On the yellowing prairie south of Pelican Rapids, the sunflowers are bowing their heads in resignation. Last week when I drove past the fields of sad soldiers I felt like stopping the car to shout, “Wait! It is still summertime! Fight! Don’t give up!” August road trips across the prairie are bittersweet for sunflower lovers.
Between Detroit Lakes and Park Rapids there are fields with rows of corn stalks taller than men. The stand of decades-old white pine that serves as a wind break near the road will be gone when I pass by there later today. I know this because last week I watched a mechanical beast with a portly passenger in a hard hat grab one in its jaws of death and snap it like a toothpick before backing up to drop it on the pile of tree carcasses. The scent of pine death was everywhere. As I passed by I thought about how long it took the trees to grow and how quickly they were destroyed for a new lane of highway. We are a short-sighted species. The travelers along that stretch of road probably won’t miss the trees until the first real blizzard hits in January.
Outside of Walker, I watched a surfer paddling out into Leech Lake to catch the four foot waves that rose and crashed into the shore on a cloudy, blustery August afternoon. The sheer enormity of that lake is impressive even on a calm day, but last Thursday it looked more like the Atlantic ocean, gray-green and menacing. The surfer dude in a full wetsuit looked half frozen as he bobbed in the water, waiting for the perfect wave to bring him back to shore. As I drove past, I wondered what compels human beings to believe they can triumph over something like a wave.
The north wind howled and rain pelted the windshield intermittently for the entire three hours of my trip. Near Remer, I noticed that a large birch tree had fallen, cracking into large pieces as it hit the ground. Birch trees die from the inside so I’m guessing that the wind just finished the job that old age or beetles or disease started years ago. This is somehow less sad than the fate endured by her tree cousins farther west.
August is a schizophrenic month, weather-wise. Ninety degrees one day and fifty the next. For the next three months, I will make the twice-weekly three hour drive between the forests I’ve always loved and the prairie I learned to for another semester. And even when my butt falls asleep from sitting in one position too long or I silently admonish myself for having chosen a car without cruise control (which in hindsight was really dumb) I’m still grateful for the silent, solitary trip. It gives me time to think.
Even when the most profound thought I have in three hours is why sunflowers don’t have it in them to fight the good fight, why men surf in make-believe oceans, or what, ultimately, takes down a tree.