Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Fish art along the Mississippi in Monticello October 20, 2022

The Mississippi River in Monticello, MN. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

ALMOST ON A DAILY BASIS now I hear and read media reports about the Mississippi River, reportedly at its lowest level in a decade. Lack of rain led to this situation which is now causing shipping problems, concerns about drinking water supplies and issues with salt water creeping into the river.

Fish art along the Mississippi in Monticello. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

I need only look at lakes, rivers, streams and creeks in southern Minnesota to see how drought is affecting our waterways. Dry creek beds, exposed rock, clearly low water levels raise my concern.

Arrows on the public art list locations along the Mississippi. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Some 270 miles to the north of Faribault in Itasca State Park, the Mississippi River begins. Like most Minnesotans, I’ve walked across the headwaters. The Mississippi starts as a narrow, knee-deep river that widens and deepens and flows 694 miles through Minnesota. It passes through communities like Bemidji (at its northern-most point), Brainerd, Little Falls, St. Cloud, Minneapolis, Hastings and many towns and cities in between before spilling into Iowa on its 2,350-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico.

These lovely homes are next to the park by the river. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Recently, on a return trip home from a family member’s lake cabin in the Brainerd Lakes area, Randy and I stopped for a picnic lunch at West Bridge Park in Monticello. On the northwest edge of the Twin Cities metro, this community hugs the Mississippi. The park, just off State Highway 25 by the river bridge, is easily accessible, but noisy with the steady drone of traffic.

Community members designed and painted the individual fish for this project. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

The creativity in these fish is unique, a reflection of the community. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Another version of funky fish from community creators. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Yet, even if not peaceful, the park is worth visiting. I discovered here a MontiArts Community Project, “The Funky Fish Sign.” Wooden fish cut-outs painted by community members are attached to the trunk of a dead oak as are wooden arrows crafted from old park benches. Those arrows list destinations and river miles from Monticello. To Lake Itasca, 443 river miles. To St. Paul, 43 river miles. To New Orleans, 1,776 river miles.

Public art posted on a dead oak removed from a local cemetery and “replanted” along the Mississippi River bank. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

This riverside fish tree meets MontiArts’ goal of “using the arts to build community.” This truly was a community project with residents, interns and city employees working together to create public art that connects Monticello to the Mississippi from beginning to end.

I especially like the buffalo plaid on this fish. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

But this is about more than a river and geography. In an online video about the project, I learned that the variety in the painted fish represents the differences in people. We are each unique.

From afar, “The Funky Fish Sign” blends into the riverside landscape. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

As individual as we are, though, we are collectively all residents of Earth. We are tasked with caring for natural resources like water, like the mighty Mississippi. This beautiful, scenic, powerful waterway is vital to our economy, vital to our water supply, vital to our leisure, our enjoyment, and, in Monticello, to connecting creativity and community.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling