Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Minnesota prairie roots revisited, remembered, reflected January 25, 2023

My “Hope of a Farmer” poem exhibited at the Lyon County Historical Society Museum. The exhibit also includes my poem, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2022)

WHEN I RETURNED to my beloved southwestern Minnesota prairie in September, I did so with one primary purpose—to see my poetry showcased in the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit at the Lyon County Historical Society Museum in Marshall. Any additional attractions—like viewing a public art sculpture outside the local ice arena and a stop at Brau Brothers Brewing—would only enhance the day trip.

Randy Walker’s “Prairie Roots” sculpture defines the entrance outside the Red Baron Arena on Marshall’s east side at 1651 Victory Drive. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

My one regret is that Randy and I didn’t stay overnight, allowing more time to explore local sites without feeling rushed. Forty years have passed since I visited Marshall en route to the Black Hills on our honeymoon. The college and county seat town lies 20 miles to the west of my hometown, Vesta in Redwood County, and 140 miles from my current home in Faribault.

A serene country scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2013)

This area of Minnesota is the place of my roots. My prairie roots. It is the place of wide open space, expansive skies, small towns and endless acres of cropland.

A prairie sunset photographed from Minnesota State Highway 67 between Redwood Falls and Morgan. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

The land where I grew up inspired my blog name, Minnesota Prairie Roots. The name fits me as a person and a creative. The sparseness of the prairie taught me to notice details, to fully engage my senses. To appreciate the landscape and people. The vastness of the flat land and the star-flushed night sky and achingly beautiful sunsets. Here I connected to the land—bare feet upon dirt, bike tires crunching gravel, dirt etched into my hands from working the soil. Here I connected to the people—down-to-earth, hardworking, linked to the land.

A favorite children’s picture book about the prairie gifted to me by my friend Kathleen.

For those who are not of prairie stock, the sparse landscape can seem uninteresting, empty, desolate. Even I admit the challenge of “if you’re not from the prairie…” A children’s picture book by that title, written by David Bouchard and illustrated by Henry Ripplinger and published in 1995, speaks to the prairie sun, wind, sky, flatness…grasses.

The tall grasses stretch to the prairie sky. The bent tops of the stems are also meant to resemble hockey sticks given the sculpture’s location outside the ice arena. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Tall grasses are often associated with the prairie. Yet, those grasses were mostly missing from the landscape of my youth as cultivated crops covered the earth. But on our farm site, a sliver of unmown grass grew between granary and grove and gravel driveway, stretching high, stems bending in the wind. That Little House on the Prairie (Walnut Grove is 20 miles from Vesta) space opened summer afternoons to imaginative play. I hold many memories rooted in those tall grasses, in the prairie.

Depending on the time of day and viewing point, the steel grass stems showcase different colors. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
The sculpture reflected in an arena window. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Just another view of the grass stems, emphasizing the orange and yellow hues. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Prairie Roots. That name graces a public art sculpture outside the Red Baron Arena in Marshall. Minneapolis artist Randy Walker was commissioned by the City of Marshall in 2018 to create the sculpture reflecting the prairie landscape. I knew in advance of my September visit that I needed to see this artwork if time allowed. We made time. Walker used 210 painted steel poles to represent tall stems of grass, prairie grass. They are colored in hues of yellow, orange, red and green, reflecting seasonal changes and light.

Prairie grass grows within the sculpture. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2022)

And in between all those steel stems, prairie grass grows, thrives.

A grasshopper clings to a steel grass stem in the “Prairie Roots” sculpture. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

I even spotted a grasshopper on a steel stalk, taking me back decades to the hoards of grasshoppers that amassed and hopped through that patch of uncut grass on the farm.

Viewing the sculpture toward the field, this perspective shows the meandering course of the Redwood River in the Marshall area on the floor of the gathering space. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Walker’s sculpture holds visual appeal against an expansive backdrop sky and open field (when viewing the art from the arena entrance outward). Via that perspective, I see the enduring strength of the prairie, and the immensity of land and sky, this place of my Minnesota prairie roots.

Please check back for more posts about my day trip back to southwestern Minnesota in September 2022.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling