A Continuing Disaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently not. 

Sweet Smiles of Hope

Lonyearbyen, a small Arctic village in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, was said to be 33 degrees warmer than we were this weekend. In other words, we are enjoying their typical weather while they’ve doused their seaside saunas!

Artist musician friend, Lee Kanten, sends a photograph of ice frozen in a lawn chair from South Padre Island. Another friend writes that they may as well head home from their winter hideaway since the temperatures are about the same as at home. Someone else posted a picture of the Riverwalk in San Antonio covered with snow. Every single county in the state of Texas is below freezing! Actually the entire central part of the nation, from mountain range to mountain range is below 32 degrees, which seems warm for us right now in the heart of this polar vortex.

Our little dog, Cocoa, steps through the door onto the deck and instantly raises her paws signaling that our weather here isn’t fit for neither man nor beast. These outside temperatures range from between -24 to -18 degrees, and this isn’t with factoring in the wind chills. We’re also warmer at these temperatures than much of the country is to the north and east of us. This morning Mary lamented, “This is the longest stretch of sub-zero weather we’ve here had in years.” In retort I suggested that we usually have a week or so of such temperatures, to which she responded, “But this is now more than two weeks. This isn’t normal.”

Beauty in the vortex of a sundog on a frigid prairie morning …

I’ve given up trying to make wooden frames for my show in March, for it’s too cold to run my saws in my unheated wood shop, and even if they did it’s too chilly to attempt to do the sanding. Indeed, the garage with in-floor heating is struggling to keep enough heat to even paint the frames. Adding to that, I have a spinning rod I’ve made that I can’t spread the epoxy on due to the low temperatures out there. 

Mary is keeping our hearts warm, however, hunched over her computer. I’ve never known anyone more immersed in doing computer research, for between her quilting she is finding her warmth in planning our summer camping trip to the coasts of Oregon and Washington. This began as a caravan outing that germinated last September among her “tribe” of “Murdock girls” who all grew up together in her small railroad town here in the prairie and have remained extremely close even now as they near their 70s. 

Last September her tribe met in a state park in western Montana and remained socially distanced and masked in close proximity throughout the trip out and among ourselves in the campground around the campfires. We sat as twos, as couples, distanced from one another into the nights. Since there were three RNs among the women, Covid consciousness was at the extreme as it surely will be again come this July.

A frosty hillside across from Big Stone Lake State Park brings shivers.

She is mixing in a couple of cabin nights she’s found in her research to interstice with our road time. So far the longest time we’ll be on the road is a stretch between Pendleton and Corvallis, Oregon. This appears to be about ten hours in the pickup. Most of the other days are in the six to eight hour range. Within the plans are visiting with some old friends of mine in Oregon and southern Washington en route to Larrabee State Park outside of Bellingham. Mary’s college roommate, who now lives in the Bellingham area, arranged the Larrabee portion that anchors the venture there and back.

Initially we had considered returning through the Tetons on the way out since Mary figured I missed the late afternoon shots with my favored light when we were there on the way home from Montana. It was either the Tetons or traversing the Columbia River valley, and like many of my desires of late, doing the Columbia again in my lifetime seems almost a dream. We’ll add a couple of more states to our history, for in our fourth year as a couple we have now been through 30!  Had the pandemic not happened it would have surely been more for we had our sights set on a trip to the Southwest over this winter and spring. Like her sisters and the Murdock girls, just give her time. 

The Listening Stores prairie and a distant tree in the snowy “mist.”

So it’s a fine reprieve for her from the temperatures outside. So is planning for the exhibit, which took a turn since we’ve now placed an order for pre-made frames rather than fight the elements. Now I can work on the fly rod I’ve been intending to make for the past several months. Like the spinning rod, it will be a gift. It will have a burl reel seat for soul and beauty, and offer some fine 5 wt. action for bluegill and bass around here, and for trout out west. I guess these are things you do when it’s too cold to do much else. Mary alternates between our trip planning by creating some incredible beautiful quilts while I make prints for the upcoming show and wrap line guides to fishing rod blanks. All while keeping the bird feeders stocked with black sunflower seeds!

Seems the most I can do outside is fill those bird feeders, for I find it too cold to ski. Warnings are to not spend more than a few minutes outside because of frostbite, and little Cocoa’s paws offer a fine reminder of such dangers. This provides a few breaths of fresh air while we busy ourselves indoors with creativity and dreams of a warmer and hopefully safer summer. Sometimes the cold of winter is like that, so you feed those feelings with hope and dreams of different times. Or as Alfred Lord Tennyson said, “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier’.”

A Light in the Gloom …

Waking to another morning of foggish gloom, even with a frosty coating of hoarfrost, was beginning to take a toll. Don’t get me wrong. There remains a blessed magic in hoarfrosts and a calm beauty within the fog and whiteness. Yet, somewhere deep in my soul I felt a need for color; to see blue sky and sense the warmth of the sun. 

My son in Norway and Mary both push Vitamin D, which despite the ease of swallowing a pill lacks the verve and vitality captured from energy of the sun. One year while living in Denver there was a count of 300 plus days of sunshine in one calendar year that became utterly monotonous. I’ve even wondered how people in the Caribbean can handle having both the constant sunshine and temperatures every single day. Maybe it’s not the fog so much as it is the sameness. 

Beyond the weather there is the me in me. Meaning, beyond this exterior of insufferable calmness there is a raging extrovert and exhibitionist, a hugger of rather unlimited bounds, a guy who craves social gatherings and fine dining with decent wine. Even my introverted partner claims she’s missing the social sides of our lives. This is our fourth winter together and our first of staying put. We don’t trust the masking, and even around here there is inconsistent compliance. At least here in our home surroundings we can safely cocoon while awaiting our shots. 

Finding reflective cypress in a Louisiana bayou is a cure for northern winter gloom.

Staying home is quite different. Two of the past three years we’ve taken long January road trips to the southern states, to the bayous of cypress and long-necked birds, to venues offering good music and have shared fun moments with distant friends and family while sharing dinners much different than deep-fried steak cubes and the mushy excuse of  “BBQ’d ribs” served around here. Our shared vagabonding was interrupted a couple of winters back when I made a six week solo trip through SE Asia and Australia, which was my last experience in either an airplane or a foreign country.

We were initially planning to spend a long month this winter in Rockport, TX, where we were last year, surrounded by interesting birding experiences. Whooping cranes, roseate spoonbills, blue herons and other species congregate in interesting state and national parks along the western Gulf Coast. We further enjoyed our dining experiences by ambling across to Louisiana to visit my author friend, Roger Emile Stouff and his wife, Suze. Although it’s not sleepy country in reality, the Cajun Triangle offers shades of such in the bayous.

Rockport offered us many birding options including a heron rookery right in town.

We briefly entertained thoughts of hooking up to travel to central New Mexico where sandhill cranes overwinter, and even considered spending a month at the old farm place in Northeast Missouri of my childhood. We’ve since learned from my nephew that a huge flock of snow geese have unexpectedly congregated on the farm which would have been rather interesting. Birds aside, our thinking was that this would be a warmer option than being here and it hasn’t appeared to have been. Plus, with the pandemic being an elephant in the room, we feared that our not being actual residents would jeopardize our getting the vaccinations. So we’re here at home with the dogs along with the Thorson’s horses and chickens, and yes, we’ve both feel fortunate to have received our first shots.

Actually, Listening Stones Farm, or Mary’s cabin on Lake Linka, are wonderful places to be. Things could be much worse! Here, if the sun is streaming through the windows of our solarium we can relax in a delightful and somewhat warm hideaway. Easing back in Dale and Jo Pederson’s comfortable bentwood furniture to watch the birds attack the feeder or to see the big bluestem ripple gracefully in a prairie wind in the lower prairie can wile away a good portion of a wintry afternoon. At the cabin, sitting in the warmth of a nice fire while looking out over the ice sheet as clouds continually fade and alter is equally as entertaining. At either place we can strap on cross country skis for some hearty exercise, which Joe Pye absolutely loves.

A hoarfrost offers a delightful mystery in a foggy winter …

This fall Mary bought a hammock chair that I’ve now hung it in the upstairs of the studio next to a window ledge bird feeder. Downy woodpeckers, chickadees, redpolls and a couple of species of sparrows visit during the day, and in the mornings you can see and hear bluejays attacking the seeds with what could be mistaken as anger! If I’m downstairs working I can often hear them pounding on the seeds like a rebellious teenage drummer in a garage band! It’s the “music” I hear while I work on an upcoming exhibit of my photographs or build a couple of fishing rods, or tie flies for the spring bluegill season.

So, yes, beyond the gloominess we are doing just fine. We’re safe. We have taken time to make some significant plans for our post-vaccine lives. Perhaps in March, with decent weather, we’ll take the camper down to central Nebraska to once again experience the sandhill crane migration, and we’ve actually committed to a trip to Isle Royale in late June. Later we plan to join friends in a camper caravan to Larrabee State Park outside of Bellingham, WA, with the same folks we met up with in Western Montana last September. They’re Mary’s “Murdock girls” who have remained close friendships through marriage, child-raising and careers, folks who are incredibly covid conscious and extremely careful. 

The first of our plans is to revisit the sandhill crane migration in Central Nebraska in March.

Ah, the dreams. Sandhill cranes. Moose and wolves. Traipsing across the High Plains through the mountain passes to the rugged West Coast, hopefully passing through coastal Oregon to visit old friends on the way up to Bellingham. If we were driving on one of our long winter road trips we would still be making plans wiling the miles behind us, which we’re doing now as we’re enveloped in this foggy mistiness. Meanwhile we prepare interesting meals, share some fine wine and bake a loaf or two of bread to give the house some charm and character. As a friend was known to say, “things could be worse.” Yes, and in so many ways. We’re blessed that have one another, that we’re as alive as our dreams, of which we’re ever hopeful will materialize. 

My Call …

It’s rather rare for me to answer the phone while eating lunch since 95 percent of the calls coming in are for renewing the factory warranty on my six year old car, or that sometimes twice daily check-in from a medical supply company so concerned about the workings of my C-PAP machine.

I was raising a spoonful of the delightfully creamy mushroom soup with flecks of wild chanterellas toward my mouth when the phone rang. A delightful and late Christmas present from my son, now of Bergen, Norway, with packet instructions fully in Norwegian. My soup was straight from the microwave, warmed from the original batch from the day before. Even post-microwaved it had gained seemingly more flavor than from when I had made it on the stove. 

Next to the bowl was a half meatloaf sandwich. I had made the meatloaf for dinner the night before and felt rather ingenious when my experiment of running Mary’s favorite taco chips with the limey seasoning through the food processor to create my own “bread crumbs.” This added an interesting zing and taste to what might have been an otherwise bland loaf of ground pork and hamburger. A heaping tablespoon of Hatch’s red and green chili mix surely helped, too. 

Flipping open the phone caddy I noticed it was a local number. Since those car warranty and medical supply people are so adept at using phone numbers from all across the nation, including ingeniously tapping into our local prefixes, I answered with groomed trepidation. My voice surely lacked great vigor and warmth. Perhaps even a bite of soup or sandwich might have been in my mouth for I didn’t expect to actually say anything. I’ve learned to quickly hit the little circularly X to end those sneaky robos.

It was a time to focus on my art …

Patience on her part was most rewarding, however. She was kind enough to see through all that posturing and asked if this was truly me, which I assured her I was by offering the last four digits of my SSI to gain her full trust. It slowly dawned on me that she was calling about the shot. Meaning, THE SHOT, the one promising life and a possible sense of normality. 

This was after spending much of the previous afternoon trying to figure out how to register online for something called “My Chart.” This was part of a rampant rumor mill. So many avenues. So many dead ends. It was just last week I had gone to the local clinic and left feeling as if there wasn’t much of an option. Not locally. Supplies and politics being what they are. Mary has worked extremely hard and creatively to get us lined up, and even found a way to get her brother assigned a shot slot. Due to a rocky night of sleep she was wide awake and ready to get us registered for the lottery by 5 a.m. When I came down a couple of hours later on Tuesday, she said, “You’re registered!” Could I have felt more relieved? 

Short lived, however. This morning My Chart wouldn’t recognize either my user name or password. Calls were made and patient instructions were provided, which didn’t work. Links sent via email didn’t help either. Surely my slumped shoulder saunter to the studio this morning could have been used as a portrayal of defeat and hopelessness. 

I found myself searching for moments of peace and tranquility …

In the last half of my morning I grudgingly began organizing some of my 4,000 cell phone images into various files, a job that would have made my daily Covid “to-do” list had I ever written one. Pictures dated back to 2014, which is one year longer than the car that supposedly needed a new factory warranty. Wonderful memories that included three trips to Budapest, a birthday trip to five European countries, another long trip to Southeast Asia and Australia, a couple to Norway, one each to Alaska and Nebraska, plus two round about winter drives to the southern U.S. Mixed in were a bunch of musical events, studio happenings and numerous exhibits … basically the story of my life for these past seven years ­— only one of which was during the pandemic, a time where I was fortunate to hang an exhibit. This was the extent of my “wall time,” so many hours were spent in the prairie and woods working to further my art. Yes, it was a creative time, for what else was there?

Ah, yes. The pandemic. Covid-19. A time when hugging died. A time when sitting indoors for meals at our favorite dinner spots was no longer possible. A time when Zoom and end-of-driveway visits filled our necessary social needs. A time of political turmoil when hopeful BLM protests and racist terrorists threatening our democracy filled the news, when a man named George Floyd became an unintended martyr for racial justice. A time of political unrest fueled by lies and ugly campaigning on all levels. 

I found solace in the waters, making many images of surface waves …

We separated ourselves into groupings of masked and unmasked, and we hunkered down as individuals and family units as we learned new ways to survive. If we had family on death beds and ventilators, or in senior care centers and group homes, we weren’t allowed to visit. Those who needed us most could not be held nor comforted with either words or touch. More than 450,000 have now died in the U.S. alone … with more people dying each day than were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attack. Never had our nation been so bonded as it was back then, yet we allowed the coronavirus to drive us apart in all ways. Our country has become the Sarajevo of the new century, dividing us as neighbors, family and friends. Perhaps forever more.

“Yes,” I said when she asked my name. “This is me.” We verified the necessary contact information and those last four digits of my national identity. Had I had a recent vaccination of any sort? Symptoms of Covid? Was I available to have my vaccine administered tomorrow afternoon? Since I was on speaker phone I simply stared at it laying between my bowl of soup from a son who remains forbidden to visit and half a meatloaf sandwich, unable to believe this was going to happen. That there might be an ending. 

I thought of my mother and her constant worry and trepidation 70 years ago when the crippling and deadly polio was the fear, and of how she cried tears of happiness for what seemed like hours when we got our sugar cube of Salk’s vaccine. I had wondered how anyone could cry over happiness? Now I could feel my eyes tearing up, and the lump in my throat, and a sudden relaxed gasp as if air had suddenly escaped from a tightly stretched, full balloon. And, I cried. I cried tears of relief and happiness. Just like my mother had.

Sauntering on Skis

No, I’m not Jean Diggins, who must be a unique specimen of human-hood as she digs, kicks and glides. Nor am I Jean Menden, the artistic silversmith, who were it not for her depths of compassion and friendship, could have left me stuck in my tracks cross country skiing a few winters ago at Lac qui Parle State Park. We’re both long past having the youthful vitality of the young Olympian Diggins. 

Yet, I do enjoy threading up the boots and hooking into the bindings on the long skis. And have for years. As a young man there were many Saturday mornings when a group of us, usually led by an exuberant Lola Dingamans, would ski up a mountain pass with backpacks filled with the makings of lunch and a bottle of wine. When we reached a picturesque site Lola would scream her wild and beautiful scream, which was our signal to undo the bindings, stomp a circle in the powdery snow for a seating and break out the lunch. Afterwards, after the last of the wine, we would bind back up and gleefully ski the several miles back down the mountainside to our cars. Far cheaper and much more friendly than hitting the slopes at Breckenridge, Vail or Winter Park.

My left-behind trail through the woodlot here on Listening Stones Farm.

Not many people I know ski around these parts of the prairie. There are exceptions such as Menden and Lucy Tokheim, yet apparently many don’t equate these flatlands with skiing. Which is too bad. Oh, you could venture to the Prairie Woods ELC, which I’ve done several times over the years, where for a modest fee you can rent skis. They even maintain trails, as do some of the more highly visited state parks. Not around here, though, which is a shame because Bonanza and the Big Stone Lake State Park would offer some beautiful skiing as would the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, where you could swish past outcrops denuded by the Glacial River Warren thousands of years ago.

Which brings me to the home place. Across the trails of the home prairie and deep into the small woodland here at Listening Stones Farm, a fresh powder-like snow had drifted from the sky recently to further blanket what had fallen through the night. Winterly prairie winds were whipping the big bluestem causing snow to cruise across the landscape creating drifts and dunes more reminiscent of desert sands. For most of the day, and certainly throughout the grayish misty-looking morning, the distant horizon in all directions seemed a whitish blur. It was cold. Bitterly cold, and the wind and snow added to the chill.

In the open prairie, a near white out because of the blowing snow …

So why would one spend nearly an hour searching for the poles that were stashed beneath a pile of coats on a hook to venture out on such a morning? Alone? With a camera, no less? Well, because there was a beckoning. Some might have suggested an explanation a bit differently. 

You must understand that unless I’m rising from a couch or chair, or happen to catch a glimpse of my weathered and aged features in the bathroom mirror, I rarely think of myself as being, well, old. So what if I’m 77 and home alone, out on the frozen trails in 14 acres of tall grass prairie where a bad slip or fall might put anyone in peril in that sort of frigid environment? Those are thoughts you have once back inside with a steamy cup of tea! 

I thought of Menden many times in my scooting along, slowly moving one ski just ahead of the other. On our skiing at Lac qui Parle I would try to kick/slide in futile attempts to keep up. This would cause breathing that would have scared any nurse of good standings in these times of Covid. Enough of that! Yet, I would look up while catching my breath to see Jean patiently awaiting me. What a wonderful friend! This time, though, I was alone.

You had to look, but there were sweet moments of delicacy …

For despite the temperatures and the wind, both the prairie and woodland were full of sometimes small and intricate sightings, while at other times a catch of the prairie amidst distant pairings of beauty caught my eye. Alone I found myself thinking back to those long ago years in Colorado, or with friends like Jean, or at Prairie Woods or at a State Park, just reliving old memories. But those memories, the many sounds and sightings, and the photographs of the natural offerings wouldn’t have been possible inside in the warmth of the hearth. 

I was dressed warmly enough, although my skiing (if you could call it that!) kept me plenty warm. I saw the woodland a bit differently than before, and the prairie was rather challenging thanks to the uneven drifts and dunes. The two were quite different. Inside the woods the wind wasn’t an issue. It was quiet save for the birds that flitted around either high in the canopy or on the dense underbrush of buckthorn. Nuthatches, chickadees and downy woodpeckers, mainly. A few stubborn leaves caught and hosted bits of fallen snow. In one spot there were a few spindly arms of a plant that seemed to hold dearly to seed clusters that reminded me of those Reese chocolate cups. Was it too close to lunch? 

Was it too close to lunch … for these seed heads looked like Reese’s chocolates …

Skiing out of the woods and into the prairie offered more of a challenge, especially physically because of the wind. Skiing up the hill into the wind was far different than on a sunny Colorado mountainside. On the weather shows the talking heads estimated a 30 mph blow, with gusts much higher. Ten to 20 mph higher. That, plus my erratic mowing of the trails in the summer added to the challenge. Rarely do I think of skiing when I create and groom the trails with the mower, so I sometimes cut the turns too tight for skis. I think of this when skiing, then come summer I don’t remember the having to ski-step to cut through the tight, narrow turns. Yet there were some beautiful stretches where it was a joy to kick and glide down a stretch of downhill straightaway. With the wind at my back. These were glorious moments, full of freedom and joy. 

Along with the joy of a straightaway glide were glimpses overhead as an eagle labored against the wind, and then after the turn at the top of the upper trail, a skein of geese flew over possibly heading to a stalk field down the way. My near heart attack came when three male pheasants suddenly exploded from the bluestem to glide down the hillside away from my threat. Gliding free with the harsh wind like thin, feathery arrows. 

The big bluestem hosted drifts and dunes, much different than what you might see in the other seasons of the year.

In less than a quarter mile this was more wildlife combined that I remember seeing in all those skiing trips through the Colorado mountains, and this was right here in my home prairie on a day that was blustery cold, when staying indoors in front of the fireplace seemed a safer and perhaps a saner option. My skiing was more reminiscent of a woodland saunter, too, often with stops to look and listen, to admire and commune with the bluestem in ways far different than in the summer when butterflies and bumblebees, swallows and dragonflies seem to rule this nook of the natural world. It was a good day.

A Fog of Make Believe

Let’s make believe that these year-beginning days of fog were like a theatre play featuring our new year with the stage curtains closed. Undrawn, closing off our view as far as one can see; mere feet in some cases, a curtain of grayness extending to places unseen. As Jaimal Yogis writes in his book of self discovery, “Saltwater Buddha,” “There is this sly strip of fog ­— water in it’s most mystical incarnation — slithering over, around, and through the hills, making everything look ancient and unsolved.”

So on the opening morning of the new year, and the day after, and now trice again in a week, long after the sparks and cinders have faded and cooled from New Year’s fireworks, we have faced an almost metaphorical and mystical beginning of 2021. Fog that made everything seem ancient and unsolved, unlike this bookended year we’ve hopefully parted from. This sad and seemingly unending tale.

Hoarfrost glittering like a queen’s crown with the lifting of the fog …

A year filled with a deadly pandemic and political unrest, with true-life scenes and scenarios in our very own White House and capitol, scenes not unlike what Peter Sellers’ character faced in his Inspector Clouseau films. What seemed so funny in film fiction didn’t translate so well in real life, not with the egging on of bigotry and political unrest caused by hardcore, home-grown terrorists bearing weapons intended for human carnage and encouraged by the president; not with a completely mishandled pandemic that continue to costs us more lives per day than died in 9/11 and now numbering nearly 400,000; not with lock-downs, masking and a complete social shutdown for the covid conscious. Not with all the attacks on our environment; those oil leases on previously federally protected lands among other autocracies and the sale of National Park lands.

Our past year was both terrifying and life changing. As a society and as a country we’re anticipating a curtain being drawn to life more seemingly “normal,” although we have no knowledge of how our new normal may look, of how the new story will unfold. That is all behind the undrawn curtain; behind the fog of our metaphor. As our fog eases in over us perhaps in the lifting we will ease into more settled and compassionate times.

Poetic “personalities” of individual trees rise from lifting …

As the curtain is slowly drawn the lighting begins giving mystical joy to this metaphorical stage, for in our temperate part of the country, with below freezing temperatures accompanying this dense and impenetrable grayness, we find a magical hoarfrost coating every inch of fog-touched surfaces, coatings of star-shaped beautiful icy clusters. On trees and prairie grasses, coating every twig and blade as if dusted by a fog fairy. Edgy at a glance, though comforting in a glossy beauty.

All of which begs for a journey within the ancient and unsolved, where those stark heavy branches of oaks and cottonwoods are suddenly jeweled, where the nuded bulbs of solitary cone flowers glisten as if donning a queen’s crown, where leaves of big bluestem curl poetically within the depths of a prairie, dotted perfectly with frost as surely as they’re coated with poetic drops of dew in a summer sunrise. All magical and mysterious moments.

A bluestem prairie all aglitter thanks to the hoarfrost …

Sometimes just inside this curtain a solitary tree allows it’s unique personality to show, one that is too often blended into a woodland or hillside much like a beautiful woman blends into a dance floor crowd. By itself its trunk and limbs become silhouetted and solitary, a wood-thick personality often stark and challenged in symmetry. As the curtain eases further open it blends into a grove or cluster of trees, as the curly blades of bluestem does in a sea of browned and crusty outlined prairie grasses. All offering a widening visual world beauty now seen as if for the first time. 

Curled leaves of big bluestem dotted with frost …

As the sun begins the eventual burning away to slowly draw further open the curtain, this shortened visible world grows wider around us, becoming ever more slowly revealed. Initially a fog forces us to focus on the near, for there is no afar. We trust it exists beyond the curtain, and as it is slowly unveiled we maybe see our world differently than we had before. 

Finally, and with gradual aplomb, a hazy light begins to peek through the gray … a hazy stage light beginning as a softened, unfocused circular globe before easing into a more focused yellow richness. As we lay back to look straight above us, this grayness yields to deeper tinges of blue, a canopy of space undefined in the broadest of senses. 

A savanna glistens as the world widens with the lifting of the foggy curtain …

Rarely does this curtain remain closed for long, perhaps until midday as Carl Sandburg’s iconic cat starts rising on silent haunches before moving on. 

As this metaphorical curtain spreads open we wish this “moving on” bring us greater joy; an ability to see one another unencumbered with chaos and distrust. Will those crystallized out-linings fit for a queen allow each of us to evoke more warmth from what we know is both numbing and cold? 

Though a fog blankets us with a mundane gray we must still seek beauty, for it is there. In our world. Our familiar world, that which is ancient and unsolved, yet beauty that is ever widening in the unveiling.