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the church and the cemetery

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

“being the richest man in the cemetery doesn't matter to me. going to bed at night saying we've done something wonderful... that's what matters to me.”

― steve jobs

“well, at least i made it this far…”

that thought popped into my mind as i was driving south on a sunday night for a couple of images that i wanted to create. the last time i was at this point in my travel a couple weeks ago, my trip was cut short. just as i passed the downtown skyline of st. paul and crossed over the mississippi river on 52, a yellowish light popped up on my dashboard saying "low tire pressure”. it’s not normally a big deal but i try to keep on top of my tires being inflated properly. almost immediately, my mind went to “i’ve got a nail in my tire”. why? because almost always when that light comes on, i’ve got a nail in my tire.

i pulled off at the next exit and proceeded to drive a few miles to where i knew would be an air pump. i pulled into the gas station, pulled up to the pump and was greeted with the universally despised sign…”out of order”.

I sat in my car for a few minutes mentally debating whether or not i should try to continue driving. i didn’t know whether any other gas stations would have an air pump or not. to further complicate things, once a little bit past st. paul, gas stations were far and few. in fact, once i pulled off 52 onto a country road and drove the last 20-30 miles to my destination, there would be no gas stations. i finally decided not to chance it. i took my car into a discount tire a couple days later. guess what? i had a nail in my tire.

there is a historic church in the town of nerstrand, mn that i’ve wanted to check out for some night photography. mark, a friend of mine, introduced me to it on our way to nerstrand-big woods state park which is nearby. we stopped and spent some time making images during the day before heading on to the state park. ever since then, i’ve wanted to go back there at night. here is a link to tell you a little bit of the history of the church (actually two churches as you will read)…

i pulled up the dirt driveway and came to a stop before a type of wire fence and arbor proclaiming the name “valley grove”. almost immediately, i saw a person come out of the darkness behind the churches and step into the bright and sprawling light of a single pole lamp. i wasn’t sure if he was some sort of sentinel to protect the property, much like the crusade knight in “indiana jones and the last crusade”. perhaps he had stepped out to warn me not to come any further or he’d have to take “cudgel in hand and smite me” as my wife likes to say sometimes. not that she would literally do that by the way…😏. or perhaps he was a welcoming ambassador contracted to welcome people that show up in the dead of night. people like me who make it a habit to show up in the dead of night...

i came to find out that he thought i was another friend arriving. i wasn’t but he sure treated me like a friend. right away he started talking like we hadn’t seen each other in years. he talked about having been here before and making images of star trails. he then proceeded to pull out his smartphone and show me some images he had made. as i walked with him past the churches into the darkness out of the pole light, he continued to talk to me. i finally had to let him know that in the dark, i wouldn’t understand as i was hearing impaired and read lips. he seemed to understand that and then continued talking anyways. lol. he was a really nice guy and i enjoyed being around him even if i wasn’t understanding much of what he was saying.

i confirmed with him that i wouldn’t be in the way of any images he was making. after sharing the general area where his two cameras were set up, we went our separate ways. truth be told, i still had no idea where they were as it was dark and i couldn’t understand. however, my eyes gradually adjusted and I saw the lcd screens lit up where both were located. periodically, i would hear him talking, presumably to me as his friend hadn’t arrived yet. if you’re familiar with the game, it kind of sounded like someone with their mouth crammed full of marshmallows and then proceeding to say “rubber baby buggy bumper” as fast as they can five times. in other words, it just sounded like gibberish.

i reminded him a couple other times that i couldn’t understand what he was saying as i read lips. but that’s ok…that’s just my life. if people haven’t been around someone like me who has that particular disability, it’s easy to forget and just keep talking even after being reminded. heck, my wife still does that sometimes and we’ve been together for over 30 years. granted, some of it is my fault as i ask or say something when she is in another room. sometimes she won’t say anything. when i ask why after finding her, she just gives me “that look” and reminds me i wouldn’t understand so what’s the point?

speaking of that game and getting off the subject for a minute, who in the heck thought that phrase up? was someone watching the old batman and robin tv series and robin shot off one of his classic exclamations for which he was known to do? “rubber baby buggy bumper batman!” a google search (yes! it actually comes up! lots of hits!) reveals one hit saying it came from the arnold schwarzenegger movie “last action hero”. i don’t know if that’s the true origin or not. I don’t tend to subscribe to “if it’s on the internet, it must be true”. other google hits attribute it to being one of several tongue twisters that are hard to say. just a little psa and yes, you are welcome for that absolutely worthless tidbit 😂!

i was initially concerned with the bright light of the pole lamp on the front side of the property at valley grove. light of any kind is not a friend for dark sky photography. however, in this case, i found that it contributed to a great black silhouette of the more recent of the two churches. i set up my camera a little ways back from the church, inputted my settings on the camera to utilize its intervalometer and triggered the camera to start. my creative vision was to capture star trials circling the north star over the church. if you are not familiar, an intervalometer is a remote handheld tool that essentially is used to set up how many images you want to take, how long you want each image exposed for and how much time you want in-between each image before it takes the next image. newer cameras like mine have it built into the camera.

while the camera was doing its thing, i took off exploring the valley grove property. the churches adjoin a cemetery called pioneer cemetery. as i explored, i could hear mike (the guy who greeted me) and joe (the friend he was expecting) talking. they, too, had their cameras set up using the built in intervalometer as well. it sounded like marshmallows crammed into their mouth and they were saying “rubber baby buggy bumper”. i used my iphone to create some images as i was exploring. one tombstone was a bit fascinating. someone had put a stake with a hanging cross that was continuously changing colors in the dark. i wish i had taken a video of it but here is an image i made for my pleasure and to use in my daily journal that i write. it is not meant to be a great piece of photographic art. in case you are wondering, one thing i am careful of is respecting that it is a cemetery. i would be careful where i was standing and moving.

after about an hour of alternatively exploring and coming back to check on my camera, a sudden realization hit me…i had not set a long enough exposure for each image to create star trails! i had just lost an hour of creating the type of images i needed for my final vision. so….i stopped the camera, reset the exposure length for each image and started the intervalometer up again. i made another mistake that i didn’t think about as well. i should have changed out the battery when i reset the exposure time so i would get the maximum amount of images on a single battery. because i didn’t, i only was able to get about another hour worth of images. while that is enough to get star trails, it was not enough for the look i wanted when it came to the star trails.

for that hour, i went back to exploring and checking back in on the camera. when the battery dropped to one bar, i stopped the camera. later on at my computer, i used a stacking software to bend all the star images together. here’s the final output…

while it is not what my initial vision was, i still love it! the rather incongruous feel of the star trails lend a character as beautiful as a continuous trail. i had shared a fb post showing just the windows and asking if you could guess what i might be sharing in this blog. i love the way these windows are lit up in the dark. it offers up a great contrast of light in the dark. if you are wondering what the light source was, it was the single pole lamp in the front! the bright glow, while not conducive to astrophotography in general, was a perfect type of a light-painting tool that lit up the windows! if you had the chance to read my last blog, i talked about how imperfections or less than ideal shooting conditions can still lead to great images. this was certainly the case that night in regards to losing an hour’s worth of images. if you haven’t yet read that blog, here is the link to it here…

i was also hoping to create an image of the milky way between the two churches or over one of the two churches. i didn’t try to do that as, again, the pole lamp was too bright. where i needed to stand to create such an image was in front of the two churches as the milky way rose behind them. but that was also the side where the pole lamp was located. the swath of light coming off the source fully bathed the churches and foreground. instead, i walked back behind the churches and decided to try using a portion of the cemetery tombstones for the foreground as the milky way rose behind them.

the milky way was a bit hard to see as nerstrand is in the bortle 4 range for light pollution. the bortle scale ranges from 1-9 with 1 being the darkest sky. nerstrand is considered to be on the suburb/rural transition line according to that rating. so light pollution was still too strong for optimal night sky viewing even though you can see in the images shared in this blog that the sky was relatively dark. it takes very little man made light to drastically reduce what can be seen in the skies. in the coming image, you can see the glow in the background coming from northfield and other smaller towns. northfield is 12 miles away and still lets off a sizable glow! and it is significantly smaller than st. paul. northfield is slightly over 20k in population vs. st. paul being over 300k.

i walked around a bit and finally chose a foreground scene that looked up a slight incline at some tombstones. a bit of light escaping around the church added some foreground interest as well, hitting the grass and tombstones. using my photo pills app, i was able to locate the general location of where the galactic core of the milky way would be. while a bit faint, you can make out the core. it never fails to get old! it’s like looking at it for the very first time!

the core is toward the lower horizon on the right where there seems to be a pinkish sort of cloud and then going straight up and to the right where you can see a more sort of translucent grouping of clouds. when i say clouds, that is just a description. as far as i understand it, the core is made up of stars, gasses, dark matter and dust among other things. that is just a small part of the milky way. you can see it extending left and upwards.

i’d love to, someday, be able to travel to a location where i can get the total arch or plane of the milky way. it is quite something to see in images. just google milky way images and you'll see a fantastic array of them. i hope you enjoy this image! i love that in the longer exposure, i was able to bring out the details on the tombstone on the left foreground. i was able to do that by shining a light from my lume cube during the exposure.

after this image, it was time to say goodbye and head back home. mike and joe had long since vacated the property at least an hour ago or so. i packed up my gear, loaded it into the car and started off. my eyes were scanning ahead and to both sides of the road for deer. i made a quick stop for a drink for the road at a 24/7 trucker stop about half way back and arrived home in one piece. soon after, i crawled into bed and the sandman (the good kind!) blew his pixie dust and put me to sleep.

i hope you continue to enjoy my blogs and this one in particular as it is my newest one. i’d love to hear any comments you my have about the blog

and/or the images. interactions with you as the reader is one of the things i enjoy most with writing blogs! do please feel free to share this blog with those you know would enjoy reading it. just copy the url above in the address bar at the top and paste into an email or social media platform of your choice. if you are reading this blog on fb, simply hit the share button to share this with others.

the images are available for purchase if one or both resonate with you. here are a couple of sample images to give you an idea of the scale and look as wall art.

16"x24" metal print valley grove church star trails

40"x60" metal print pioneer cemetery milky way

thanks for continuing to support my work through reading my blogs, my facebook postings and any purchases you may have made have made in the past. i really appreciate it and look forward to continuing to move forward in providing content that you will enjoy!

I’ll be seeing you soon with more “images from my quiet world”!

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James Mullier
James Mullier
Jun 11, 2023

Impressive levels of commitment displayed, Steve.... great blog content and love the images 🙂

stephen hadeen
stephen hadeen
Jun 11, 2023
Replying to

Thank you James. Have you and Kerrie had the few days off away yet that you were talking about?


I enjoyed this very much. Love the silhouette of the church and tomb stones against the beautiful night sky.

stephen hadeen
stephen hadeen
May 30, 2023
Replying to

Thanks Penelope! I’m sure glad to have your support!

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