Seasons Within Seasons

Besides having her first book banned by her local library, author and poet Helen Bevington also wrote a cool little observation of the seasons of poets in a way I can understand: 

To wit: “The seasonal urge is strong in poets. Milton wrote chiefly in winter. Keats looked for spring to wake him up (as it did in the miraculous months of April and May, 1819). Burns chose autumn. Longfellow liked the month of September. Shelley flourished in the hot months. Some poets, like Wordsworth, have gone outdoors to work. Others, like Auden, keep to the curtained room. Schiller needed the smell of rotten apples about him to make a poem. Tennyson and Walter de la Mare had to smoke. Auden drinks lots of tea, Spender coffee; Hart Crane drank alcohol. Pope, Byron, and William Morris were creative late at night. And so it goes.”

Here, in the North … or the upper half of the upper half of our planet … we are seemingly blessed with four celestial seasonal changes, choreographed by sun moments. Two recognizing opposing points, two of equalization. The Winter Solstice followed by a Spring Equinox, then the Summer Solstice followed by the Autumn Equinox. Years divided by an equilibrium of days. We tend to celebrate the Solstices and dismiss the Equinoxes, the only two days and nights of the year when we’re in tune with the Equator … having as much daylight as darkness of night, or night as day. We don’t even lift a glass of wine to celebrate this human brotherhood for whatever reason!

Missing the Sandhill Crane migration, I’ve turned to flowers. Specifically Pasque Flowers.

Supposedly this organization of time would be sweet except that it’s not. Despite the time, our weather rarely coincides with this orchestrated delineation of seasonal change. Case in point, I’ve driven through snow storms in Colorado in June, and enjoyed sunny, 70 degree days in a Minnesota November. We even had a 60 degree day in January, if memory serves me correctly. Before I lose track of my vein of thought, much like Bevington’s realm of poetic seasons, my small take on the ways of the world is that there are any number of multiple seasons. 

My seasons seem to loom around significant sightings of nature. Such as bird migrations, or the appearance of various forbs in the prairie grasslands and in the woods. These past few weeks two of my typically noted seasons seemed a bit skewed. The first skew was the early sighting of a wild turkey fluffed in sexual finery back in the middle of March on a grayish, snowy day. This was followed by not seeing the first appearance of a Pasque Flower until the last week of April.

I’ve been chiding myself for missing the Sandhill Crane migration in central Nebraska this spring, and noting that the white-fronted and snow geese migrations that seemingly happened annually around here apparently passed right over us. Twice I witnessed their strange, haphazardly drawn out skeins high in the sky, stretching across our sky-wide “inner umbrella” for miles in a distant flyover. Not a single skein seemed to have taken notice of the wetlands nearby and in particular in the one just over the hill from my home prairie that has hosted several such migrations over the years. Blame perhaps can be tied to most of the nearby wetlands being frozen in multiple-acre sheets of ice. Yet, those seasonal events I typical note sped right on by.

Sometimes the “seasons” seem skewed, like seeing a wild turkey fluffed in his sexual finery earlier than one would expect.

Without the “seasons” of avian flocks, I’ve turned to wild flowers, and truthfully, this isn’t such a bad choice for I seem to follow the seasonal floral awakenings annually, typically beginning with Pasque Flowers and concluding sometime in the fall with the last of the stark blue Asters. 

Earlier in March, and then into April, I stopped by my “pasque hill” numerous times to no avail. Then, finally, about a week or so ago they poked through with their hairy stems and soft, blue to violet blossoms to awaken my springtime here on the prairie. The first day I found one. Yes, one. On the entire hill. Returning the second night there were three clumps. Seemingly there wasn’t enough warmness in the air nor enough sunshine to have the hill become dotted with the small, violet blossoms. Ah, but every year is different, and this year may go down as the grayest and dampest year in some time ­– realizing that 100 miles north they were still having snow a week ago, and 100 miles south the sun filled the blue sky with rays of hope and the grass was green.

Yet, this sighting of Pasque Flowers was simply a start. On the heels will come Bluebells in the grove, then Prairie  Smoke back in the prairie … on and on we’ll go, though the orchids and cone flowers, the bee balm through to the Asters come late September.

Once again evidence of the Snow Geese appeared overhead in skeins that stretched across the sky, though this year they passed us by.

I’m certainly not alone, for like Bevington’s poets, many of us define our seasons by various sightings within nature. For example, a naturalist friend defines her seasons on mushroom observations, and believe me, morels aren’t the first nor the only fungi found in the wild. Some birder friends gleefully exclaim joy on their first sightings. Not of Sandhills, but of warblers, for one, and wading birds for another. For my late wife, Sharon, her first sighting of Great Blue Herons was the beginning of her Spring. Our seasons are as different as we are as individuals, and what could be more defining or beautiful?

Frankly all of this is simply a lark that helps step us through a given year. Despite my rather odd recognition in the seasonal changes of nature, I have yet to turn down an invitation for a bonfire celebration of the Winter Solstice complete with a study beverage and a forked stick with deer flank searing over a roaring bonfire. Or, for that matter, a glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc on what my Swedish friends celebrate with delicious feasts of plenty and fire and call their Midsummer Eve. In the end I guess I’m simply a man for all seasons. 

Now, about those Equinoxes … 

Bent Branches and Illogical Consequences

Late Sunday afternoon Lin Brimeyer re-entered my life, and it couldn’t have come any time too soon. She came by printed page thanks to her husband, Jack, who had promised to publish a booklet of their too-short life together. Sunday was the 25th anniversary of Lin’s death at age 45 due to cancer. It had been awhile. Lin and I hadn’t seen one another since their wedding at Eagle Point Park overlooking the Mississippi River in Dubuque over Memorial Day weekend in 1972. I took pictures for their wedding.

Lin was a young woman embedded with an old soul, and for some reason those rare folks aren’t around us for very long. Rarely long enough. When she hugged you she enveloped you with that inner soul, wrapping you with comfort and joy. Jack and I were “cub” reporters at the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, and for a time we were roommates. When Lin and Jack walked down the street in front of you it was hard to guess who was who for both had beautiful, long brown hair women envied that reached nearly to their waists. Eventually I would move on to the Denver Post, and Jack would leave a few years later to become the managing editor of the Peoria Star Journal. 

Lin had a wonderful outlook on life, and never seemed to take illogical consequences too seriously, which bode well for me on Sunday. The afternoon before I had just returned from a five-day stay in a hospital with Covid, and where I spent too much time contemplating life, along with irrational thoughts of what my son might see if he picked up my old Nikon were I to die. Would the last picture be worthy? Unworthy of being saved? Indeed, the wile and ways of illogical consequences, like a mother worrying if her child had on clean underwear in case of being hit by a fire truck.

My last image from my April 11 foray to Big Stone Lake State Park, taken on a wetland just north of my Listening Stones Farm …

“If you’re going to obsess, save it for something truly important and work is usually not that important,” was among the thoughts Lin had shared with Jack over the years.  

You see, Lin had many such views concerning life which Jack shared in his booklet: and a piece read at her memorial service explains a lot about her, a piece written by Dick Schneider and published in Family Guideposts in 1981: “They say that if you creep into an evergreen forest late at night you can hear the trees talking. In the whisper of the wind you’ll catch the older pines explaining to the younger ones why they’ll never be perfectly shaped. There will always be a bent branch here, a gap there …”

Besides the numerous eulogies, milestones and anecdotes he shared in his beautiful booklet, he included a number of “Lin-isms” they shared that said so much about her philosophies of life, a life she had devoted to helping others both personally and through her career in social work. Among them:

Love your family unconditionally; they’re the best you’ll ever get. If people offer to help, it’s your duty to let them. You should dance on a table at least once. When in doubt, plant more flowers. All you Redhats: You can never overdo Christmas. Things done at the last moment are somehow more gratifying. Don’t judge people harshly; they’re probably doing that themselves. The fun of fishing is lost when you actually hook something. You can never have too many books. It’s not enough to simply love someone; you must be able to tell them why. When you’re under a lot of stress, you’ll probably wreck your car. It’s best to have many best friends. Serve more food than anyone can eat and don’t forget the rolls. Time spent on the phone with friends is not deducted from your total allotment. If you put in a swimming pool, size it for family and friends, not for yourself. Take long walks but never alone. Every vacation must include a visit to a flower garden. Always carry aspirin. Newspaper people are much nicer than other people think. Anything made by your mother is better. Don’t throw out memories; rent more space if you have to. Islands are always better than the mainland. It’s OK to have lots of stuff. Nephews and nieces are never boring. Be sure to designate a favorite aunt. For really relaxing music, turn on a purring cat. You should never be too busy to listen and never too scared to talk. Weed barriers don’t work, dammit. Let others in on your dreams. We’ll never stop needing toys. It’s mostly in the genes and that’s not fair. Dirty jokes are usually funnier. Chocolate is best at breakfast. When you stop learning, you stop. Never rush a river, for rivers have a flow of their own.

My first image on the foray, of fishermen at the State Park access. Taken the evening before I was admitted to the Sandford Hospital in Sioux Falls with Covid.

And then there was this one Jack wrote that they both learned after attending too many funerals where the dead person was never mentioned in human terms, and sometimes not even by their known name: Remember the dead with laughter if you can, and tears if you must. But do remember them.

For some reason, two really struck home: “Never rush a river, for rivers have a flow of their own.” And, “Islands are more interesting the mainlands.”

Over the years I’ve been more “island” than “mainland,” and I never felt either more alive or free than when I was a freelancer, when every moment and conversation seemed loaded with possibilities. Years later, when working as an editor for a magazine in an office, the “mainland” was a grind, seemingly staid and stifling. Some sense of freedom returned after moving to the prairie to run the small country weekly, which I “married” to a coordinator’s position with an international student exchange program. I had found the freedom to write and photograph whatever I wanted along with earning international travel and making friends all over the world. We were also surrounded by a river valley of people who themselves were “islands” off the “mainland” of humanity. This became home, and remains so for that very reason.

My second image … a murmuration at the entrance of the park …

There, too, is a natural rhythm of life … a river, if you will … that plays itself out within the currents of time. Moments come when the currents are narrowed, becoming rolling rapids over boulders of stress at the height of a stream. We, too, edge into eddies from time to time, yet somehow ease back into an ever flowing current. Never rush a river.

For some scary moments laying in the hospital bed I did obsess over some things of serious nature … including fears that a rough rapids could occur quickly. Perhaps my fear of death from Covid was a bit overwrought. And while there were alternatives to laying in thought (especially of those silly illogical consequences), or staring out a window at a barren sky … which I did on occasion on my last afternoon … mine was a quiet room, an eddy in time, and I rested in relative comfort in realizing that the staff was comforting, professional and caring.

I hadn’t met up again with Lin Brimeyer as yet, but when we did gather the following afternoon she came with a smile and a soul deep with understanding and care. Just as I remember her doing all those years back in the past.

My third image was of a lone tree on the crest of a ravine …

Toward the end of her life, Lin and Jack found an old part of a oak-shaded cemetery where they secured a plot, and where he would place a marble tombstone onto which he had etched an Emily Dickenson poem, one so appropriate to her enriched and beautiful soul:

“If I can stop one heart from breaking, 

I shall not live in vain; 

If I can ease one life the aching, 

Or cool one pain, 

Or help one fainting robin 

Unto his nest again, 

I shall not live in vain.”

All Call, no Beck …

As we loaded up for a short hike though the darkened prairie to a turkey blind he had set up a few days before, Tom Kalahar sniffed the pre-dawn air and said, “If I had to choose between hearing a chorus of heavenly angels sing and the music of wild turkeys, I’d take the wild turkeys every time. There is no better music.”

Last week we had made a “date” for Kalahar, perhaps the most avid turkey hunter I know, to hopefully place me in position to take photos of the fluffy, sex-starved toms. We met before dawn Sunday morning beside a patch of CREP land near Minnesota Falls. We had parked on a minimum maintenance gravel road, gathered our respective gear and started our hike, traversing on a barely visible, worn deer trail.

This field, like so many others in Renville County, is a solid part of his legacy as former director of the county’s Soil and Water Conservation District. He was noted among his SWCD peers before retirement for converting the most cropland into the perpetual conservation easement CREP program several years ago. 

A trio of wild tom turkeys in full display a few years ago.

“The turkeys, if they’re around, won’t be far from us,” he said. “There just isn’t that much habitat around for them anymore, and this is one of the rare spots.” 

We hiked for maybe 700 or so meters through the dormant grasses past a finger of a tree blessed gully and a deer stand tucked on the inside corner away from the road. We then cut across the pasture to the next finger of the tree engulfed gully where he had put the blind. As he set up a couple of decoys I readied my camera gear and got situated inside the blind. 

Sunrise was at about 6:48 a.m., and we were safely ahead of schedule as he pulled down the panel pieces for camera angles and viewing. Moments later he pulled out his slate and began chirping a hen cadence. Immediately he got an answer, and moments later a tom gobbled in return as well. Their roost seemed like it was mere meters behind us in the wooded gully. It was a conversation that would continue for an hour or more giving us a sense of hope and promise.

Tom Kalahar works his slate call in the blind Sunday morning near Minnesota Falls.

As the dawn approached and eased into the morning light I continually adjusted the metering of the camera. If the turkeys came into our view I wanted to be ready. There might not be time for adjustments once they arrived. As the light continued to brighten I realized what a fine choice Kalahar had made for our shoot. This open prairie was like a stage with a beautifully contrasting muted woodland as a backdrop. Easing over the tree line was a nearly perfect three-quarter backlight with a comforting softness. All we needed was the turkeys.

Meanwhile Kalahar kept working the call, and the responses were nearly immediate. “They’re close by,” he whispered. Several moments later he again whispered, “They’re now off the roost and on the ground.” No sooner had he spoken when a chickadee lit momentarily on a dead tree branch just outside my side port window. Suddenly another appeared, then about four more. Just as quickly they were off toward the inside curve of trees, all before I could raise my camera. 

Pheasants “barked” almost off and on while Kalahar and the turkey hen continued their bantering back and forth, with the tom occasionally joining the conversation. Then, abruptly, all went quiet save for the distant pheasants. And would remain so for the rest of the morning. We whispered an intermittent conversation about turkey hunting. He counted seven different states where he has hunted, including on my family’s farm in Missouri. 

This was also from a few years ago in a field overlooking Big Stone Lake.

When I expressed my admiration of how the tom’s fluff themselves in their finery, he said, “It is impressive, especially if you’re bow hunting. They’ll fluff their feathers this full,” he whispered, opening his hands the width of a bushel basket, “while inside that fluff of feathers is a body like this.” Now his hands had narrowed to the width of a football. “There isn’t much to shoot at.” It’s that display of puffiness I was after with my camera.

Our time would pass peacefully. We would not reconnect with the brood, for they must have found more CREP land habitat down the way. “You never know,” Kalahar explained, still in a loud whisper. “It can be quiet like this then suddenly in all the quiet they appear. Now, while the hens are laying their eggs, there is more group movement. The hens come in and the toms follows. Once the eggs are laid, then the hens separate themselves from the flock to incubate the eggs. The toms are more or less on their own and will be moving more. That comes later in the season. Right now they’re still following the hens.”

Another flock of wild turkey with the hens on the move. This was taken last week in a wooded ravine near Listening Stones Farm.

Our morning in the blind went slowly quickly, and while that might sound as a contradiction, it is as described. “Patience is the entire key to turkey hunting. Maybe 20 percent of the hunters score a bird and those that don’t are basically impatient. Me? I have unlimited patience. I can sit here in a blind from dawn to dusk, and really, there is nothing better. This is by far my favorite game to hunt. For moments in nature just like this.” In his “man cave” back in Olivia he will bring forth an impressive collection of turkey beards from his years of hunting. “I’m pretty picky. Mine is a selective harvest,” he said.

Contemplation over much of nothing comprised my morning, which was chilly enough without activity yet warm enough under down outerwear that there was no shivering. Watching a morning awaken is a delightful experience especially in a prairie meadow surrounded by dense wood. A few times I would see something of interest and shoot a picture. Tom intermittently worked either his slate or squawk box, though the answering had long before stopped.

This wasn’t going to be the day despite our honor of patience. Entering Kalahar’s world for a morning was something to cherish, a world filled with the nuances of nature from chickadees to distant hovering buzzards, from conversations with an adept turkey hunter and his distant prey to the continued “barks” of pheasants, also in the trials and tribulations of springtime romance. 

One of my “contemplation” images while in the blind, with backlight highlighting one of the trees in the fingered gully across them our patient wait.

“This is one of my temples,” he would say at one point as we waited. “I have many such temples, though none better than this. There is nothing better than turkey hunting. Nothing.” It would be a morning of all call and no beck, and we both honored these timeless nuances of nature between hunter and prey. 

As we loaded our respective gear in our vehicles near noon, some six hours later, he extended the invitation to join him in the blind on another day. Perhaps I had passed the “patience test,” although he added, “Just be prepared, for next time you might be next to a shotgun blast.” His preferred hunting season was just three mornings away whereas mine seems perpetual, and like his, spring after spring.

Two Old Guys

“Our doctors would be having nightmares if they could see us now. Two old guys with questionable balance climbing over these precarious rocks!” came the soothing words of encouragement from dear friend and musical artist Lee Kanten in the midst one of our occasional saunters. Our climbing and balancing acts were on the ruggedly beautiful virgin outcrop terrain rising from the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. True, neither of us are wholly well-balanced, and Lee has more bionic joints than I can remember. Me? I’m just old.  

But, who cares? Those unnamed physicians were busy elsewhere, and arguments could be made about the just rewards of job security.

When we made our plans for our most recent saunter the sun was shining and blue skies with dotting clouds covered most of the earthen canopy. By the time we reached the Refuge a strong wind from the west had blown in an umbrella of grayness stretching to the edges of our horizons. We were not to be denied, especially after being told by a previous hiker that an unexpected waterfall was to be witnessed at the end of the paved trail off the central parking lot. So, off we went, each of us with a hint of a limp which we kindly pointed out to one another.

This bur oak catches my attention every time.

We had debated on whether to hike the Refuge or the lake trail at Bonanza, and opted for the hike on the trail through the outcrops, bedrock exposed by the ancient Lake Agassiz flood. At the apex of one of the more distant outcrops is a broad horseshoe-shaped bend of the Minnesota River that courses through the Refuge. That was my goal, at least, although I anticipated a reflection of blue skies glistening off a mirrored surface paired with colorful budding of riverine tree life. Perhaps another day.

Finding the waterfall wasn’t much of a challenge, for the paved walk took us directly to the bench next to the river (a perfectly rather secluded spot for self reflection). The falls was visible through thick woods off in the distance, and Lee surmised that it might be melt water being pumped from the gravel mine nestled next to the Refuge.

We weren’t long at the end of the paved path, and decided to climb up the craggy face of the adjacent outcrop to the walking trail we knew existed once we scaled the face. Up above the wind had a more wintry bite. The trail is one of our favorite for it winds through the picturesque outcrops and an oak savanna, and at various points offers great vistas of the Refuge prairie off to the southeast along with that vast flooded waterway that attracts migrating geese, ducks, wading birds, white pelicans, coots and other birds en route to their eventual summer environs. On our adventure the waters were basically barren of migrating birds save for a few coots coursing through the flooded grasses. 

The waterfall viewed through the timber.

Eventually we meandered through to the top of the next outcrop where Lee suddenly stopped to verbally wonder about the power of the Glacial River Warren, the name of the breakthrough river of Lake Agassiz some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Geologists surmise that when the ice dam fractured waters sped through the glacial till like a cleaving sword at speeds of more than a million cubic feet per second. Till was tossed aside and scoured away down to the caprice, leaving behind a washed out valley of bedrock that varies in width at points of more than three miles wide, and is a gneiss and granite wonderland from the headwaters of the Minnesota River, that now courses through that trough of the old glacial river some 213 plus river miles from here to Mankato. 

That scouring began just a few miles upriver from where we two old guys were climbing, and all these outcrops were laid bare by the flood. What’s fun is finding little holes in the gneiss where pebbles were spun by the raging waters leaving behind pockmarks in the stone you can easily still see thousands of years later. I’ve seen similar pitholes in outcrops as far southeast as Morton. These continuing outcrops give the Minnesota River Valley a special natural landscape not unlike the Boundary Waters … were it not for the polluting of the river waters themselves.

We played tag … until I caught it in the grasses.

To crawl, walk and climb through such events of our natural history is daunting. Lake Agassiz covered what is now most of central Canada including all of Saskatchewan, North Dakota and northern Minnesota and was in it’s day larger than any existing lake in the world including the Caspian Sea. Remnant waters include Lake Winnipeg, Lake of the Woods, Red Lake and Rainy Lake, among others, as well as the Great Lakes. 

The breakthrough drainage with River Warren was so disrupting and of such magnitude that it significantly impacted climate, sea level and human civilization. The huge freshwater release into the Arctic Ocean near Hudson Bay was believed to have disrupted oceanic circulation and caused a temporary global cooling. Yet these outcrops, here in the Refuge, was where it all began, and we two old guys were traipsing through what Lee called “an eye blink in time.”

Before Euro immigration this valley was home to various Native tribes, and local historian, Don Felton, often known as Babou, points out areas within the refuge where campsites were set up by the wandering tribes in  search of bison and other game. He can also point out bison rubs where a fine sheen glistens off the granite and gneiss in the sunlight some 150 years after the last bison were believed to have grazed prairie grasses in the valley. There is even evidence of Petroglyphs hidden within the outcrops, but Babou and others are reluctant to show them for fear of vandalism.

The horseshoe bend of the Minnesota River from the top of the outcrop.

We didn’t see much bird life on our saunter. A few robins and a Downy Woodpecker. It was a bit early for the warblers and Cedar Waxwings, which love to tantalize a man with a lens on such saunters later in the year. A small brownish bird flirted with the photographer by hiding in the dormant grasses and blitzing behind oak branches along the trail. I did capture an image yet have no clue of its identification. 

When we finally reached the more distant outcrop where the horseshoe bend of the Minnesota River beckoned, the wind was fraught with a pelting of occasional raindrops. Some felt like sleet against the cheek, and we hurriedly began making our way back through the rocky maze toward the car. Although it might require a vivid imagination to suggest we two old guys made a sprint for our safety and comfort, we did make it back mere seconds before the rain actually hit.

Meandering through this landscape left naked by glacial waters rushing at speeds we can barely imagine is humbling, offering much in similarity to viewing of the Milky Way on a moonless night when you can grasp the insignificance of both human life collectively on what appears to be a most unique planet in a limitless universe, along with your own life within it. That “insignificance” pales, though, when you can also vividly view and hear the destruction of what remains of this unique planet in ways far more morbid and everlasting than that caused by the Glacial River Warren. We two old guys will long be gone by the time earth will become uninhabitable if current trends continue, as earth becomes a wasteland planet that global greed has forever failed to yield.

Sweet Music of Spring

Ah, yes, the sounds of spring! The music! I can now hear it as my annual “yard river” broke through to begin flowing this week, and my, what a lovely sound. More of a narrow ripple than a growling rapids, though sweet nonetheless. All of us live in a watershed, thanks to gravity, and gravity is the conductor! Listening Stones Farm is no exception. 

Water droplets from the melt begin the journey in clumped drifts in the bluestem on the hilltop of the upper prairie, tunneling beneath the prairie grasses to join singular droplets off icicles hanging from branch tendrils in the grove and the melt from the feet of the cottonwood, dogwood and maples. Some course downhill from the crest of my neighbor’s crop field, all of it joining just above the wood shop to course toward the first of two small retention ponds we’ve had dug here.

Enough of the melt, which came rapidly thanks to the suddenly warm temperatures, offers a bit of what naturalist John Muir called “snow that melts into music.” Yes, the small stream courses through the yard as all this melt rushes through to the foot of the grove and an eventual escape into the county road ditch and with luck, perhaps even to the Gulf of Mexico. We just happen to be on this side of the Continental Divide that cuts across the “roof” of nearby Browns Valley, itself the “roof” of Big Stone Lake.

A lullaby created by the water moving through our prairie, yard and grove.

Hearing the soft lullaby here in the lawn made me wish for more. Not too distant is the Bonanza Education Center, the northern “half” of Big Stone Lake State Park and located a bit south of Browns Valley and the Divide. Bonanza is composed of a high bank cut through the prairie by the Glacial River Warren when the ice dam at the foot of the massive Lake Agassiz broke free near the end of the last glacial period. Much like the rest of the cut through the prairie, from here southeast to Mankato, the Minnesota River system, of which Big Stone Lake is the first of a chain of “river” lakes, are full of these ravines. Some include actual waterfalls.

In Bonanza there are at least three rivulets coursing through these wooded ravines fed by springs that keep water moving throughout most of the year, even in winter. Now, with the melt, waters are raging through these ravines, and the music becomes more “concerto” than sleepy lullaby. A full symphony may occur further downstream in the actual river … provided there is enough for bank-high flooding. This week the concerto was lively as the melt waters spread out onto the frozen ice sheet to create a beautiful mosaic of melt and left over ice and snow. Solitary and stubborn ice fishermen still dotted the lakescape even as the sun lowered into a recent sunset.

A lone ice fisherman braves the melt and elements on Big Stone Lake.

Our melt has come quickly, or as weather columnist Paul Douglas noted in his midweek column in the Star Tribune, “We might be skipping straight to April weather.” This time last week temperatures hovered near freezing, and my yard and driveway were covered with a thick layer of hard, matured ice. Hard and gray, speckled somewhat at the fringes. I spent quite some time trying to break through an ice layer on the sidewalk between the house and studio, finally breaking through the last six-inch deep by four-foot long stronghold Monday afternoon. Ice on the driveway finally began to yield to the Bobcat delivering hay bales for the horses a day later. Then came the warmth, and Muir’s music.

What a lovely sound.

Trees from the grove reflected in the melt water in the yard.

Here, though, it was rather ambient compared to that of Bonanza, and later on at the small creek just down the road that cuts along Meadowbrook to Big Stone Lake. All of it was lovely. All of it announced the end of winter. All of it opened arms to the warmth of spring and a change of seasons. All of it offers muse to the poets, and as Henry Williamson, the British author of Tarka the Otter, wrote years ago, “Music comes from an icicle as it melts, to live again as spring water.”

Indeed, this music is accompanied in the skies as Redwing Blackbirds, Snow and Blue Geese and their nearby cousins, Canada Geese, return to their northern breeding grounds. With the pleasing music of moving water, the sounds of the migrating birds offer us the woodwinds and brass to complete this orchestration of spring. Such blessings are so welcomed, so appreciated. 

What a lovely sound! 

The geese and ducks add to the orchestration of the spring melt.

Water in our small watershed is indeed alive and moving, dripping away from icicles and snow to course through our prairie island en route toward the Minnesota River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. Daunting, isn’t it? In this freeing of the grip of winter, I doubt if I’m alone in feeling just as free as the melt itself. How heavenly such freedom feels. And, how lovely and satisfying is that orchestration of spring!

A Freedom of Expression

Hello! My name isn’t Wayne Perala. Hailing from Fergus Falls, Wayne is one of the best bird photographers I’ve known. He has perhaps filled his Audubon list with precise, accurate closeup portraits of many of the birds of our region whether in flight, perch or wetland, and superbly so.

Perhaps some of my images are similar to Wayne’s, although my quest is a bit different for my goal is to somehow use birds as an element of an image more so than a portrayal. Sometime I wish I had Wayne’s persistence and patience, his gift of leading on the wing. I don’t.

This was all part of my trepidation, or perhaps even procrastination … if not a little of each … this past week as I faced a deadline of an Audubon photography contest. Contests, although chock full of subjectivity, are fun, yet at this point of my life there is a loss of importance. Back when building my career there were many awards and honors accumulated through newspaper “clip contests,” state and national newspaper photography “contests” along with some fine newspaper and magazine writing awards. Yet, my two “Oscars in Agriculture” for journalistic ag writing now serve as bookends, though on my walls hang a couple of honors fully cherished including a beautiful Tokheim plate awarded to a “Riverkeeper of the Year.” The others? In boxes and drawers, somewhere lost over time.

The swallow that happened to make this a favored image.

My procrastination last week stemmed more from wondering if what I really liked about a particular images would be accepted more universally. My images are from what I see in the moment, hopefully with good composition, lighting, depth of field and so on, and if that happens to translate into something more, then, as was stated back in the day, “Far out!” 

One particular image comes to mind. Just before an evening “blue hour” arrived I was “illegally” parked on a highway bridge over the Minnesota River as it meanders through the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. Floating in the river was a gnarly log reflected in the calm, cream-colored waters. As I was focusing on the log a swallow suddenly dipped to the river surface for perhaps a gulp of river. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the Frenchman considered as the “Godfather of photojournalism” might call such a capture a “decisive moment.” 

Decisive moments are what we strive for as photojournalists, be they as simple as an image of the swallow’s gulp near the reflected log in the mirrored surface of a river, or Cartier-Bresson’s own “Children in Seville, Spain,” a portrayal of child’s play in a street through a crater of a bombed out wall during the Spanish Civil War. Of course, there is no comparison between the impact of the two images, and I’m certainly not vain enough to place myself in the company of Cartier-Bresson. Or, Wayne Perala, for that matter.

Cormorants at rest on tree stump “pilings” in the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.

Last summer I printed my river image and included it among the collection of matted prints I place both here at my studio and at some of the art shows, and often I’ve seen people pull the image out for a closer look. Finally a young man brought it to me to buy, commenting on the peaceful feel along with the colors. When I pointed out the swallow, he seemed to gather more respect for the image. Was this image worthy of the Audubon contest? Many more of what I claim as my favored bird images fall within this genre.

Here’s another example: Just a few miles away, and in a different portion of the Refuge, I made an image of cormorants resting on “piers” of stumps protruding from the waters. I love the feel and composition, although I fear the seemingly overall dislike and even hatred of cormorants. Perhaps this is a prejudice common only to Minnesota anglers who perhaps mistakenly blame cormorants for declining walleye populations in lakes … while dismissing the global warming effects on waters that diminish the ciscos and other “bait” fish walleye feed on. Certainly loons are much too loved to blamed for such atrocious acts against their favored fish. 

A chance moment when a pair of Sandhill Cranes flew over, their wings and posture seemingly a portrait prehistoric in nature.

Over the years I’ve captured many interesting images of cormorants, a member of a family of birds I initially fell in love with one dawn morning in the Everglades while watching and photographing Anhengas seeming to appear as feathered angels as sunlight glistened through their outstretched, drying wings. And, yes, their cousins, the cormorants, do the same thing. 

One of my favorite Canada Geese images was at the North Ottawa Impoundment as they seemed to be in rest before the fall migration. I assume this was a family unit, which is common in that time frame and moment. Another is an image of White Pelicans at rest on a spit of an island in Big Stone Lake, and of a Wood Duck hen ferrying her newly hatched brood through pond weeds in Salt Lake near Marietta. There’s the Orchard Oriel snatching cattail fluff for its nest, and a Great Blue Heron perched on a dead cottonwood in the setting sun. The paired Sandhill Cranes that appeared out of nowhere while I was focusing on early summer Prairie Smoke. Their wings and posture was, to me, a portrait prehistoric in nature. Oh, and a Bob-o-Link taking flight in prairie grasses … over the years so many “decisive moments” have occurred in my pursuit of bird imagery.

A Bob-o-Link about to go airborne from a prairie perch … about as close to a Wayne Perala image as I could make.

Perhaps this sense of photographic freedom dates back to how I ventured into journalism. While in college a Forestry professor called me back as I was leaving his classroom to tell me that if I continued to pursue nature and the environment as a scientist that I would likely be “the most frustrated scientist ever. Your brain just functions differently than those in this classroom, and that’s okay.” He praised my writing and suggested that I concentrate on that instead of the sciences. He even introduced me to his good friend who was then the director of the Ag Journalism Department at the University of Missouri. 

It was as if Eagle talons had been extracted from my nape. Suddenly I felt a sense of freedom for the first time in all of my schooling. And, now some 50 some years later, after a long career in photojournalism and writing, that feeling of freedom still exists. Procrastinating the Audubon contest was a surely part of that freedom, for my work doesn’t need to fit any particular concept or ideal, and I have no need for another possible award. My work is as free as that of a heron or eagle, defined solely by whatever space that might surround a particular perch or space in the sky. 

This family of Canada Geese almost appear as musical notes along prairie waters.

I don’t know if Wayne Perala entered the contest, although I hold hopes that he has for his photography of avian species and life is superb and worthy of such honors. If so, and even if his photography isn’t chosen, he’s one hell of a portrayer of avian life, and whose work I thoroughly respect and appreciate. We’re perhaps driven by a similar creed, though our art is  portrayed somewhat differently. No one would expect us to be “identical” twins. 

A Calm in the Madness

If one looks, and not necessarily all that deeply, he or she may find calm in the “madness” of March, which is perhaps our most awkward month. March arrives with an uneven reputation and temperament ranging from the tournament heavy “March Madness” to an earthy “Muddy March” through the Shakespearian promise of the “Ides of March” and so on. It carries both a scrounge of winter past and a prelude of a spring to come, an in between month.

We Minnesotans are notoriously ingrained with the reputation that all of our high school championship tournaments are paired with halting blizzards, with fans known to argue that their preferred sport, be it wrestling, dance line, hockey or basketball, will bring the deepest and wildest of the seasonal blizzards.

Here in the country we anticipate a month of extreme muddiness as the snow yields ever so slowly to rising temperatures. We have hope the snow melt won’t happen so rapidly that the frozen earth isn’t properly prepared even if we can’t wait for it to be gone. If the surface snow melts before the ground below, torrents of raging waters and ice floes will likely clog the prairie rivers as happened in the spring of 1997. 

Sandhill Cranes on a Nebraska plain …

Prairie towns along the Minnesota and its tributaries were threatened throughout the watershed and some were introduced to FEMA and other federal programs. Later in the spring canoers would marvel at seeing flood refuge clinging high in the treetops along the river, and at one bend of the Minnesota River below Renville County’s Skalbakken County Park, floodwaters stacked logs high up into the tops of the riverine trees like a log cabin wall. 

Lest we not forget the winds. Those “Ides” of the prairie, where there isn’t much to block what comes across the Dakotas, lift dirt particles airborne from the barren cropping fields. There is little resistance once the snow cover is gone for there are too few cover crops being planted.

Enough of the perils, for there is another side to March. A much calmer side. That reawakening. Sometimes this calm is as small as observing the feathers of Gold Finches gradually gather more color. Or noticing that the Juncos are no longer at the feeders, or that the small and colorful Snow Buntings no longer linger along the roadways. While one would hardly call the Sandhill Crane migration, among others, as “calming,” yet those noisy and frenzied moments along the North Platte in Central Nebraska brings a sense of calming, for yes, spring is finally on the way. And I find that calming.

Pasque flowers breaking through a late March snow covering.

Migrations signal the reawakening of our prairie, this release from the grip of winter, as much so as the first blooms of prairie flowers. Indeed, there are some hardy flowers that may break through even in March.

Surely I’m not the only one who will forge a path to a known hillside where pasque flowers peak from scraggly brown and grayish dormant grasses. If we’re fortunate we’ll see our first pasque flowers bloom before the full release of winter comes in April. A few years ago I ventured to “my hill” ­– seems we all have a prized and chosen hill – to find a spring bloom awakening across the hillside. Not long after the initial bloom appeared we were hit with another blizzard. Afterwards I returned to find the snow had blanketed the blossoms, yet the blueish purple pushed through, delicately and defiantly strong.

Earlier this week I caught my first sighting of those seemingly haphazard skeins of snow and blue geese just north of town. A year ago in March we were blessed with a large flock with hundreds of birds that adopted the wetland just over the rise from Listening Stones Farm. This was the second time over a six year period this has happened. Other years I’ve had to drive across the county, or even up to Traverse County, to capture photographs of the migration. I don’t know where they are resting now, although I know they’re here. Somewhere.

Snows and blues rise from the wetland just over the rise from Listening Stones Farm.

I long to head to the North Platte, and might still depending on an upcoming procedure to solve a health issue. I was close to giving up on the possibility, although a drive this week to Sioux Falls to meet with a specialist churned up the desire to simply keep going. It felt as if I were already half way there. If I have a “March Madness” it’s the Sandhill Crane migration, and reports of the migrations have come from Illinois, Colorado and Nebraska according to the International Crane Foundation. The largest migration route is through central Nebraska where a quarter million Sandhills are said to funnel through.

Twice I’ve rented an overnight blind along the Platte to be closer to the birds as they come to the river for overnight protection from possible predation. As the sun lowers to the horizon large flocks begin descending down to the shallow waters and sand bars. As impressive and beautiful as the flights and landings are, the prehistoric din of the collective callings mentally transports you through the ages to prehistoric times. 

Oh to experience the Sandhill Crane migration once again!

Even if I can’t slip away for a few days, March will bring many rewards for this grounded traveler. As I write the release of winter is occurring. Calmly and steadily, on earth and above in the treetops and clouds – a calm within the “madness” of this awkward month juggling between seasons.