Sculpting of Thoughts

via Sculpting of Thoughts


Sculpting of Thoughts

For a few weeks now I’ve searched for solace and inspiration with ice. More specifically, icy sculptures and formations created by nature on the small, undrained wetland potholes in what was formerly the prairie. Many of the sculptures form early morning or overnight, depending on wind direction and speed, along with the necessity of surface water.

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Initially the ice froze beautifully, finely crafted as the surface of a mirror … before warming temperatures and fierce winds broke through the sheets.

My writing, though, is not necessarily about ice. Consider ice as metaphor.

Like our government, our freeze-thaw cycle is out of whack. Along Big Stone Lake many residents were thrilled with the early formation of the ice sheet. That came on a calm night and was as finely crafted as the surface of a mirror. Ice skating was being talked about as time was counted for an appropriate thickness that would grant safety. Nearly as quickly, warming temperatures and fierce winds broke through the sheet and waves brought fractured slabs upon the shore or slid them atop the ice that remained. On some nights the ice seemed to refreeze in the shape of windblown waves. Now, as someone mentioned the other day, it’s a “damned mess.”

One early morning I passed an ice sculpture that seemed created by Picasso as one of his huge inner city sculptures. Other wetlands made stumps appear as candy kisses, or in the eyes of some, the upturned butts of feeding ducks. Another wetland on a late afternoon appeared as a regatta with each cattail seeming a mast with finely trimmed sails listing this way and that. All across the wetland.

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Winds made stumps appear as candy kisses, or in the eyes of some, upturned butts of feeding ducks.

These sculptures won’t last very long. They’re as vulnerable as they are interesting.

Which brings me to this … vulnerability. Many of us gathered on a cold, windy night in an old schoolhouse the Sisters Kay and Annette Fernholz had decorated for a special gathering in honor of the upcoming Advent. Most of us were long-time friends. We arrived from our various small prairie towns in search of spirituality in the face of uncertainty and vulnerability. Our spirituality, as individually unique as a chanced ice sculpture.

Trying times such as these foster such endeavors and gatherings. Speaking only for myself, there is immense confusion. At one point after a moment of silence, I confessed to the others of feeling caught between devastating dismay and a Bob Marley doctrine of “don’t worry ‘bout a thing, cause every little thing gonna be alright …”

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In one wetland, the wind created what appeared as a regatta, with each cattail seeming a mast with finely trimmed sails listing this way and that. All across the wetland.


Would these times, these political policy shifts that will long affect the vast majority of U.S. citizens so needlessly,  last lifetimes? Or would they, like the ice sculptures, transform and ooze in shifting winds back into waters?

My nephew, of a conservative bent though no fan of what is happening, suggested that in a few years we will continue along in a “new normal.” As a father of four children, I wonder how he gathers his thoughts around his children’s future. In this political climate, one so seemingly devoid of compassion and caring for the vast majority of citizens regardless of economic stature, though certainly vividly against anyone of color, what does our future as a nation hold?

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It was almost Picasso like, floating for a short moment in time before transforming back to water.

Shortly after the last election two of my closest and dearest friends seemed optimistic and incredibly hopeful of our future. (Warning, for here comes the sweet rhythm of reggae and the Marley lyrics! Here comes the shifting winds and ever sculpting waters!) No, neither would be caught dead voting for the likes of Trump for president, yet both … one in Hungary, the other nearby … spoke the same basic message: That his election as president, and what this Congress is doing, is absolutely necessary to awaken a vast majority of people who have grown so complacent that half do not even bother to vote. “We absolutely needed this,” said my area friend.

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Seeking solace in nature, in times so uncertain and vulnerable.

These are thoughts I carry as I travel nearby roads attempting to find solace in nature. Here I seek a personal calm in a world that is decidedly not. I commune with the frigid prairie wind that creates incredibly interesting forms, then as quickly shifts to take them away, to sculpt something entirely different or nothing at all. Life, as is nature, is uncertain and vulnerable.

I only wish I could sing like Marley of not worrying, that every little thing will be alright. The music, though, is more Dylanish … so faint, blowing in the wind.

An Anonymous Gift

A hearty wind roared through the prairie last night. Some would say a “freight train” wind. Hardly a rarity, for such winds are historically common if journals of immigrant prairie women serve witness. These winds are among the reasons why our autumns here on the “high, wide and lonesome” seem so abbreviated.

Leaves, so delicate and beautiful in death, are quite vulnerable to such winds. Same with snow. We find it quite odd, for example, to have snowflakes drift down from the sky, as if there is gravity. Snows here come horizontally, at near breakneck speeds, it seems. I was thinking of these horizontal happenstances while on a recent trip to Brede, Holland, where we were blessed with a beautiful little alcove balcony over a courtyard where stood a beautiful, 200 year old oak with leaves as golden as the sky was blue. It was actually mesmerizing to watch as leaves simply “rained” from the limbs and branches in descent to soft, splash-less landings.

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Along the hills and ravines of Big Stone Lake, the colors were briefly magnificent.

Those leaves were a troublesome malady for our hotel host, Suzanne Kranze, who spoke of her frustrations of having to sweep the courtyard clean every few days. “Unlike your time in Minnesota,” I joked, “where the winds would blow them off to a neighbor’s yard?”

“Only if that would happen!” she said with a smile.

Our’s was actually a very colorful autumn, truth be told. In all my years here I cannot recall maples offering a more vibrant display. Magical and vivid. Then in the first weeks of October the winds came and within days much of the yellows and reds littered the savannas or were blown away to distances unknown.

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Yes, the maples were as colorfully vivid as ever before.


Ah, but autumn. You of magical colors, of browning, windblown grasses; of trees glowing in the late afternoon light. Warm afternoons following mornings of frosted grasses. If only you could last a little longer.

If I were a poet I would write a sonnet. If I were a composer, perhaps a concerto. Being neither, I try to make the best of it with a camera.

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Peeking through the early October greenery, a moment of splendor!

Yet, ours was a tough autumn. Especially for the farmers. Too much rain on top of a soaked water table. Yet the colors were magnificent, even if the oaks and some of the other trees grasp their greenish chlorophyll in last gasps of annual oxygen. I was reminded of just how condensed out autumns really are after that brief trip to Europe that included a train trip across Holland and a car trip into the hillsides of Hungary. Outside of Budapest we traversed through roads that would have made the Ozarks proud, surrounded by a mix of hardwoods in full autumn splendor. Even in Missouri last week some color existed. Not here.

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In fog along the Minnesota River … beauty in yellow.

For a short while our nearby hills were blessed, and the road that curves along Big Stone Lake guided you through a glorious and beautiful setting. On what we call the “lake road” weaving north out of Ortonville, our autumn colors held steady with leaf color all around … while they lasted. In what gives the prairie grasses their chance to dance and wave as a foliar sea, the same caused the demise of our colorful splendor. Yes, those winds of the prairie.

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Coots on migration peek through a Big Stone Lake dogwood tree.

Winds like we experienced again last night. Winds that seemed to roar and rumble especially in a quiet house where my sweet dog, Joe Pye, cuddled against my leg with the only other sound being that of the subtle turning of a page of a book being read.

To awaken to bare ground this morning was a blessing, yet it was a wind foretelling of a seasonal shift. High winds, like that of a blizzard, seem more common in winter than autumn.

And the leaves? Long gone, both from the trees and from the lawn. An anonymous gift to some neighbor downwind …

Capturing the Magic

Recently a dear friend decided to invite herself to my deck to see a sunrise … providing she could pull herself from bed early enough and find some strong coffee. A comment that another friend suggested she get there early before the sun actually breaks the surface. “By then,” he said, “the magic is often gone.”

I could almost agree. For as long as I can remember pre-dawn light has intrigued me. Even as a kid walking to a catfish pond hopeful of a trotline bonanza. Yet, it wasn’t until moving here to Listening Stones Farm that I had a horizon crafted like a natural stage, and many mornings the show is worthy of an encore that rarely, if ever, happens.

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I appreciate having “edge” for definition and interest, including an occasional bird.

Each day, it seems, begins differently. Pastel hues with a softness in all colors and shades. Sometimes solitary, sometimes as a blended crowd. Perhaps blazing glossy reds and yellows, shouting strongly across the horizon like the voice of a cadre sergeant. Some days the sun is a mere peek, enveloped by ominous, darkened clouds extending 180 degrees in all visible directions. On others, an unseen choir provides a harmony of blues and purples with a just hint of yellow as the earth turns toward our star, ever brightening the sky in breathless speed.

Some days a sunrise is the only color you will see until another morning. Over these past few years I’ve made many images of both the pre-dawn colors and sunrises. And while my friend was basically right about what happens when the sun breaks the horizon, some interesting images have been made with sun balls, light glares and dawn shadows as well. Yet, it is the surprise of a coming color that captures your soul, that brings you back for more.


A sun “flair” brings added color to the yellow flowers in the home prairie.

Even before moving here to this Prairie Pothole region of the western Minnesota prairie, sunrises were my favorite time of the day. I find them much more interesting than sunsets. Years ago as we returned from a kayaking trip into the Everglades and was boating into Chokoloskee, I asked the young guide about the “widow walks” and rooftop decks on many of the houses in the small, quaintly palmed town-scape. “Sunsets,” he explained.

“So, what does one see?”

He looked at me strangely and replied, “Sunsets. You know, colors and clouds. You can see them better at rooftop. Either there, or you drive up to the coast somewhere.”

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Although the actual sunrise often brings an end to magical hues and colors, sometimes a foggy morning brings a nice surprise.

Actually, the Florida coast and Keys are famously flocked to by sunset worshipers; folks who come to watch the sun sink into a featureless sea. I’m more like whitetail deer and largemouth bass. Give me features and edge to give definition and interest to the colors.

You don’t need rooftop decks here on the prairie, and my sunsets are nearly as free standing and captivating to the west as sunrises are to the east. To see sunsets over the summer months here on the farm you must hike down into the lower prairie, which isn’t necessarily an entirely awful experience. Especially when you flush pheasants or scare up a deer.

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My farm is blessedly located in the last remaining vestiges of the natural Prairie Pothole region, and the wetland over the hill from my bedroom window often gives me pause.

Yet, my eye gravitates to the east most mornings. My office allows me an east-facing window to the prairie where I can monitor the rise of the morning light. Often I will simply head outside to my deck with my camera before wading somewhere into the home prairie. Maybe I’ll jump into my car and head to one of several nearby restored native prairies, outcrops or wetlands, depending on the season and the types of grasses and forbs that are then growing.

My imagery is highly dependent on ambient colors for I use no filters, and I have neither the desire nor time to create something wholly unnatural with computer technology, adding fake ambiance and color. Some mornings the colors are stunning, and by that I don’t mean aiming the lens directly toward a rising sun like many do with sunsets.

Sunflower Dawn

Winter or summer, the colors of dawn are typically magical and interesting.

Often the favorable colors are off to the side, pastels over a sweeping landscape. We call this a “Monet light” and sometimes I feel as if I’m “painting the same haystacks” over and over again as I aim my lens toward the distant tree line east of my prairie on many mornings. I’m humbled when sometimes someone suggests my work is “Monet like.”


Some days, a sunrise is the only color you may see for the entire day, as was the case on the day I made my “Daybreak” image.

If there is any hint of fairness to such a comparison it’s that we both, a couple of centuries apart, were seduced by the light and hues set before us by a willing God (if you will). Perhaps it was in our collective nature, in our soft seduction, to place these magical moments of various colorful hues onto our respective medium. If our only kinship is such a seduction, I can live with that. Happily and gracefully.

Ditch Bank Ladies

There they stood. Mere inches in height, poking through low-hanging, scruffy looking ditch bank grasses. Spirals of white blossoms, circling around a thickened dark green stem. My very first view of the native orchid, the Nodding Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes cernua).

“These,” said naturalist Gary Lentz, “is a true barometer of the start of fall.”

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My original viewing and image of the Nodding Ladies’ Tresses, hidden in the scruffy grasses of a roadside ditch bank in Renville County.

Minnesota is home to a vast variety of native orchids, many of which I would not have known nor seen if not for true naturalists like Lentz. One cannot have enough naturalists in your life, and although I’m a Minnesota Master Naturalist, I’m far from the real thing. All that means is that I’ve completed the 40-hour course and have done a fair amount of volunteering for the past several years. Indeed, a kindly forestry professor at the University of Missouri sat me down one day after class with these words: “If you continue with a study of the sciences you will become the most frustrated of scientists, for you don’t have the mind for it. You should be a writer. Someone who observes and appreciates, not someone who delves into the analytics. Let me introduce you to my friend, Dick Lee, in the journalism department.” A huge weight had been lifted.

About a week or so before my brief visit with Lentz, he had posted a photo on social media saying the “ladies” were close to his mailbox near his hideaway farm nestled along Cottonwood Creek between Granite Falls and Echo. It turned out to be a convenient stop on the way home from dropping a friend off at the airport.

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Delicate blossoms that spiral up the stem. The Ladies’ are apparently more common in Eastern Minnesota although apparently more rare in the western prairie region.

Lentz is one of the naturalists I’m fortunate to know. He, like the others, have a nose for the prairie and an eye for spying the natural nuances of life in the wild. Among the others are Kylene Olson, a walking encyclopedia of Latin names and native species recognition; Dave Jungst, of Morris, who seemingly is in the fields of Polk, Swift and other nearby counties almost daily observing and recording the changes in native prairie life; and of course, Lentz. Amy Rager, Terri Dennison and Chris Ingrebretsen also come to mind. There may be more, for the worst part about making a list is leaving off deserving people, which I’m sure I’ve done.

One of my first river valley naturalists was Ed Stone, whose small house just up the slope from Vicksburg County Park, was tucked in the woods against some of the most beautiful Minnesota River gneiss outcrops. Stone’s living room was basically a naturalist’s office, with a huge, centering table where he sat to record his daily observations of the natural life around him. Every January he would pass along his copious notes to various country newspaper editors like myself to print if we wished. I was fortunate to visit with Stone several times, including my favorite venture when we climbed into the outcrops that were as sheer and flat as they were angled to “hunt” for a rare skink he promised lived in the crevices. We spied two, but in no way were we close to catching either for closer observation.

This summer at a “pop up” arts festival where I was showing my impressionistic prairie photography, a woman asked if I had known Ed Stone. After some shared remembrance, she said, “You know he passed about two years ago?” I didn’t, for I had lost contact after moving to Listening Stones Farm almost three hours away. Ed Stone was a gentle man, someone you could picture as a modern day Aldo Leopold, author of the classic “Sand County Almanac.”

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Some were in clusters like these, but more often singular plants.

So here we were, stepping carefully around the “ditch bank ladies” taking pictures. I told Lentz that I had swerved a time or two while seeking what he had shown on the site of the white blossomed plant while driving down the main highway toward his gravel turnoff. My surprise was their delicate stature, for I realized you would require more minute observation than that from a windshield to see them.

“We were able to convince the county to not disturb this particular road bank when they wanted to widen the road. As orchids, they won’t grow just anywhere. Whether that is because of certain microbes in the soil, or what, I don’t know. I’ve tried collecting the seeds to propagate them without much luck,” he said. “You’re seeing them at their peek. In a few days they’ll be gone.”

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A view from the top of the plant.

He was right, for I did drive back once I realized that in my excitement and efforts to capture the incredible spirals of blossoms that I had not made a defining, overall “ecology” image — my curse observed years ago by the forestry professor.

As I walked along the now barren seeking even one of the delicate orchids, Lentz was right. This was another fleeting moment in the natural world. Ah, the knowledge of true naturalists. I then remembered that moments before we climbed into his pickup to drive to this obscure roadside site Lentz had positioned a couple of seeds under his microscope to show me. It was a moment straight out of Ed Stone’s “naturalist handbook” and cause for another smile. And further proof that someone like me can’t have enough naturalists in their life.

Sweet Goodness

Several years ago a wonderful friend, Jill Bruns, shared what turned out to be an incredible recipe for a tomato sauce. We were working together at the time for an exchange student organization matching host families with teenagers from around the world and monitoring those sometimes tenuous, often-time beautiful relationships. For us, August and September were quite stressful times, and Jill’s recipe was nearly as hands-off as it was delicious.

Her recipe was one of the cherished items packed on our move to Listening Stones Farm more than four years ago. Along the way it has been altered somewhat depending on the year and creative muse. For a couple of years back when I was married we started smoking my ex’s beautiful eggplant to include in the simmer. In no way can I garden as well as she could, so last year after making the first batch “naked” … without the smoke … I made a second batch where the offset smoker was once again put in play. This time to smoke the skin-on tomatoes.

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Heirloom tomatoes are used, smoked on the offset using apple wood. When moisture rises into the opened core, they’re ready to add to the roaster.

This created a sweet and lovely aroma that seemed to encompass not just the kitchen, but the entire house, creating such a sweet goodness.

Our method then was to let it simmer overnight in the roaster, which allowed the sauce to thicken quite well. Since I have begun to can the sauce the same day because it seems to hold the flavors better. The delicate flavors are captured for winter joys rather than lost in the overcooking.

Last week I made my first batch of Jill’s Sweet Goodness. In my recipe I continued to use garlic and onions.


From my first batch, with the basil leaves on top. 

As is typical, my garden has more tomato plants than should have been planted, and more fruit is coming off the vine daily. I have more than enough for my own needs, and a really good salsa has since been canned. One that is decidedly less vinegary than the one I made last year … which tasted just fine before being canned but was much too vinegary come winter. This one has more lime and much less vinegar, and is just what I like in a salsa.

Yet, I love Jill’s Sweet Goodness and have eyed making another batch, this time with two people in mind. My sister, Ann Roeder, and a dear friend, Mo Stores. Both suffer from an onion and garlic allergy. While it seems almost sacrilegious to make a tomato sauce without either ingredient I was curious if it was doable and if the flavor would hold.

So once again I smoked the tomatoes. All the various ingredients from the recipe were added along with about three quarters of a cup of chopped herbs. Included was a healthy sprig of rosemary, and about half and half of fresh basil and sage. A knife was used to chop the herbs finely before being added to the roaster. I had used fresh basil and rosemary in my original batch, though not the sage. My idea came from Ann, who sometimes uses sage as a substitute in her cooking. Indeed, this may be the best batch of the bunch!


After the vegetables have been pureed, add three 12 oz. cans of tomato paste, and use the emulsifier again.

This is truly a simple sauce to make. My only change is that I peel the carrots and cut up the celery. Those tomatoes are cored before going onto the smoker. An emulsifier is used to puree the sauce, and to blend in the paste afterwards. Two of my friends wouldn’t can this without a pressure cooker, and two others, including Jill who is a county health nurse, stick with hot baths. I prefer the hot bath method and did it this way for years with no problems whatsoever.

The sauce is excellent for spaghetti and pizzas, and sometimes I add some pesto that I have frozen. All the vegetables are organic, including those I grow here on the farm. Here is Jill’s recipe, so please, enjoy!

Jill’s Spaghetti Sauce

(Makes 8-12 quarts)

50 tomatoes (enough to fill a large electric roaster. I smoke in an offset smoker with apple wood.)

1 batch celery — chopped

8 green peppers

8 onions

8 cloves of garlic

8 carrots

1/2 c salt

1 c sugar

1/4 t cloves

1/2 t allspice

1/2 t paprika

1/2 t oregano

1/4 t pepper

1 bay leaf

Several sweet basil leaves

3 12 oz cans tomato paste

Put cut up vegetables into roaster. Add all ingredients except tomato paste. Simmer for 4 hours at 225 F degrees or so, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. You can simmer overnight to puree in the morning, or all through the day. Use a blender or emulsifier to puree. Add paste and simmer for at least two hours. Put in jars and hot bath for 40 minutes. Rebecca used a pressure cooker at #10 for 40 minutes. Great for spaghetti, chili, lasagna and most anything using a tomato sauce. I use pint jars for more convenience of single living.


I’m not an “organized” canner, using a variety of jar types and sizes. It’s what is inside that counts!