A TIME EXISTED when I avoided cemeteries. I didn’t like the thought of being among the dead. It creeped me out. The thought of bodies beneath the ground. Bones. Nightmarish thoughts fueled by imagination. Long ago I left those dark fears behind, accepting the reality of death. That came with maturity, a deepening of my faith and the deaths of many loved ones.
Graveyards are more than a final resting place, as we so nicely phrase it, for loved ones. Graveyards are also places to grieve and remember. They are also places of history, heritage and art, often sited in the most peaceful of settings. Valley Grove checks off all those items on that place list.
I’ve explored many other country cemeteries, wandering among the tombstones, wondering about the people buried there. Why did they die so young? What were they like? What were their occupations? What made them happy? Who misses them?
Tombstone engravings reveal bits and pieces of life stories. Sometimes of heritage. At Valley Grove, many names reference a Norwegian heritage. Ole. Erik. Einar. Inger. Junius. I doubt I’ve ever found so many “Oles” buried in a Minnesota cemetery. That’s not unexpected given the Norwegian immigrants who settled here and built the two churches which still stand. Older stone inscriptions are sometimes written in the Mother Tongue. German I can occasionally decipher. Norwegian, not.
Through the years, the art of grave markers has evolved to more elaborate artwork that tells a story. For example, at Valley Grove an image of Nerstrand Meats & Catering decorates the stone of Clyde Heggedahl of that long-standing business co-owned with his wife, Mary. He died in 2016. At the meat market.
Bible verses and inspirational messages grace gravestones, too, offering insights and comfort. Sharing hope and faith. Love.
I often pause at burial spots marked by military markers. As the daughter of a Korean War veteran, I hold honor in my heart for those who have served. I recognize the sacrifices, whether given through death on the battlefield or the life-long challenges faced by too many of our veterans. That included my father, who died in 2003. Dad received his purple heart 47 years after he was wounded in Korea. War forever wounded his spirit; he battled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am thankful veterans’ graves are flagged with honor.
There’s simply lots to observe and contemplate while meandering among tombstones. I always do so with respect, for these grounds feel almost sacred. At Valley Grove, a certain serenity envelopes me in this peaceful hilltop setting among oaks and prairie.
Although those buried here were unknown to me in life, I’ve come to know them a bit in death. The countless “Oles.” The young and the old. They were all cherished. Loved. Part of the family of humanity. They mattered. And their stories matter.
TELL ME: Do you explore cemeteries and, if you do, why?
ATOP THIS HILL, here on the edge of the Big Woods among acres of fields near Nerstrand, I hear the whispers. Wrapping around the two historic churches. Rising from the cemetery. Sweeping through the tall prairie grasses.
This is Valley Grove, overlooking the countryside, the place where Norwegian immigrants came. Here they crafted their first church from stone in 1862, then built a second, of wood, in 1894. Both still stand.
The churches, cemetery and surrounding 50 acres are today owned, preserved and managed by the Valley Grove Preservation Society. They are a favorite nearby rural destination for me. I appreciate the natural beauty, the history, the country quiet and more. Even the wind.
I value the rural-ness. On this afternoon, the shrill crow of a rooster, the sharp crack of gunshots and the barks of two dogs running loose broke the silence. In the context of location, the sounds fit. Not that I like gunshots echoing or strange canines circling me. But they did no harm as I continued along the stomped, sometimes soggy grass trail back toward the Valley Grove Cemetery and churches.
When following the prairie paths under a wide sky, I hear whispers of the past. Of wheels creaking under the weight of wagons crammed with an immigrant family’s belongings. Of a young mother bent over her baby, singing a soothing song from the Old Country. Of a weary farmer sighing after a long day of breaking the land.
If this place could speak, it would whisper the stories of all those Norwegian immigrants who settled in and around Valley Grove and then gathered on this hilltop location to worship, socialize, celebrate, mourn.
On this winter day, the church doors are locked. But I’ve been inside both buildings. They are basic. Simple. Mostly unadorned. The wooden church is still used today for special worship services like weddings. The old stone church serves primarily as a social gathering room. Both are well preserved. Valued.
Much art already exists at Valley Grove, within the cemetery. I consider tombstones to be works of art, documentations of lives. The stone markers are many, from aged to recent. Names engraved thereon reflect the primarily Norwegian heritage. Ole. Erik. Einar. Inger. If these tombstones among the oaks could speak, oh, the stories they would tell. Of life in the Old Country. And of life in the New World, of this place, this Valley Grove.
FYI: Please check back for a post about the Valley Grove Cemetery.
GIVE MINNESOTANS A STRING of warm March days like we experienced briefly around the official first day of spring, and we’ll pop out of hibernation in full force.
Note that as I write this, though, snow globe snowflakes descend, layering the landscape and reminding us that, even if the calendar shows spring, in reality it is not. Temps are back into the 30s and 40s after those few days of 50s and 60s, topping 70 degrees.
During that brief hiatus from winter, I observed lots of people out and about while I was out and about. Walkers. Bikers. Babies in strollers. Kids playing in yards. A teen on a hoverboard. And a teen on a skateboard.
Warm weather multiplies the number of motorcycles on the road, too, as they roar out of storage. Note that some bikers ride even in winter, although not during snowfalls.
On that Monday of 70 degrees, I hung laundry on the line and then threw open windows to air out the house. Within minutes of opening windows, the street sweeper crept by, spinning dust clouds. I raced to close street-side windows.
Spring will come. As a life-long Minnesotan, I realize that. It’s just that as I age, winter seems longer. And colder.
TELL ME: Has spring arrived where you live? How do you define spring’s arrival?
Bidding for the art submitted through the years to the annual International Kids’ Owl Art Contest opened on Wednesday and closes at 8 pm (CST) Sunday, March 27. The 12×16-inch pieces of original artwork created by youth ages 4 to 17 range from imaginatively colorful to realistic renditions of owls.
Additionally, the Owl Center is creating a limited number of reproductions with 25 limited edition prints from each of three artists available for $100/each. All 75 of those prints have sold out. (Sorry.)
The center is also planning to print a set of 20 blank greeting cards from selected Ukrainian owl art with those sale proceeds going to UNICEF, too. (I’ll keep you informed.)
In the first online art auction, winning bids spanned $425-$8,005. That auction, plus separate donations, yielded $100,152 for UNICEF. That’s a remarkable result for this small town Owl Center which determined it wanted, and had a way, to help Ukrainian youth.
A third auction will conclude the series. (I’ll let you know when that launches.)
I feel such gratitude to the Owl Center; to the community of Houston, Minnesota, population 1,000; and to the generous bidders and donors. But I am especially grateful to those young Ukrainian artists for creating owl art which is now helping their peers, or perhaps even themselves. That’s the hard part, the wondering whether these children/pre-teens/teens are safe, OK, coping…as they deal with the realities and traumas of war.
THE GLOVED STICK stuck out like a snowman’s broken appendage. There, stuck in the snow, aside the Straight River Trail in south Faribault.
Camera in hand, I paused on a recent afternoon trail walk to photograph the lost grey glove. Scenes like this intrigue me because there’s always a story. Who lost the glove? Why? Who found the glove and then decided to stick it on a stick? Would the woman who lost the glove find it?
Real life often prompts my creative writing. Several weeks ago I wrote with a fury over two days, under pressure to meet a contest deadline. In those two full days of creating, I wrote two pieces of creative nonfiction, two short stories and two poems. The Muse moved within me and I felt it.
More often than not, I tap into my life for ideas. The “write what you know” adage holds true for me.
In writing fiction, I can take a snippet of truth and craft it into a short story that rings with reality, except it’s not. A text shaped one of the pieces I crafted. The other story came from some dark place I have not yet unearthed.
The recent death of my mom resulted in a poem and a work of creative nonfiction. A sign in a barbershop window prompted the second piece of creative nonfiction.
And my second poem emerged from a previous walk along a riverside trail in Faribault. Not the same path of broken snowman appendage. But a place where fingers of snow wrote stories across asphalt.
TELL ME: If you are a creative, what inspires you in your writing/painting/creating? I’d like to hear.
AFTER WHAT SEEMED an especially long, cold winter in Minnesota, spring is emerging. And although the calendar confirms that with the vernal equinox on March 20, I need only look around me to verify this change in seasons.
Several days of gloriously warm weather, capping with 70 degrees on Monday, meant lots of time outdoors in the warmth and sunshine. And nature, mostly nature.
I especially delight in following the packed dirt roads at Faribault Energy Park. Even with its location next to busy Interstate 35, the park provides, for me, a preferred place to immerse myself in the outdoors. I love the wide sky, the prairie feel of this landscape.
As I began my walk around the on-site ponds that attract waterfowl aplenty, I hear first the overwhelming chorus of birdsong. Red-winged blackbirds, perched high atop a cluster of trees, trill a song of spring. I welcome the music.
On two of the three ponds, I observe ducks and geese—mostly geese—rippling gracefully across the open water.
The water on the pond nearest the energy plant remains frozen except along the fringes where an angler catches and releases bass and bluegills. It’s a good place to fish with kids, he says, or for someone like him, a kid. I laugh.
As I follow the paths and walk along main pond’s edge with camera slung around my neck, I notice the remnants of seasons past interwoven with signs of spring.
Dried leaves, sumac, grasses, cattails, berries, milkweed pods, pine cones, even a bird nest tucked low in the crook of a tree, remain from months earlier.
But now, amid all those visuals of autumn and winter, spring pops. Red dogwood colors the brush.
Pussy willow buds open, tracing a line of mini cotton balls along slender branches.
I take in this seasonal change. With my eyes, then my camera. And I listen to those blackbirds in concert, interrupted by the occasional applause of geese against the background music of I-35 traffic.
It’s good to be here, to experience the beginning of spring. To connect to the earth along muddy dirt roads. To feel, hear and observe the transition of seasons as we step into spring in southern Minnesota.
Winning bids for the 59 pieces of owl art by Ukrainian children and teens, accumulated through the years for the center’s annual International Children’s OWL Art Contest, ranged from $425-$8,005. The highest bid was placed on the snowy owl art of 14-year-old Sofia. Two other works of art drew nearly as much—15-year-old Anna’s realistic owl family ($7,660) and 9-year-old Anna’s yellow and blue owls perched on a branch against a star-studded sky ($7,505). Nine other pieces were purchased for more than $2,000 each.
MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE
Regardless of purchase price, all 59 works of art are valued as “priceless” by the Owl Center, a nonprofit with a mission “to make the world a better place for owls through education and research.”
That mission has temporarily expanded to better the lives of Ukrainian youth in the war-ravaged country of Ukraine via the center’s “Ukrainian Art Auction for Ukrainian Kids.” The initial five-day auction is the first of three. The second art auction opens at 8 am (CST) Wednesday, March 23, and closes at 8 pm (CST) Sunday, March 27. The Owl Center also plans to keep some of the remaining 200-plus pieces of Ukrainian kids’ art in their permanent collection.
WITH GRATITUDE & CONCERN
Reaction to the first auction has been one of incredible gratitude for the generosity of bidders and those who donated via the donate monies option to reach that $100,052 total. Some $95,000 of that, according to my tally, came from the art sales. Commenters on the Owl Center’s Facebook page praise the artwork and also express their concern for the Ukrainian children. “I hope she (Sofia) is safe. Her owl is beautiful,” writes Dori.
“This is amazing. I hope each artist is safe,” Deb comments.
And Linda summarizes, “Well done! May all these artists be held (in) care and protection.”
Gina also writes: “I think what you are doing to help the children of Ukraine is amazing. Thank you for your every day work with the owls and for this extraordinary act of giving.”
I, too, am impressed by the reaction to this auction in the enthusiasm and the generous bids. In a time when many of us feel helpless, this is one way to help youth like Karelina, Maksim, Polina, Anna, Nastya, Alia, Sofia, Veronika, Olga…
The Owl Center is doing even more. Plans are underway to print a set of 20 blank greeting cards from selected art created by Ukrainian youth. The public is invited to help select the art. Again, proceeds from that will go to UNICEF for the children of Ukraine.
Additionally, Ukrainian kids’ art is featured on three street banners hanging in Houston.
Although I don’t have the financial means to buy any of the art, I can support this project via writing about it. And I expect those owl cards will fit my budget. Mostly, my heart overflows with gratitude to the International Owl Center for organizing this art auction, for reaching beyond the borders of their small Minnesota community to make a difference internationally in the lives of children in Ukraine.
THERE SEEMS TO BE no middle of the road here, no riding the fence. Either you like it or you don’t. And I, for one, love blue cheese. I cannot think of a cheese I don’t love, although processed cheeses rate lower than others on my taste buds.
Surprisingly, I have not yet tasted Felix blue cheese. Described as having a “dense, fudgy texture,” it’s aged for 60 days minimum in caves carved in the 1850s into sandstone bluffs along the Straight River. Originally, those caves were used by local beer-makers. The process for crafting Felix allows the sandstone caves to “create a natural rind that picks up on the different microflora that inhabit the caves,” according to the Caves website. That’s the basic scientific explanation. I mostly just care that the blue cheese tastes good.
My go-to Caves cheeses have been their long-standing Amablu®, Amagorg® (Gorgonzola) and St. Pete’s Select® (blue cheese). With the closing of the Caves downtown Faribault retail store and restaurant a number of years ago, finding our Caves cheese locally has dropped to one source, HyVee grocery store. Note that it’s available in many other places throughout Minnesota and in all other 49 states and internationally. Illinois-based Prairie Farms Dairy Inc now owns Caves of Faribault. Ownership changes often result in changes away from local focus.
Cheesemaking has a history in Faribault tracing back to 1936 and that first cheesemaker, Felix Frederiksen. Faribault, according to the Caves website, is the home of America’s first blue cheese. And now, 86 years later, local cheesemakers continue to craft award-winning blue cheese in sandstone caves along the river. Cheese that I, for one, love.
FYI: There are other award-winning cheesemakers in this region of southern Minnesota, including Shepherd’s Way Farms, rural Nerstrand, and CannonBelles Cheese, Cannon Falls. Both are part of the Cannon Valley Farmers’ Market producers group. That locally-sourced/grown/raised/crafted market held its last inside winter market recently, but restarts in the warm season at its outdoor location under the carport at the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault. The first outdoor market is from noon – 3 pm Saturday, April 16. The next follows from 10 am – 2 pm on Saturday, May 14.
SOME 5,000 MILES FROM UKRAINE, in the small southeastern Minnesota community of Houston, the International Owl Center is doing its part to help the children of this war-ravaged European country. And they’re accomplishing that through children’s art.
The current auction features 59 pieces of art by children like Polina, Anna, Alexandra, Sofia, Vladyslav, Olga, Maksim, Yelyzareta…ranging in age from five to 17. The art varies from boldly colorful interpretations of owls to realistic.
Think about the children and teens who created this art. Where are they now? Are they safe? Are they scared? Are they hungry? And, because this art was created through the years, are some of them now parents? Or perhaps young people now defending their country?
Olexander, Katya, Daria, Viktoria, Yaroslava, Olesia, Lika…names mostly unfamiliar to us. That matters not. What matters today is that these names represent the children of Ukraine who need our help. And one way to help is to buy this original art from the collection at the International Owl Center in Houston, Minnesota, population not quite 1,000 and more than 5,000 miles from war-torn Ukraine.