Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Up North at the lake cabin September 29, 2020

The residuals of sunset tint the sky and the water on Horseshoe Lake.

 

JUST OVER A YEAR AGO, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law purchased a lakeside property in central Minnesota with a guest cabin. That bonus cabin, located a short walk from the year-round lake home, was among the main reasons they chose to buy this place. They wanted to invite family and friends to stay.

 

We fished from the dock while others fished from boats. Randy caught three fish. My solo catch got away after it flipped out of Randy’s hand on the dock. I then found a net.

 

What an incredible blessing the cabin has already proven to be to many in the family, especially during a global pandemic. Randy and I recently spent several days at the cabin, our third stay there in a year, and our first time without any other family. It was exactly what I needed. A respite. A break from reality while immersed in nature.

 

Signs like this mark lake properties in the central Minnesota lakes region. I find these collections, and signature art at the ends of driveways, to be visually, artistically and historically fascinating.

 

A speed boat flies across the water on the opposite side of the lake.

 

On the weekend of our September visit, neighboring lake properties remained unused. Nice and quiet, just how we like it.

 

Unlike many Minnesotans, I did not grow up with trips Up North to the cabin. I didn’t even grow up with vacations, except two—one to Duluth at age four and the other to the Black Hills of South Dakota around age ten. Such is the reality of a childhood on a crop and dairy farm, where the cows don’t allow for vacations. Randy grew up the same way.

 

Skies opened to beautiful blue reflecting on the water. We lounged lakeside for awhile.

 

Because of that and because, even as adults, we’ve vacationed minimally (due to cost and few vacation days until recently), we deeply appreciate, enjoy and delight in this time at the family lake cabin. We are experiencing something—time off and time at the lake—that many take for granted.

 

Pines border the driveway into the lake property. This scene is so Minnesota northwoods.

 

The central lakes region of Minnesota feels vastly different from life in Faribault south of the metro. And that’s exactly the point of getting away to the cabin. There I feel much more connected to the natural world. By the lake. By the family of resident eagles. By the crowded woods of thin pines that stretch tall and lean along the driveway into the lake property. By the rush of wind through those pines.

 

Chairs on a neighboring dock…

 

Combined, all of those differences create a sense of peace that only nature can deliver.

 

Randy cooks an evening meal of buffalo burgers, bacon and vegetables over a lakeside campfire.

 

Our brother-in-law has chopped plenty of wood for campfires and fireplace fires.

 

Even though the weather during our most recent visit was sometimes cool and exceptionally windy, Randy and I spent most of our times outdoors. Fishing. Hiking. And, in the evenings, pulled up to the warmth of a campfire. Oak chunks flamed before burning to red hot coals and embers. We talked. And sometimes just sat, lost in our thoughts. One evening we listened to band music carrying across the landscape from a nearby bar and grill.

 

A daytime view looking to the pine tops.

 

After our campfire time, before heading indoors, we paused to look skyward. To the stars filling the night sky. Beautiful in the lack of light pollution. Bright points in the inky darkness. Earlier in the summer, we showed those same stars to our four-year-old granddaughter, who was staying with us at the cabin along with her family. Isabelle was “too excited to sleep,” she told us. So outside we went to view the stars. Not that that helped settle her excitement. But why not take our granddaughter outside in her pajamas to see the stars?

 

Randy takes a quiet walk along the beach.

 

Such moments are part of a cabin vacation. Or any vacation. As Randy and I stood under the starry sky in September, we remembered that moment with Izzy and how we look forward to future stays at the lake cabin with our family. Building memories. Memories we never had, but which are now making. Because Randy’s youngest sister and her husband are sharing their piece/peace of heaven with us, their family. We are grateful.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the road: A favorite nature break in Zimmerman September 28, 2020

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

 

THE SHERBURNE COUNTY PARK has become, for us, a stopping point on the drive north to an extended family member’s guest lake cabin south of Crosslake.

 

Birds take flight from the prairie area of Grams Park last September. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

 

Photographed in Grams Park during an early September 2019 visit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The park features a mix of woods, prairie and swampland. I took this photo about 10 days ago.

 

Randy and I typically pack a picnic lunch for a noonish stop at Grams Regional Park in Zimmerman. It’s a lovely spot not far off U.S. Highway 169. Here we eat our sandwiches, fruit and other picnic food before stretching our legs along trails that trace through this 100-acre park.

 

 

 

 

Typically, we follow the paths into the woods and then along curving boardwalks across wetlands or bogs, or whatever the proper terminology for the swampy areas lush with cattails.

 

Wildflowers photographed last September at Grams Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2019.

 

At the prairie on the edge of the woods, this native pocket prairie has been planted.

 

Wildflowers along a wooded trail.

 

It’s a welcome break from the highway, this temporary immersion in nature—among the trees and wildflowers and peace in a place we’ve grown to appreciate.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

 

Ten days ago, the leaves at Grams Park were morphing into beautiful autumn hues.

 

A cluster of oak leaves by our picnic table.

 

And, during this season, the woods are particularly beautiful as leaves morph into the golden, brown and sometimes fiery hues of autumn. I may not love that autumn signals the transition toward winter. But I delight in the way she moves there.

 

I love this aspect of Grams Park, a nature discovery play space for kids.

 

Kids can play with these wooden discs…

 

…and learn about the rusty patched bumblebee.

 

If one positive change comes from COVID-19, I think it’s that we all hold a deeper appreciation of the outdoors, of the spaces which give us a respite from reality. And Grams Regional Park is such a place, more than a stop for lunch en route to the lake cabin.

 

Berries photographed in early September of last year. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2019.

 

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite park that you’ve grown even more fond of during the global pandemic?

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“It’s in your hands” September 25, 2020

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I photographed this sign on the door of a business in Crosby, where shops I visited followed through on masking requirements.

 

Lake COUNTRY Cares.

That sub message underscores the main point to mask up while patronizing businesses in central Minnesota’s lakes region. So those businesses can stay open.

I appreciate the message and the buffalo plaid Paul Bunyan themed art iconic to this region. The serious, yet visually humorous, sign, duplicated and posted on many shops, reminds us all that we can help stop the spread of COVID-19 by masking up.

If only every business posting that sign or a similar “masks are required” sign would follow the rules. Words are meaningless when actions do not match. And I found that to be the case in some (more than I expected) shops in Nisswa and Crosslake during a recent stay at a family lake cabin in the area.

My frustration level grew to the point that, if I walked into a shop where the owner/employee was not masked or even one customer was not masked (wearing a mask below one’s nose or around one’s neck or wearing only a partial plastic shield is not “wearing a mask”), I walked out. Right out the door. This failure to mask up shows no care. No care for people. No care for keeping businesses open.

 

I love this message and the welcoming and caring shopkeeper with whom I spoke.

 

In all fairness, I walked into plenty of shops where the owners clearly care. Masks were available to customers. Hand sanitizer or wipes were front and center with notices to use upon entering the business. I especially appreciated the cleaning station and creative signage in a Crosslake framing and gift shop that stated: IT’S IN YOUR HANDS.

Yes, it is. It’s up to each of us to do our part to keep each other safe. This is about health and science and respect and compassion for one another. Not about politics and whatever other arguments can be tossed into the mix.

This failure to follow our state mask mandate is not unique to the central Minnesota lakes region, although, from my observations during my visit, it seems more problematic there. Here in the Faribault area I still see occasional half-maskers and no-maskers. Without divulging specifics, I will also add that not all employers are providing a safe work environment for employees or customers by their failure to comply with Minnesota’s mask mandate and other health recommendations.

So, yeah, I’m frustrated. Even angry at times. I recognize that even the best preventative measures can still fail, but we have to try.

 

A sign posted in Mission Park south of Crosslake from an event canceled earlier this year due to COVID-19.

 

Just like many of you, I’m weary of COVID-19 and the restrictions it has placed on my life. But I keep reminding myself that I, we, can get through this, if only we do our part. Mask up. Social distance. Keep our hands clean. Avoid crowds and sizeable gatherings. Limit our circle. Make smart/good decisions that protect ourselves and others. Stay home when we’re sick. Get tested for COVID-19 if symptoms suggest that. It’s not that difficult. Really.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In praise of the art, gardens & messages in an Atwood Neighborhood September 24, 2020

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BE KIND.

Two simple words painted, along with three red hearts, onto a block of wood. And then set on the front steps of a home in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin.

 

A section of the Atwood Neighborhood I walked.

 

On a recent trip to Wisconsin’s state capital, I retraced a route I previously walked through this east side neighborhood near my son’s apartment. I found in that residential area many uplifting and positive messages that show those who live here care. Deeply. About others. About issues.

 

One of the many inspiring signs posted in the residential neighborhood where I walked a square block. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

And, in times like this with such chaos and turmoil and hatred in our country, I need to immerse myself in positive and hopeful words that uplift, rather than anger or sadden me.

 

An example of a front yard mixing plants and art.

 

Up close in a front yard I spotted this sprawling cactus which adds interest to the landscape.

 

Besides the messages, I appreciate the art placed in front yards overflowing with plants, including flowers. Not manicured lawns. I welcome that alternative to grass. It’s lovelier and better for the environment.

 

 

And in one yard, by a boulevard tree, I once again found a mini garden, a magical world of fairies and rabbits and gnomes. Making music. Dancing, Reading. Waiting.

 

 

I paused to photograph the scenes, inwardly praising the efforts of the homeowner who created this fantasy world for passersby to enjoy.

 

 

This offers, too, a momentary escape from reality. Something I need now, more than ever.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My poem included in collection vying for Minnesota writing award September 23, 2020

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WE ARE SIXTEEN STRONG, 16 area poets whose collected poetry, Legacies: Poetic Living Wills, is now a finalist in the 2020 Minnesota Authors Project: Communities Create contest.

I learned of this honor only recently via Northfield Poet Laureate Rob Hardy. A gifted poet and tireless promoter of poets and poetry, he submitted the collection to the debut contest sponsored by the Minnesota Library Foundation, Minnesota libraries and Bibliolabs.

According to the MN Reads MN Writes website, the new contest is designed “to recognize community-created writing and to highlight the central role that libraries play in providing support for local authors and the communities they serve.”

I crafted my poem, “Life at Forty Degrees,” in response to Hardy’s 2018 call for submissions to an anthology of “poetic living wills.”

The content of the poetry collections is summarized as “poems (that) deal with death and dying, with the things that make life meaningful in the face of death, and with the legacies that the poets hope to leave behind or have received from others before them.” My poem, about hanging laundry on the clothesline, focuses on the legacy passed on to me by my grandmothers.

You can read the collection by clicking here.

The winner of the first-ever Minnesota Authors Project: Communities Create contest will be announced later this month at the annual Minnesota Library Association’s annual conference. No matter the outcome, I feel honored to stand in the “finalist” category with 15 other gifted poets from Northfield and nearby (like me from Faribault).

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Portraits honor laborers on Madison’s East Side September 22, 2020

Portraits grace window spaces of Madison-Kipp Corporation, founded in 1898, and located in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin. The company produces precision machined aluminum die castings and subassemblies for the transportation, lawn and garden, and industrial markets, according to its website.

 

WHEN I VIEWED PORTRAITS set into former window spaces in an aged industrial brick building on Madison’s East Side, I saw strength.

 

This portrait exudes strength.

 

Strength in the bulk of bodies. Strength in the machines depicted. Strength in the hands and arms and faces of those who labored inside. Strength of work ethic and determination and skill.

 

Portraits of industrial workers stretch along the building.

 

Pride surged, not because of a personal connection to those employed by Madison-Kipp Corporation, but because of the blue collar connection. Too often, society dismisses as secondary those who put hands to machines, hands to tools, hands to steering wheels…

 

That each mural focuses on one worker highlights their individual value to the company.

 

But I recognize their value, for my father and his father before him and the generation prior worked the land. Farming. To feed their families. To feed others. Dirt and grease and backbreaking hard work defined their days. So I honor these men in the history of my life, including my husband, Randy, an automotive machinist for 40-plus years. A customer recently called him “an institution.” That seems fitting given his career longevity and the rarity of his skill set. I have no idea what Randy’s customers will do when he retires because no apprentice waits in the wings.

 

It takes the hands and skills of many to run a company and produce product.

 

Even with a renewed interest in the need for hands-on skilled workers, I don’t expect young people to necessarily embrace these jobs. The four-year college degree mindset has been too long embedded in our psyche. Yet, the need for mechanics, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, factory workers, etc., will only grow as Baby Boomers retire.

 

I appreciate that women are among those featured in this public art.

 

I am grateful for those who work with their hands. They keep our vehicles running, our houses repaired, our grocery store shelves stocked, our factories running…

 

Strong, determined, skilled…

 

When I studied the portraits on the Kipp building along the Capital City State Trail, I noticed, too, the drab shades of brown, grey, blue, green, no single person standing out in flashy colors. Too often those employed by manufacturers, warehouses and more go unnoticed, blending into the landscape of our lives.

 

Credit goes to these groups.

 

So to see this art, this very public art, recognize the often unrecognized pleases me. I value these men and women and the work they do. And now this art which honors them.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

LOVE blooms in Northfield mural September 18, 2020

The Northfield Arts and Culture Commission awarded $3,000 toward this mural project.

 

SUNFLOWERS. LILIES. DAISIES.

 

I love the bold hues of this mural mixed with grey and black.

 

Flowers bloom in bold colors painted onto an exterior block wall in the heart of downtown Northfield.

 

Mural on the Domino’s building.

 

Just a half block off Division Street, up the hill from Bridge Square, on the building housing Domino’s Pizza, a colorful mural stretches, drawing appreciative onlookers. Including me. During Northfield’s The Defeat of Jesse James Days celebration last Saturday, many a passerby posed for photos against the colorful and inspiring backdrop.

 

Outlined in blue, the word LOVE.

 

This mural commissioned by the owner of the building and created by Illinois artist Brett Whitacre features more than vibrant flowers. It highlights a single word: LOVE.

 

The signature of mural artist Brett Whitacre on a corner of the mural.

 

And perhaps that is the unconscious draw. We all need LOVE. More than ever right now. These are difficult days of dealing with a relentless and deadly virus, social unrest and injustices, and a country in turmoil.

 

I expect the LOVE mural will continue to be a popular photo backdrop, especially for couples holding their wedding receptions at The Grand Event Center just across the street.

 

To pause for a moment in the chaos and appreciate this beautiful example of uplifting public art is to take a respite. To choose for a moment to embrace LOVE. That one emotion we all need. That connects us. If we allow it to do so.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Northfield: Snapshots of an abbreviated Defeat of Jesse James Days September 17, 2020

The site of the 1876 attempted bank robbery, now the Northfield Historical Society.

 

TYPICALLY, THE DEFEAT OF JESSE JAMES DAYS in Northfield finds Randy and me avoiding this college town only 20 minutes from Faribault. Crowds and congestion keep us away as thousands converge on this southeastern Minnesota community to celebrate the defeat of the James-Younger Gang in a September 7, 1876, attempted robbery of the First National Bank.

 

Waiting for fair food at one of several stands.

 

But this year, because of COVID-19, the mega celebration scaled back, leaving Northfield busy, but not packed. And so we walked around downtown for a bit on Saturday afternoon, after we replenished our book supply at the local public library—our original reason for being in Northfield.

 

The LOVE mural painted on a pizza place in Northfield drew lots of fans taking photos, including me.

 

On our way to Bridge Square, a riverside community gathering spot in the heart of this historic downtown, I paused to photograph the latest public art project here—a floral mural painted on the side of the Domino’s Pizza building by Illinois artist Brett Whitacre. (More info and photos on that tomorrow.)

 

One of the many Sidewalk Poetry poems imprinted into cement in downtown Northfield.

 

Northfield’s appreciation of the arts—from visual to literary to performing—is one of the qualities I most value about this community. As a poet, I especially enjoy the poetry imprinted upon sidewalks.

 

An impromptu concert in Bridge Square.

 

A fountain, monument and the iconic popcorn wagon define Bridge Square in the warmer weather season.

 

Buying a corn dog…

 

I was delighted also to see and hear a guitarist quietly strumming music in the town square while people walked by, stopped at the iconic popcorn wagon or waited in line for corn dogs and cheese curds. Several food vendors lined a street by the park.

 

The Defeat of Jesse James Days royalty out and about.

 

Among fest-goers I spotted Defeat of Jesse James royalty in their denim attire, red bandanna masks, crowns and boots, the masks a reminder not of outlaws but of COVID-19.

 

Photographed through the bakery’s front window, the feet-shaped pastries.

 

Yet, in the throes of a global pandemic, some aspects of the celebration remained unchanged. At Quality Bakery a half a block away from Bridge Square, the western-themed window displays featured the bakery’s signature celebration pastry—De-Feet of Jesse James.

 

A sign outside a Division Street business fits the theme of the celebration.

 

For a bit of this Saturday, it felt good to embrace this long-running event, to experience a sense of community, to celebrate the defeat of the bad guys.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Up close in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Part II September 16, 2020

 

PLACE REVEALS ITSELF in the details.

 

Sunflowers brighten the Atwood Community Gardens.

 

Put me in a location, like the Atwood Neighborhood on the east side of Madison, Wisconsin, and I will focus on the nuances. The seemingly little things that, when connected, define this as a neighborhood rooted in art, in the outdoors, in a genuine care for one another.

 

This is one busy bike path, frequented by all ages.

 

All of this I surmised simply by walking along Atwood area residential streets and past businesses and by following the Capital City State Trail for several blocks.

 

Flowers, oh, so many flowers…

 

My post today takes you back to the bike path, to those details that caused me to pause with my camera as bikers zipped past me. To photograph the flowers.

 

An artsy sign in the community garden.

 

Inspiring graffiti.

 

Madison’s capitol is depicted in this manhole cover art.

 

And the signs—always the signs, the aged brick buildings and, yes, even the manhole covers.

 

A little seasonal fun added to the Atwood Community Gardens.

 

And resident garden skeleton.

 

Cow art by the Goodman Community Center and right next to the bike trail.

 

What I observed pleases me as a creative, as an appreciator of aged architecture, as a nature lover and as a human being who values respect for others.

 

Colorful flowers thrive, including this zinnia.

 

The natural beauty of the Atwood Neighborhood appeals to me.

 

Spotted in a window of a residence along the bike trail.

 

The spirit of the Atwood Neighborhood appeals to me, too. With its earthiness. Its embracing of differences. Its sense of neighborhood pride. Its art. I feel comfortable here. Welcome. And that, my friends, is more important than ever in these times of upheaval, discontent, frustration and disconnect.

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Note: Like anywhere, no place is utopia, and that includes the East Side of Madison. While visiting my son, who lives in the Atwood Neighborhood, I learned of a recent daytime “shots fired” along his street. He didn’t tell me about this, of course, not wanting to worry his mom. There have been other similar incidents. Does this concern me? Yes. But then I think of my neighborhood in Faribault, considered small town to many, but not to me. In the 36 years I’ve lived here, my section of town has seen violence also. In 1999, a young man was stabbed to death within blocks of my home. We’ve also experienced drive-by shootings only blocks away. Not recently. No matter where you live, no place is fully safe. But, of one thing I am certain. We each have within us the capacity to shine lights of hope in our neighborhoods, to be decent and kind and caring.

Please check back soon for more posts from this section of Madison, Wisconsin.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Exploring Madison’s Atwood Neighborhood via the bike trail, minus the bike, Part I September 15, 2020

A colorful cow sculpture stands next to the bike trail by the Goodman Community Center in the Atwood Neighbohood of Madison, Wisconsin.

 

BUTTERFLIES. BOOKS. BIKES. Even a bovine. And a sign for burgers and brats.

 

The bike path teems with bikers of all ages, and some walkers.

 

All defined a Labor Day weekend walk along the Capital City State Trail on Madison’s east side while visiting family. This Wisconsin state capital fully embraces biking via a city-wide system of connecting trails. Walk the paved pathways rather than wheel them and you best remain vigilant. And to the side. Most bikers zoom by.

 

By the community center, a Little Free Library sits right next to the bike trail.

 

With that awareness, I fully enjoyed this opportunity to see more of the thriving and vibrant Atwood Neighborhood.

 

Next to the trail, an electric bike rental station.

 

I almost wished I had a bike, though, and I suppose I could have rented an electric one from a rental station positioned along the trail, just another way to get those without bikes out, moving and exploring.

 

Flowers fill yards and sections of community garden plots.

 

But, given I had my DSLR camera, walking worked better. I could stop when I wanted—which was often—to document my surroundings. My walking companions—the husband and the son—often paced yards ahead and I finally told them to continue without me. They did. And later returned with an ice cream treat from a trail-side shop.

 

The community gardens are popular and filled with fruit, vegetables and flowers.

 

Even in the gardens, you’ll find art in signage.

 

This fence panel/art graces a corner of a garden plot. The gardens stretch along the bike path.

 

While they pursued ice cream, I snapped photos in the Atwood Community Gardens next to the trail. There I chatted briefly with a woman harvesting kale. I shared my appreciation for the lovely neighborhood and she told me of the long waiting list to get a garden plot.

 

Environmental concerns shared in art painted on a sidewalk by the trail.

 

She also tipped me off to concerns about groundwater and soil contamination from a resident industry (which I later verified online at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources).

 

Murals stretch along the side of the historic Madison Kipp-Corporation building next to the bike trail. Sail East, Goodman Center Youth, Kipp employees and the Dane Arts Mural Arts worked together on the 2017 project. Please check back for a post focusing on this public art.

 

It was on that industrial building that I found art. Murals of laborers at work, a fitting discovery on Labor Day weekend. The portraits show the strength of those who work with their hands. I spent many minutes photographing those paintings of blue collar workers.

 

Wisconsin and brats are synonymous.

 

A colorful cow sculpture by the Goodman Community Center also drew my attention. It seems fitting given Wisconsin’s “Dairyland State” motto and affinity for cheese curds. In addition to brats and beer.

 

This is the first photo I took as we walked the bike trail. You’ll find reaffirming messages like this throughout the Atwood Neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin.

 

In many ways, my walk along the bike trail offered a mini snapshot of Madison in the context of the Atwood Neighborhood. I saw an appreciation for the arts, for the land, for the outdoors. And I felt, too, a strong sense of community grounded in caring for one another. And that, more than anything, makes me feel…hopeful.

 

Please check back for more posts from my recent visit to Madison, including a second one of images from this same section of the Capitol City Bike Path.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling