Brandenburg inspires in statewide photography initiative
LUVERNE -- Jim Brandenburg's eyes lit up like a little child opening the best Christmas present ever as he stood among patches of big bluestem and prairie flowers Saturday morning at the Touch the Sky Prairie nature preserve north of Luverne.
The reason for his excitement -- a Department of Natural Resources employee leading a group of teachers on a walk through the preserve discovered a federally threatened western prairie fringed orchid in bloom.
Moments earlier, Brandenburg spoke of the rarity of the flower -- he'd found only one in the Touch the Sky Prairie, though some 200 have been recorded this year a few miles to the east, in Blue Mound State Park.
Despite a leg that has given him some pains recently, Brandenburg eagerly followed a DNR manager to the rare find. And that's when he learned that not just one flower had been discovered, but three.
"I'm extremely excited," said a beaming Brandenburg before he began taking pictures of teachers in the Digital Photography Bridges to Nature program. The teachers were busy photographing the delicate flowers swaying in the breeze.
A National Geographic photographer and Luverne native, Brandenburg said he probably wouldn't have walked through that portion of the prairie -- he assumed it still lacked many of the prairie flowers lost due to years of over-grazing -- had it not been for the teachers.
He told the group that sometimes it really does "Take a Village."
Earlier that morning, Brandenburg spoke to the group of teachers at the Palace Theatre in Luverne, telling them about his failings as a student in the Luverne school system and how the camera turned his life around.
"I hated school -- I got F's all the way through in English and now I write books. What changed?" he said. "Nature was a big part of it."
Thanks to a mentor, Brandenburg learned to hunt, fish and trap -- and he was good at it. Then he read a little book about a wildlife photographer and realized that shooting an animal didn't have to mean shooting to kill, but rather capturing their image on film.
"There's something special about that," he said.
Brandenburg's first camera was a $3 model he purchased at Myhre Studio in Luverne, and his first "big reward" with that camera was taking a picture of an inquisitive fox tracking the photographer's mimic sounds of a field mouse.
"The animal lives, and the photo lives forever," he said.
Growing up within view of what is now a nearly 1,000-acre nature preserve in Touch the Sky Prairie, Brandenburg said there wasn't much else to photograph but the prairie sky when he was growing up. His message to teachers was that if you put a camera in children's hands, they will find something to interest them.
"There are quiet, unfocused kids sitting in the back of the room that can make a difference -- it doesn't take much to inspire them," he said. "Photography might be the one thing to turn them on."
The Touch the Sky Prairie is open to the public, and is enjoyed by hikers, bird watchers and nature lovers throughout the seasons. It is located three miles north of Luverne on U.S. 75, three miles west on Rock County 20, and one mile north on Rock County 11.