My little foam bug, one tied on a #12 hook complete with a couple of sets of rubber legs, landed in the shallow water. After a couple of strips a swirl happened and I raised the rod tip. What followed as one of those epic showdowns between a bull bluegill and man on a three-weight fly rod. I was in heaven!
My dear friend, Jack Griffin, rose from the captain’s chair with interest. Our bout over the little floater fly was a tough one, bending the rod in an arc that brings joy to the heart, and in such moments, hope the rod will remain intact. So far I’ve been fortunate, and would be again as the stout fish the southerners call brim made circles that would impress a dedicated barrel racer. “Wow, that’s a nice one,” said Jack as the fish drove for deeper water.
Finally the bruiser gave in to allow me to skim it across the surface and lift it into the boat. “That’s a mighty fine fish,” he said, and I couldn’t have agreed more.
“It’s too big to keep,” I said. “I’ll have to release it.”
Jack wanted a picture, so we posed, the bluegill and I, and then the beauty was released to the lake. This battle was start of a fantastic two days of fly fishing for perhaps my favorite fish. Saturday with Jack, and again on Sunday morning at Annie Battle in Glendalough State Park with old friends, Tom and Cindy Cherveny. Both times the “fish were on.”
If I were asked what activity brings me the most enjoyment, joy and relaxation this might top the list. I don’t need to go back too far in the past to second that emotion. My son, Jake, and I had gone to Missouri last Thanksgiving, and the weather was favorable for some late fall fly fishing. All the ponds on our family farm were ice free and I had caught numerous bass and few crappies but no bluegill. A few miles east of our farm lives a retired banker on rolling, timber-blessed acreage that is home to about a five acre pond and home to some incredible bluegill. Years ago he gave me “perpetual permission” to fish the pond, so I drove over, pushed the line through the guides of my three-weight, tied on a “softie” and laid out a cast.
Moments later my soul was restored in blissful joy as the first bluegill hit the fly. Those circular patterns of brawn seem to do that to me. Before an hour was up I had enough “keepers” and sat down next to my rod on the bank. If Zen is indeed a state of calm rapture, I had achieved it. This feeling occurred more than once over this Memorial Day weekend, and not just from fishing. Friendships count, too. And a saunter through a native prairie was a fine dessert. The fishing, though, was supreme. Jack and I would do well on his home lake Saturday afternoon, rimming around one corner of the lake in his pontoon. It was easy fishing, and his dog, Julie, loved those moments as much as Jack and I did. Maybe even more.
Sunday morning I hoisted my kayak onto the car and headed to Glendalough. Initially camping was planned, although getting ready for an arts show on Thursday poxed that idea. At Annie Battle, a southeasterly wind was already laying heavy waves across the surface, a prelude to the incoming storms that would batter us for the remainder of the holiday. Thinking the leeward edge of the forest across the lake near Minnesota’s only state park canoe-in campground where they were camped would be protected, I pushed off and was careful to keep the nose of the kayak into the waves. I was surprised at how well my muscle memory kicked in, and within a short time I made it across to calmer water.
Moments after I got into the lee they paddled up in greeting with Tom lifting a healthy stringer of their catch. As we chatted I rigged up, using the same rod and fly. I let out some line and laid the fly into the shallows, and within three strips my first bluegill charged into battle.
This is heritage lake managed for bluegill with a five-fish limit, and no motors or electronics are allowed. This is Tom’s country, for it’s beautiful and quiet, a portion of land nestled in the transition zone between prairie and hardwood forest. The park was named by a long ago owner of the land, E. E. Murphy, then owner of the Minneapolis Tribune, for an Irish word meaning a glen between two lakes … one of which is Annie Battle.
After catching and releasing dozens of bluegill and a handful of bass, the predicted storm announced itself with a sudden crack of thunder. I gave the four fish on my stringer to Tom, then took off for the landing on the distant shore trying to beat the storm.
Once I got the kayak settled into the car top carrier, I stopped per chance at the Prairie Hill Interpretive Trail near the park entrance for a sandwich, then grabbed my old Nikon and headed in through a woody ravine with a promised prairie at the apex. A few weeks earlier I had photographed an incredible display of spring Pasqueflowers on a southern exposure of this same prairie and was hopeful of finding more wildflowers. Finding a Prairie Smoke would have made my spring-to-summer wildflower voyage nearly complete. And thus far, the weather was cooperating. The storm was mostly just wind and threatening clouds.
Though leafing had certainly started, the burr oaks were coming late to provide me with a few more opportunities to continue my “limb” works. I saw my second ever scarlet tanager moments into the saunter, and once in the upper prairie portion of the trail, I spied a few Prairie Smoke hiding among a meadow seemingly full of spent Pasqueflower seed heads — nearly as pretty as the blossoms themselves. It was a day … a weekend, really … that offered perhaps more than I rightfully deserved.
Views from the top of the prairie were magnificent, and I settled onto a handy bench for a little meditation. Had my camera battery not died I might not have had reason to leave. As I headed back down the mile long trail toward the car a day old fawn suddenly stood awkwardly in the middle of the trail. On legs so spindly that it was wobbling to stand, it seemed to wonder if I was man or wolf, friend or foe, and I was kicking myself for not having my spare battery along. Eventually it stepped off to the side, still in newborn wonder as I scooted past toward the car.
Nice size bluegill on an ultralight fly rod. Time spent with good friends sharing a fellowship with nature. Chance encounters with beautiful wildflowers, a scarlet tanager and a newly welcomed whitetail deer to the world. I believe there is a Zen to be found within the natural world, and for a couple of days it was presented ever so lovingly. It was a beautiful peace before the storms rolled through on Monday …
A standing joke among us “forest bathers” this past weekend was to “not forget your fig leaf!” This form of ecotherapy translated as “forest bathing” was one of the multiple-offered courses at the Minnesota Master Naturalist’s Gathering Partners conference on Prairie Island. One of the two leaders, Kristen Mastel, had lived in Japan where she handled her cultural stress by venturing into an eco-antidote practice called “shinrin-yoko,” translated to mean “taking in the forest atmosphere.” Or, as it’s now known in the U.S., forest bathing.
Rather than fig leaves, we students were advised to wear sturdy but comfortable walking shoes and to be prepared for unpleasant weather along with a bit of a hike. Our leaders used the term “slow walking” at the beginning, although this was later amended to “sauntering” after being told that naturalist John Muir used “sauntering” for the same gait.
“I don’t like either the word or the thing,” wrote Muir of hiking. “People ought to saunter in the mountains — not ‘hike!’ Do you know the origin of that word saunter? It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre’, ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”
Our saunter near the Mississippi River town of Redwing certainly had towering bluffs, though no mountains. We were on a portion of the Cannon River Trail that meandered through an aged deciduous forest and seemed perfect for sauntering. We didn’t know quite what to expect in the course, although after a few stops I began to realize that our pace was rather similar to the numerous nature “saunters” my artist friend, Lee Kanten, and I have done on numerous occasions: Sauntering through the woods, and somewhat similar to Muir’s ideal saunter, the rugged outcrops at the headwaters of the Minnesota River in the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. Age, perhaps, had more to do with our decision to saunter than a meditative mindset.
Like many meditative practices, certain disciplines awaited us, and sound can interfere. How would we handle the nearby highway noise with semis barreling through, or even the St. Paul to Chicago freighters rolling on the rails. Neither proved insurmountable.
Initially we gathered at the head of the trail and took a few minutes to engage in a deep breathing exercise quite similar to yoga breathing. With heads bowed and eyes closed, we drew in a deep breath, held it for a long moment before releasing. This came rather easily. That nearby traffic noise became rather muted the longer we practiced our meditative breathing. “In Japan,” said Mastel a bit later as she explained the discipline of forest bathing, “we sat on a mat to meditate. Shinrin-yoko, which is roughly translated into forest bathing, helped me handle the stress of being in a different culture along with a language barrier.”
As we sauntered along we would stop to practice a different discipline, or sense, along the way, concentrating on each until the next stop. Interestingly, “seeing” was the last of the disciplines, meaning I was forced to use senses rarely used in the saunters that Lee and I have done through the years. Photojournalists and artists are somewhat adept at seeing, and as we sauntered through the picturesque trail, composition and lighting emerged all around. Yet I kept my camera zippered inside my backpack … until a couple of the other students eased their cell phones from their pockets, one to photograph a wild flower, and the other a well hidden lichen.
At one of our stops we were encouraged to smell. I admitted to the group that this was rarely one of my practices, yet when I forced myself to pay attention, the sense of smell came alive. First there was a rich muskiness, interrupted several steps later by a sweetness of a tree in bloom. There were other scents I couldn’t identify although there was an awareness.
My weakest was that of hearing, for not only have I suffered a hearing impairment since I was a teenager, and have only recently found hearing aids that actually work well, I’m not used to “listening” when afield. Again, forcing myself to concentrate on the different sounds of the forest such as having the birds high in the canopy come to life. A rustle of leaves in the slight breeze. Then the sound of running water in an adjacent stream on private land close to our trail. On our walks in the Bonanza Education Center, spring-fed rivulets in the deep ravines do come to life and we make it a point to reach such a stream on the lakeside trail just to hear the sound of running water. And, yes, for meditative purposes.
My pivoting in different directions attempting to find a singing bird might have been counter-productive to the exercise although I wasn’t alone in doing so. Momentarily I recalled the audio rapture over the years … of the “jungle-like” sounds in the “blue hour” before darkness at the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in western Louisiana; the volumness of the sandhill cranes through the night in a blind on the North Platte River in central Nebraska; and of sea lions on a remote island near Juneau, Alaska. Those sounds were so dominate that hearing aids were unnecessary, and perhaps loud enough to rupture any thought of quiet meditation. On the Cannon River Trail, though, Mastel and her partner, Leah Masonick, had awakened another sense.
When the time came for awakening the sense of sight there was a feeling of comfort, for permission was now granted. One of the other Master Naturalists on the saunter shared thoughts of walking through various and ever changing compositions of nature all around us, and there was comfort in this sharing of likeness.
Masonick said forest bathing encourages you to slow down, to cultivate a sense of presence and deepen your connection with nature … that it is done intentionally with a hope of engaging all the senses to stimulate creativity and to inspire wonder and awe. At the end we shared a comforting herbal tea and spoke of our individual awarenesses and awakenings.
I found myself in a zone, making it difficult to switch gears heading into my afternoon activity … about a four mile hike through a nearby Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) on the lip of the Driftless Area. I was ambling along (sauntering?) in a peaceful daze among others who were seemingly in a rush of aim and discovery. Meanwhile I was stuck in my “sight” mode, mainly, while listening for birds I couldn’t find and bending to smell native flowers along the path of whacked buckthorn stubble and in the narrow prairie hillsides. My eyes were drawn to the beautiful sturdy limbs of burr oak and the contrast of stark white birch against a greening, leafing out forest covering the deep ravines between the hilltops. And wildflowers a man of the prairie rarely encounters.
Here I was using old, under-used senses with renewed vigor, and I couldn’t have been more blessed. Interestingly, the fig leaf was unnecessary.
Here’s the thing — whenever there is one of those celestial events it seems as if 99 percent of the time we’re greeted with thick, impenetrable cloud cover. This was my reasoning upon returning from the BWCA a couple of summers ago when the huge solar eclipse turned everyone I seemed to know into sun god nomads. A photographer friend made a beautiful horizontal portrayal of the eclipse, and others still talk about it with delighted wonder. They speak of a 360 degree sunset I can barely imagine and the thrills of actually being in such an eclipitical moment.
Me? I ventured over to the Prairie Wood Environmental Learning Center and squatted in the bluestem prairie waiting for perhaps some of the magic. Obviously on the extreme edge of magical bliss. I found it sorely lacking, no blame to the ELC. I hopped in my car and sped up Highway 71 to Sibley State Park, where the park naturalist, perhaps feeling sorry for me, loaned me her solar safety glasses. It was just in time to see the last eighth of the moon shadow.
Eclipses aren’t the half of it. Twice I’ve made trips to photograph Northern Lights. Once was flying to visit a former exchange student and friend in Tromso, Norway. We would rest much of the day before heading out into the nearby mountains away from the city lights and into deep early February darkness in hopes of catching one of those outlandish dancing rays of other otherworldly pigmentation. In our nearly week-long excursions we had about 15 minutes of visualizing the lights peeking through small holes in windblown clouds. My other trip was to a resort on the Gunflint Trail along the Minnesota-Canadian border with a beautiful exposure to the north across a barren, ice-choked lake. Unlike farm country, the wilderness was free of light “pollution.” Well, we did catch a glimpse of a wolf, although the skies were either completely clear with no Aurora or blanketed with a dense, snowy cloud cover.
Thankfully the last comet that came through lasted nearly a month in the darkened universal canvas, long enough to plan some pictures including reflections in the calmed surface of a Minnesota lake.
Several years ago, though, in my last (and incredibly short) marriage, we sat outside of what has become my patio in lawn chairs with a bottle of Cabernet, holding hands as we sat through a visible lunar eclipse. Afterwards I made a social network comment expressing my second thoughts about not recording the eclipse with my camera. To which an old friend and chief photographer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Brian Peterson, wrote, “Sometimes John it’s perfectly okay to simply enjoy such things that happen in life. You don’t always need to have a camera in hand.”
This time I was fully prepared, although I must admit my trepidation after watching schooner clouds pass by all afternoon. Which brings me to our very last lunar eclipse this past Sunday night. Fortunately the first half of the show labeled as the “blood moon” lunar eclipse was going to happen within a time frame conducive to “old men hours.” Amazingly we hit that special one percent of cloudless skies so I could see and photograph such a special milestone in the adventures of larger life! However, there was no hint of spine-tingle that I was acutely aware of, although seeing the moon turn bloody looking was both interesting and special.
What transpired mentally as I sat in the chair typically used in my photography blind was trying to imagine thoughts of those preceding us in both time and technology. With the earth’s shadow slowly but surely edging over the surface of the moon I wondered if there were thoughts that perhaps the world was coming to an end? Were there thrills the following morning to awaken to find yet another day had arrived complete with blue skies and sunshine?
Historians believe one of the earliest “recorded” eclipses happened in November of 3340 B.C. after a series of circular and spiral shaped petroglyphs were found in County Meath, Ireland, along with charred human bones beneath a stone basin of what is now the Loughcrew Megalithic Monument. Scientists have wondered if there is a correlation, although they have no answers. Apparently the charred humans weren’t part of the petroglyphic history.
A thousand or so years later was one of the earliest solar eclipses, believed to be in 2134 B.C., as recorded in ancient Chinese documents, an eclipse event that supposedly was believed to be the result of a large dragon eating the sun. This nearly corresponds with Hsi and Ho, two royal and supposedly loyal astronomers who were ordered by Yu, the first emperor of the Xia Dynasty, to fend off this fearful sun-eating dragon but chose to get drunk instead. The displeased Yu then chose to have them beheaded.
Speeding ahead toward more “modern” times, wars and even the Crucifixion of Jesus may have had ties to lunar eclipses. In and around 413 B.C., at the height of the Peloponnesian War, in a decades long struggle between Athens and Sparta, the superstitious Athens commander, Nicias, decided to hold off a safe departing because of a lunar eclipse. This prompted the Syracusians to then attack, overcome and weaken the Athenians stronghold on the Mediterranean which marked the eventual demise of Athenian dominance.
Concerning Christ, Christian gospels suggest the sky darkened after the crucifixion which astronomers believe may have coincided with an eclipse. The “event” was apparently married to astronomical records in the years 29 C.E. to 32 C.E., records which historians have used in trying to pinpoint the death of Jesus.
So much for the past. For the time being the future looks promising for fans who seek pilgrimages for such events of the vast universe, all right here in our very own galaxy. On April 8, 2024 our next solar eclipse will cross through Mexico, the United States and Canada, from Mazatlán heading northeasterly through Texas and several other states en route to the border between Maine and eastern Canada. It’s estimated the maximum duration of totality will be about four and a half minutes. Of course, cloudy weather in the northeastern states and Canada may block views of the eclipse, so what else is new?
Just in case you’re wondering, our next lunar eclipse is scheduled for September 7, 2025, and yes, the United States is right in the middle of the expected earth shadow. The western half of Alaska and the tip of Nova Scotia might see a partial event but the rest of us in this broad slice of the planet, from pole to pole, should have a front row seat … pending a lack of cloud cover.
Before one gets the idea that these soulful celestial events are forever certainties, consider this: Scientists conclude that we are living at an extraordinary time and place within our unique universe where total solar and lunar eclipses are even possible. They warn that this will not always be the case, as gravitational interaction between our planet and its moon is causing the moon to slowly ebb away from Earth into vast universal darkness at a rate of nearly an inch and a half a year! So within 500 to 600 million years they estimate the moon will appear much too small in our sky for there to be another total solar or lunar eclipse sighting on Earth ever again. So, folks, plan accordingly. You can’t say you haven’t been forewarned.
Great Blue Herons hold a special place for me. Long, sleek and grayish blue, with the dark crown angling back overhead, stalking the shallows ever the hunter. A spear-like beak that slices through both time and water, angling for a fish or frog; a portrait of animalistic stealth — a “water wolf” — always on the ready. Although those that become urbanized become less shy, those in the wild have little tolerance for mankind, lifting from the river a hundred feet in front of a canoe, or lifting with sudden urge from a wetland or prairie stream to glide away, neck curbed with straightened legs, off to some realm of both safety and promise.
Great Blues are part of my springtime wonder. They arrive early, weeks before color begins to soften the woodlands. Besides catching glimpses of the herons, this array of woodland colors of the buds of awakening trees, from the bright reds to the nearly full spectrum of greens, eases my soul. Adding peace. Adding joy. This leafing out is truly an acknowledgment that we’ve finally passed the rigors of a winter past and are now heading toward summer. This is all choreographed between bird and wood so wonderfully … until it isn’t.
For on one of the bends of the Minnesota River below Skalbakken County Park, rather close to the confluence of Cottonwood Creek, the Great Blue Herons have adopted a piece of the wooded banks for a rookery that becomes completely hidden once the leaves of the trees appear between the rookery and the river. Besides being unfair to a hopeful canoer, there is something about a rookery that simply amazes me, and has for as long as I can remember. Could it be having a sneak peek into the inner secrets of an avarian slice of life?
If the late counterculture poet and author Richard Brautigan could collect trout streams, then whose to say I can’t collect heron rookeries. His fly fishing pilgrimage through Idaho in the late 1960s isn’t unlike mine through the numerous crane rookeries through the years. Around our region of the prairie numerous birders make an annual pilgrimage to a rookery shared by cormorants and Great Egrets on a small island in “grotto” park near downtown Fergus Falls. Color me guilty, for I seem to make the 90 minute drive at least a few times each year especially in the spring during the collective nest building span of time.
Beside the Fergus Falls and Cottonwood Creek rookery, that springtime canoers paddle past, another one exists about a mile or so below US 212 some miles south of Marieta surrounded by a stately oak savanna. This one, like many, is well hidden, and like many, basically the only time it’s visible is in the spring before leafing. Even then one if lucky to see it.
Over the years I’ve been drawn to other rookeries in other states. Perhaps the most notable one is the Snowy Egret rookery on Tabasco’s Avery Island near New Iberia, LA, where the McIlhenny family basically saved the egrets from extinction in the early 1900s thanks to a man-made rookery. At the time the birds were threatened due to the fashionable thirst for their fairy-like feathers. Avery Island is a magical place in the Cajun Triangle.
Another rookery I thoroughly love is within the town limits of Rockport, TX, a beautiful Great Blue Heron rookery that was pointed out to me by a local artist after I had admired one of her paintings in her front street studio. This heron community is adjacent to both the Gulf of Mexico and a brackish bay where the birds wade the waters with seemingly no concern of nearby human traffic either in vehicles or on foot. A naturalist friend tells of a well populated crane rookery in NE Minneapolis where the birds are also “tamed” by the proximity of humanity.
Not so at a rookery on a small lake in the Eastern South Dakota Coteau. A few years ago a friend and I discovered this beautiful island rookery between here and the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Like the Fergus Falls rookery, there isn’t any foliage blocking the view. Last week I ventured over after seeing a heron lift from Meadowbrook just down the road from Listening Stones Farm. This was a “they’re here!” moment of discovery, and since this rookery is about 90 minutes west between Sisseton and Sand Lake NWR, I took the drive. There the birds held me captive for nearly two hours … which is about normal. Their “secret society” feeling simply grabs me.
And the rookery was alive with nesting activity. While females worked on arranging the sticks brought in by their mates high in the trees, the males flew off in search of more nest kindling, grasping mere sticks in their beaks before easing across the expanse of the lake. Amazingly, they would land on spindly branches before gingerly walking down to hand off the stick to its mate.
Besides being mesmerized by the branch ballet, in the deft manner of not only landing on the end of a branch, and then balancing as the male eased toward his mate with the stick secured in its beak, there was the eased poetic flight over calm waters carrying sticks dogs would love. Sometimes both would work on the construction, although it seemed that moments after the hand off the male would again take flight to gather more sticks. In his absence, she would knit the stick into a maze that would become their nest. Interestingly, much like the rookery in Fergus Falls, sometimes a nearby cormorant would attempt to wrestle the stick away from the herons. Rarely were they successful.
Yes, their island rookery was shared by cormorants, who likewise were busy in next mending. Though like in Fergus Falls, I wasn’t there for the cormorants … birds that appear so old worldish with their strangely webbed feet and hooked bills that they appear to be from times’ past, as first cousins to prehistoric Pterosaurs. But, aren’t all birds?
These nests they weave of random wood high in spindly trees, mostly now perished due to the buildup of guano from those that have adopted the highest most branches, are study and strong, surviving in this case, often harsh and strong prairie winds.
In those nests she will lay three to seven greenish-blue eggs that will be incubated for about four weeks with the male and female taking turns. Chicks break through the shells with eyes open, and like all those Pterosaurous cousins, are completely dependent on their parents for sustenance – food that is regurgitated from small fish, frogs and other small animals ingested in their stomachs. Within two to three months the youngsters are ready to fly, and come late summer they will be smaller mirrors of their parents. Though less fearful of mankind, the young herons can be seen in waters near their rookery stalking the shallows with far less spookiness than their parents, a fear that will become more pronounced as they age.
So life goes on, seasonally, and with balance and symmetry. Beautifully poetic, with their high branch ballet, and if you’re lucky you can witness all of this in a natural theatre often near water and in an early Spring before a leafing closes the curtain on this delicate and fearful society. Rookeries are rare treasures, and I for one am most happy to be a collector.
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!
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.
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.
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 …
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.