IN THIS SEASON OF EARLY AUTUMN, the landscape of Minnesota transitions to subdued, muted, softer tones flashed with vivid orange, yellow and red in tree lines or a solitary tree. This time of year truly marks a change as we ease toward Winter, a season devoid of color.
A month ago, before Summer exited, I already observed Autumn’s entrance at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. Stands of cattails. Groups of goldenrod. Seas of drying prairie grass. All signaled the shift to September days.
I love this time of year. Sunny days give way to cool evenings to brisk mornings. I’ve pulled the flannel from the closet. I embrace the feeling, the glory, of each day, recognizing such days are fleeting.
But weeks before this end of September, I delighted in the final days of August with that short walk through the woods at River Bend, then along a grass-lined trail to the hilltop Prairie Loop before I retraced my steps.
Prairie grasses, looming well above my head, bent in the wind. I noted the gracefulness of the stems’ movement, the details on a single stalk. If you’ve ever paused to study a stalk, it’s almost like reading a poem. Grain after grain after grain ladders a slim line. In poetry, each word ladders into a line, into a verse, into a poem.
In the flashlight of the afternoon at River Bend, I spotted a lone Monarch flitting among thistles, black-outlined orange wings contrasting with the soft purple of the bloom. A metaphor. Or perhaps a simile when penned poetically. Poem upon poem upon poem.
Autumn edits out Summer, eliminating the excess wordage of a season that is lush and full and busy. Now the lines of the season shorten, every word carefully chosen, a harbinger of what lies ahead. Winter. Sparse. Barren. Cold.
But until then, Autumn settles in with the familiarity of a worn buffalo plaid flannel shirt. With the familiarity of cattails and milkweed bursting. Goldenrods. Tall prairie grasses drying, moving toward dormancy. I’ve seen this shift every September for past sixty years now. Yet I never tire of the shift, the change in seasons here in southern Minnesota.
OF ALL THE BOOKS I could have pulled from the “new fiction” section at Buckham Memorial Library, I chose, among others, one by a Minnesotan. But not until I was several chapters into the book did I flip to the back pages for information about the author, Barbara A. Luker.
I was delighted to learn that Luker hails from St. Peter, a college town in the Minnesota River Valley some 40 miles west of Faribault. To discover another Minnesota writer always pleases me. Luker works full-time for the City of St. Peter and is fairly new to writing books.
It was the title and the simple cover art—a small cut-out heart-shaped cookie next to a larger one—that first drew my eye to I Carry Your Heart. I bake similar plain heart-shaped cookies from my mom’s Cream Cheese Roll-out Cookies recipe each Valentine’s Day. Yes, cover art and titles matter to me given all the books out there. And this art connected to me personally.
Then I turned to the back cover for the story summary. The plot sounded interesting enough to add the book to those already stashed inside my cloth Boomerang bag reserved for library check-outs. I Carry Your Heart, a title taken from e.e. cummings’ poem of the same name, is, as you might guess, a love story. And, yes, there’s romance, a genre I don’t typically read and which made me blush.
This book is truly a tender, multi-layered love story. Not only of romantic love, but also of family love and community love and the sacrifices sometimes made for love.
This is a generational story that takes the reader back in time to reveal secrets kept by Abigail Lillian Peterson Ward. When she dies unexpectedly, her granddaughter, whom Abigail appointed to sort through her belongings, uncovers another side, another truth about her Nan.
The story felt somewhat predictable to me. Yet there were enough twists to surprise me at times and certainly to hold my interest to the end.
I appreciate also the Minnesota influence in the writing. The author shows her roots, for example, in the fictional town described as like a Norman Rockwell painting by one character. In my mind I pictured Luker’s hometown of St. Peter. I could also envision the church ladies serving a luncheon after Abigail’s funeral and the turkey commercials served in her restaurant. Both are, oh, so Minnesotan (although I’m more familiar with a beef commercial). Details like that add authenticity.
All in all, I Carry Your Heart proved a good read, even if in a genre I don’t typically choose.
YELLOW, TALL AND DRAMATIC, the sunflower exudes strength and happiness. I love this flower, so prevalent now in the Minnesota landscape.
But this year especially, this strong, simple, sunny flower symbolizes much more than the end of the growing season, the ripening of crops, the transition into autumn. The sunflower, as we’ve come to learn this year, is the national flower of Ukraine, the symbol of peace.
Every time I see a sunflower now, I think of the people of Ukraine and the war that still rages there. I remember watching, in the first days of the Russian invasion, media footage of people fleeing the country, people who looked very much like the average Minnesotan. And I thought, this could be us, this could be me.
As the war goes on and on, it is easy to move onto the next headline, to forget about the horrors, the atrocities, the death, the destruction and displacement happening in Ukraine. But then I see a sunflower and I am once again reminded of the suffering in Ukraine, of the elusiveness of peace.
Here in Minnesota, sunflower fields draw families into mazes under bold blue autumn skies. It’s all about the experience and making memories and photo ops among sunny flowers. Thoughts are far from Ukraine in those moments. But even then, in imagining the scene, I see yellow and blue, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. And my thoughts shift back to the people of Ukraine and those who love them, including people right here in Minnesota. In Pittsburgh. Throughout the world.
This year, the sunflower has also evolved to symbolize resistance, unity and hope. We’ve certainly seen that happening in Ukraine. Hope is a powerful word, one I’ve latched onto through challenging times. Hope infuses strength. And hope grows sunflowers that rise tall and dramatic in the landscape, their sunny heads turning toward the light of peace.
Shefland’s appreciation of the lines, angles, curves, light of buildings resonates with me. I, too, am fascinated by the seemingly abstract art to be found in architecture. These are not just structures constructed for a purpose, but rather art forms.
This New York City born photographer, who is widely-traveled, focuses on the skyscrapers, the city buildings that rise high in the landscape. His current black-and-white photo exhibit features images from New York, Toronto, Minneapolis and more. Today he calls Minnesota home.
Patterns and lines and curves meld to create remarkable abstract images. Modern art. Devoid of color, their impact is stronger, bolder.
As I paged through the gallery guestbook, I agreed with the comment “Awesome exhibit…worth the drive from Mpls!” I only had to travel 12 miles. I feel fortunate to have access to art exhibits like this locally, without going into the Twin Cities metro.
I am not an urban person. I am not well-traveled. Major cities hold no appeal. Yet, I can appreciate that others value densely-populated areas and all they offer. We are each different and that’s a good thing.
Yet, as different as we are, we share interests, like photographing architecture. For Shefland, it’s the architecture in cities. For me, it’s the architecture of small towns. Historic buildings or other structures that catch my interest.
To view Shefland’s photos is to grow my knowledge, my appreciation, my respect for creatives like him. He expands my world, personally and professionally. I can say the same for Keith Goldstein, a talented photographer from New York City. I’ve followed Keith’s blog, “For Earth Below,” for many years. His work is currently exhibiting in Milan. The scope of his photography ranges from architectural to streetscapes to street portraits and more. In a recent photo, he featured colorful Fruit Loops cereal scattered across pavers. Simple. Artsy. Creative.
I find joy in connecting with other photographers, whether online, via gallery exhibits or in-person. To see the world through their lenses enlightens, teaches, encourages me.
FYI: Alan Shefland’s exhibit at the Owatonna Arts Center continues until October 2. Gallery hours are 1 – 5 pm Tuesday through Sunday, closed Mondays and holidays.
Note: I de-saturated all of the images in this post and did minimal photo editing to up the contrast.
IN TELLING A STORY, whether in images or words, details matter. Combined, details comprise the whole. And that’s the approach I take in creating.
Recently I attended the Valley Grove Country Social in rural Rice County. This event, hosted by the Valley Grove Preservation Society, celebrates the history, heritage, land and people rooted to two hilltop Norwegian churches with adjoining cemetery and restored prairie. One of the first pastors here founded St. Olaf College in nearby Northfield.
Many people from my area hold this place dear and that shows in the upkeep of the 1862 stone church and the 1894 wood church rising high above a landscape of prairie, farm fields and wooded areas near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.
I, too, despite no personal connection to Valley Grove, have come to hold this site dear. I appreciate the historic churches and cemetery and the surrounding landscape. And I also appreciate gatherings like the Country Social.
This Social showcases Valley Grove in a way that stretches beyond history, although that decidedly focuses the celebration. Music and art and hands-on activities weave into the all of it.
I love to see adults and youngsters engaging, conversing, teaching, learning. The younger generation will one day carry on with events like this and with the preservation of history and heritage at Valley Grove. So offering hands-on activities like rope-making, corn grinding, doing laundry, playing with yesteryear toys…is vital.
While I was persuaded to wind twine into a rope with Randy, I simply observed the other participatory activities. I prefer to meander unobtrusively (not always easy) with my camera, observing, documenting. I strive to tell a story that will encourage others to embrace events and places like Valley Grove. There’s so much right here in Rice County to explore and experience. We need to treasure that which is in our backyard. Just like the “eat local” movement, I say, “Explore local.”
Much of what I feature here on my blog is local. And, if it isn’t, it’s rooted in my region. I value southern Minnesota, especially the small towns, the rural landscape, the people, the arts, the events…the all of it defining this place I call home.
TELL ME: What specific places and/or events do you appreciate where you live and which you feel go unnoticed by many locals?
A COUNTRY SOCIAL EVOKES an essence of history, of community celebration, of activities that hearken to a bygone era. The Valley Grove Country Social held on Sunday afternoon high atop a hill near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park fits that and beyond. This site, the location of two historic churches and an adjoining cemetery, marks one of my favorite places in rural Rice County for its history, natural beauty and peace.
On this September afternoon, I delighted in an event that brings people together to celebrate Norwegian heritage and history, people and place, stories past and present, the arts, and, oh, so much more.
From garden and prairie flowers tucked into Mason jars set atop window sills in the 1862 stone church to a recital inside the 1894 church to horse-drawn wagon rides to kids grinding corn to an artist painting, the scope of activities proved broad. There was something for everyone from the youngest to the eldest. Generations mingled, connected. One taught, the other learned.
To observe, to converse, to listen, to feel, to experience all of this imprints upon my soul gratitude for those who know this place, this Valley Grove, is worth preserving and sharing. Although I hold no personal connection here, I feel connected. It is my faith, my love of the land, especially the surrounding prairie and farmland, and the quiet of this remote rural location which cause me to feel comfortably at home, at peace.
If you’ve never visited Valley Grove and live near enough to tour, then do. I’ve been here many times to walk the cemetery and grounds, to hike through the prairie, even once sitting on the front steps of the wooden church for a picnic lunch. The churches are locked when not open for events or special services like a wedding or Christmas Eve worship.
Still, whether inside or outside the two churches, a sense of the past prevails. Gravestone after gravestone bears the names of Norwegian immigrants and their descendants. Study the markers and stories begin to emerge, whether real or imagined. I can only imagine the joys and sorrows shared here.
Valley Grove is about more than a place where historic churches stand next to a cemetery. It is a gathering spot for those who are celebrating, those who are grieving, those who are remembering and, on this afternoon of a Country Social, a place of connecting with community.
Now I’m doubly honored that my rural-themed poetry inspired by my farmer father and farm wife mother were chosen to be part of this outstanding exhibit focusing on the people, places, businesses, communities, activities, events, history and arts of Lyon County.
finances rocked by falling corn and soybean prices.
As I read the “Imagining the Prairie” informational panel, my gratitude to the LCHS staff, volunteers and Museology Museum Services of Minneapolis (lead contractor for the exhibit) grew. I appreciate that an entire panel focuses on the arts: The Lyon County landscape…has inspired painters and poets and artists of all kinds. I’ve long thought that as I see the prairie influence in my writing and photography. Farms, vast prairies, wide skies and tumbling rivers define the landscape of southwestern Minnesota.
A quote from poet, essayist and musician Bill Holm of nearby Minneota, summarizes well the lens through which we prairie natives view the world and the creative process. The prairie eye looks for distance, clarity, and light…
Holm, who died in 2009, was among southwestern Minnesota’s best-known writers, having penned poetry and multiple books such as his popular The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth and Boxelder Bug Variations. His boxelder bug book inspired his hometown to host an annual Boxelder Bug Days, still going strong.
To see my poems featured alongside the work of gifted writers like Holm and equally-talented poet Leo Dangel in the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit was humbling. Dangel, who died in 2016, wrote six collections of poetry. The prairie and rural influence on his work show in the featured poems, “A Farmer Prays,” “A Clear Day,” and “Tornado.”
Both men taught English at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, reaffirming their devotion to this rural region and to the craft of writing. The exhibit includes a section on the university, which opened in 1967 within 10 years of my leaving the area to attend college in Mankato. I sometimes wonder how my writing would have evolved had I stayed and studied on the prairie.
When I returned to Marshall for the first time in 40 years, nothing about the town seemed familiar. Time has a way of changing a place. But when I reached the top floor of the county museum, saw my poems and began to peruse the “home” exhibit, I felt like I was back home. Back home on the prairie, among cornfields and farm sites and grain elevators and all those small towns that dot the landscape. Back home under a wide prairie sky with land stretching beyond my vision. Back home where I understand the people. Back home in the place that influenced my writing as only the prairie can for someone rooted here.
Please check back for more posts featuring the Lyon County Museum and the area.
HE APPROACHED ME inquiring whether I was the official photographer. I was not. But I was photographing the Valley Grove Country Social on Sunday afternoon in rural Nerstrand.
That unexpected encounter proved powerful, revealing why this hilltop location of two historic churches and a cemetery holds such deep personal meaning for many. From the Norwegian immigrants who built the stone church in 1862, replaced by a wooden church in 1894, to today, this land keeps stories and memories and provides a place to grieve.
For Brett Norgaard, Valley Grove is the final resting place of his beloved son, Bjorn Erik Norgaard, struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver on February 20, 2011, while skiing on frozen Lake Superior. He was only 23. Bjorn’s gravestone, imprinted with a ballad he penned, sits near the site of a massive oak felled in a September 2018 tornado. That tree, in the southwest corner, was a cemetery landmark, the spot where many baptisms occurred.
Now, in this chance meeting, I learned of Bjorn’s connection to that tree. His father held it—two boxes crafted from that fallen oak, the larger one holding a passport, an American Birkebeiner pin and other mementos of a dearly loved son.
But it was Bjorn’s poems that expressed to me the creative spirit of this outdoorsman, environmentalist, cross country skier, Alaska fly fishing guide, 2006 Northfield High School graduate, son, grandson, friend…
The second verse of his poem, “Oak Leaves,” seems almost prophetic. He wrote:
New season coming, you must change,
but please remain, not yet time to fade away.
For one day we will cease to be,
will you drop your leaves and cover me?
After Bjorn died, his father found 80 poems in his son’s journals. I understand why he cherishes them. These are the words of a soulful, introspective, nature-centered, sensitive spirit. And although the oak tree no longer stands, unable to drop leaves onto Bjorn’s gravestone, there’s a sense that the tree remains. Strong. Sheltering those who lie beneath the soil and those who walk upon the earth, come here to visit, embrace and remember loved ones. Only days earlier, on September 15, Bjorn would have turned 35.
On this day of a Country Social, Bjorn’s family remembered him, honored him. I saw love in a father’s hands wrapped around oak boxes, in watery eyes and precious stories. Here at Valley Grove, atop a hill edged by prairie, woods and farmland, and centered by two historic churches, humanity comes in moments like this, when a father shares his grief with a stranger. Compassion rises. A connection is made. Comfort comes. A loss is shared.
Please check back for a follow-up post featuring the Valley Grove Country Social in its entirety.
SATURDAY MORNING FOUND ME wandering among vendors at the Rice County Historical Society Fall Flea Market in Faribault. It was, as always, an enjoyable event, marked by conversations with friends I haven’t seen in awhile, conversations with vendors and reflecting on the past.
Really, this is what local gatherings are all about for me. They’re about community and connecting, about embracing and appreciating this place I call home.
I was especially delighted to find, among all the vendors of miscellaneous merchandise, several artists. That includes Erin Sellner Honken of Erin’s Acre at Honken Farms. Erin creates with flowers she grows, tends, harvests and arranges into stunning bouquets for CSA subscriptions and special events. With an abundance of flowers right now, she decided to do a pop-up sale at the flea market featuring $10 dahlia mixed bouquets.
Just down the way by the historic schoolhouse, I discovered Jeremy of JS Woodcrafts. It was his “river” table which drew my attention and admiration. If I could afford the $500 price tag, this maple top table with stones and pebbles epoxied in the middle like a river, would be mine. Love, love, love this work of art.
John “Spanky” St. Clair of Spanky’s Woodshed also specializes in woodcrafting. I learned that he uses pallets and aged barn wood to create. Anyone who recycles to create earns my praise.
I found more art in spoon flowers, in a Louie Armstrong figure, in paint-by-number paintings, in an endless array of merchandise.
And while I walked I heard music rising from A Fun Lil’ Band in Rice County with a sign declaring WE JUST LOVE TO PLAY MUSIC!! Their music added an extra touch of joy to the morning market.
This event is a fundraiser for the Rice County Historical Society. But history is also very much a part of the market in aged and vintage merchandise vended. I reminisced over old farm toys, a baby stroller, a yellow Pyrex mixing bowl. I picked up a few items, pondering whether I should buy, but, in the end, held steady in my determination not to acquire more stuff. I’m at that age…
Instead, I collect with my camera, gathering images to tell a story, to share this market, to showcase the works of creatives, to express my appreciation for my community, this place I’ve called home for 40 years.
IF EVER THERE WAS A WEEKEND packed with community activities, especially in Faribault, this is the weekend. Here’s a summary list of events, most of which I’ve attended through the years.
Let’s start with Friday, September 16:
The final Faribault Car Cruise Night of the season takes place from 6 – 9 pm in the parking lot of Faribault Harley-Davidson. Besides vintage vehicles, there will also be food vendors and music.
Moving to Saturday, September 17:
Start out early by shopping the Faribault Farmers’ Market, which opens at 7 am in Central Park and closes at noon. But this isn’t any ordinary market day. This is Family Day with farm animals, a bounce house and more for kids. That starts at 9 am and continues til noon.
Blocks away to the north, the Rice County Historical Society hosts its popular Fall Flea Market from 8 am – 2 pm in the parking lot and on the grounds.
At 11 am, until 2 pm, Harry Brown’s is hosting a Car Show at the fairgrounds.
Meanwhile, way across town, Faribault Harley-Davidson celebrates an Anniversary Bash from 9 am – 10 pm as the motorcycle dealer marks 45 years in business. There will be a bike show and ride, music and food vendors.
At Divine Mercy Catholic Church on the south edge of Faribault, folks will gather from 4 – 9 pm for the annual Spirit Fest. That features food, music, an auction, bake sale, hay maze, drive-in movie, fireworks and much more.
Out-of-town events on Saturday, September 17:
The Arts & Heritage Center of Montgomery has a morning full of activities that include a book-signing by Barbara Marshak of New Prague, author of Painted Skies, beginning at 10 am. Sister Anita Smisek presents on “Minnesota’s Big Woods Musicians” at 11 am. Guests can also view the work of wildlife artist Tom Miller, current exhibitor, and see the Czech dancer topiaries created by Meghan Petricka. The arts center opens at 9 am and closes at noon.
From 11 am – 6 pm at Central Park in Northfield, Hispanic Heritage Celebration 2022 is happening. That event features food vendors, arts and crafts activities, dance and art, all themed to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month.
One more nearby event, on Sunday, September 18:
The Valley Grove Preservation Society hosts the Valley Grove Country Social from 1 – 4 pm at its hilltop location near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. This is the site of two historic churches. The event includes an organ recital at 2 pm, Scandinavian music performed outdoors, prairie and cemetery walks, horse-drawn wagon rides, rope-making and more.
There you go. Rain, unfortunately, or fortunately since we need moisture, is in the forecast for Friday and Saturday…
For detailed information on all of these events, please search online.