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.

Family ties on a century farm

For the past three weeks, a large part of my daily life has revolved around century farms.

There are 25 of them this year in the six counties of southwest Minnesota served by the Daily Globe. I don’t recall seeing that many area farms, handed down from one generation to the next for 100 consecutive years, honored in years’ past. I can tell you the special Today’s Farm section included in today’s edition is the largest project dedicated to century farms in the 10 years I’ve worked at the Globe.

While time, resources and unanswered phone calls prevented us from featuring all 25 farms, this special edition shares the stories of 15 families who have persevered and prospered on the prairie of southwest Minnesota – in some cases for more than a century.

While sharing the stories of our area’s century farm families is one of my favorite Daily Globe projects, this year I had an opportunity to interview the present owners of the farm purchased by my great-grandparents, Walter and Vera Aeilts, in March 1914 in Bigelow Township.

The couple raised 11 children, including Will (father of the farm’s present owner, Ailt Aielts) and Hattie, my grandma, who was one of the youngest in the clan.

Now, if you were reading carefully, you may have noticed the first generation and the current generation spell their last name a little differently. Yes, it is a bit confusing, especially considering there is yet a third spelling – Ailts – that also exists today. To make it easy, I’ll just say they are probably all related.

It would take much effort to figure out where the spellings were altered along the way. Just one look at the family tree on my dad’s side is mind-boggling. He had 50 first cousins between the Aielts and the Buntjers.

Fifty! By comparison, I had 15.

Hearing Ailt’s story about how the farm was passed down from one generation to the next was intriguing to me. Like so many other century farms honored, it made sense that the oldest capable son of the family was first in line to take over the farm. Hence, the farm went from Walter to Will to Ailt.

I learned that Walter and Vera had four children in their homeland of Emden, a port city in northwest Germany, before making the trek to America and the land of opportunity.

A century ago, so many families found that opportunity here in Minnesota. And while their days of settlement all share a common thread, just like a patchwork quilt, no two stories will ever be the same. Please take some time to read about these families who may be your friends, your neighbors or even your relatives.

An anniversary to forget … again

I had several different blog topics rolling around in my head for this entry. And then came Monday afternoon.

Darkened skies, constant weather alerts, rain pounding against the windows, pea-sized hail and tornado sirens. My hands began to shake, my stomach started to ache. I literally thought I was going to be sick.

I thought I was over this.

I thought enough time had passed that tornado warnings wouldn’t scare me as much. In recent years, I was more apt to watch the weather out the window than to run to the basement.

And then came Monday.

I don’t know if many of you realized it, but Monday was the 22nd anniversary of a night of horror for residents of Chandler, Lake Wilson and, a little farther to the north, Clarkfield.

I was living in Clarkfield that summer of 1992, working as a 4-H Summer Assistant just a block away from my shared apartment above the town’s post office.

I remember the heat and humidity of that day — June 16, 1992. As I went to work on this day — June 16, 2014 — those thoughts were in the back of my mind. I found myself comparing Monday morning’s humidity to the sultry weather back then. It didn’t seem quite as bad this time around, but then 22 years is enough time to forget certain things.

As the storms began to pop Monday, the dormant fears returned.

My concentration was gone, my productivity wiped out.

I couldn’t sit still.

Unlike that summer night in Clarkfield, where I knew relatively few people in town, the thought of a storm passing through here brought with it a whole set of worries for family and friends.

Are my parents OK down on the farm? Is my nephew out doing weather spotting in Ellsworth? Are the neighbor kids in the basement? Who, what, when, where … why do I have to worry so much!

I’ve managed to keep the tears at bay, but it’s nearly 9 on Monday night and I’m still at the office. I know the tears are creeping up on me — it’s just the culmination of a stressful day.

Thank God we escaped the tornadoes this time. We can live with water in the basement, downed trees and branches, flooding in our streets — at least we still have the roof over our head.

The images I carry with me from the Clarkfield tornado — escaping my apartment by walking on broken glass, stepping over and around downed trees, walking through knee-high water, sharing my grandmother’s quilt with an elderly woman shaking as badly as me, and finding corn kernels embedded in the dining room wall of my apartment — those are things I will never forget.

It took Monday’s storm to remind me that I will never truly be over the horror of that June day in 1992, as much as I want to wipe it from my memory.

Today is a new day and I, for one, am hoping for sunshine.