Prairie Sunrise

September 3, 2016

“The prairie landscape embraces the whole of the sky.”
— Paul Gruchow, Journal of a Prairie Year

Sunrise over corn field

Sunrise over corn field

“The sun rose.  It popped up abruptly as it always does along distant horizons on the prairie or at sea.”
— Paul Gruchow, The Necessity of Empty Places

Here are some photos of a Minnesota summer sunrise at the old family farm:

Dawning day

Dawning day



Sunrise over corn field

Sunrise over corn field





The old red barn on the farm where I grew up

The old red barn on the farm where I grew up

As long as it stands, the old red barn will be the anchor on our Minnesota family farm.  My recent visit was the first time I had returned since my father died more than two years ago.  Now the land has been split into two parts, owned by my youngest and oldest brothers.  The old square farmhouse with peeling white paint has been torn down and in its place is a beautiful new home with lots of windows looking out on the land, spiffy modern appliances, and even air conditioning.




I am not a sentimental person, so I had no qualms about seeing the new house, and I looked forward with eager anticipation to the changes and improvements that my brother and his wife made to my old childhood stomping grounds. I was not disappointed.  At first I was just a tiny bit disoriented because the new house — while sited in the same spot as our old one — has a larger footprint and extends farther to the west.  It took me a minute to figure out where the old smokehouse had stood, to identify the stump of what had been the tree with the tire swing,  and to recognize the trees still standing next to the garage.  (The old garage has also been replaced by a new, larger one.)  Other trees have grown even taller than my memory of them.  But once I was reoriented, everything felt familiar and comfortable and welcoming.  I realized that, for me, the farm was not the physical buildings, but rather the land, the landscape and its seasonal changes, family ties and memories, and the rhythm of daily farm life.  Those things endure and I love them just as much now.  My visit was a homecoming.

Old barn and new garage

Old barn and new garage

“The eye for beauty is the eye for love.”
— Paul Gruchow, Journal of a Prairie Year

Once again I was struck by the beauty of my childhood home ground.

Fields and woods

Fields and woods

“The landscape seemed increasingly to be a succession of lines — the line of hills, the line of trees, the line of reeds, the line of cattails, the line of water  . . .”
— Paul Gruchow, Journal of a Prairie Year


One view to the east


One view to the south, with woods and wildflower patch

One view to the south, with woods and wildflower patch

“Our language does not distinguish green from green.  It is one of the ways in which we have declared ourselves to be apart from nature.  In nature, there is nothing so impoverished of distinction as simply the color green.  There are greens as there are grains of sand, an infinitude of shades and gradations of shades, of intensities and brilliancies.  Even one green is not the same green.  There is the green of dawn, of high noon, of dusk.  There is the green of young life, of maturity, of old age.  There is the green of new rain and of long drought.  There is the green of vigor, the green of sickness, the green of death.  One could devote one’s life to a study of the distinctions in the color green and not yet have learned all there is to know.  There is a language in it, a poetry, a music.  We have not stopped long enough to hear it.”
— Paul Gruchow, Journal of a Prairie Year

Farm fresh eggs

Farm fresh eggs

My brother and his wife are bringing new life to the farm with animals — chickens, dogs, barn cats, pigs, and they rent the pasture to another farmer for grazing cows.  While the scale is more of a hobby farm, the animal husbandry and stewardship of the land is as hands on as the farming of years past.  Butchering six chickens brought back old memories.  I learned that a farm skill like butchering chickens is like riding a bike — you never forget how to do it!  Farm-to-table meals are not the rare thing they are in the city!


My brother raises buff orpington chickens for meat, and the few hens lay eggs

My brother raises Buff Orpington chickens for meat, and the few hens lay eggs


Watercolor sketch of chickens

Watercolor sketch of chickens


Butchering chickens using a chicken plusher to remove the larger feathers.

Butchering chickens using a chicken plucker to remove the larger feathers.


Chicken on the spit

Chicken on the spit


Cow in the rented pasture. The red ear tags help to repel flies.

Cow in the rented pasture. The red ear tags help to repel flies.


Pigs raised for pork

Pigs raised for pork



My sister-in-law titled this watercolor sketch "Bacon 2017"

My sister-in-law titled this watercolor sketch “Bacon 2017”

In my Dad’s final years, as he grew frailer, he resisted change.  Many things were falling into decrepitude, but changes were deferred for as long as possible so that my father could be in familiar surroundings.  Now that he is gone, it is rejuvenating to see my brother’s and his wife’s efforts to remake the farm into a dream home for their own lives.  It seems only right to me that they move the farm into modern times.  Time to create new memories in this deeply rooted place!

Watercolor sketch of one of the old oak trees on the farm

Watercolor sketch of one of the old oak trees on the farm


Watercolor sketch of zinnias in the from garden bed

Watercolor sketch of zinnias in the front garden bed




Plaque hanging on the wall of my sister's cabin

Plaque hanging on the wall of my sister’s cabin

To Minnesotans, “Up North” is a state of mind.  For me it evokes fantasies of hot summers on cool lakes, vacation cabins nestled in the woods, contemplative fishermen watching their bobbers.  During my childhood I would overhear people talk about going “Up North” and it stirred longings to escape our land-locked farm with its interminable chores.

On my recent visit to Minnesota, I finally got a taste of living on lake time Up North.  My youngest sister and her husband have a new cabin on Big Turtle Lake near Bemidji (which is about 5 hours north of our family farm in southern Minnesota) — and it has a guest room!  Staying in this quiet, peaceful place for the first two nights after my arrival was the perfect start to my vacation.  I couldn’t help but unwind listening to the lapping of the water against the dock, watching the ever-changing clouds move across the sky, hearing the haunting call of loons across the lake.

Sunset over Big Turtle Lake

Sunset over Big Turtle Lake

Sunset reflections with reeds

Sunset reflections with reeds


My sister and I went kayaking on the mirror smooth lake in the early hours before breakfast and again near sunset.  This was my first time kayaking, and although I couldn’t seem to paddle in a straight line, I loved it!  In the heat of the day, we waded into the reedy lake and swam to cool off.

Kayaks, Big Turtle Lake

Kayaks, Big Turtle Lake


Watercolor sketch in my travel journal

The cabin itself was set back from the lake, but a wall of windows gave a view of the lake through a line of trees.  To get down to the lake, we walked across a marshy patch on a wooden boardwalk.

View from the cabin windows

View from the cabin windows

My watercolor sketch of the view

My watercolor sketch of the view

Boardwalk down to the lake

Boardwalk down to the lake


Watercolor sketch of boardwalk

Dock and boat

Dock and boat

My experience living the lake life was almost exactly as I had imagined it all these years.  Even the mosquitoes stayed away for the most part — a few bites couldn’t mar my enjoyment.  I hope to be back!

When we were cleaning out my parents’ farmhouse, I came across this farm alphabet book I made for them in 1994, twenty years ago.  I made the illustrations from colored tissue and paper cutouts.  Each page highlights fond images and memories of my 1950s and ’60s childhood on our Minnesota farm.  I’ve reproduced the book for you here:


A is for angels in the snow, and
a pail full of apples to feed the pigs, and
the smell of just-cut alfalfa, and
the attic with its trunks of winter clothes, boxes of Dad’s Army things, and stacks of Easter baskets.


B is for bats that occasionally swooped down from the attic, and
the brooms John and Ken used to bring down the bats, and
jumping from the heavy beams in the hayloft into piles of scratchy hay, and
boots lined up on newspapers by the front door, and
shaking cream into butter, and
the bullheads we caught with bamboo fishing poles.


C is for chocolate-covered cherries on Father’s Day, and
playing circle tag in the snow, and
cinnamon cream pies, and
corn on the cob, and
wooden clothespins, and
barn cats.


D is for the dish towel we waved to call Dad in from the fields for supper, and
the long gravel driveway we walked to catch the school bus, and
dusting the furniture at least twice a week.


E is for the egg yolks that stood up in the frying pan, and
the jolt of the electric fence, and
playing eucher.


F is for the floods that washed out the driveway, and
dressing in front of the furnace vents on cold winter mornings, and
Mom’s rich dark fudge with nuts, and
swatting flies with pastel-colored fly swatters, and
retrieving foul balls for ten cents.


G is for the green grain box carrying oats to the grainery, and
pulling the tough, yellow skin off chicken gizzards, and
gopher traps and garter snakes.


H is for hoeing thistles and hauling hay, and
the hard-boiled eggs Dad cracked on our heads, and
doing homework around the kitchen table, and
the holy water that hung in a bottle at the bottom of the stairs, and
hanging clothes to dry on the lines outside.


I is for the ice storms that transformed our everyday farm into a winter wonderland, and
learning to iron by practicing on handkerchiefs, and
the white rocks surrounding the island, and
ice skating on the pond by the culvert.

IMG_8361 (1)

J is for junk pile treasures, and
Jack Frost’s feathery masterpieces on our window panes, and
jeans that froze stiff on the clothesline in winter.


K is for the kitchen table, and
kneeling to say the rosary after supper, and
the knick knack shelf in the living room, and
pretending to make bread by kneading our pillows.


L is for Lava soap in the washroom, and
the smell of blooming lilacs, and
the Little Team, and
taking turns mowing the lawn, and
pink lungs floating on top of the water from cleaning the chickens.


M is for mittens drying on the furnace vents, and
picking from the Montgomery Ward catalog, and
Morrell mushrooms in scrambled eggs, and


N is for St. Nicholas Day goodies in brown paper bags, and
the Nativity set.


O is for the oilcloth covering the kitchen table, and
overshoes with lever-like buckles, and
the two-seater outhouse.


P is for dancing the polka, and
dishpans full of buttered popcorn, and
priming the pump in the washroom, and
the ants in the peonies, and
shelling peas and planting potatoes.


Q is for Dad’s collection of silver quarters, and
warm quilts on the beds.


R is for rhubarb sauce and wild raspberries, and
the roller towel in the washroom, and
red-winged blackbirds, and
raking leaves, and
root beer floats served on the island in real glass glasses.

IMG_8370 (1)

S is for the stubble in the oat fields, and
Mom’s sauerkraut and homemade liver sausage, and
sprinkling the laundry before ironing, and
the stanchions in the barn, and
sledding on Walerius’ hill.


T is for tinsel on the Christmas tree, and
the tire swing, and
Tom Thumb donuts from the Minnesota State Fair, and
waiting out tornadoes in the basement, and
feeding the threshing crew.


U is for Union Hill, and
the unheated upstairs where we slept, and
sleeveless cotton undershirts.


V is for treating chest colds with Vicks Vapo Rub, and
the VFW picnic, and
summer vacations at Hauer’s home in the Cities and at Grandma and Grandpa Meger’s house in Montgomery.


W is for whipped cream on chocolate cake, and
roasting weiners on sticks over a bonfire, and
stacking wood, and
the wringer washing machine, and
shouting “Whoa” when it was time to drop bales of hay into the hayloft.


X is for Aunt Mary’s x-stitch embroidery, and
the axe that beheaded the chickens.


Y is for the smell of yeast from freshly baked bread, and
butter so yellow visitors would ask Mom if she put food coloring in it.


Z is for below-zero weather, and
zillions of mosquitoes.






Sugaring Season

April 12, 2014

Buckets for collecting maple sap

Buckets for collecting maple sap

I’ve never seen the workings of a maple sugar camp.  I’m surprised that my frugal parents did not ever make the effort to tap the maple trees in the woods and make syrup for our large family.  We were content with Mrs. Butterworth’s.

My sister took me to see this sugar bush near Rachel Lake in northern Minnesota.  The day was too cold for the sap to run, so the camp was temporarily abandoned.  But buckets were hung ’round the maple trees in readiness for the temperature to cooperate and set the sap running.  It would have been fun to see the operations in full swing.  I hope they had a successful season.

Spiles sunk into the trees

Spiles sunk into the trees






In Praise of Shadows

April 11, 2014

“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”
— Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, from In Praise of Shadows, translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker

Shadows on snow, the road to Rachel Lake, Minnesota

Shadows on snow, the road to Rachel Lake, Minnesota

” . . . we find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.”
— Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, from In Praise of Shadows, translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker

The stark bare trees in the Minnesota landscape were strikingly beautiful.  They cast dark shadows on the snow.  At times the shadows looked like the tree roots made visible.

Tree shadows

Tree shadows on snow

Sun through bare trees, my Dad's woods

Sun through bare trees, my Dad’s woods



The Face of the Fields

April 10, 2014

Stubble in the fields near Collegeville, MN

Stubble in the fields near Collegeville, MN

“The hum of the wind in the tree-tops has always been good music to me, and the face of the fields has often comforted me more than the faces of men.”
— John Burroughs, from The Writings of John Burroughs, vol. 15, The Summit of the Years

I like the phrase, “the face of the fields.”  Here is the stubbly face of the Minnesota landscape near St. John’s University in Collegeville.

Barn with flag

Barn with flag