your clue, for I speak not of a gun but rather of my trusty Nikon, a brand of camera I’ve had along my side since I entered the photojournalism sequence at the University of Missouri School of Journalism back in 1965. Over the years there have been a few upgrades, though not as many as one might expect. These were, and remain, sturdy tools. Dependable. As an example, while I was working for the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald in 1968, fellow photographer Chuck Anderson inadvertently left one of his three Nikons on the ground as he rushed for a different angle with one of his other cameras … when a bulldozer scrunched his abandoned Nikon deep into the sand.

Realizing his mistake and at least temporarily traumatized, Chuck rushed to retrieve it. He brushed away the sand, peered through the viewfinder and pushed the shutter. “Wow!” he shouted. “It still works!” 

I was thankful to have my camera with me on the way home from a dinner party while passing through the Watson Sag in a twilight moment.

I’ve never given my trusty tool such a test, although peach juice once made a lens inoperable after covering a story on the Palisade peach harvest a few years later while working at the Denver Post. Both a handful of juicy ripe peaches and my cameras were sharing the passenger seat of my car.

Back in those days it was normal for working photojournalists to carry two to three camera bodies slung over shoulders and neck, each outfitted with lenses of varying focal lengths. Watch the end zones during a football game and you might still see this. One was fitted with a wide angle lens ranging from a 28mm to a 35mm, another with a medium length105mm to 135mm, and finally one with a longer telephoto, say of a 200 or 300mm focal length. Nowadays with much sharper and refined optics, I carry a 28-300mm zoom along with a 150-600mm zoom. Oh, and I have a 10mm in the bag for the rare chance of capturing a Northern Lights display. Three lenses and a single body, a Nikon D500.

These two larger lenses are typically laying in the front seat of my car within easy reach (minus the ripe peaches!), with the camera attached to the smaller zoom. Old habits die hard. When I head off into the prairie or into the woods, or even just driving into town, typically the camera is by my side. When in the field an over-the-shoulder bag totes my other two lenses. Holsters, if you wish. I carry because it’s fun, and like a 91 year old artist told me a couple of years ago when we shared a site at a Christmas market, “What else would I do?”

A moment caught on a narrow gravel road while art meandering with a friend.

All of these components, however, are simply tools. On of my favorite comments was when a Meander customer said, “You are an artist  ….  with a camera.” I loved that split second emphasis, for he equated a camera with a potter’s wheel, palettes and paints, or whatever other tool one uses to create his or her art. His comment wasn’t taken lightly, and it comes to mind when in the field or here processing images.

Speaking of processing, there is this frequent comment: “These must be Photoshopped.” Well, certainly. My images are captured in something called RAW, which is basically a digital “negative” that must be “processed” before being converted into a JPEG file so it can actually be used. RAW gives us much more data than does shooting in a standard JPEG format. For me, this generally means capturing much more shadow detail along with a broader color range. There is just so much more digital data to access. 

Often it’s the clouds that cause me to pause for a drive-by shooting.

That said, my “processing” of digital images is significantly less than what I formerly did while working with Tri-X back in my newspaper days with an enlarger, light sensitivity photo paper of varying contrasts and those horrible smelling chemicals in a darkroom. Like any professional in those days, working in the dim, yellowish darkroom light meant I had to master “shadow art” ­— the art of dodging the shadows, and the burning in of the highlights between the negative and print. Each image offered different and sometimes unique challenges. All of which was far more intense and manipulative than digital processing, of which there is little on my part.

While I would never in any shape or form compare myself with Ansel Adams, the noted nature and landscape photographer of Yosemite and the Tetons, who was known for manipulating his images extensively through the use of “push-and-pull processing”  when he developed his sheets of film, and then later when he went through his extensive dodging and burning to make his prints. “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships,” he once quipped.

Much of Adams’ work with his film plates and prints are now more easily accomplished with digital technology both in the field and at the computer. There are no apologies for that. Only blessings.

A friend called with a report of an American Avocet, which I couldn’t find … although this great egret caught me in the dimming twilight.

Yet, it all starts in the field. With an eye for subject matter and natural ambient lighting and colors. For cloud shapes, and for incredible and usually unique natural canvases spreading across the skies. God rarely errs with his offerings. From twilight through dawn and the short “Monet light”period until midmorning. Then hours later with the afternoon “Monet Light” through to sunset and the closing twilight of the evenings. In short, using the natural light and color while framing through composition, among other various visual offerings, all captured with tools called a camera and a lens. And a software program for the eventual processing of those “digital negatives.”

Adams mentions God frequently in his writing, yet for all those elements I’ve listed, perhaps credit is due. For me, an unabashed “carrier”, I’m forever thankful for whatever is presented in those ever changing and interesting skies, and for whatever nature provides me with subject matter. Be it a deer or native flowers, a sunrise or sunset over a wetland, or even stormy skies across a prairie landscape. Such blessings cannot be understated or under appreciated. Camera or not, we are fortunately blessed! Yet I “carry” and will hopefully be ready to pull off yet another drive-by shooting, one that brings someone a moment of thought and pleasure. 

Hopes Arising from a Homey Homily

“Longer Livin’” read the homey homily on the weathered rustic cabin edged against the Big Thompson River downriver from Estes Park. It was one of those cute commentaries folks tend to paint on the stern of their boats or on the metallic husks of their travel campers, and on this cloudy and sometimes stormy afternoon, the Big Thompson was cascading beautifully and peacefully alongside the highway guiding down from Rocky Mountain National Park.

Interestingly, our drive was on the 46th anniversary of when a 20 ft. wall of water surged through this very canyon and 146 people were “no longer livin’”, including five of whose bodies have never been found — surging right past where this weathered, rustic cabin now sits. My long ago friend from my Denver Post days, Ernie Leyba, who had covered the tragedy for the newspaper, posted the reminder of this sad and deadly anniversary on social media mere moments after I’d pointed out the sign to my son, Aaron, who was driving, and his wife, Michelle, here on holiday from Bergen, Norway.

Forty some years ago Colorado was home, when my work with the Post took me into numerous nooks and crannies of the state, from small towns in the Plains through the mountain passes, from peaches on the West Slope to “wheaties” harvesting the golden grain out in the Plains. This is where I grew up, where I began to become a man despite too many missteps to count, and even now in my late 70s I sometimes cringe on the number of people I may have hurt on my journey of growth.

About a half hour from Denver a peek of the Front Range mountains briefly broke through the clouds.

Earlier in the week, as we drove across those same rolling Plains toward Denver, my eyes kept venturing toward the approaching Front Range mountains hoping to witness another majestic welcome as I had on my career- and life-changing trip back in 1969, entering a world yet to be explored and experienced. On this drive the skies were bluish-gray and overcast, then about a half hour from Denver a peek of the Front Range mountains momentarily broke through the clouds. Staunch and proud, and once again welcoming!

I was even able to capture a “textured” image of a tree on the mountainscape.

So began our nearly week-long journey of visiting family, a handful of old friends, a beautiful bookstore and an incredible farmer’s market on South Pearl. An old home week with the Norwegian branch, and my other son, Jacob. Midway through we were off to the mountains so Aaron and Michelle could make their traditional horseback trail ride they attempt to schedule on their trips. After hitting the trail on the saddled horses, Urchin and Grain, Rocky Mountain National Park beckoned. We realized going in that we had a limited time frame due to a patio party being hosted by another former “Postie”, Mardy Wilson, in nearby Fort Collins.

My daughter-in-law, Michelle, had a great sense of vision in noticing our first elk, lazing off the graveled jeep road in a pocket of wildflowers.

Ah, but the mountains. With Michelle at the wheel, we entered the Beaver Meadows entry point before veering off the pavement onto the one lane, one-way Conata Basin Road, for a climb up and through the alpine meadowlands on a picturesque graveled jeep road. It was an interesting trip beyond the physical beauty, for I learned the youngsters from Norway were taken in by the vast and tall mountainous vistas while I sought flora and fauna; they leaned across the front seat grasping views of the massive mountainscapes as I once had while now I craved for quick stops along the pocket meadows on the opposite side for wildflowers featured in palettes of vivid colors.

Apparently the road “engineers” agreed with Aaron and Michelle, for the half-car wide pullouts certainly favored the mountainous views over the pocket meadows on my side of the road. Plus, there were too many cars on the one-lane gravel for her to suddenly stop to allow her eager father-in-law time to jump out for a few moments of floral imagery. I also learned that my viewing of mountainscapes had shifted, for I was now looking for patterns and rhythms of those same shoulders of the valleys and peaks, of how the mountains framed and offset the towering clouds that rose above them, of how they lent themselves to an overall composition rather than as stand alone towering mounds of stone. 

This was about a fourth of the large herd we saw easing down a mountainous slope as we drove over the pass.

It was in the midst of such thought when Michelle suddenly braked the car to point excitedly, “Look! An elk!” Indeed, lazing beside a log and partially hidden by pines and tall grasses was a majestically antlered bull elk. I quickly changed lenses to more closely capture the reclining beast.

For a long while this was my highlight of the drive … until we climbed toward the top of our last pass where an entire herd was easing down a slope of the mountain. Dozens, perhaps, all easily ambling and grazing along their way. Cows and a few bulls, yearlings and calves among them. Moments later, as we capped the apex of the pass, two more elk were spotted at the crest. It was like the topping of a sundae. A few hours earlier, upon entering the park, we joked about even seeing one elk and now this!

I learned my vision has shifted from the brawn and boldness of the peak to seeing the rhythms of the ridges as elements of overall composition, factoring in the clouds and other features.

My aims for flora and fauna were certainly satisfied despite the steady passings of the numerous pocket meadows with hundreds of wild flowers beckoning from each. Besides the elk and the few flowers I was able to capture on our one stop at a gravelly, toilet-friendly pullout, the mountains with their patterns and rhythms were heavenly. It was splendid afternoon for a photographer, and actually an afternoon I hadn’t expected. After all, it had been four years since we’ve all been together as a family, and to share such a grand experience was godsend. And this doesn’t even factor in seeing my late wife’s family and a few old friends.

As we descended from the gravelly pass past the park exit, ambling along the Big Thompson, my thoughts drifted toward wading the beautiful cascading river with a fly rod angling for a colorful, battling trout or two.  Another sense of being back home in the Rockies, however briefly.

I realized while passing through the cascading Big Thompson that these river views truly captured that essence of being back, offering an odd sense of familiarity and comfort. “Longer Livin’” read the sign on the rustic cabin as we traversed the curvy and picturesque Big Thompson Canyon Road toward the Plains, providing an unexpected message that gave this guy a ray of everlasting hope that maybe someday, God willing, we’ll pass this way once again.


Count me among those who can tell the difference between luck and serendipity. Just for the record, and without a drop of DNA proof, I’m not of Irish descent although I do know luck when I see it, or experience it. Luck is when a five dollar raffle wins you a kayak, or an incredibly beautiful quilt fashioned by state park manager Terri Dinesen for a $2 raffle ticket through the Pezuta Zizi Environmental Learning Center, Friends of Upper Sioux Agency State Park.

Then there was that “win” of a Final Four bracket thing back in the late 1990s at a local bar just before losing  most of the windfall through the custom of buying rounds of drinks afterwards. Luck? Because I didn’t know who two-thirds of the teams in the bracket.

Being serendipitous is an entirely different matter, for that is when unexpected fortune falls in your lap. As an example, take Wednesday afternoon of last week. I had been tagged to present my 18-minute “film” of  images, fashioned together beautifully by artist friend, Lee Kanten, for the newest class of Minnesota Master Naturalists at nearby Lac qui Parle State Park who were here for the 40-hour course on the Prairie Pothole Biome. 

Round three of my serendipitous afternoon overlooking Big Stone Lake and an incredible storm front.

This was an afternoon without humidity, which nowadays is counted as one of the blessings of a Minnesota summer. For which we were lucky! I left the farm with ample  time before the potluck mainly to make sure our technologies matched up correctly for the presentation, which gave me some leeway for possible fun in the field. For one, surrounding the state park’s office and headquarters is a beautiful native planting with gorgeous prairie flowers. So, yes, this happened to be in my thoughts. This was neither luck nor serendipity. This was knowledge.

A prairie meadow at the base of the turnoff from the state highway to the state park headquarters, however, wasn’t part of the plan. Last fall area prairie lovers lost one of the most beautiful prairie meadows in the river valley, located just a few miles further down the highway. Apparently the CRP had played out so the owners, who had the land for sale along with their beautiful house, had the prairie converted to cropland. Nearly 80 acres of perennial prairie turned upside down with soybeans supplanting coneflowers … meaning once harvested that former prairie will be exposed and vulnerable to the winter winds. So much for combating global warming.

The doe and fawn appeared suddenly on the turnoff, and she bolted to the apex of the hill, soon joined by one of the two fawns. Round 1!

Seeing this new meadow, now in full bloom, was a stopper. I knew I had time to spare so out came the camera and lenses to play with various compositions and textures. What fun! Unexpected fun! Yet, I wouldn’t quite label this as serendipitous. With an eye on the clock, it was soon off to the headquarters and the obligations. Once the technical issues were squared away, the prairie garden surrounding the office beckoned. More of the same. Playing with imagery through wind-blown grasses, which typically give me a sense of stilled softness along with color. 

My luck would continue with an incredible potluck by the naturalists, many from the Cities, that included fresh mozzarella bruschetta, dolmes and a two-grape “salad” that I couldn’t get enough of. Plus the main “course” was “pulled” roasted chicken with a dandy BBQ tangy sauce on the side. Not your typical church basement potluck.

Those “students” were very kind after the presentation, and two women provided wonderful comments even I was climbing into my car for the drive home. My afternoon, my actual serendipity, awaited down the road apiece. All those native wild flower images and an incredible potluck were simply a prelude.

At the base of the hill, I found the doe and one fawn in the creek, joined by another door. Round 2!

As I turned off the “lake road” a couple of miles from home it suddenly happened as a doe and two fawns turned suddenly in surprise as they were crossing the road. The fawns scattered as the doe bounded to the apex of a sharp bank cut by the Glacial River Warren back in “geological time” where she stood poised with concern before being quickly joined by one of the fawns. Perfect! I was able to capture three or four images while silently hoping the second fawn would join  its mother and sibling at the crest of the hill. Then, just as quickly, they disappeared over the top. 

Up the road about 100 meters while looking over the leeside of the crest I spotted the deer family in the small creek at the base of the steep incline. Oh, man! More pictures, with both the crested portrait and the creek images being rather special, for although deer are quite common around here, these two rather unique images was, well, serendipitous.

I could hardly wait to drive the two miles home to get into the card. Then further up the gravely road my eyes were diverted to a towering set of clouds to the west with the sunset looming. Turning off on one of the narrower country gravel roads, I began searching for one of my singular “lone tree” possibilities. Corn covered both sides of the road for a full mile, so at the first junction I turned north. More of the same, and the sky was becoming ever more interesting and dramatic. Knowing how quickly this all drama changes, I became more frantic.

Capturing this image of a prairie rain was my final image of my special afternoon. Round 4!

Nothing but corn, which is now nearing 10 to 12 feet in height. Tall enough you can’t see tree bases, let alone a horizon. I made it to the “colony road” and headed west. At the “T” up ahead about three miles beyond the colony were meadows and a possibility of something interesting in the great, low valley panorama of an oak savanna. The light was wrong, so I sped down the hill back to the “lake road.” The cloud bank was ever changing and  becoming ever more dramatic. The sun had moved behind the heavenly high curvature of what was shaping up as a huge storm cloud with sunset mere moments away.

Speeding up the hill from Mallard Point I thought of the Bonanza Educational Center shorelines, although at the crest of the hill I realized the drama, including the setting sun, wouldn’t last that long. When the picnic turnoff appeared, I pulled in quickly and jumped from the car, camera in hand. Suddenly the cloud broke into two different rain events across Big Stone Lake over the South Dakota Coteau. The drama of the skies was amazing. A handful of images were captured just as the deluge hit on this side of the lake, rain so thick that distant vision was impossible. 

And, it all began with the wildflowers earlier in the afternoon!

Was this the same quiet, beautiful Minnesota summer afternoon I had experienced just an hour earlier? Of shooting pictures of a pristine and picturesque prairie meadow? Or of the doe and fawn on the crest of a hill, and just seconds later as they waded in a shaded stream?

As quickly as it hit, though, the rain stopped, so it was off toward home on the “Clinton road.” As I drove a  tremendously heavy rain was descending from the towering grayness off to the north. Yes, more “drama in the  prairie sky  —  now a wall of grayness and a down-pouring of rain, and I captured my final image of an incredible afternoon and evening of unexpected imagery.

No doubt there is a thrill in being lucky, though the difference lies in your involvement. Experiencing serendipity is different for this is when things magically open up in front of you with no expectation whatsoever. Having just flowery meadow appear would have been enough. The deer? Such a dramatic sky, and the gift of the heavens that just kept on giving? As actor Charlton Heston was quoted as saying: “Sometimes life drops blessings in your lap without your lifting a finger. Serendipity, they call it.” Indeed!

A Prairie Wonder

It could have been worse. For one, the afternoon had the look and feel of one of those stressfully hot and humid days that have become more common with climate change, and it felt as though this was in store as I mowed my lawn Saturday morning. 

On our trip that afternoon toward Canby for a promised prairie walk, sprinkles dotted Don Sherman’s windshield and we were without rain gear. While neither of us Minnesota Master Naturalists knew much about the trail at Stone Hill Regional Park nestled along winding Canby Creek, there might be a likelihood of a mosquito invasion if we were hiking through a shaded, woody area. Nope, mosquito masks weren’t packed either. We were to meander unprotected through whatever elements we might face.

Fortunately there were no mosquitoes. No rain. No heat and humidity. Just one of those fine July Minnesota summer afternoons for the dozen or so of us venturing on a saunter Canby area Master Naturalist Todd Mitchell organized and led along the winding Canby Creek, the feeder of the Del Clark Reservoir. He welcomed the help of another one of us Master Naturalists, Dave Craigmile, who lives in nearby Boyd. Cragmile is noted for his knowledge of the natural geological history of the area. None of us on the saunter suffered external stress and perhaps not even any internal stress since the trail was level and was cut through a dense, and mostly shaded riverine ecosystem.

Damselflies offered joy on the trail in Stone Hill Regional Park alongside Canby Creek.

It was a day of colorful milkweed and purplish-blue iron weed, both now in full bloom. It was a day of berries, including a somewhat hidden gooseberry plant found by Sherman and which promptly got the attention of Mitchell. Sherman is known in our Ortonville area for his gooseberry sorbet, and Mitchell laid claim to gooseberries being among his favorites. Various vines crawled up and left shoots dangling off into the prairie air. It was a day of blooming wild morninglory and purple prairie clover. Stalks of big bluestem were beginning to head out, and the sideoat grama appeared through the sedges and other grassy species, minature red seeds clinging a single side of the spindly stalks. Damselflies scurried about adding magical flight and sweet poses. Bees were about, too, buzzing in busyness. Above us dogwood blossoms laid contrast to native burr oaks that seemed to offer staunch guard to the small, meandering creek.

At a U-bend of the creek, Mitchell took a moment with a small etch board to describe the dynamics of the creation of an oxbow lake, and Craigmile told of how brown trout are released into the creek each spring, of how fishers and great blue herons competed for the salmonoid species that were initially brought into the country during European migration back in the late 1800s. That briefly caused me wonder of how they managed to keep these delicate fish alive on such a journey back in the days of ship, train and possibly even covered wagon travel. Or, for that matter, how they even survive in such a shallow prairie stream, for trout are inherently a cold water species. Perhaps the runoff from higher elevation of Buffalo Ridge and spring water is enough, although the warming climate is undoubtedly a concern. 

Craigmile spoke of ancient newspaper accounts of parties catching hundreds of trout back in earlier times. “That wouldn’t go over today,” he joked. Next to portions of the Redwood River, and specifically in nearby Camden State Park, this is about the extent of trout in SW Minnesota.

At upper left, Dave Craigmile, and below him, Todd Mitchell. Bottom right, Jody Olson. Two Master Naturalists, and Olson, a Master Gardener. She provided the greeting table complete with native prairie species from her garden

Before the saunter, though, the group was met at the trail head by Jody Olson, a Master Gardner longer than most of those on the tour had been alive, with a collected display of native prairie species she nurtured in her Canby garden. It was through Olson, actually, that Sherman learned about the trail hike. Olson was one of his “students” the previous weekend when he was in Canby for one of his paper making workshops. She’s perhaps the oldest person to ever take one of his workshops and is now in her ninth decade. 

Olson told him about the prairie park and its adjacent neighbor, Del Clark Reservoir, and invited him down for the hike. This combination of a “controlled” 30 ft. deep flood control reservoir, camper haven and playground along with this interesting nature trail were all created in the 1980s as part of an integrated and ambitious plan to  protect the nearby small town of Canby from floodwaters off the nearby Buffalo Ridge moraine. The reservoir is about four miles from the outskirts of the prairie town and offers a pristine and picturesque jewel to the prairie. It is also, as was alluded to numerous times, the only swimmable lake in Southwestern Minnesota due to the absence of runoff of agricultural chemicals. There is a reason why ­ —  all found upstream.

All along the trail various species of milkweed were in bloom.

Nearly 20 years in the making, these efforts began after a five inch rain once again caused immense flooding in the community in 1963. The town historically suffered major damage from flooding every five years or so as the overflowing waters of Canby Creek rushed across the prairie. Enough was just that: enough. Following that flood a local committee was formed to address the issue. In 1972 the project was turned over to the Lac qui Parle-Yellow Bank Watershed District, which worked jointly with farmers and landowners and the Yellow Medicine and Lac qui Parle soil and water conservation districts to create the installation of water control projects both above Canby and for miles upstream. 

When the ambitious Del Clark Lake project was completed in 1986 it received a “Seven Wonders of Engineering Award” from the Minnesota Society of Professional Engineers (MSPE). Perhaps an even greater wonder, though, was in convincing cooperating agencies, farmers and others in three Minnesota and three South Dakota counties to work in concert to create grassed waterways, grade stabilization structures, crop residue management, contour farming, strip-cropping, terraces, field windbreaks, and pastures in the upland watershed. Yes, a thorough water conservation concept was sold to those upstream of what is now the reservoir and town of Canby to provide clean, chemically free water to Canby Creek and eventually the reservoir. 

Toward the end of the saunter, a hole in the canopy gave us a glimpse of the natural stream bed of Canby Creek, complete with a small rapids. Yes, perhaps this does appear to be a trout stream.

Remaining in the “wake” of this marvelous group effort was this meandering creek, park and adjacent trail, where odd masks and humorous figurines can bring a smile. At one juncture, a Vietnam veteran named a portion of the trail as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. That peaceful jaunt crosses what is now a hay field and is a shortcut from the far end of the Canby Creek trail and is a far cry from the noted supply route where communist-led North Vietnam sent weapons, manpower, ammunition and other supplies to their supporters in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Mitchell said the veteran, Ron Fjerkenstad, manager of the park, named the trail as a respectful homage to his enemy.

Yet, this saunter along the meandering creek wasn’t about politics nor the huge earthen dam and the reservoir behind it. Both Mitchell and Craigmile offered a relaxed and educational saunter along a possibly unique prairie trail, one that seemed quite distant from the broad-sky views just a few miles distant. Toward the end of the jaunt a hole in this seemingly rare “prairie jungle” offered a glimpse of the natural stream bed of Canby Creek, complete with a small rapids, which brought the thought that, yes, this could make a home for a beautiful trout. Yes, even here in the heart of the prairie! It could be worse.

My Gnarly Old Friend

A few weeks ago a dear friend commented on an old maple tree I had photographed by wondering, “Oh, the things that old tree has seen …” 

This is indeed an old tree, gnarly, weathered and minus a core that had long since rotted away, and perhaps dates itself to most of our family’s time on the Missouri farm. Both the tree and the farm are now safely existing into their third century. The old maple was fully mature when I was a child. Off one staunch limb my father had fashioned a rope swing. I was ten when we moved to what had been my grandparents’ home, so our move up the road was in 1953. Sixty-nine years ago. My guess is that the tree was planted by my grandfather, Mark White, and that it is now perhaps 150 years old. Maybe older. Its age will forever remain a mystery.

In my yard here on Listening Stones Farm I now glance at a maple I planted this spring, now bent a bit by winds that have since followed its planting. The trunk is maybe as round as my thumb, and I doubt if I’ll live to see it large enough for a manly hug let alone matured with a leafy shadow to shade the adjacent concrete patio that was poured and stamped last fall. The old maple at the Missouri farm was well beyond the hugging stage even when I was a child. Maybe two or three adults could clasp hands and cover the circumference.

Perhaps over 150 years of age, the old maple keeps chugging along in life and is now safely living into its third century.

With its inner core … that heartwood … rotted away it’s highly doubtful that anyone will ever know how old the old maple might be. It’s has been that for most of my lifetime. Maybe even longer. With a full canopy of fully alive branches and shimmering, summer leaves, the life-sustaining cambiam layer is charging ahead with ever more food, moisture and energy necessary for the old maple to continue its journey through life.

I love old trees and feel pain when I see one come down because of someone’s inconvenience. On the river road below Sacred Heart two picturesque and staunch cottonwoods were taken down last fall because they were “inconvenient.” They had stood more than 100 feet tall with wide and beautiful limbs and branches. Their stumps were as wide as a 600 gallon circular steel livestock watering tank before fire and an excavator came to rid dear earth of any clue of their prior existence. Like the old maple, their cambiam layers were still churning nutrients up to the very tops of the cottonwoods from the root system. They were beautiful trees. Landmarks, really; trees you were familiar with much like an old friend you met when ambling along on a curvy country river road. 

Other beautiful cottonwoods have met a similar fate. One was the “Milan tree” a mile south of the village that proclaims itself as the Goose Hunting Capital of the World. Among the activists fighting the eventual removal was one who threatened to chain herself to the tree to keep it from being taken down. MnDOT did the honors despite the threats and protests, although I’d suggest that her threats, efforts and words were simply blowing in the wind. My guess is that the farmer whose cropland was shaded from the afternoon sun no doubt petitioned to be rid of what he and other of his brothern claim are “dirty trees” — trees with limbs and other debris that come crashing down from the canopy onto their precious patch of Mother Earth. 

In November without the leaves the old maple looks old and weather-beaten.

Another instance was perhaps a stately ash tree on the last bend of US 75 going into Canby, a lone tree sentinel, an iconic landmark, staunch and proud, standing on a point along the highway. It’s gone. So many are gone, old trees … trees many years older than their land keepers. In these times when trees are severely needed in our grasp of planet health from the effects of global warming, few seem to care. Chainsaws are employed as much as heavy construction machines — front-end loaders and bulldozers hone in to remove any evidence and memory of those shadowy carbon eaters.

So, yes, I love old trees, and our old maple that remains in the “courtyard” of our family farm, itself awarded Century Farm status many years ago. Nowadays the cavity of the old maple yawns openly toward early morning sunrises and was once home to a huge beehive. As children we would lay our forearm against the bark opposite the hive to effectively hide our eyes as we counted our way to 100 in games of hide-n-sneak. Years ago two cherry trees were just to the west of the old maple. They’re long gone. Age caught up to them and they were eventually removed, by then woody skeletons of their former promise of tart pies. Still the old maple kept chugging on.

Like my friend suggested, the old maple has witnessed much through the years including five long stretches of family generations and counting. From my grandfather’s youth and marriage, to the birth and maturity of my father, to my generation of brothers and a sister, to modern times when my nephew and his wife began farming the land, and now their children, the oldest who this fall will be a junior in high school. So, yes, the tree has survived for many years and generations of my family. 

My little maple, planted this spring.

Each of those generations have parked either horse teams or tractors in that shade. As a teenager I changed the oil on tractors under its shaded canopy. After a big dinner my mother had laid out for a haying crew back in the day, and before we headed back to the oven-ish hayloft or field, we would amble outside to lay in the tree’s shade. With no air conditioning, all of us appreciated the shade especially on those hot and humid summer afternoons. Those “90 90 days” when the temperature and humidity met too close to the century marks. We especially loved the shade when the leaves above were shimmering with a cooling breeze.

Recently I sat in a comfortable patio chair on the porch of the farmhouse my parents moved us into back in ‘53, where I looked out across the lawn and adjacent fields. My nephew’s soybeans were breaking through the browned cover crop across the highway. The old elm with the “upside down dancer” limbs had long ago died and removed years ago. My brother and nephew have landscaped around the porch with new shrubs and flowering plants where in my youth there were bushes and a lone conifer tree. The redbud’s at the front of the lawn were removed and replaced with magnolias in difference to my nephew’s wife who grew up in the deep south. Climate change, he said, might make this possible.

Two beautiful old cottonwoods down the road stood for years after they were long dead and finally were grounded by a stanch prairie wind. Their fate was different than the old maple.

My father’s prized white board fences have long been dismantled as were all of the out buildings from his style of farming … the cattle pens, his old fashioned scale, granaries where my brothers and I chanced our hearing with the hammer mill grain grinders, and his tall white landmark barn. Gone, too, is the pole barn machine shed he built over my mother’s last great garden. A huge, modern machine shed was built this past spring for my nephew’s machinery.

All that remains from my childhood besides the old farm house where I sat was that old maple. The ageless maple is now more of an old friend and family member than a mere tree. My friend, the old maple, has weathered significantly in its aging, and those large poetic gaps gracefully reveals its inner soul. Leaves still flutter in the wind, shimmering as if a “latent” haying crew … ol’ Ed Troeger, the Norton boys, maybe an Amish lad or two awaiting their bearded stage … laid in momentary rest on the grassy carpet beneath.

My old friend, the maple, will outlast me, and maybe with luck, even my middle-aged nephew. Who’s to say it won’t? If there is a given to be gained from our family’s farm place is that you can never count out that old maple. Not back then. Not now. And perhaps, not ever.

Dreams of a Roadside Dreamer

Something interesting happened in the midst of my tunnel vision of non-stop driving. That “vision” had become  somewhat narrowed thanks to driving some 560 miles from Minnesota through the East River landscape of South Dakota and most of western Iowa before cutting cross state to Des Moines, where we cut south toward my home country of Missouri. For whatever reason my eyes were suddenly caught by the colors along the highway road banks ­– colors that covered much of an artist’s smeared palette.

At the first narrow field approach we pulled over for a closer look. As distant as I could see on either side and direction of the highway I was met with an impressive array of wildflowers. Daisies. A coneflower or two. Some yellow, others pink. Orange tiger lillies and tall stalks of mullein, the latter of which was said to be dipped in beeswax and turned into nighttime torches by the Biblical Romans. There were way too many blossoms to count, with a wide variation of colors. Blues. Yellows. Oranges. Reds. A few whites adding to the mix.

All of which took me back to a much earlier time, back when I had finished an assigned story for the National Woolgrowers Association on a San Angelo, TX, sheepman, which led to an unexpected set of pictures and an interview with a neighboring rancher who specialized in javelina guiding and hunting in his dense mesquite brush. I was then off across the state to Nacogdoches for an assigned story for a corporate account. I don’t recall the highway(s), although I do remember the flowers. On both sides of the four lane highway and within the median strip. Curated in beds, neat and tidy, especially in the median. More kemp, much more blue, and totally unlike the wild and “organic” Iowa roadside prairie nestled within the steep banks.

Typical of the native plantings found along the highways and byways of Iowa, a cost-savings program started in the 1970s as a step toward highway beautification.

Much like my moment in Iowa, in what should have been a boring trip across Texas became one that was both unforgettable and enchanting. Completely mood altering. Later when I mentioned this beauty to the farm wife outside of Nacogdoches, she said, “Oh, that’s Lady Bird’s doing. Her highway beautification project.”

Lady Bird was the wife of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, and was a champion for conservation efforts including the beautifications of the highways, particularly in their home state. Some 57 years ago Johnson, with the urgings of his wife, pushed through a law known as the Highway Beautification Act. It was an effort to limit billboards and other forms of outdoor advertising, as well as junkyards and other unsightly roadside messes along America’s interstate highways. Yes, flowers were intended. It was a move that has since spread beyond the interstates as evidenced by the number of junk yards sporting tall, oblique fencing to hide the hideous, and highways like those in Iowa.

Lady Bird’s reasoning was that such legislation would make the nation a better place not only to look at but to live. “The subject of beautification is like a tangled skein of wool,” she reportedly wrote in her diary. “All the threads are interwoven — recreation and pollution and mental health and the crime rate and rapid transit and highway beautification and the war on poverty and parks … everything leads to something else.”

Yellows were prominent along the highway, although nearly all the basic colors were evident.

Welcome to Iowa, and to a part of the state secluded from the hum and haw of the interstates that crisscross further northwest in Des Moines. Highway 63, between Ottumwa and Bloomfield, with uphill passing lanes and wildflowers paving the way, was just a small sample of statewide policy. In all, more than 50,000 acres of federal, state, county and city roadways that have been planted in a native ecosystem across the state since the 1970s. Later, on the way home I paid much more attention to the shoulders of the interstates, and yes, wildflowers, shrubs and picturesque trees greeted the travelers. 

To help in the beautification effort the state’s Department of Transportation published a beautiful, four-color, 134 page booklet called the “Iowa’s Living Roadway … Ecological Transportation.” The booklet provides tips on creating workable roadside habitat for beauty, birds and bees. Besides the tips on planting, the guide has specific sections on native wildflowers, shrubs and trees and is perhaps the “bible” for Iowa’s Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management (IRVM).

Oh, yes, there were blues and purples …

According to their website, the goal of IRVM is to provide an alternative to conventional roadside management practices, which were common before IRVM was adopted. These conventional practices, including the extensive use of mowing and herbicides, were often too costly to implement on a regular basis, were frequently ineffective, and contributed to an increased potential for surface water contamination.

“Having native plantings not only controls some of the erosion that is happening, but also having those deep root systems to be able to not only hold the soil in place, but not require as intensive herbicide application as would normally happen with a warm season grass planting that takes a different type of maintenance — a little more intensely mowed, and in some cases fertilizers too,” said Rebecca Kauten, who helped manage the program back in the early stages.

After the experience in Iowa I began noticing the shoulders of the highways and roadways on our recent trip to hang with family over the Fourth of July weekend. Much of Missouri roadways seemed to have followed suit, particularly on the state and federal highways. Not so true in Minnesota. I can name a few areas where wildflowers flourish on a couple of state highways — a small section of unmowable sections of both Highway 7 near the Watson Sag, and portions of Highway 34 between Detroit Lakes and Park Rapids. A few county roads have proven too risky for mowers and maintenance in places along the Minnesota River Valley, although the burly try. 

And on a hilltop, an entire halo of orange tiger lillies!

Near the Sag is a marshy stretch that boasts the rare white lady’s slippers, among other perhaps unique if not rare prairie plants, and in spots along 34 too boggy to maintain numerous wildflowers survive gleefully, including the state’s iconic showy lady’s slipper. While it seems the federal interstates host native plantings within much of Minnesota’s borders, it’s perhaps an archaic policy for the state and county highway systems that seems content if not intent to continue with the mow and spray cycles. Perhaps a change is warranted, especially now when pollinators are threatened, when deeply rooted perennials can aid in the fight against global warming and when our tax dollars could be put to much better use.

Although my trip was long and arduous at times, being surrounded for at least part of the journey with an ever changing bouquet of native flora was an unexpected joy. Even if I added to my highway hours by pulling off into a couple of field accesses to grab my camera. In the end I guess I’m a dreamer, and my dream is of walking down my little county graveled road seeing an “Iowa-scape” full of prairie grasses and seasonal native flowers, lush and colorful, scented and humming with bees, and perhaps even dancing with the prairie winds. 

Missing the Party

Oops, I was late to the party … and didn’t realize it until a week or so later. Here’s my story: Long time friend, Terri Dinesen, the DNR Park Manager for Upper Sioux Agency, Lac qui Parle and Big Stone Lake State Parks, posted a picture of a beautiful bloom of the rare ball cactus in the nearby outcrops. The blossom was expressively pink, billowing out in an expression of vivid color so common among cacti species, with a set of yellow stamens rising from the center with a small pinkish “hand” seemingly reaching out in greeting.

Finding any cacti blooming in the wild is a rare treat, and back in my “writing with willful whims” stage of my career for various magazines in the 1970s, a report came from various friends of a very rare cacti bloom across the Arizona desert around and north of Tuscon. It was termed a once in a lifetime event, so after calling my then girlfriend, I packed enough clothes for us both, picked her up at the rehabilitation center where she worked and off we went on overnight drive from Denver to reach the bloom the following morning. Yes, the desert was alive with color, and incredibly, that was my last cacti blooming party, and so far a “once in a lifetime” event. So having ball cacti in bloom right in the neighborhood was exciting and enticing.

Since I was near the secretive location awaiting cross-nation paddler, Madison Eklund, I stopped to see if I could find the little bloomers. Terri had given me a hint of the location, and about all I can say is that the cacti were in Big Stone NWR. Not much of a secret, for several websites and guide books will tell you as much. Then you must find them.

Thanks to DNR park manager, Terri Dinesen, here is a bloom I missed finding of the ball cactus.

Barely as large as the clinched fist of a child, the extremely rare and fragile ball cactus (Escobaria vivipara) hangs on precariously within a small, two-county range that is growing progressively smaller. Experts claim the small cactus resides only in the exposed bedrock along the Minnesota River in Big Stone and Lac qui Parle Counties, and there aren’t so many outcrops remaining either. Rock mining is a major threat as are cactus hunters and prairie fires. Who can speak of the goats that the Refuge has been employing to eradicate unwanted invasive species such as buckthorn.

This rare and endangered species is one of only three native Minnesota cacti, with plains prickly pear (Opuntia macrorhiza) and brittle prickly pear (Opuntia fragilis) being the others. Only a few inches in height, the brittle prickly pear seemingly surrounds the ball as miniature fortresses rimming the Refuge outcrops in goodly numbers. I’ve seen them on outcrops as far south as Vicksburg County Park in Renville County. Compared to the ball, the brittle prickly pear seems to be relatively thriving.

Records show that the ball was discovered in Minnesota in 1898 by Lycurgus Moyer, and the species was described as being rather abundant at favorable sites in the Minnesota River Valley within the two counties. Less than 80 years later the ball cactus was listed as “threatened”, and by 1996 the species was placed in the state’s “endangered” status.  By then the only known surviving plants were in small remnants of the original population close to thin-soiled prairies being converted to agricultural use, or on outcrops being mined for gravel. Some were harvested with well intended but illegal collecting. 

Rising from the ball cactus plant are bulbs where the process of seeds within the fruit are germinating into actual young developing cactus plants that will be released when the bulb breaks open next spring. That unseen magic of nature is happening now on the shelves, a process hidden from the naked and curious eye,

The remaining plants are now scattered infrequently among granite outcrops within a small, two to three mile area, and only a portion of the entire population lives within protected NWR public lands. The vast majority of the remaining population exists on adjacent private lands now apparently in the hands of a huge gravel quarrying company. The original plans for the mine would have destroyed more than an estimated 3,500 ball cactus along with another 14,000 specimens of another eight rare plants of this unique and fragile ecosystem existing only in cracks of the bedrock found on the site. Thankfully the DNR threw at least a temporary wrench into the works by not allowing a permit due to the amount of destruction of rare plants at the site, establishing a rare plant protection area to save the most threatened and diverse plant habitat on the property. 

That said, this is a rare and rather mysterious ecosystem seemingly found only on the cracks and edges of the bedrock exposed 10,000 years ago by the Glacial River Warren, itself created with a break in the ice dam of the upper continent ice sheet of Lake Agassiz — bedrock exposed from the headwaters of the now Minnesota River in Ortonville downriver through to New Ulm. 

A rather typical clump of ball cactus found on one of flatter shelves in the Refuge.

Those small clumps of ball cactus appear on the flatter outcrops, structures often described as “shelves” rather than the massive exposed mound of gneiss or granite. Rarely will you find a singular ball, and like morels in the leafy woods, once you’ve found one your eyes will begin finding scattered clumps nearby. 

Presently, though, those very brilliant red or purplish flowers I was seeking have now matured into fleshy fruit stems that are secured tightly and point upwards from the roundish plant. We’re now closing in on the scientific “species” part of its official Latin name, “vivipara.” This describes the process of those seeds within the fruit germinating into actual young developing cactus plants that will be released when the bulb breaks open next spring. That unseen magic of nature is happening now on the shelves, a process hidden from the naked and curious eye.

Feel free to color me inexperienced or ignorant, or both, for I kept thinking those mysterious bulbs were the actual flowers just waiting to magically blossom out in all their splendor. For several days I drove down, sneaking through the grasses to “hide” my paths with hopes of catching and portraying the balls in bloom. Over those seven to ten days nothing changed. No blooms, no change. Just those tight, red-streaked elongated brownish bulbs poking skyward on many of the balls. 

In the frustration of my research on the “life cycle” of the small cactus going nowhere, I sent Terri Dinesen an email with an attachment of two of the ball clumps complete with the red-streaked, brownish bulbs.

“You were too late,” she responded. “Those have already bloomed.”

Whoops! I had missed the party, although as a rebound of personal forgiveness I took solace in realizing that at least the trips to the Refuge weren’t as far as Tuscon!