Into the Driftless

Sometimes I wish I were more of a landscape artist. This realization hit home again last week on a whimsical, spur-of-the-moment trip into my distant past to the Mississippi  River town of Dubuque, situated squarely in the midst of the “Driftless,” characterized by vast stretches of the deep valleys and rolling hills offering rather poetic vistas.

Ah, that distant past. Back then, back in the late 1960s, I didn’t realize the beautiful hill country around Dubuque was called the “Driftless.” I had no reason to know of it’s official geologic name, the Paleozoic Plateau. Back then the streams and rivers ran clear, and the hilltops were graced with fenced-in, lazily grazing cattle. The woods, with a smattering of leaves sparkling in autumn sunshine, hadn’t yet been carved into suburbia. Back then the town itself featured a riverscape that was as gray as it was abandoned.


The formation of the Paleozoic Plateau, more commonly known as the “Driftless.”

That riverscape now features river-respected parks and modern architecture. Colorful and artistic murals grace many of the old, repurposed buildings. Even back then there was a staunch civic pride, a pride that seems even more proudly pronounced now. Yet, the geography and natural history surrounding the Mississippi River valley dominates the landscape as it always has.

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Sometimes the colors were more muted, as in this fog-scape along the Mississippi River.

Long since moving from Dubuque, and thanks to the lessons on the natural history of the north since moving to Minnesota and earning the badge of a Minnesota Master Naturalist, I’ve learned more about the effects glaciers have had on the landscape. Both in the Driftless and in the former prairie pothole region of Minnesota.

Ah, but the Driftless. For whatever reason this area of northeastern Iowa, northwestern Illinois, southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin … a geographically composed raindrop to a satellite image … escaped the icy blanket. The Des Moines lobe skirted off to the west while the Green Bay lobe deposited its till off to the east, leaving these hills and valleys as graceful as can be found in nature some 12,000 years later.

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For whatever reason I can’t lay aside my lenses, nor ignore the odd imagery that catches my eye

Now those hills, as far as you can see from the many strategic lookouts, are covered with ripened corn. We were told the streams are not quite as clear, and fencing is no more. And, my old apartment building? Eleven oh eight Locust? And, Dubuque itself? Like in the adjacent hills, all has changed as should be expected after some 50 years and counting.

This recognition of this change occurred this past week when my companion, Mary Gafkjen, and I ventured downriver to Dubuque to visit long-lost friends, Michael Muir, John Buckley and Tom Syke. John and I had worked together at the Telegraph Herald in 1968-69 before I moved west to work for the Denver Post. Michael, Tom and John were schoolmates and best friends, and it was through John that I met the others. Our visit included a brief stop at Syke’s Galena area woody valley where we had hoped to see the latest batch of pottery be pulled from his wood-fired kiln. We were a couple of days early, it turned out.

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Yes, there was some color … especially with burr oak.

Our reconnection began after a conversation between this trio of old friends was sparked by the transformation of my first apartment in Dubuque into a boutique burger bar. Michael “googled” my name and asked if I was the writer and photographer they had known back then. We’ve all since gone as gray as those old abandoned buildings of the past. Syke is still quite the character, terminology I suspect that fits each of us. Buckley left his reporting behind to become an attorney, and Michael worked his way up the education and career scale to become an important cog in the Dubuque banking business. In those 50 years we’ve all survived and even thrived in our respective careers.

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The bluffs along the Mississippi offered protection for the colorful autumn leaves.

Fortunately we drove along the river road from Hastings south to Prairie du Chien before cutting across the river to angle through Iowa to Durango outside of Dubuque. Along the river the bluffs had protected the leaves to preserve some color. Out in the open hill country, harsh October winds had blown away most of the colorful leaves as they have here in the former prairie. Even in Michael’s “Muir Woods” the trees were mostly barren. No, his “Muir Woods” are not the gigantic redwoods of his family’s heritage namesake, made up of hickory, maple and cedar instead.

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Even in Michael’s “Muir Woods” the trees were mostly barren.

It was here in Michael’s woods I played with light and leaves, although there was a little of that in our drive south along the river. For whatever reason I can’t lay aside my lenses, nor ignore the odd imagery that catches my eye. Not even in the Muir Woods found deep in the Driftless.

High and Wide

If it takes a “big man” to admit ignorance, consider my stature with that of the Biblical David. After being a Minnesota resident for 36 years, it took my relationship with Mary Gafkjen to learn of the autumn raptor migrations at the Hawk Ridge Raptor Observatory in Duluth.

She mentioned the migrations a couple of weeks ago and suggested we head to Duluth to witness the phenomenon at Hawk Ridge. We arrived on a grayish but calm day on the last Monday of September to virtually an empty hill. There was a trailer set up with a volunteer who was basically closing up. “It hasn’t been a good day,” she said, “and it’s pretty much shut down for the day. Tomorrow might be better. Try being here by nine or so in the morning.”

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With a loan from the Nature Conservancy, bought approximately 250 acres to serve as a buffer for the preserve, and later, with a trust agreement with the City of Duluth, now manages 365 acres as a nature reserve open to the public for both study and enjoyment.

Sounded like the story of too many fishing trips. We traversed the wooded hill through some spectacular autumn scenery and babbling North Shore streams back into the small city for some craft beer and fine dining. On Tuesday morning we were a few minutes late, and was greeted by dozens of bird watchers carrying some impressive monoculars, binoculars and cameras. The watch had begun. I scanned the treetops on this high bluff some 500 feet above Lake Superior, eyeing the skies just above tree line. A bearded young man with a volunteer patch suddenly exclaimed loudly, “There! Just above the fishing ship.” He easily identified three different hawk species and some vultures … those with the thin tails.

What? They were flying above the lake itself? I studied the skies across the beautiful and still calm waters and saw nothing. Mary caught my angle and directed me to look higher. Much higher. Even higher still, and then, high and wide of the bluff, and clearly over the waters of the lake, were the thermals carrying the birds. Dots to the naked eye, but with good binoculars, and even with my inexpensive 600 mm lens, there they were.

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On Tuesday morning we were a few minutes late, and was greeted by dozens of bird watchers carrying some impressive monoculars, binoculars and cameras. The watch had begun.

Initially I was disappointed as a photographer, though not so much as a spectator. The birds were not only quite distant, they were also very high in the thermals. They were not even close to the beautiful layering of colors provided by the lake and clouds. Exhibiting more patience than I typically noted for, in time fortune came my way … for about a dozen images.

What an incredible learning experience. Here is a brief history: The first systematic count of raptors began in 1972, and the voluntary naturalist program, Friends of Hawk Ridge, was established seven years later. And, yes, raptors have used this unique flyway for eons. Apparently the site and migration were familiar to local gunners who actually used the birds for target practice. The killing was stopped through efforts of the Duluth Bird Club (now the Duluth Audubon Society). The club publicized the illegal shooting and worked to have the prohibition against shooting within the city limits enforced.

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Thousands of visitors come from all 50 states and some 40 foreign countries to observe this unique annual fall migration … one of the few concentrated raptor migrations in the world.

Later that group, with a loan from the Nature Conservancy, bought approximately 250 acres to serve as a buffer for the preserve, and later, with a trust agreement with the City of Duluth, now manages 365 acres as a nature reserve open to the public for both study and enjoyment. Now thousands of visitors come from all 50 states and some 40 foreign countries to observe this unique annual fall migration … one of the few concentrated raptor migrations in the world.

More than 20 different raptor species move from their summer breeding areas as far north as the Arctic and head to destinations as far south as points in South America. In the fall, the birds veer southwest along the lake shore. Some days are obviously better than others, and observers say that on days with northwest winds, thousands of raptors can be seen migrating past the Ridge.

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Some days are obviously better than others, and observers say that on days with northwest winds, thousands of raptors can be seen migrating past the Ridge.

It is a wonderful experience, though much different than the sandhill crane migration. Admittedly, I didn’t know what to expect although raptors are among my favorite bird species. We had passed a grouping of cars the first day and was told that volunteers had hiked into the site to hopefully capture and band resting birds.

On the morning we were on the Ridge, a volunteer arrived with a young Sharp-Shinned Hawk that screeched bloody murder about being held. After a brief presentation and discussion period, he handed the bird to a woman who did the honors of releasing the bird. The effort was applauded by those arcing around the two as the hawk quickly vanished over the treetops.

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On the morning we were on the Ridge, a volunteer arrived with a young Sharp-Shinned Hawk that screeched bloody murder about being held.

Then it was back to the observations … from the roadside to a treetop platform. I found myself smiling as I looked back over the treetops and into the vast skies over the huge lake. “There,” said the deep-voiced young man, his eye trained through the viewer of his monocular secured to a sturdy tripod. Again I raised my camera lens along with those who hoisted their binoculars, only this time I was facing the lake. Off in the distance was another grouping of silhouetted black dots against the blueish-purpled clouds. He and some of the others were quick to identify the dozen or so specks as another Hawk Ridge volunteer erased the previous numbers on a nearby tally board. Seventy-one in all to that point in the morning, and more than 21,000 sighted so far in September!

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Off in the distance was another grouping of silhouetted black dots against the blueish-purpled clouds.

Meanwhile, I prayed for lower angled, invisible thermals … low enough to hopefully have the raptors mixed in with the delightful colors. They were soaring high and wide, rarely moving a feather it seemed … gliding quickly and effortlessly further along the bluff line perhaps toward the Mississippi Flyway directly south. Again, I could feel the smile, realizing once again how fortunate it was to witness a fleeting moment in geological history and time even if they seemed only dots in the distant clouds.

An Odd Uneven Time

August is an awkward month. Big Bluestem colors the prairie in blueish purple glory, and Monarchs flit from flower to flower. Yet, as blossoms fade, a prairie ages. Brown creeps in where green once resided.

Bird species begin to congregate, moving across the Bluestem landscape, grabbing onto a spindly, windblown lunch. In some wetlands white cranes work the shallows for edible tidbits, and in others, algae blooms in various colors as the heat energizes nutrients from agricultural sediments. These colors are not of the recent summer.

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An nearby prairie in its last grasp of summer glory …

We humans are wont to quickly pass all of this color and naturalness of the prairie en route to our final moments on the lake shores of the Shield before schools open. Paths are charted across the former prairie for cross country running competition, and beyond the Bluestem, footballers aim for measures of Friday night glory. Teachers are called to their classrooms in preparation of the upcoming school year. 4H’ers are nervously awaiting judges at the State Fair down in St. Paul, hoping for the success they had back home at the county fairs.

Apples ripen. Peaches arrive from afar for canning. Beans are past picking, yet the tomatoes, with the cooling nights, offer garden color. Squash ripen, too, and the sizzle of deep pressure canners emit from many kitchens as people work to save summer.

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Smoke-filled skies offer interesting sunsets, framed by prairie sunflowers and Big Bluestem.

Ah, yes. Summer. August is the last of summer; the threshold of autumn. Or, in the words of poet Sylvia Plath, “The odd uneven time.”

I most notice the light, on the waning of it in the evening, and on the other end, now I awaken to sunrises I was sleeping through just weeks ago. My Missouri-based cousins spoke just last week of the wonder of such late dusks as I wondered of how quickly it now descends across the landscape. Each with our geographic awareness. Yes, an odd, uneven time.

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An algae bloom on a nearby wetland adds color to the August landscape.

Our’s was a late spring. Pasque flowers and Prairie Smoke seemed terribly late this year thanks to the deep April snows, and then summer broke right on top of it all. With it came a vengeance of heat and humidity that was so formerly distant to the south. No longer. Then the skies began to fill with hazy smoke from the wildfires out west and from Canada. Meteorologists claim the air quality was, and is, simply awful, causing respiratory problems for all ages. Personally my eyes burn, and my throat is rather raw as I work to expel in clearing my lungs. “It’s like smoking five or six cigarettes a day,” one was quoted in the Sunday daily.

All of that, yet we marvel at the “sun ball” sunsets offered only because of the smoky skies — sun balls as red as Santa’s pants, offering interesting imagery along the horizon edges of turkey-foot Bluestem and spindly prairie sunflowers. You yearn for a clear sky, and cheer even the slightest breakthrough of blue.

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The “sun mottled” spotting on the fawns are narrowing and about to disappear.

Down the road wild turkey chicks are nearly indistinguishable from the adult hens, and nearly as big as those roosters that have survived the spring hunts, when they strutted so proudly on the woody hillsides with suddenly ruffled plumage. Fawns are losing their protective “sun mottled” spots that provided protection. On the clothesline, the season’s batch of swallows are being fed by hovering adults. Yet, they are soon off the line and already into acrobatic flight that is as wondrous as it is beautiful. Have I mentioned the Monarchs?

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The Monarchs here on Listening Stones Farm exist in a metamorphic lifespan of a mere few feet.

The milkweed that attracted the caterpillars several weeks ago is now drying and dying. Towering above that browning death are the bright yellow blossoms of the Compass Plants, where the Monarch’s that “hatched” now flitter and dine — a metamorphic lifespan within a mere few feet!

September is now a week distant, the month many of us call the beginning of fall. Last week in the Boundary Waters the leaves had begun to turn, and along the ravines we can see the same around here. And we realize that in all ways August is a transitional month, giving forms of late beauty and life as much it takes away the same with the browning of death … an odd uneven time.

Old Salmons

“I see you as an old salmon,” said a long time artist friend to me recently. “It’s like you have an internal drive taking you upstream, over dams, against the current. I don’t know where you going, and you may not know where you’re going. You’re headed somewhere, though, and you want to get there before you die.”

Don Sherman, the long-tenured prairie artist could just as well be likened to an old salmon himself. We’re both in our mid-70s, and both of us are time challenged and driven. And like he suggested, do we really know where we’re headed?

No, I’m not new at this. Nor is Don. We’re somewhat retired, meaning we are now going where our soul and creativity takes us. My break with mainstream reality began with the death of my wife of 32 years, although I had given my publisher fair warning months before, that my time was near. Now, years later, some of my friends scoff at me, and one blatantly said, “You don’t know a damned thing about being retired.”

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An image from the last one percent of prairie.

Recently, in the midst of several errands before heading off for a weekend showing at an arts and wine fair in Cannon Falls, two friends invited me to join them for lunch. More of the same. Eventually one said, “I get tired just reading your posts. Don’t you ever slow down?”

Maybe not. My thoughts go back to an incidental meeting back when I was 62. Some consider this a magical age and jump at the chance to jump on SSI with an early retirement, I stopped at a barbecue joint and bar to talk to the owner about advertising in my country weekly. Four guys who were around my age were having an afternoon beer on a summer day that would have been perfect for sitting in a boat angling for bluegill in a quiet bay. They rode me pretty hard about not joining them, that life was much too short to be working, and that I was 62 for God’s sake. Within a year all four had died of natural causes. All much too young. Did idleness play a role? Inactivity? Not having some mission?

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My Listening Stones Farm yields some fine images, including a smokey sunset.

A dear friend who recently hit the magical age of 70 still performs his incredible music, and is wont to take a break when playing. He is engaging, with a broad smile during his performances. An artist friend in the outer suburbs told me last week she’s doing just what she’s always wanted to do. “I do it here in the summer, and we go back to India for the winters and I do my art there as well.” Then, there’s my fellow salmon … Don Sherman. Apparently I’m not alone. Somewhere in each of us there seems to be a magical drive. And we’re certainly not alone. Idleness won’t kill us.

My woman friend, Mary Gaftgen, says I sometimes wear her out, yet in our time together this year we’ve road-tripped to New Orleans, Nebraska for the Crane migration, Alaska for a week to visit her brother and his wife, to Eastern Washington to visit her old college roommate, and we leave in a few days for the Boundary Waters. This doesn’t include our nearby day trips, nor the week I spent in Ontario fly fishing on another wonderful Tim Holschlag adventure. Nor does it include a European trip to visit my son, Aaron, and some former foreign exchange students. Add some art shows in there as well. So, yes, there is a retirement aspect.

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Near Juneau a canoeist returns from a jaunt in the bay.

I’m thoroughly enjoying life. Not long after my wife’s death I entered a bounce-back marriage that didn’t take. Yet, my ex-wife was quite nurturing and encouraged me as I began working on my prairie art imagery. My work centers around the last one percent of the prairie, the vast 99 percent forever altered into commodity agriculture, parking lots and such … land that as a prairie prior to European immigration stretched from Canada to Texas, and nearly the breadth of the two mountain ranges. This has led to many juried art shows, one-person exhibitions, and a spot in the annual Upper Minnesota River Arts Meander, where hundreds visit my home farm studio over the first weekend of October.

Is this swimming against the current? Is there something soulful within urging the mission forward? Is it a fear of idleness? Of death? Of not lending some importance to the act of being an integral part of the human race?

The Slice of Pie

It was a sad afternoon. Despite the probable necessity of the situation, tears still swelled in my eyes a time or two. First, the back story:

It began the night before when dear friends, Don and Bonnie Sherman, joined us for dinner here at Listening Stones Farm. After a fun dinner of smoked ribs and potato salad, Bonnie sliced a rhubarb cream pie with what would have had a perfect meringue had it not been for a slight accident in transporting. The pie, she said, came from a recipe handed down to her by her mother-in-law.

As a child Don had gone to a Boys Scout camp where the scout master … the father of an artist friend we’ve heard is now in a “nursing home” … brought a pie to the camp. Don came home raving about eating the “greatest pie ever.” So Don’s mother called the mother of our mutual artist friend for the recipe.


Across the fen on the adjoining hill is a nice little oak savanna.

After eating Bonnie’s offering with moans of ecstasy, the four of us decided we would dedicate a slice for our friend in the nearby senior care center. (For her privacy she’ll remain unnamed. For her niche in the arts world, her form of a classic Norwegian art form, is considered by many as true as Georgia O’Keeffe’s art was to her homage of the desert.)

That afternoon I left my house that her father and uncle built back in 1912, which is one of our many connections. I passed “the hill” where two years ago she had a small cabin delivered for a getaway, a touch with her roots as a young girl on the hilly slopes of Big Stone Lake, and two miles south of my farm. In the short time I’ve lived here I’ve made several images on and around her “hill.”

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Another view of the savanna, from the side.

After the 30 mile drive to the nearby small town,  I entered the nursing home where it was rumored she was living, and was told by a nurse, “No, the name isn’t familiar.” She was a young woman and probably didn’t know the name nor perhaps the significance.

As I left with the bittersweet feelings of both disappointment and relief, I noticed a newer building of the same color of exterior off to the left and down an adjoining street. It was a senior living facility, and, yes, this was her new home, and they gave me the room number.

After a brief hug and greeting, I gave her a print of an image I had made directly in front of the little cabin on the “hill” a few weeks ago and pulled the foil off the slice of pie. “Here, this is a pie made from a recipe your mother gave the mother of a dear mutual friend” as I told her the story. She broke into her beautiful smile, one I’ve seen so many times over the years. I recalled our first meeting many years ago when a “buggy artist” friend and his wife came out to the prairie for the weekend. We had visited a few studios before driving to the arts school where she was attending a glass painting class. When Harland explained that he worked to create buggies and was in search of an artist to paint rosemalling on the buggy seat of a Norwegian styled buggy, she said, “Well, I do a little rosemalling.”

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The savanna to the east of the little cabin on the hill.

A little rosemalling?

This story has been told numerous times, yet she heard it for the first time on my visit, smiling as she vaguely remembered the moment. That was an afternoon I’ll long remember, for later she led us down the street to her small home and garden to give us a personal and intimate tour. If her house and garden aren’t already on some national historical preservation list, it should be for it is unique and decidedly “old” immigrant Norwegian.

She then asked about the “hill,” her little cabin, and about my house, and she retold the story of how her father and uncle had built several of the houses in this neighborhood. My house is apparently among the old Gustafson enclave.

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Wild turkeys have found her hill quite attractive.

Then she said, “You know, I don’t want to be in here. I no longer have my driver’s license and car. I can’t go anywhere any longer. I have no way of getting back to my little hill. I don’t know if I will see it again. Did you know they installed windows in the little cabin that won’t open? I’ve asked for replacement windows. How can you have a breeze without windows that open?” That odd mixture of reality and hope.

This is a sad reality that elderly people and their families unfortunately face. My family struggled with my father’s dementia and a need for both his safety and that of others. After several minor accidents including his ramming his pickup into the outside corner of the garage, we made the decision to take away my father’s independence. It is never easy. Not for the loved ones. Not for the elderly person for whom the decisions are made. If we live long enough, perhaps this is a reality many of us will face, myself included. So I have a sense of what went into her family’s decision and realize it wasn’t easy for them.

I also thought of an elderly man who had driven into Montevideo last November to see his insurance agent, and had inadvertently missed the brake and hit the gas, propelling his pickup over the curb and into the front window of a popular coffee house. As workers secured the front of the shop, and a nice police officer talked intermittently with the elderly man, we privately thought of him as he sat alone in his pickup, no doubt in private thought of how the slip of the foot had probably cost him his independence.

I look at myself in my 70s, and wonder how I could possibly survive without being able to drive, of losing what most of us treasure so much, our independence, and I looked at my artist friend across the room. Her engaging and beautiful smiles was now gone, replaced by a look of agony and isolation no one wants to experience, and I suddenly felt the presence of tears.

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As have the deer!

Her family was coming for Mother’s Day, she said, and she hoped they would consider taking her back to little cabin on the hill just down the road. “I’d like to be on my hill again and again.”

After a moment of silence, she said, “I could die just as easily at home as here. I didn’t have any choice in the decision. I hear rumblings of what is being planned for my house. I don’t know if they’re thinking of making it a museum, a bed and breakfast for the art’s school, or what. And I don’t know if I’ll get back to the hill.”

My heart ached with the sadness and reality of aging.

And, there, next to her laptop, was the slice of pie. She eyed it then and smiled. That big, beautiful engaging smile, one that brightens cloudy days. A slice of a pie from a recipe her mother had shared with Don’s mother some 60 year before, a creamy rhubarb topped with beautiful meringue.


What is left of the pie …

Outside, the new spring has rhubarb ready for stalks to be pulled for more pies, and the lilacs are fishing to bloom. Trees are quickly filling in after a late winter, and on the hill where her little cabin awaits her possible return, wild turkeys fluff and strut, and deer dash across the road into the wild grasses of her untamed yard. Across the fen in the valley between her hill and the hill to the west, the sunsets are just as beautiful as are the sunrises across the road. Small oak savannas on each of the hills offer contrast and definition, things an artist like my friend would note with reverence and understanding. Yes, her hill is a fine location for a homey getaway.

If there is to be one.