Saturday, February 27, 2016

Building A Name

Part of our love for our place in the woods and wetlands is a desire to share it. I already do this with writing and photography in this journal, but we are working towards doing more, particularly with artists, possibly writers and researchers over the coming two years by forming a non-profit residency program that offers time and space in the woods. This complex undertaking begins with what appears to be the simplest of things -a name.

It has made the most sense to run with Prairiewood because I have been blogging under the domain for years and because it describes our environment in the simplest terms. Betsy and I like it and easily imagined our wooden sign out front. However, in this age one needs both a name and a domain, and sadly, is parked in some profiteer's portfolio. Although Prairiewood feels right, feels like home, the unavailable domain is just one reason to look elsewhere. There are three for-profit or non-profit Prairiewoods in Kansas, Iowa, and right here in Minnesota. To be expected -its an easy name where prairie meets the woods. The Kansan place is a retreat center, the Iowan a Franciscan spirituality center, and the Minnesotan an environmental learning center. So, prairie wood or woods is out.

Naming an organization can be a challenge, especially a young non-profit whose mission may shift or identity change as it gains its legs. The name needs to reflect place and be open to the mission of the organization; it needs to be able to capture its potential audience and be capable of absorbing shifts in identity.

Our place is 60 percent wetlands and 40 percent sloping woodlands, both of glacial origins, in the far western edge of the North American Eastern Forest known as the Big Woods in Minnesota. Our woodlands are a combination of different communities that encompass lowland cottonwoods, red maple-ash swamp, maple-basswood slopes, and oak uplands. Our wetlands are combination emergent marsh, willow-dogwood swamp, and wet meadow.

Just to our southeast is the Minnetonka Lakes region of our county, although Minnesota has more than ten thousand of those. No more than half mile to our east is Painter Creek (or Painters, depending on where you look) that drains into the Minnetonka Lake system. It is not, however, part of our watershed. We are the headwaters for a string of wetlands that drain into Dutch Lake which then drains into the Minnetonka Lake system. This watershed is all part of the greater Minnehaha Creek watershed.

To our south, again not more than a half mile or so, is Little Long Lake. It is not part of the Minnetonka Lake system, nor the Minnehaha watershed. Technically it is part of the Pioneer-Sarah Creek watershed that drains to the Crow River which makes its way to the Mississippi well north of Minneapolis. Little Long is an isolated glacial lake, with an esker to its western edge and a glacial lobe to its east. I don't believe it has any drainage and is maintained by groundwater and runoff from its own limited watershed. Little Long is the metropolitan region's only grade A lake, meaning it has high water clarity, low eutrophication due to nutrient loads, and lower than typical chemical contamination. It is not a motorboat lake and has few residences on its shoreline. Wild rice grows there. You can swim in it (take a pass on the Minnetonka system). Finally, the esker land making up its western flank has recently been bought by the park system to preserve its natural state in perpetuity.

From these features we can extract names that, if not identifying our exact place, exemplify the region's best qualities. PainterCreek, LittleLong, EskerWoods (the glacial feature), Dogwood (Red Osier), Waterleaf (Virginia Waterleaf), CattailWoods, WoodsMarsh, MapleMarsh (is marsh a positive?), GlacierWood (sounds cold), EphemeralWood, EphemeraWood, VioletWoods, WetlandWoods, possibly anything 'Wood.' I'm usually fairly clever in this wordy arena, but outside of Prairiewood, not much has expressed the essence of our place. Maybe I'm coming at it from the wrong direction? Maybe the cultural aspect is more important?

Our idea is simple and grew out of our experiences at artist residency programs, which for me came most acutely from my month at Weir Farm National Historic Site in the Southwest Hills region of Connecticut. We believe that time away from ordinary distractions can open us up to the creative process, can be regenerative, can free the path toward insight. This doesn't have to be time in wilderness, in fact it can be anywhere that is away from the everyday.

Closest to my heart is the time to explore, to reflect, time to think without disruption in the midst of nature. I imagine a landscape of woods and wetland clearings, gardened to enhance the native understory but with an understanding of the altered ecology, the mixture of humanity with nature. Ecological preservation is a goal of the non-profit because it will enhance the experience of our residents in a region that is rapidly converting its remaining woodlands into housing developments and being over-run by a monocultures of buckthorn, garlic mustard, and reed canary grass. The resident can navigate the woods-wetland edges on trails laid out by Betsy's father, Rex, in his fifteen years here. Building on his work, our goal will be to construct wetland boardwalk trails that bring one out of the woods and into the sunshine. 

The core benefit of our non-profit is to the program residents -artists, possibly writers and researchers who've shown through the quality of their work that they've earned some time to be inspired in a beautiful setting, away from daily responsibilities and distractions. We also strive to cultivate an interest in the arts in our community by introducing our program artists to audiences locally and in Minneapolis via artist talks and possibly even school groups who visit our site to explore the trails and meet the artist in their studio. Of course, we have a lot of work to do before we get there. A studio will need to be built, as well as relationships with partner organizations. And most importantly, we need a name.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Eagle Has Landed

While working on a proposal for Franconia Sculpture Park, I heard a continuous calling just outside the attic windows that, to my mind, sounded like seagulls but I knew that couldn't be right. No, the high pitched call was an eagle being harassed by red tail hawks.

I do not know much about large raptors, nor specifically Bald Eagles. There were several sightings over the last four months and Betsy said there were three others at the time I photographed this one. Are they passing through, southward or northward? Do they come for an easy meal on the edge of the woods, wetlands, or lawn?

The woods has resident Red Tail Hawks -I see them scanning the edges regularly. Although I've witnessed the bald eagle and red tail hawk calmly, quietly circling together last autumn, I now see that these two raptors do not always get along.

The eagle extended its wings and squealed whenever the hawk engaged in a harassing fly over. Another hawk perched in a neighboring tree.

After forty five minutes or so, baldy finally gives in to the harassment of the hawks and moves on.

We support the red tail hawks and the regular, necessary work that they do. Yet, because bald eagles were rare in the regions of my life, I'm glad to see them here. It adds yet another level of ecological complexity to our place at the edge of the old, Big Woods.

*You can click on the pictures for much larger images.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Morning Flock

One cloudy, and warm (for Minnesota), morning a flock of Cedar Waxwings appeared, alighting on a small ironwood tree just outside the window. Windows and screens make for difficult photographic filters, but I managed to salvage what you see here.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Cedar Blush

The foggy morning was a prelude to the storm that just ended. Blue sky, something we've had little of this winter, is now in its stead. It is these weather events that make a cold climate tolerable, just rewards for what can be hard.

Moisture riding the push of warm advection crystallizes on cold twigs and grasses.

And sumac not yet pecked by the birds.

I love the cedars that grow here; reminding me of those that break the monotony of old fields on Long Island. They, of course, are the same species, and aren't truly cedars -Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana. These are tough trees, can be over nine hundred years old, tolerate drought and wet, cold, and the poorest soils. While deer browse your expensive arborvitae hedges, by the looks of the Eastern Reds around here, they hardly touch them. There is gin, of course, and the aesthetics which, to my eye, are some of the best an evergreen can provide.

There is a moment every autumn, usually middle to late, when the cedars turn bronze, red, mauve, blushed or however you may see it. This change requires a loss of some of chlorophyll's green and the development of red anthocyanins and the two, together, create this bronzing effect. This is painter's stuff, mixing reds and greens to create blacks more green or more red. The dark bronze contrasts with the white of aspens and snow and plays well with ochre field plants.

Like so many plants you love, someone, somewhere lists them as invasive. How can this be, you ask, after all it is a native in its range! Well, I rationalize it this way -Eastern Reds grow readily in farm fields and get a bad rap for its ability to grow readily from bird-dropped seeds in these fields. The other reason is the loss of fire as a control agent, but this is our fault, and we shouldn't be blaming the cedar. Finally, because we plowed under so much prairie that there is less than one percent of it left, managers curse the Eastern Red for colonizing what's left that isn't being managed by fire. Given these rationalizations, I still wouldn't blink if I had the opportunity to plant one on our land.  I may well have that chance in one of the many clearings created by downed large oaks or bass that have given rise to another accomplished colonizer -common buckthorn.