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.
© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
A divine encounter. I remember when Bjorn died. This is a wonderful tribute.
I like your word choice of “divine encounter.” What I didn’t share in my post is that Bjorn’s family does an annual charity event honoring him. You’re likely aware of that.
This is Minnesota Prairie Roots at its very best. Thank you for this inspirational post, Audrey.
You are welcome. And thank you for your kind words.
What a blessing you were to this family on this day. Bjorn’s wisdom at a young age shines through his poetry. A beautiful legacy for his surviving family.
The blessing was mutual. Yes, Bjorn’s wisdom as expressed in his poetry seems beyond his years.
Hey Audrey – so thankful we crossed paths. My cousin Janet had reminded me of the event only earlier in the day. I’ve wanted to attend in the past but we are almost always at our Wisconsin cabin on this weekend (close to Bjorn’s birthday on Sept 15th). The interest and compassion you demonstrated on Sunday came through beautifully in your words on Monday. My entire family appreciated your storytelling. So do I. Brett Norgaard
Thank you, Brett, for your kind words about my post, which wouldn’t have been possible without you approaching me and then sharing Bjorn’s story. I appreciate your then passing my post along via Facebook and then sharing comments with me. I feel incredibly blessed that we met, that I could write about your son, your love of him, his story. Now every time I think of that old fallen oak at Valley Grove, every time I walk through that cemetery, I will remember Bjorn and pause to celebrate him.