IN THIS SEASON OF EARLY AUTUMN, the landscape of Minnesota transitions to subdued, muted, softer tones flashed with vivid orange, yellow and red in tree lines or a solitary tree. This time of year truly marks a change as we ease toward Winter, a season devoid of color.
A month ago, before Summer exited, I already observed Autumn’s entrance at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. Stands of cattails. Groups of goldenrod. Seas of drying prairie grass. All signaled the shift to September days.
I love this time of year. Sunny days give way to cool evenings to brisk mornings. I’ve pulled the flannel from the closet. I embrace the feeling, the glory, of each day, recognizing such days are fleeting.
But weeks before this end of September, I delighted in the final days of August with that short walk through the woods at River Bend, then along a grass-lined trail to the hilltop Prairie Loop before I retraced my steps.
Prairie grasses, looming well above my head, bent in the wind. I noted the gracefulness of the stems’ movement, the details on a single stalk. If you’ve ever paused to study a stalk, it’s almost like reading a poem. Grain after grain after grain ladders a slim line. In poetry, each word ladders into a line, into a verse, into a poem.
In the flashlight of the afternoon at River Bend, I spotted a lone Monarch flitting among thistles, black-outlined orange wings contrasting with the soft purple of the bloom. A metaphor. Or perhaps a simile when penned poetically. Poem upon poem upon poem.
Autumn edits out Summer, eliminating the excess wordage of a season that is lush and full and busy. Now the lines of the season shorten, every word carefully chosen, a harbinger of what lies ahead. Winter. Sparse. Barren. Cold.
But until then, Autumn settles in with the familiarity of a worn buffalo plaid flannel shirt. With the familiarity of cattails and milkweed bursting. Goldenrods. Tall prairie grasses drying, moving toward dormancy. I’ve seen this shift every September for past sixty years now. Yet I never tire of the shift, the change in seasons here in southern Minnesota.
Opportunities abound to observe newly-hatched spring waterfowl in my Minnesota community of Faribault, where two rivers run through—the Straight and the Cannon—and assorted ponds dot the landscape.
On a recent stop at River Bend Nature Center, I expected to see goslings and ducklings. But I didn’t. Instead, I saw two adult ducks in the grass aside the road upon entering the center. And then I spotted two grown geese atop a nest and a lone goose cruising the nearby pond. I need to check other locales, like the Cannon River in North Alexander Park. Ducks and geese are prolific there to the point of being a nuisance. I always watch where I step.
Despite the absence of sighting newborn waterfowl at River Bend, I found other scenes to focus my interest. I especially appreciated the sky, a patchwork of blue and white with clouds seemingly suspended overhead.
And below, in the pond, those skies reflected on the water, among dried and greening grasses.
This time in May, especially with a late spring, seasons mix. Textures and remnants of autumn remain, contrasting with the greening of spring.
A short walk to the nearby waterfall yielded disappointment. With the recent rains, I expected water to be rushing over the rock ledges. Rather, there was barely a trickle. The same went for the spring, just off the parking lot near the nature center entrance. No water flowed.
But back in the pond, the three geese I watched seemed comfortably settled. Soon, I expect, they will make way for goslings (not ducklings).
ON THE AFTERNOON of River Bend’s Maple Syrup Fun Run, Randy and I followed a dirt trail into the nature center from Teepee Tonka Park. We’d just finished a picnic lunch alongside the Straight River, where we watched the fast-flowing water, a swooping blue jay and a father hiking with his two young daughters through the riverside woods. We also discussed how Faribault needs a canoe and kayak launch site.
And then, once we finished eating and planning, we dropped the cooler in the van and walked a ways into the woods. Our pace is typically leisurely. I prefer a take your time, notice, listen and see hike compared to a raising your heart rate pace. My photography factors into that.
This walk found me pausing to photograph fungi laddering a towering tree.
And a bit further, Randy and I stopped to watch a robin nip at, then fully consume, an earthworm.
Onward we went, lingering on the pedestrian bridge to watch the river flow. I never tire of the poetically powerful pull of flowing water. It’s soothing and comforting and peaceful. Something I needed to feel on this Saturday, at the end of an incredibly stressful week.
A ways down the path, Randy noticed a critter among debris tossed over the hillside by the former state hospital onto land adjoining the trail. Who knows what junk lies here? Or what animals. As hard as I looked, I couldn’t see the creature he noticed.
Then along came a young couple with their dog and we engaged in a brief conversation. They’ve poked around in the junk, they said, and found old bottles. And an old Fresca can from the 1980s. Randy and I caught each others’ eyes. “Old Fresca can from the 1980s.” Inwardly we laughed. The 1980s do not fit our definition of “old.”
On they went. On we went. Soon we reversed, retracing our steps. I noticed the greening trees and landscape. I could see spring. Feel it. Finally. I welcomed the nuances of May, of sunshine and warmth, in a spring that has been too cold and rainy. I found spring in the woods. In a robin. In a river. In recognizing the beauty of this unfolding season.
TREES DEVOID OF LEAVES open the woods to full view. Such is the benefit of this not-winter, not-yet-spring transitional time here in southern Minnesota.
On a recent walk through Faribault’s River Bend Nature Center, I noticed nuances of nature that might otherwise not be seen in a leaf canopy, or at least not as deeply appreciated.
Following the Arbor Trail loop into the woods, I noticed first a red-capped woodpecker. I determined to get a photo. But, if you’ve photographed birds, you understand that such an endeavor requires patience, planning and a bit of luck. I caught the bird in flight. Maybe not the sharpest image, but certainly an unexpected moment I managed to snapshot.
Trees themselves also draw my interest. I find myself especially drawn to oaks. Their sturdiness and expansive canopy exude strength and artistry. But I find birch trees equally as fascinating. Or at least those with white bark, which could be birch or aspen. Without leaves, trees are much more challenging to identify, at least for me.
As I forked off the Arbor Trail to the Overlook Trail, the vista opened to prairie. Now, as you would expect, this native prairie girl loves the prairie. No matter the season. I appreciate the tall dried grasses that arch and dip in the wind. Rhythmic. Poetic.
A single stem of grass reminds me of youthful summers on the farm, of playing in untamed tall grass. It reminds me, too, of the writing of Laura Ingalls Wilder, a favorite author. I grew up some 20 miles from her childhood home in Walnut Grove. Her ability to notice details inspires me in my writing.
Dried seed heads catch my eye. Details. Promise of new growth from last season’s remnants.
I notice, too, the bluebird house among the prairie grasses. Thanks to Keith Radel, who hails from my hometown and has lived in Faribault for decades, the bluebird thrives in these parts. Known as Mr. Bluebird, Keith appreciates bluebirds with a passion unequal. He’s determined to protect them, to assure they flourish. It’s heartening to see his devotion to this bird.
As I return to the Arbor Trail, I wonder if I will see any deer, previously spotted in this area. And then Randy, my walking partner, alerts me to their presence. There, on the prairie, I observe four deer. I move quietly toward the edge of the treeline to photograph them through the trees. Careful. Cautious. Not wanting to scare them away before I can lift and focus my lens. But they are already aware, frozen in place, ears upright, faces turned toward me.
Soon they are hightailing it away, vanishing, camouflaged by the high brown prairie grasses. I never tire of watching deer, even though I consider them too numerous and a roadway hazard.
In just a short distance, I’ve noticed nature’s nuances. In a woodpecker. In the bark of trees. In the prairie grasses. And, finally, in a quartet of deer. What a gift in this not winter, not-quite-spring season in southern Minnesota.
FOR SOMEONE LIKE ME who grew up on the prairie, woods are not a natural fit. I’ve always felt a bit out of place in the density of trees. Uncomfortable even. But time and distance from a landscape of big sky and wide open spaces have eased me into the woods.
On a recent visit, I followed trails into the woods. And, as always, I noticed the beauty therein. I view the natural world through many lenses. Close-up. From afar. With an artsy perspective. But mostly with a deep appreciation.
It doesn’t take much to catch my eye, to cause me to pause and reflect. Photograph. Delight. Savor the moment, the scene.
If you walk with me into the woods, you won’t fast track from Point A to Point B. Sometimes I go at a rapid pace. But most of the time, I can’t. Because I simply see too much. Poetry in puddled leaves. Spring in a patch of green grass. Abstract art in a mottled tree trunk. Dancers in twisted branches.
Sights and sounds draw me to linger in the woods. The shrill call of a cardinal and a flash of red cause me to pause. I wait. Listen. Photograph.
I feel such a sense of wonderment in it all. A peace, too, that comes only from immersing one’s self in the natural world. In the chaos and noises of life, the woods are on this day, indeed, my sanctuary.
MONTHS AGO,BEFORE SNOW FELL and the season officially transitioned to winter, I followed a paved trail into the woods at River Bend Nature Center and then a grassy path to a wetlands overlook.
River Bend, on Faribault’s east side, rates as a favorite outdoor destination. That November day I embraced the lingering remnants of autumn, now overtaken by the cold and snow of winter.
Even in the muted hues of autumn’s end, beauty exists.
But, for me, taking in the evolving landscape stretches beyond simply seeing that which unfolds before me. It’s also about looking back. To my childhood on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.
When I hike the wooded trails of River Bend, I see my younger self riding my bike through the grove back on the farm. Except the bike was a horse, not a bike. I grew up in the era of TV Westerns—of “Rawhide” and “Bonanza.”
Fallen branches at River Bend angled into a shelter resemble those built by me and my siblings. We also constructed buildings by looping baler twine around tree trunks. And we crafted a house, too, from discarded wire fencing. Oh, the imaginations of farm kids let loose in the grove.
Dried leaves scattered in the woods bring more memories. Each autumn, I gathered fallen leaves into piles, then dropped the leaves into lines. Walls. Constructing leaf houses filled many a recess at Vesta Elementary School. And many an autumn day for my siblings and me.
I recall, too, hiding in tall grass between the granary and the south grove. When I scan the prairie expanse of River Bend, I imagine myself vanishing. Hiding from brothers with cap guns holstered at their sides. Yes, I owned a cap gun, too, and wore a straw cowgirl hat, although we called them cowboy hats back then.
My father owned a gun, which he used once a year to hunt for pheasants in the slough hole (as we redundantly termed the slough on our farm). When I look across the wetlands at River Bend, I think of the one time my oldest brother and I accompanied Dad to the low lying pothole to hunt for pheasants. I don’t recall whether that hunt was successful. Eventually, Dad drained the slough to add more tillable acreage. I often wonder about the sensibilities of draining prairie potholes and how that affected the land. The undrained wetlands of River Bend are mostly dry in this drought year.
While walking the prairie, I spotted dried seedheads. Coneflower seeds lying atop the grass, where they will eventually reseed. Nature recycling.
Milkweed pods, too, flourish in River Bend’s prairieland. Back on the farm, I pulled milkweeds from soybean fields. “Walking beans” is the correct term. Walking between soybean rows pulling unwanted weeds—especially cockleburs and thistles. Only detasseling corn ranks as worse. I’ll walk beans or shovel manure any day (and I did plenty of that) over corn detasseling on a hot and humid July day.
Those dried milkweeds at River Bend bring one final memory. And it is a Christmas memory. One year I crafted a Christmas ornament for my Aunt Rachel from a milkweed pod and a discarded holiday card. (My mom saved everything.) I cut out an elfin girl dressed in a glittery red suit, her face framed by a pointy hood. Then I taped the cut-out to a toothpick and stuck the impish child into the downy snow of an open milkweed pod. Beautiful.
These are the childhood memories sparked by my November walk through River Bend Nature Center. I feel grateful for this sprawling natural space, for the peace it brings me as I follow trails into the present. And into the past.
A CHANCE ENCOUNTER while hiking at Faribault’s River Bend Nature Center in late November led me down the rabbit hole of internet surfing on a cold January afternoon. How did I get there and what did I discover? Here’s the backstory and then the story. Sit back and enjoy.
The story begins with me and my camera. I carry my Canon EOS 20-D with me nearly everywhere, especially to natural spaces like River Bend. Another photographer—a young man—happened to notice and inquired about my camera. We talked equipment for a bit before I continued down the woods-edged trail and he returned to senior portrait photography.
Later, while walking across the parking lot, I spotted a colorful car covered in messages. I put two and two together and determined this vehicle belonged to the young photographer I’d met earlier. I liked the car, a work of art really, enough to snap a few frames.
The video title intrigued me, mostly because I wondered where Curtis would go with the topic. I quickly found out. He went to Walmart. And then to Hy-Vee Grocery Store. There he randomly asked shoppers and staff for tips on getting a girlfriend.
Many of them, much to my surprise, responded to the teen thrusting an over-sized microphone toward them. Only one seemed concerned about what Curtis would do with the recording…before giving a lengthy, thoughtful answer.
And what did the fine folks shopping for food and other goods or working advise this teenager about getting a girlfriend?
Be kind. Be nice. Be gentle. Be honest. Be real. Be confident. Be a “good person.” Be yourself. Be the best version of yourself.
Have a sense of humor. Tell a few jokes.
And then there’s this one: Hang out in the right spots (although “right spots” were not defined).
Curtis ends the video by interviewing a girl who wants to be just a friend, not a girlfriend. I sensed her uncomfortableness in the questioning.
I found the video entertaining, interesting and insightful. Interviewees offered great tips, many sharing the same advice. Curtis handled himself well. He seems real, confident, nice, kind and possessing a sense of humor. I’d say he’s got it covered in the qualities he needs to find a girlfriend. Whether he’s connected with a young woman beyond friendship in the year since crafting this video, I don’t know. He’s young, there’s plenty of time for relationships…
TELL ME: What tips would you give Curtis about getting a girlfriend? Or about life in general?
NOTE:In watching this video shot a year ago, I noticed something I rarely see in Faribault now: people wearing face masks to stop the spread of COVID. At the time, a state-wide mask mandate was in place.
AT RIVER BEND NATURE CENTER in Faribault, you’ll find an abundance of inspirational memorial messages. On benches. On pavers. Even under a tree near the interpretative center.
Recently, I paused to read this quote: Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.
The message seems especially fitting right now, as many of us seek beauty in nature while living in a pandemic world. My appreciation for the outdoors/for nature and the peace and escape it provides has deepened in the past two years. A walk in the woods, along a river, across the prairie, anywhere outdoors, renews my spirit. Strengthens me.
I wondered about the source of the quote I photographed. It comes from Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, published in 1962. The American writer, marine biologist and conservationist is credited with launching the environmental movement with her book. She was deeply concerned about the future of our planet. Her writing prompted changes in laws that protect our world, our environment.
I feel gratitude for writers and environmentalists like Carson. But I also feel grateful for Ruth and Harry, “Strong People Who Loved Nature.” Strength and love go a long way in this world.
WHENEVER I NEED TO CONNECT with nature nearby, my go-to destination is River Bend Nature Center, just across the Straight River on Faribault’s east side.
In this 743-acre natural space, I can immerse myself in a diverse landscape of woods, prairie and wetland. Each setting provides not only a sensory change from the noise and motion of living along a busy street, but also a much-needed mental break.
When I’m at River Bend, I forget about what’s happening in my life or the world. Rather, I focus on being present in nature. Listening. Observing. Connecting.
That word, connecting, fits River Bend, which emphasizes its purpose as helping connect people to outdoor education, recreation and natural resource conservation close to home.
My own children, while growing up and attending school in Faribault, went on many field trips to River Bend. I remember also one winter evening when our then-young son delighted in a star-gazing event, complete with telescopes, on prairie’s edge. Today I occasionally take my grandchildren to walk RBNC’s trails. Randy and I also hike the paths.
Perhaps my favorite part of this spacious nature center is the prairie. It reconnects me with my prairie roots. With southwestern Minnesota, the land of open spaces and spacious skies. I love to walk through the path sliced into the prairie at River Bend. The path edged by tall prairie grasses and wildflowers. The path where I can pause to take in the vast sky with no trees blocking my view. I need to visually breathe.
On my most recent visits, the prairie has focused my attention. Specifically the wildflowers—those interspersed among the grass and those planted in the rain garden near the interpretative center. While fading, the flowers remain an integral part of the prairie eco-system as they form seeds and then grow and/or re-sprout in the spring.
I also spent time in the nearby woods, stopping at the Turtle Pond to photograph turtles sunning on logs. They delight me and generations of kids, including mine, fascinated by those lazing turtles.
River Bend holds generational appeal. I’ve seen young families pushing babies in strollers, teens driving remote-controlled vehicles on limestone shelves, older couples like us walking, and much more.
IN MY MESS OF FLOWERBEDS, which are anything but orderly, random milkweeds grow. Some sprouted in the lawn. Others simply popped up among the phlox and ferns and iris and greenery, seeds blown by the wind, dropping to the ground, rising now toward the sun.
Back in the days of my youth, I would have yanked these milkweeds from the soil under the direction of my farmer father. Remove those weeds from the corn and soybean fields. I know better now. Milkweed plants are essential to the monarch butterfly.
The milkweed is the host plant for the monarch. They lay eggs on the leaves, the larvae then feeding on those leaves.
Without milkweeds, the monarch would become extinct.
I appreciate the value of this plant in the natural cycle, in sustaining the monarch butterfly population. This is but one example of how we are all intertwined. Every creature. One dependent on the other.
I marvel at this intricate world God created. I love to watch a monarch butterfly flit through the air, settle on a blossom, drink its fill of nectar, then rise and fly. Delicate, yet sturdy. Dependent on milkweed and other flowers, yet free.
What a lovely and beautiful sight in a world where beauty is too often missed in the busyness of life, among all the weeds.