A ‘Gray’ Christmas

Many of us living in the temperate zone dream of having a White Christmas. Crooners have given voice to Irving Berlin’s “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas …” lyrics on nearly every holiday album for several decades across two centuries, from Bing Crosby and Perry Como to the Surfers, Bob Marley and even Lady Gaga. 

Thanks to the “weather gods” we were all set up for having our iconic white Christmas thanks to a blizzard that blew through the prairie two days before our celebration for the “birthday child.” It was to be our first snow since early October. The horizontal snow came with 40 to 50 mph winds, though, cutting across millions of acres of croplands bared to the skies since early November. And that snow for our “white Christmases” acted just like fingerprints at a crime scene … showing us in stark detail the ills of deep and dangerous farming practices. Yes, Virginia, dirt lifts into the heavens even without the snow, for the snow only shows us the devil in the details.

A Christmas wreath in Swift County, MN, covered with grit!

Here on our Listening Stone Farm prairie, evidence of blown dirt was visible throughout in both our restored grassed prairie and in the grove despite the effort of the farmer across the road who planted one of the extremely rare fields of cover crops over his harvested soybean field back in September. We know this fine sheen of black dirt didn’t come from him, yet from whom? Ah, ha! That’s the mystery, and opens a curtain to an old prairie tale that says, “It’s really no big deal if ‘dirt’ blows around. Because it will just end up in someone else’s fields and make their land better.”

How’s this for a friendly front porch setting … in Swift County, MN.

Tell that to all the historical civilizations that are no more because of eroded and blown dirt! Have you ever seen a picture where relics of past civilizations have been uncovered by several deep feet of dirt? Ever wondered where that might have come from? 

In September this was a barren soybean field the farmer then planted to a cover crop to keep his soil in place.

So, we were certainly not alone. On a day when you would expect pictures of smiling families filling the feeds of Facebook we had pictures of people in other prairie localities sadly posting pictures of dirty snow. No, not yellow snow, but grayed snow. Dirt covered snow. We first noticed it going to town the day after the blizzard just down the road. Said one farmer over in Chippewa County, “It’s hard to say our farm is organic when the neighbors send us their dirt.” Their yard on Christmas morning was simply blanketed with windblown dirt.

Dirt blown in Big Stone County, MN, sometimes offers interesting patterns of what is popularly known as “snirt.”

Which is hardly surprising, actually, for if one were to travel from Milan to Willmar on County Road 40, those 41 miles are almost completely laid bare by fall tillage practices. If you take State Highway 7 from Hutchinson to Dawson you would be hard pressed to see a single field like the one across the road. It’s all bare, mile after mile after mile. If you take Highway 12 east out of Ortonville, you won’t pass a single tilled field protected with a winter cover crop to Benson, nor from Benson to Willmar, then from Willmar to the Twin Cities. Let’s choose another route … say from Clinton to Glenwood on Highway 28. Same story. Or, from (pick a town) say, Wheaton south on the King of Highways, U.S. 75, down to Blue Mounds State Park, itself a “grassland oasis” surrounded by plowed fields, the fields all black and barren. So, let’s go east a bit to Highway 71, from Sauk Centre to the Iowa border … it all looks the same, thousands upon thousands of acres of plowed fields that are left open to blow from November until the next crop is high enough to protect the soils. For most, this comes in June. That’s nearly a full term for the birth of a baby.

This was the lawn of a Chippewa County organic farmer on Christmas morning.

It’s not just dirt, either. As a friend who lives in the middle of this “black desert” west of Clarkfield, says, “Unfortunately, the ‘new’ soil particles that cover our entire place is most likely laced with glyphosate.”  The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified glyphosate as “probably” carcinogenic to humans, and it is blamed for non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Another farmer who focuses on growing organic barley for the brewing industry, lamented, “We have ugly gray snow all around. A snowy dust bowl!”

A wind “poem” on my Listening Stones Farm prairie … accented by a layer of gray grit!

A retired Soil and Water Conservation Service technician in Renville County, Thomas Kalahar, wrote, “So much for a white Christmas in corn country. $50 billion the last few years in farm subsidies should buy us a better environment. Hard to support an industry that seems not to care enough to protect our soil and water.” Later he added, “Cover crops would eliminate it. Depending on the percentage of residue left, minimum tillage would lesson the erosion. But we keep paying them so why should they change? We get the landscape we are paying for! We demand nothing in return for our generous subsidies. So it comes down to us.”

Shared from a friend who lives west of Clarkfield in Yellow Medicine County, MN.

David. R. Montgomery, in his frightening book called, “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations,” wrote: “Projecting past practices into the future offers a recipe for failure. We need a new agricultural model, a new farming philosophy. We need another agricultural revolution. Unlike the first farmer-hunter gatherers who could move

around when their soil was used up, a global civilization cannot.”

This is where we’re at after celebrating a Gray Christmas, accepting whether we wish it or not, gifts of grit from our nearby neighbors. Several years ago I put together a series of images for my “Art of Erosion” exhibitions, a series I could repeat year after year. Montgomery, as well as a vast number of other scientists and authors, have long warned us of the frightening ills of these farming practices. It doesn’t have to be this way, for there are ways to avoid losing soils to the winds ­— as inexpensive as simply not plowing down the corn stalks to using cover crops, as my neighbor has across the road.

And in Renville County, MN, this is a roadway on Christmas morning … a scene that could be shown on any number of country highways. So, are you counting? These images were all taken on Christmas morning in Big Stone, Swift, Chippewa, Yellow Medicine and Renville Counties, pretty much the heart of prairieland farming.

A few years back in an interview with Redwood County farmer, Grant Breitkreutz, he spoke of his trepidation of planting his first cover crops before realizing the benefits far exceeded saving his soil from wind erosion. He had better water retention, that worked wonders for his crops later in the summer. He reduced his use of chemicals and realized increased tilth and soil health. “We have eliminated erosion and improved water infiltration, which means we now keep the water where it’s supposed to be,” he said. “What could be better than that?”

Not just the water, but also saving the soil … while bringing an end to gray Christmases like we just experienced. And what could be better than that?  

The Scent of Christmas

I’ve a love affair that has survived for seven decades. And I have a hint on how it all began. This love has manifested itself in curious ways, and each time it does so with the same sense that leads to fully dedicated sales counters in the best of boutiques and fancy stores. Meaning, the perfume counter fortified by finely dressed women armed with small, delicate sample bottles designed through various engineered methods to emit just enough scent to convince the buyer of the amorous love promised by the whiffs within.

My loved scent certainly lacked the promise of amorous love. It has affected me much differently, and has carried me through the building of numerous Adirondack chairs, 18 canoes and a couple of tables; a scent that also helps line haughty closets and the most desirable wooden saunas. Confused? No need to be, for I speak, of course, of scent of cedar. Like the young woman in the ridiculous car ad, “I love it!” 

My hint dates back to my childhood when on our farm in the wooded hills of Northeastern Missouri we would choose, then saw what we hoped was a perfect Eastern Red Cedar for our Christmas tree, and how later, once squeezed through the door and clamped into the red holder with the green legs, the scent of the small tree would suddenly fill the rooms for a few weeks of magic.

It took awhile, and a bit of driving, but I finally found a cedar tree around here that would pass the family test!

Of course, I feel deeply in love!

Cedars were our choice of trees for Christmas, and frankly, we knew no other. My town friends had oddly looking trees bearing little if any such scent, and I wondered how they could possibly miss such an aromatic sense on a beautiful holiday season. Just recently I surprised to learn that most of the evergreen trees sold at Christmas are actually harvested in the heat of the summer and placed in storage until it’s time to go to market. Which means like potatoes, peanuts and an amazing array of other items, these tress are obviously preserved with a smörgåsbord of chemicals to keep them “fresh.” This offers a fair possibility of why when we bought a tree for Christmas when my own children were small I would suddenly develop a “Christmas cold!”

Looking back over the years, though, there wasn’t much about those trees, regardless of species, that brought a tear of memory or a smile of joy. They were just, well, trees. Our cedar trees back home offered a real scent rather than some faint Pine-sol smell that was likely sprayed onto the trees to mask the preservatives. 

Nowadays, due perhaps to the warming climate, our idled lands along the unfarmed hillsides around here are being invaded by these same Eastern Red Cedars, and, indeed, they are quite invasive. Those lovely hills around the outcrops of the Minnesota River from Granite Falls on downriver seem inundated with hundreds of the invasive Red Cedars per acre. This led to some pretty heavy eradication efforts over the years, which has been somewhat successful. We’re now seeing more and more of the same invasion around here, and yes, some are very tall and mature, meaning they have been here for awhile.

Many of the cedars had been feasted on by deer in our immediate neighborhood, meaning a decorated step ladder might have been a better choice!

In our neck of the former prairie you would be hard pressed to find one worthy of display for the deer have rendered most helplessly too ugly for a Christmas tree harvest. The very tops may have survived the munching though not the heart of the tree. 

We didn’t see the same affect back home. For us back on the farm it wasn’t unique to make note of Christmas tree possibilities throughout the year while doing chores and farm work. Among the criteria was having a well rounded confirmation, meaning there were no “holes” in the girth of the tree. A perfect cedar rarely existed. If a portion of the tree did have a “hole,” that part would be turned to the wall and away from view. 

Indeed, there was some debate and conversation shortly after Thanksgiving on which of the trees we’d noted to cut. Each of us seemed to have the perfect find. A hay or feed wagon was hooked to a tractor along with a saw on a Saturday morning and off we would go tree hunting until one passed consensus. Besides confirmation a perfect tree couldn’t be too tall nor too wide to push through the door, though those accommodations were often addressed on the front porch. 

A good pounding was alway necessary to shake off dead needles before the tree was hoisted into the wagon and would be repeated just outside the door for good measure before the tree made an inside appearance. Sometimes that sufficed, although most times it seemed that the squeeze through would fill a dustpan at least once. 

While the outcrops and hills down river are inundated with the invasive Eastern Red Cedar, there are signs that the warming climate has created an opening further north.

Once the right height was reached, which meant taking the tree back outside at least once or twice, causing more needle drop, the tree was then “screwed” into place by the three screws in the stand and stood in place. Hopefully it stood straight without cause for further adjustment. By then the cedar scent would be filling the air as we stood in admiration and typically proclaimed this was our most beautiful tree ever. Then the decorating would begin, which as the years rolled by, typically fell to my now late brother and sister. 

We were not unique, for over the years of putting together a story for Christmas for the various newspapers I’ve learned there were many alternatives used for the celebration. In the High Plains ancestors of the original settlers used sage brush or tumble weeds. Locales offered different ideas and concepts such as artistically stacked branches, wall hangings, chalked drawings and even decorated step ladders. Santa apparently didn’t care whether it was cedar or chalk, stacked branches or even the step ladder, for Christmas didn’t always center around the commercial fir, spruce or pine trees.

This is more typical of the invasive Eastern Red Cedar on a nearby hillside.

Our last Christmas together for my parents and siblings was in the late 1970s and we once again found a beautiful small cedar to decorate my parent’s old farm house. This was in the midst of the Mother Earth News era, and we made garlands of cranberries and popped popcorn which my nephews, then in grade school, seemed to love stringing. Yes, they had driven in from Virginia, as did my brother and his partner from Houston, my sister and her husband from New Mexico, and us from Colorado. A few years later my brother would die of AIDs, and my brother-in-law would suffer a “Monday morning heart attack.” 

Yet that one Christmas, my last with a cut cedar, was full of joy and love, with family cheer and laughter and my mother laying out a beautiful spread of her traditional food … all fully accented by a scent I’ve carried with me for all these years  — that unmistakable scent of cedar. That Christmas cedar! 

A Saunter on Griffin Land

Walking the paths of the Griffin Land that sits as a saddle between lakes Linka and Gilcrest as part of what is called the Glacial Shield is a saunter through time. Their land is part of the remnant moraine of the last glacier that stands high above the flattened prairie now converted into the ditched and drained “black desert” to the Southwest — land which extends to the previous moraine dropped by the melt-back of the Des Moines lobe with a more romantic name … Buffalo Ridge. Buffalo Ridge extends north and west into South Dakota and itself acts as a shield to the flattened former prairie of the rest of southern Minnesota and most of northern Iowa.

Once the fog burned off on a recent morning came a whispered wish from the Griffin Land for Joe Pye and I to come for a jaunt through this magical hilly woodland and prairie. My friend, Jack Griffin … the son of the original owner …  keeps a nice mown path that meanders through the picturesque landscape and along the lake shores. This was our momentary escape to a paradise from the pandemic.

After all, the daytime temperatures in early December were in the mid to high 40s. Sweatshirt weather that was delightfully pleasant provided you peered past the reasons why.

To saunter is to commune with nature and all its offerings, and the Griffin Land has much to offer.

“People talk about climate change and global warming as if they’re waiting for some magic ah-ha moment that is suddenly jolting,” said artist friend, Sunny Ruthchild. We were seated across from her a few years ago in her kitchen avoiding a stifling humid and hot July afternoon, with an emphasis on humidity, while discussing plans for an artist retreat on her farm near Walnut Grove. “Well, guess what? We’re in it. This is it.”

Yes, Minnesota has increasing humidity; hazy and sticky summer afternoons and unseasonable comfortable warm winter days. Like this one. Scientists reference a “hockey stick” to describe the warming effect … the long handle illustrating baseline temperatures for the past several centuries with the sudden lift of the blade showing the off-the-chart rise in global heating of the past 30 or so years. Every year, it seems, monthly heating records are rewritten. Many of those same scientists say we’ve passed the tipping point, and evidence from around the globe and even in our United States seems to justify the claim. Is this not “jolting?”

Recently I finished reading a fine journal written by Lauren E. Oakes called “In Search of the Canary Tree,” which portrays her doctoral thesis research concerning the effects of global warming on yellow-cedar trees on the outer fringe islands of Alaska. Once past the detailed counting and documentation, Oakes recognized, thanks to an indigenous Tlingit artist, that we humans are part of the ecosystem, and like all plants and animals, we are also in the midst of a species adaptation. Whether we realize it or not, like all living matter, adaptation is dependent on our survival as a species. And, yes, we, the species, are responsible for it!

This lone pine usually grabs my attention, especially when the light seeps through the nearby deciduous trees.

Check out the evidence that is far from subtle: Two major hurricane events devastate the Gulf Coast of Louisiana within two weeks as more storms sweep out of the tropical jungles. Wildfires continue to burn in the West, a map of flaming dots from Vancouver to Vegas that looks like measles on the arm of a child. Increased desertification in many parts of the globe causing starvation of millions, and resulting in refugees seeking refuge. Islands in the Pacific that disappear because of rising sea levels. Such “weather events” as tornadoes that ravage the southern states even in winter and the derecho that blasted through Central Iowa this past summer leveling millions of acres of commodity crops. I wonder if these whack-a-mole global events are jolting enough?

Yet, the affects of global warming aren’t always so bold. Many subtle changes are happening right in front of us. Slowly and surely. The tree species Oakes was studying was dying off because of a lack of snow cover due to global climate change caused the sensitive root systems to freeze and die. Here in the temperate Midwest, all around us, the non-native, invasive emerald ash borer now survives the more mild winters to devastate our beautiful ash trees. Subtle, yet deadly. And just one of many such subtle threats.

Acres of Norway pine stretch across one hillside before the hill dips into the valley where a most beautiful wetland, a stones throw from Lake Linka, awaits.

I’m not keen enough to note such subtle and slow changes as we walk the Griffin Land. Yet, with sweatshirt December temperatures they’re surely there. Maybe in the stalky mullein on the hillside prairie. Maybe in the deciduous trees climbing up from the valleys and hillsides of this beautiful saddle that abuts both lakes. Or maybe hiding in the various pines they planted back in the 1960s. Perhaps it’s a fungus or aphid able to survive a warmer winter that would have succumbed in months of below freezing weather. Are the flocks of swans and geese sharing a small spot of open water next to the Griffin Land on Linka another clue?

Despite any hidden forces the Griffin Land is a wonderful respite for the soul, and Joe Pye perhaps received more from our loop on Jack’s fine trails than I did, although my camera was frequently lifted to the eye. This land was originally purchased by Richard “Doc” and Florence Griffin back in 1950s, a mix of some 190 acres of mixed timber and prairie. That land is now in a shared trust among Doc and Florence’s children, and that beyond the homestead is under a perpetual easement with the Nature Conservative. Meaning it is protected from encroachment and development that keeps significant portions of shores of both lakes somewhat free of cabins more reminiscent of a Minnesota lake before those shores were riddled with wanton resort and cabin development. Mary, along with a handful of others, benefit from having a “clean” landscape to view from their cabins which lines a single shore along the Linka road thanks to the Griffin Land.

I’m always stopped by the spreading limbs of an ancient oak and the nearby mullein that graces the prairie of the Griffin Land.

Doc had passed long before I came to know the Griffin’s through my relationship with Mary. Trish, her sister, is married to Jack, a wood artist and “retired” carpenter. A couple of the old timers living on Linka still relish telling Doc fishing stories, and I thorougly enjoy watching Jack smile and nod when one of the stories pops up around an evening bonfire. Florence was still vibrant into her 90s, and loved her garden, the Purple Martins that came to roost around dusk and baking her wonderful pies. She and Doc were a creative couple, and the old “white” house contains numerous wood carvings and other clues to their creativity. Son Jack helped convert the old barn into a beautiful home Florence lived in until her death and now serves as a family retreat.

Climbing the hill to this beautiful home place is a trip back in time, and beyond both the prairie and woodland are most peaceful and welcoming. Past the grasslands the wooded valleys dip off toward the sister lakes. Huge oaks are like guardians of a different time, and the Norway pine plantation stands tall and proud. In the lowlands of the valley is a lovely wetland a stone’s throw from Linka, and a more peaceful place to rest weary feet during a hike might be difficult to find. Especially on an unseasonably warm December afternoon when all one needs is a sweatshirt and a roving, happy dog. 

November Skies

Forgive me as I pay homage to the cloudy heavens now that another calendar page has been turned. As an artist friend recently told me, November skies are when the sky comes to cover earth. Indeed! How appropriate and descriptive, for it is a month of transition from the colorful hues in the leafy timbers of September and October, and before the serious darkness of the Winter Solstice settles in around us. Yes, these past days in November offered us some splendor in the skies.

Canadian singer  K.D. Lang was thinking of November skies when she wrote: “The sky is an infinite movie to me. I never get tired of looking at what’s happening up there.” Nor do I.

A soft, pastel sky and a herd of bison in a South Dakota prairie offered a glimpse into the distant past …

Her comment so describes the heavenly show above us. Not just at sunrise or sunset, when many of us make artistic due thanks to the colorful dawning mornings and early evening light. For me afternoons are prime time for finding interesting clouds, those blankets that come to cover earth. A week or so ago while driving upriver from Montevideo I was just mesmerized by the ever changing shapes and colors of the clouds across the entire horizon with the sun barely, if ever, fully peeking through. Sunlight seemed to break through crevices and peek through cracks. 

Yet, there was really no place offering a foreground or “centerpiece” to make an image complete, for I’m not a painter who can create with a brush and imagination. Depth, content and light must merge for me in “plein air” compositions.

An early morning on little Lake Linka with the dawning sun highlighting the nearby woodland, sandwiched between roiling waters and an ominous November sky.

Later in the week at our cabin on little Lake Linka the ever-changing light and clouds entertained me for hours on end. If someone had asked, “Whacha doing?” as I sat to seemingly staring off into the distant skies as if I was immersed in dark moments of despair and depression, I could have simply said, “Look! November skies!” I get lost in them.

One of those earth hugging November skies that seemed to be an ever-transformation that reminds you that it’s never tiring to watch what’s happening up there!

This past November was a bonanza for sitting back and simply enjoying the heavenly beauty of those near, earth-hugging near-winter skies. Some were peaceful, while others brought a sense of ominousness. Some were gloomy, others colorful and some deep in calming pastels. One morning driving home from town a tubular stormish looking cloud laid across the sky like a strand of pearls; pearls of the necklace appearing as huge, bowling balls stretching from the Dakotas to who knows where. Since I was north of town a few miles when the clouds were at the height of massive awesomeness, I searched for a bit of prairie for a foreground while realizing had I seen the string early enough the Stony Creek valley just east of town on the state highway would have been perfect. It was not to be. 

A “necklace” cloud stretched from the Dakotas to who knows where over a nearby wetland.

Clouds offer fleeting opportunities. Here one minute, vanished the next. A constant transformation. Which I was reminded of on that drive home from Montevideo, for there was a portion of the sky that was nearly straight out of a Van Gogh … and again, no prairie. Nothing but blackened plowed fields, never ending, miles upon miles of them. The same while driving north of town. Off a county road heading east I knew of a dog kennel surrounded by acres of beautiful golden prairie grasses, which is where I headed while my eyes darted from the skies to the nearby roadways for possible authorities, either the State Patrol or county sheriff. By the time I reached the kennel turnoff the “bowling ball” lineup had nearly dissipated yet maintained small hints of definition. That constant transformation! Down the road past the kennel’s long driveway was a nice wetland that gave me hope. And, I pulled over.

Rarely do I use crop fields in my images, although an exception was made for these geese down the road … thanks to the November skies.

Should someone ask, “So, what’s with your aversion to crop fields? What’s wrong with plowed fields?” Those who know my work should know better than ask. My art is in trying to portray the remnants of the prairie pothole ecosystem, or biome, which is essentially adverse to most things mankind including plowed fields or fields ladened with commodity crops come summer. Those are for others with brush or lens, although I will admit to taking a photograph now and then of a flock of geese or deer in a stalk field ­– paying homage to Terry Redlin, perhaps. 

Ice on the wetland helped create an interesting sunset image on the last day of November, a fitting benediction.

So give me those golden grasses in field of prairie, the stilled waters of a wetland and bring forth some of those transforming clouds gracing the November skies. For I never tire of looking at what’s happening up there! 

Traditions …

Time, it seems, has had it’s way with me for some of the details escape me. These past few days have been a mix of nostalgia and regret. Regret that due to this Covid-19 pandemic and the deaths of the last remaining aunts on my mother’s side of the family in the past couple of years that our annual jaunt to Missouri for Thanksgiving won’t happen this year. I thought we had gone last year, but I was reminded of the weather. Either on our end or their’s. So we didn’t go. Those are among the details escaping me.

Replacing the gathering back in my home country will instead be a Zoom trivia contest among family “teams,” one of which includes the expats, my son in Norway and a niece in Mexico. We’ll likely “zoom in” just to see the familiar faces. I’ll miss staying at my sister’s place, her glassed-in backyard solarium and walks in the nearby state park and the landlocked 20 acres of timberland as part of my inheritance. 

From my sister’s solarium a few Thanksgivings ago …

While I loved the inherited timberland, there were a few points in my life when I thought it would be a perfect place to settle into at my now age. There was a lovely deep ravine that if damed would have made a lovely little lake surrounded by woods comprised of spindly shagbark hickory and mighty oaks. A guy with a bulldozer wasn’t sure that the right kind of clay needed to hold water was present. As beautiful as those trees were, we lacked an easement and we had no way of actually knowing if the reticent neighbor who owned the three sides abutting the land closest to the gravel road would have been willing to an agreement. Lawyer fees on top of the costs of bringing in “rural water” and electricity were too concerning, so those dreams died this year when the other neighbor abutting the fourth side of the woodlot bought it … which more than paid for our new camper trailer. We’ve already had more use from it than I’ve had from the woodland in all these years. Count your blessings!

We didn’t make many of the Thanksgiving trips back from Colorado, although that changed when we moved to Minnesota in 1982. The trip down was half as far as the trip from Denver, and the weather (for the most part) was usually less of a risk. One year a blizzard ended our trip south about an hour into it, and another time we were stranded in an Iowa motel on the way home. Then there was last year. The blizzard on either our end or their’s. 

A maple leaf from the roadside fringe at Long Branch State Park …

I’m reminded of traditions within traditions, and one that was turned over to me years ago was the oyster dressing (stuffing). Sometime in the late 1800s my grandmother’s family would send a gunny sack of fresh oysters by train from the Boston area … well, to be frank, from Salem. These would arrive shortly before Thanksgiving and were shucked and used in the Thanksgiving dressing before they spoiled. Sometime in the 1950s my mother took over the making of the dressing, and then later, in the 1990s, the “chore” became mine. When I make it for the second year here on our farm, the tradition continues into its third century, and perhaps for 140 or so years within our family.

Admittedly, I don’t make it like my dear mother, who measured ingredients by pinches and fistfuls, monitored by solely by taste with the tip of a spoon. Well, that last part hasn’t changed. It’s all in getting the right blend of cornbread, chunks of dried bread and appropriate spices, although the spices are rather simple. Ample amounts of sage (remember her fistfuls?), a bit of pepper and salt and ample melted butter. Just enough eggs to mold it into a soupy mixture before adding the canned oysters. Onions were always added  … until I tempted tradition a few years ago to remove them so my sister and the husband of a cousin, once removed, could enjoy the fare.

My generation carried the old family tradition for several years even as moves from our old hometown began creating family separations. My adult cousins maintained a sense of “residence” while my aunts and their mothers charged on. Now they’re spreading out as well, and the “dinner” portion of the tradition was taken on by the daughter of one of my cousin’s daughters – the third generation to host the family gathering within my lifetime. These past two years the dinner was in Kansas City where the cousin-mother and daughter now live next door to one another. By now they might have even changed the menu to local KC-styled BBQ instead of the smoked and “straight” turkeys of our past. No one would have heard a discouraging word from me if this is the case. For you see, traditions are precarious and subject to change … or even come to an end.

One of the sturdy oaks in the 20 acre woodland I sold this summer, but which provided years of dreams and nice sauntering adventures through the years.

My mother began some of those by ending our Christmas traditions back in the late 1970s or early 1980s when all of her adult children and their families crossed the country to come home. My older brother’s family, including his three sons, drove in from Virginia as did my sister and her husband from New Mexico. Our baby brother came up from Houston with his partner, and we crossed the plains from Colorado. It was a joyous affair, and my sister had hand-knitted sweaters for all her brothers. Her husband helped the nephews put together their put-together toys. We shared great laughs and a wonderful traditional dinner, including the oyster dressing. We didn’t realize at the time, though, that this would be our very last Christmas together as a family, and it also was the Christmas that inspired mother to tell us it was time for all of us to start our own individual traditions. The stress she felt until she knew we were all safely home was just too much, she said. 

A few years after that Christmas our baby brother died of AIDs down in Houston, and my sister’s husband had a devastating “Monday morning heart attack” at work just before leaving on a business trip. I went through a divorce, remarried and moved to Minnesota to work as an editor for a publishing firm. 

And, now, Covid. Social distancing and warnings from medical experts to dial down the gatherings. It now appears our extended family’s Thanksgiving tradition has moved from a lively shared, in-home reunion filled with an incredible array of food, Scrabble and joyous stories and laughter to an international and out-of-town Zoom. Cousin’s Brad’s smoked turkey and the pumpkin pies, the crock of creamy chicken-infused homemade noodles, Cousin Nancy’s homemade pumpkin pies ladled with heaps of whipped cream, and yes, the oyster dressing will perhaps be no more. 

An interesting pattern of sumac in a prairie meadow at Long Branch State Park.

With one son in Norway, and another in a group home lockdown, it will be just the two of us here at Listening Stones Farm. We have our dark meat leg and thigh simmering over wild rice in the crockpot, and Mary baked  a great pie. She has some traditional staples she’ crafting now in the kitchen, and I have the zesty ingredients for the oyster dressing set aside for I’ll be damned if that tradition dies! Seems there is no snow in the forecast, and we have a lovely November day outside, which as a dear friend claims as when the “sky comes to touch the earth.” We’re looking forward to a quiet and shared Thanksgiving, one of many I am hoping we’ll share for years to come. That, too, is hopefully a tradition worth sharing and saving!

Art of Ice (and Wind)

Lately I’ve been wondering if Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pa and pioneers like him took a moment to appreciate the hidden and intricate beauty of the prairie before the cold and grayish drudgery of winter set in. Did they appreciate the grasses and wild flowers in summer, the murmurations of blackbirds so thick in the spring and fall they blackened the sky, or an Orchard Oriels pulling dabs of fluff from cattails abundantly common in the wetlands on a dewy June morning for their nests? Or, the artful beauty created by wind and ice come the beginning of winter.

Perhaps their focus was solely on surviving the thick hordes of summer mosquitoes and the need of warmth and basic survival above all else once the days became short and the temperatures way below freezing. 

Snow patches, outlined by wind-blown dirt, almost appear like a school of fish on a wetland up the road.

I was thinking of the Pa’s of the olden days recently when I caught the ethereal beauty now on display thanks to the art of ice; of how wind helps create such beauty in these last one percent of the surviving prairie potholes, or wetlands. Students of the prairie know full well that 99 percent of the wetlands are no more, ditched and tiled from existence, plowed over as part of a commodity crop coup by Pa’s generational descendants. Winter offers a special moment to catch this exhibit of nature’s natural beauty in the “canvases” of those remaining wetlands.

Experience tells me this natural art will eventually dissolve into drudgery, that all this beautiful magic, this “winter wonderland,” will soon fade into a chilly boredom of snowy sameness. Those powerful arms of burr oaks highlighted with fresh snow will blend into a jigsaw of darkened clustery shapes, those beautifully well hidden  prairie poems written by the wind and penned by the tips of bent bluestem will be erased into a blur of colorless whiteness, and the wetlands will thicken into “hard water” sheets 18 to 24 inches thick. 

An interesting natural natural minimalist and geometrical design was left behind in a wetland surrounding an elevated glacial rock.

Now is when this magical art is near us, yet after years of observations you’ll find that no two years, let alone even two days, are ever alike. This is an ever-changing exhibition in form and in light, in design and color. What is here today will likely be erased or “painted” over by the whims of nature’s brush. All we can do is observe and appreciate, day by day.

So let’s traipse along the edge of a wetland to scout along the reeds and cattails as the wind caresses the last of the algid waters to create small ice villages, exotic trapezoidal pyramids, or what might appear to be a flotilla of sailing ships set a sea in ancient times. Say the Swedish Navy in the 1500s. It’s just fine to allow your imagination to soar. Mine does.

Sometimes the art of ice and wind tickles the imagination … be they candy kisses, odd triangles or even miniature sailing ships gliding across the sea!

Winds may create ice “knuckles” at the base of cattails that rise above a blueish liquidness of a yet to be frozen wetland, perhaps reflecting the ambient colors of either a sunrise or sunset, or that richness of late afternoon light. These icy toes may be misshapen, uniquely designed by wind direction and speed. A few years ago on a nearby wetland the wind shaped ice around waterborne stumps in a way they looked like Hershey’s candy kisses. Nearly the same color as the foil wrappings, though with stems dark and tall.  

Similarly, there was an afternoon at another wetland when the tips of a willows were blown in such perfect wind circles they formed  “teapots” nearly as perfect as if they were from clay molded by a master potter. As the wind continued to blow the pots skimmed the surface in concise circles, growing ever larger, millimeter by millimeter. The next day? Gone.

A moment after an afternoon dusting of snow gave the ice and wind a place to play and create!

I once observed an early winter sunset along the edge of a wetland where intimate “sculptures” formed by wind and water captured the waning and colorful late afternoon light to offer magical ice and wind art that graced the prairie waters in a place far distanced from the hallowed halls of the Louvre. Pick your own art museum if you wish.

Recently an interesting geometrical design was left behind in a wetland surrounding an elevated glacial rock. So unembellished, yet so reminiscent of paintings found in a modern art gallery. Subtle in a natural minimalist design, awaiting the viewing of a prairie passerby.

In late afternoon drives during moments of “Monet light” these freeze/thaw cycles leave behind acres of art  subjectively designed the whims of wind, designs abandoned and frozen in cursive detail in brief moments of time, colored by ambient light of a lowering sun, yet so fickle and vulnerable come the sunlight of another day. 

Above, look closely for the “teapots” created by the willows and wind, or the “ice knuckles” created in an afternoon wind on a nearby wetland. Or, if you wish, catch the icicles bathed in a sunset.

Now, as we ease into a new winter … which for some, including myself, seems a might too early … this artistic display is now open for viewing. As an observer of nature, and in particular the prairie nature and wetlands around me, I’m finding this interesting and ever-changing beauty so fascinating. 

I don’t know if Pa and the settlers like him, nor those in the Native nations before them, appreciated a similar beauty, for I’m sure that it was there as it is here now, and in those times this artful beauty would have been so much more prevalent with the thousands of wetlands surrounding them. I’m also painfully aware of what a special eye one might need when facing tragedy and survival in turbulent times just as we are as a species now trying to survive a deadly pandemic. I’ve no doubt that some did, that they stopped ever briefly to marvel at the nature around them.

A late afternoon light, sometimes referred to as a “Monet light,” gives this interesting “canvas” on a wetland a beautiful design that is likely here today and gone tomorrow.

Perhaps these observations are absolutely necessary in our time now, where even a moment spent near unmasked humanity could prove fatal. Maybe this is the escape I needed in this frightening world, places I can hide away ever briefly, to view and perhaps even photograph this  ever-changing art of ice and wind found in what remains of the relatively few and rare surviving prairie potholes.