The fleeting days of summer

As much as I enjoy the crisp feel of the autumn air, the beauty in the changing colors of the leaves and the sound of Kenny Chesney singing “The Boys of Fall” on my MP3 player, I’m feeling a bit melancholy about our fleeting days of summer.

From beginning to end — a mere 13 weeks — the summer season seems hardly long enough to pack everything in.

That first weekend of summer began with a Daily Globe picnic at Chautauqua Park and a first birthday party for my beautiful one-year-old great-niece Elsie, and it seems every weekend since has been filled with one activity or another.

It must be a built-in trait of Minnesotans to cram as many outdoor activities as possible into a span of just a few months because, as we all know, the snow is going to start flying soon enough.

So, from birthday parties and trips to the lake to weekends at the office and lazy days with my nose in a good book, I whittled away yet another summer. I didn’t watch a single Twins game  – and I didn’t get to Fairmont to watch my nephews play in Little League. It seems my summer was spent “preparing for Germany”, “being in Germany”, dealing with a quick recovery from Germany before “fair week”, followed by “post-fair week” and State Fair week. Boom. Just like that and it was over.

But, there are the memories … my first limit of northern pike; putting leeches on hooks for nephews too scared to do it themselves; bonfires; watching wild turkeys grow up on the farm; listening to pheasants cackle; four-wheeler rides; conversations with neighbor kids in my backyard; princess and dinosaur birthday parties; croquet.

I find the greatest memories come from the kids.

A couple of weeks ago, my great-nephew and I hopped on the four-wheeler and took off for the back pasture just as the sun had begun its descent and a light fog was settling over the Ocheyedan River.

I had just turned down the lane when the pungent odor of skunk hit us in the face. I sped up. Brody was chattering about the stink and then told me to slow down because he was cold. Yes, fall is in the air.

We drove a little farther.

Brody started chattering again. Apparently he just saw a kangaroo hopping through the soybean field.

“Are you sure it was a kangaroo?” I asked.

“Yes, it was a kangaroo!” he exclaimed in his confident, almost-4-year-old voice. “I saw it!”

“What did it look like?”

“Like a kangaroo! It was jumping!”

“Could it have been a deer?”

“No Julie … it was a kangaroo!”

It wouldn’t be the first kangaroo sighting in Back 40. Not too many years ago, probably about this same time of year, I tried to convince one of my nephews that the creature we were admiring — again in a soybean field — was a kangaroo. All we could see was the head and neck.

I almost had the boy convinced, too, if the deer hadn’t been spooked and started leaping over the bean rows.

I’m pretty sure I took a sock to the arm for stretching such a tale. This time around, with the next generation of the Buntjer family along for the ride, it wasn’t the boy that needed convincing, but his aunt. This time around, I didn’t get a sock to the arm. Instead, I got “the look.”

You just don’t argue with an almost-four-year-old.

The Farmer’s Table

My parents have one of the biggest gardens I’ve ever seen, and with a summer growing season blessed with periodic rainfalls, plenty of sunshine and a healthy dose of humidity, the fruits of their labor have been abundant.

Green beans, peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet corn, strawberries, raspberries, peppers, cilantro, asparagus, rhubarb, potatoes, carrots, onions, beets and a few other things have been picked, washed, cooked, canned, frozen, processed, sliced and diced as Mom fills up her shelves, refrigerators and freezers.

The other night, I was invited out to the farm for supper to find fresh-cooked green beans, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers in cream and a pan filled with new crop mashed potatoes on the table. Meanwhile, in the basement, a huge pot of tomatoes was slowly cooking on the stovetop as she prepared yet another batch of canning jars for homegrown tomato juice.

The week before, she had beets in the pressure cooker. I wish she would have warned me.

There are a few smells that waft from Mom’s kitchen that I have little tolerance for — liver frying in the pan, the aftermath of chicken processing and the odor of red beets cooking.

Mom says I used to like beets. In fact, when I was still young enough to be sitting in the high chair, there were meals where those diced red beets were the only thing I’d eat. Now, a queasiness comes over me at the mere sight or smell of pickled beets.

Any way, the beets are finished and neatly organized in jars on the shelf, and the tomatoes are slowly being added to the collection.

Come November, when my brothers and nephews are home for deer hunting, those jars of tomato juice will be plucked from the shelves one by one as we cook up our traditional deer hunter’s Crock-Pot Chili.

At Thanksgiving and Christmas, the family will celebrate the holidays with another nod to the garden’s abundance — dill pickles, sweet pickles, squash, potatoes, canned green beans and fresh-frozen sweet corn. Those pickled beets usually show up on the buffet line as well.

Month by month, jar by jar and freezer bag by freezer bag, the bountiful harvest will slowly whittle down through the long Minnesota winter.

And just as the memories fade of all the work that went into planting, weeding and harvesting, Mom will get excited for the new seed catalogs that make their way to her mailbox come January.

My only hope is that she might consider a smaller garden with less work next summer. After all, she’s not feeding an Army!

Inspired by the best

How many times in life don’t we reflect on what we’ve accomplished, what we’re doing and where we want to go, only to say, “I wish I could be more like …” (fill in the blank)?

Maybe you wish you were better at sports or music; maybe you wish you were better at your job.

I wish I could be a better writer. I wish I could be a better photographer. I wish I could be a better person. My list could go on and on … and it often does in the back of my mind.

So often, the people we want to be more like are admired not just because they’ve found success in life, but because of the passion they have for what they do.

On Sunday afternoon, as I sat in a comfy chair at the Palace Theatre in Luverne, I was mesmerized by the photographs spanning the large screen before me. Images captured by Jim Brandenburg, a Luverne native and former Daily Globe photographer who went on to have a 20-year career with National Geographic, had me wishing I had just a tenth of his photography skills.

As I listened to this world renowned photographer talk about his pictures and the places he’s been, I soon realized his talent isn’t just in taking beautiful pictures — it’s in finding the images in nature that might otherwise not get a second glance. He finds a way to tell a story through the lens of his camera.

Mixed in with images of wolves, lynx and songbirds captured near his home at Ravenwood, near Ely, were pictures of Touch the Sky Prairie, just a short distance from Brandenburg’s boyhood home north of Luverne.

It has been four years since I’ve visited Touch the Sky — in fact, the last time I was there, Brandenburg was leading a Bridges to Nature program with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Teachers were learning about the prairie and stumbled upon an exciting discovery — several western prairie fringed orchids, a federally-threatened species. Until that day, I don’t think I’d ever seen someone more excited about a flower growing in a former pasture.

Brandenburg may be passionate about photography, but in listening to him speak, it’s also obvious he has a passion for the prairie — for nature, in general.

I was at Touch the Sky that day in July 2010 to write a story about Bridges to Nature, and I went home feeling inspired — much the same way I felt on the drive back to Worthington late Sunday afternoon.

I will never be a world-class photographer, but in the years since I’ve returned to my hometown I have developed a passion for the prairie.

It started with the prairie garden a group of 4-H’ers planted out on our farm in 2008. As I anxiously awaited for all of the different grasses and flowers to grow (we finally had our first blooms on the meadow rose and lead plant this summer — it only took six years!), I also started to take a closer look at what we already had growing in the prairie pasture out behind the grove.

When I was growing up on the farm, I hadn’t a care about the wildflowers and weeds in the field and pasture. Now, I delight in finding something that I can successfully identify in one of my two Minnesota prairie flower identification books.

Brandenburg’s photography has always inspired me to open my eyes and find something extraordinary in the ordinary, but his passion for nature has been equally inspiring.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my camera — and the Back 40 at the farm — awaits!

No time to yawn!

After a two-week vacation gallivanting through the countryside of southern Germany, the jet lag is still messing with my sleeping habits. I considered it “sleeping in” when I awoke at 5:20 Monday morning, and made it to the office long before my usual work day begins. At this rate, I should be able to sleep until 7 a.m. perhaps by Thursday.

I’ll share more about my travels to the Crailsheim area with the Worthington contingent in a story next week. After all, it’s fair week in Nobles County, and I have lots of running to do.

I missed out on a couple of area county fairs while I was on vacation, so I’m looking forward to seeing all of the 4-H and open class exhibits, watching a little bit of the livestock, poultry and pet shows and, of course, interviewing the kids about the projects they have completed for the fair.

The Nobles County Fair gets started a day earlier than usual — on Wednesday — as the fair board works to build a bigger and better event for the public. There are musical acts, car races and a tractor pull in the grandstand, a free pancake breakfast, lots of activities for the kids and a special day for seniors and boomers, complete with goodie bags, coupons and door prizes.

Of course, most fairgoers will tell you they come for the vanilla, chocolate and strawberry malts at the American Dairy Association’s malt stand — or the mini donuts offered up on the Midway!

While the food options and many activities sound great, the best part of the fair for me has always been — and will always be — seeing the 4-H projects and the work our youths have done throughout the year. From robotics and wood shop to photography and youth leadership, I’m always awed by the talent our Nobles County 4-H’ers possess.

So, if you have an opportunity to visit the county fair, please plan to spend a few hours — or even a day — to walk through Benton and McCarvel halls, the livestock barns and the Midway. While you’re at it, stop by the 4-H Food Stand for one of their noon dinner specials or pie ala mode; or the FFA Food Stand for a pork burger, fries and a Coke.

Between shuttling my 4-H kids to the fair, doing interviews, taking pictures, working at the Daily Globe tent and taking a shift in the 4-H Food Stand, I will be there every day — yawning perhaps, but there never-the-less!

This waking up in the pre-dawn hours is just going to have to stop. Those afternoon and evening naps were fine over the weekend, but I have no time for them now.

I certainly know now what it means when people say they need a vacation after their vacation!

The princess and the toad

As my great-niece Kiera and my great-nephew Brody approach their fourth birthdays in the coming months, I’m finding that while they may both have birthdays on the 28th day of the month — hers in August and his in November — the two talkative tykes are very different people.

He’s blond-haired, blue-eyed and fair-skinned while she’s dark-haired, brown-eyed and darker toned. Those are just the outward differences

Brody is a “Mini-Me” of his father, preferring to spend his time outdoors helping to hunt, trap, fish and work. He gets mud, dust and dirt under his fingernails. Kiera likes frilly dresses, dolls and princesses. She prefers pretty paints on her fingernails — and toenails, too.

Bringing them together for a Buntjer cousins reunion last Saturday at Big Stone Lake, hosted by my cousin Monte and his family, proved to be nothing short of entertaining.

It all began when, just moments after his arrival, little Brody found a rotund yet energetic toad camouflaged in the beach sand on the shore in front of the Buntjer cabin.

With cat-like reflexes he swooped up the toad and paraded it around for all to see. He’d found a friend for the day!

Brody’s mom speculated her first-born son might even skip lunch to ensure his amphibian companion didn’t escape into the wild blue yonder that is Big Stone Lake.

The way he gripped the critter, and his determination not to let the toad get more than a foot away from him in the lake, ensured that this poor captured toad was in for a day-long bout of Brody.

And then came Kiera.

Kiera — the princess-loving, painted toenail promenading preschooler.

She does not like toads. She does not want to be within 20 feet of toads — and certainly not within 20 feet of a little boy carrying a toad.

There arose a battle on the beach. Oh, it wasn’t much of a battle, mind you. Brody stood with his feet in the water, holding his toad as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

Kiera, meanwhile, was mere feet from her mommy, pointing at Brody and proclaiming, “I don’t like toads!” “I’m NOT going over there!” and making various other comments with one mean-looking scowl on her face.

Now, what else is an auntie to do but laugh at the situation?

It all seemed quite funny until I looked over at Brody and saw him give the toad a giant smoocheroo — right on the lips!

Just the thought of it now still makes me feel a little queasy!

If he thought kissing the toad might magically present him with a princess, it wasn’t to be. Then again, perhaps if Kiera kissed the toad she’d find her prince.

If there was to be any magic that day, I think she would have had better luck killing the toad with her scowl.