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Blane Klemek: Things I could have included: Thoughts on a thesis

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Once in awhile I remove from the bookshelf my hard-bound Master’s thesis. It’s a thick book, and one that I’m proud of, yet I seriously doubt many would find it to be “bedside reading.”

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The long-winded title, “Avian and Vegetative Diversity of Restored and Natural Basin Wetlands in East Central North Dakota” (which actually took some time to come up with), almost says it all. For within its pages — replete with its conventional “Introduction” to “Results” to “Management Recommendations,” and all its associated tables and graphs and maps, the thesis fails miserably at capturing anything remotely personal (save for the “Dedication” and “Acknowledgments” sections).

If I would have been given the liberty to depart from scientific and technical writing, the thesis would have certainly contained a chapter or two of creative writing of perhaps the small North Dakota prairie town that I hung my hat in for three summers, and most certainly of select anecdotes that I had jotted into my field journal everyday.

I could have included . . .

During my summers spent on the vast prairies and countless wetlands of North Dakota, I was lucky enough to live in the sleepy little town of Woodworth. The town had endured hard times by the time I drove onto Main Street. Its community-owned café had a sign posted in its window that simply read, “Use It or Lose It,” as a not-so-pleasant reminder to the locals that patronizing the modest eatery was the means to keeping it afloat.

Stub’s Pub was the “watering hole” as some of the ranchers and farmers affectionately called it. Operated by a tired and aging widow by the name of Rae, a cold brew or a Pizza Corner Pizza was always served with a smile and lively conversation.

Many of the locals would get a kick out of us “wildlifers” as they called us. After a day of counting ducks, monitoring nests, and conducting bird and vegetation surveys throughout the wetland-pocked prairie, I always had the feeling that most of them tolerated us, but just barely. After all, the field season was only about three months long and then we would be gone again, so why should anyone care to get to know us; we’d never be one of them no matter how hard we tried to fit in.

But try we did.

I’ll never forget my next door neighbors. Dale and his wife Arlene were lifelong residents of Woodworth. In their early fifties, they had already raised two children, a boy and a girl, in their very small but very homey, clean, and comfortable house. Dale told me that he paid only $1,500.00 dollars for the house some thirty years prior.

Dale worked at the grain elevator, and had so all his adult life. He loved gardening, mowing his lawn, and fishing occasionally. He and I even fished together on Barnes Lake, one of only a handful of fishing lakes nearby. And he could really make me laugh.

One night after a pizza at Stub’s (Dale was “batch’n it,” as he put it, while Arlene visited relatives out of town), we strode side by side on the sidewalk on our way back to our homes. Out of the blue he backhands me on my chest and exclaimed, “Say, guess how much Pookey weighs!”

Pookey was a young man not even thirty years old, extremely obese, and loved by everyone. Before I could even guess Dale shouted, “Four hundred thirty pounds! I weighed him at the elevator!”

I laughed until my sides ached, not because of the man’s weight, mind you, but the mental image I carry with me yet today: a large man standing patiently inside a dusty North Dakota grain elevator on a scale meant to weigh trucks laden with grain, sunflowers, beans, and corn while, I imagine, the entire elevator staff stood over Dale’s shoulders as he read aloud Pookey’s weight.

Then there was Rick. Rick worked as a wetland restoration technician contracted by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. His office was at the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge. So devoted was this man to restoring formerly drained wetlands for growing wildlife instead of agricultural crops, the license plate of his 1989 Blazer said it all: DUCKS.

Rick, a slight man of forty-four and not particularly talkative unless he was drinking, which he often did, showed me a great deal of the fabulous Missouri Coteau in which he had lived all of his life. It wasn’t uncommon for him to strike off on ten or more mile hikes across ranchland, native prairie, and around seemingly limitless wetlands hunting ‘yotes, as he called them—coyotes or brush wolves to you and me.

He lugged around an enormous spotting scope that he spent countless hours viewing all that was wild. One of our favorite ways to spend an off day was to visit Chase Lake and spot the thousands of American white pelicans that nested there. And there were also evenings spent looking for tee-pee rings (he showed me several), looking for Ferruginous hawks and their nests, and canoeing across some of his favorite duck hunting wetlands searching for decoys that he had lost the autumn before.

Indeed, if it had been permissible perhaps my thesis could have concluded with:

“Life moves slowly in and around that delightful North Dakota prairie town. Weather is often a main topic of conversation; cattle, crops, and yes, even ducks and deer are given their equal due.”  

And I could have continued . . .

“A good time can be had by simply setting up lawnchairs facing west and watching thunderstorms approach from twenty to thirty miles distant. And enormous spring and fall migrations of nearly every known species of North American waterfowl are looked upon as something special . . . even by those who could easily take it for granted . . . as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.”

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@ yahoo.com.

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