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A Year at Big Rice Lake


Outdoors painting in a slow April-May, I imagine again and again the panorama of Big Rice Lake in its spiral of four seasons. The far shore, as I look from my husband's family's point of land, is gradually and still subtly greening between days that still blow cold, nights that continue to freeze, and the occasional interval of warmth, never more than a day or two long. The sky is an ocean of clouds that darken at the base and threaten to sprinkle. When the rifts between clouds ride overhead along the northwesterly current of wind so as to let down sunlight, the stands of tamarack on the northern shore light up a sketchy golden-green which I am reproducing in colored pencil on paper, in a spot I've dampened with a wash of watercolor umber. I have to wait, filling in the hulks of tamarack to create their outline that forms that piece of waterfront, a momentary glow of newborn color before the cloud-shadow dims that green to the general brown of that shore. My hands are stiffened and slow because of the wind chill all across the point here at this old Finnish-American farmstead. The wash on the page needs to dry, however slowly, before I can come back down here and resume what I hope tomorrow's daylight will still make way for--ephemeral overtones along a faraway landscape during its typical transition still always individual to the year we're in.

Days later at the start of May we're still chilled on visits outdoors, but the tender beginnings of leaves are emerging in the understory along the road and I've come to sit in a chair at the edge of the gravel to look out for newcomer birds. Warblers of three varieties are, this very hour, arriving in troupes--myrtle, palm and a few black-&-whites hurtling, past me, above me, a few coming near me probably to stare at such an unlikely vision as a person seated here. They've flown and blown from Central America, the researchers who band and tag warblers with the tiniest of radio transmitters have many times confirmed, all this distance back here, fluttering over the Gulf of Mexico and miles and miles above all sorts of terrain and watercourses northward. Surviving passage alongside the glass of office parks, over skyscrapers and cell phone towers that altogether pose a deadly peril for many, many songbirds, here these birdlets come by dint of intelligences all their own. On this ground it's cold enough for me, stationary as I am, to wear my winter coat, hat and thin gloves but these insectivores of summer can't be bottled up off to our south; here are breeding-grounds, today opens the doorway to spring. Spruce bog deeply hushed for the months of winter at last hosts a first few, faint whirling melodies of myrtle warblers with the buzzings of the palm warblers, and someone besides me, I really feel, should know about this momentous hour. It's time again to call my friend and birding buddy who has entered into memory care for Alzheimer's disease in her mid seventies and has had to move away from home in southern Minnesota out to a facility on the West Coast. The staff go get her and put her on the phone to return my call and at last we are talking again, and wondrously she still remembers the bird names I cite through my portable phone. She's thrilled, it sounds like, taken out of her present day for a moment back to smatterings of choice adventure from not very many years back. They're even now still a part of her. She was an avid birder who compiled the data for a nearby Christmas bird count when she lived in southern Minnesota. And why would bird sightings not live in a birder's soul no matter what had happened to the intellect?

The conversation fills me with elation at the implications in nature and organisms for possible renewal, even miraculous recovery of what had seemed lost forever, destined for forgetting. I could imagine Laura, at least in daydream, birding again--or rebirding. She's in a season of life when the peak of outdoor adventuring can only be savored from out of the past, or maybe through reading and movies, whereas I have it, blessedly still, right in front of me.

Summer is beckoning now, taking early form, yet my intuition says that we are facing a broiling growing season all in all; the polar ice caps have been shrinking fast so the moderating influences on midyear heat are dwindling along with the Arctic icepack. Jerry, my husband has had a lifetime's familiarity with wild rice, the namesake of our lake, and says that the Minnesota DNR's policy of letting water re-enter the lake from its inflowing river have let the plant restore itself in colonies somewhat as thick as those that proliferated here some decades ago. Too many beaver dams, he says, have been allowed to stay up along the river that feeds the lake. Little did we know, however, what a drought would characterize this year, lowering the lake lower than in his or any neighbors' memory.

As we would find out, the grass named manoomin by the Anishinaabeg people, or wild rice (Zizania palustris) flourished this summer, near shore and offshore, skimpy by contrast with the legendary hayfield-like effect of wild rice beds that drew hundreds of gatherers by car, out into their canoes during the 1960s and 1970s. But strips and patches of it, soft-green, could be recognized this summer, even more than last, by an experienced spotter like Jerry from shore. A canoe course one day took us briefly burrowing through a bed of wild rice almost as if we were in a wagon on ancient tallgrass prairie where you could barely see ahead of yourself. These two summers I grew familiar with the stems and florescence, typically structured grass shoots rich in greens, reds and ochre, and I felt during July that now was the time to do me a drawing--a homage, in my mind, to the exquisite plant. Pencil strokes proved impossibly grainy, and never could my hands at any age have been steady enough to make an unvarying brush line doing justice to the straight, never-kinking grace of those long wands of stem. Need of a workable art medium impelled me to the local art supply store where I spent ten bucks on my first-ever box of watercolor pencils. Through their use I was delighted to gain a much better control over the subject's boldly necessary lines, such straight yet minutely veering lines, even if a dent or irregularity in a stem proved inevitable, combining the best of what pencil and paint can render on a sturdy piece of paper.


When several hot days' intensive work at the lake's edge had passed, I felt confirmed in an earlier hunch that nothing I did to illustrate this plant would ever capture its glory. A hand drawing would always look like artwork for a scientific study and little more than that. Is it something about a grass, whatever kind it is, that makes this true? Is it that one grass specimen is prosaic? The music or poetry or glory is in the entire throng of wild rice, I suspect.


Twenty years ago in watercolor and gouache I painted a tangle of big bluestem against clouds. The result was lavish but not from the perspective I had imagined, which others have caught by lying down shooting skyward through the grass stems with a camera. But that painting, Bluestems in the Autumn, with its richly autumnal colors sold to an eventual enthusiast at a November holiday sale.


My several-days sketch of wild rice exhibits some of the movement of grass in a waterside breeze but not the two-fold function of the plant, typical among grasses, as stitch-work gripping the soft earth to secure it in place and as food from the grain that forms high up the stem. Another broader, more intricate painting of the wild rice must await my or someone's undertaking, as need of some sort may dictate, that reveals the perpetual water the plant lives in and reflects into, the upper root system, even, and the moving superstructure of red but darkening rice grains that bring the ducks, swans and geese, the herons and muskrats, and the people who know how to efficiently, effectively harvest. The white background here betrays my early appreciation of the manoomin at best.

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