Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Mixed message December 3, 2019

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AS A WORDSMITH, I’m especially drawn to signage, including this one spotted Sunday afternoon along Division Street in downtown Northfield.

I laughed given the falling snow, the snow banked on the front of the pick-up truck parked curbside and the mixed message sent.

Cacti are not warm and fuzzy, although the environment in which they grow is warm, even hot. I suppose that was the idea—to get us Minnesotans thinking about warmer places like Little Joy Coffee with its hot brew.

While the words and art seem especially mismatched to me, I noticed, photographed and remembered them. Thus, marketing accomplished.

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Post Thanksgiving gratitude December 2, 2019

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:13 AM
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HOW WAS YOUR THANKSGIVING?

The question has been repeated to me many times in past days. My response? It was wonderful. Wonderful to have all three of my adult children here for the first Thanksgiving in probably 10 years. My mama’s heart overflowed with joy.

Simply being together made me happy. We talked and laughed as we gathered around a table enjoying an abundant and delicious meal. I especially appreciate that my girls prepare and bring foods, thus easing the workload of hosting.

 

The scene in historic downtown Faribault on Thanksgiving weekend. A pre-Thanksgiving storm dropped about eight inches of snow here.

 

After dinner, everyone (except me and almost 11-month-old Isaac) bundled into winter gear and headed up the street to slide down the hill at Wapacuta Park. It’s the same place my kids went sledding while growing up. I’m happy to see the winter tradition continue now with the next generation. If you’re going to live in Minnesota, you may as well get outside and enjoy the snow. (Remind me in a month or two that I wrote this.) Family reported back that my 3 ½-year-old granddaughter, Isabelle, loved sliding—her first time out.

 

I set out an assortment of colorful chalk.

 

With that tradition continuing, I also attempted to start a new one, with minimal success. I pulled a vintage chalkboard from a closet and asked everyone to add things for which they were thankful. Not everyone did. I initiated the list and took a bit of ribbing for writing texting. I explained that, because texting is the primary way we communicate when apart, I am grateful for this technology.

 

The gratitude list…

 

I loved my granddaughter’s additions, vocalized to my eldest daughter, who chalked them onto the board. My dolly, Grandma and Grandpa, Mommy, Ms. C…

But it was my second daughter who later came up with the singular word that made me laugh aloud. CHEESE. What can I say? She lives in Wisconsin.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thanksgiving reflections November 26, 2019

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I created this Thanksgiving centerpiece using a vintage tray, vintage candles, pinecones from friends, shells from Detroit Lake and letters from my 1970s Scrabble game. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

THANKSGIVING. That singular word sparks strong visuals of family gathered around a table laden with a platter of sliced turkey, bowls heaping with potatoes and stuffing, steaming brown gravy, a small bowl of cranberries, salad, and, for dessert, pumpkin pie. I’ve missed a few foods. But I’ve covered the essentials.

 

Frazee, MInnesota’s claim to fame. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

That image is the traditional view of this day. Yet, it is not necessarily accurate. Not for everyone. Too many families, because of distance or other reasons, can’t be together on this holiday that focuses so much on family. I’ve been in that spot many times.

 

Randy shuffles meals and bags around as we prepare to deliver them during a previous Thanksgiving. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

But I’ve learned through the years that I can feel sad about the absence of loved ones or I can choose to be thankful and celebrate the day in ways that remind me of gratitude. In recent years Randy and I celebrated by delivering meals for Faribault’s Community Thanksgiving Dinner. We experienced such joy in bringing turkey and the trimmings to those unable to otherwise enjoy a Thanksgiving meal. Their genuine gratitude blessed us. It truly is more blessed to give than to receive.

 

A message on a bulletin board at Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

This year, though, we will celebrate Thanksgiving at our house with family surrounding a food-laden table. All three of our adult children will be home, for the first time in years. I cannot wait. A son-in-law (one can’t be here) and two grandchildren, ages 3 ½ and almost 11 months, will add to the fun. I am a happy mama. I don’t ever take the presence of my family for granted because I’ve experienced many holidays minus the “kids.” I admit to feeling a bit melancholy through the years when I’ve heard friends talk about their Thanksgiving plans that often include multiple family gatherings. A lot of those friends grew up here and their kids live either in town or nearby as do a large contingent of extended family. But that is not me.

So this Thanksgiving I am especially grateful for the presence of those I love. I wish for you also a full table and a gathering of family or friends to bless your day.

Happy Thanksgiving, dear friends!

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the road in southwestern Minnesota, a photo essay November 25, 2019

Sometimes I photograph scenes in the passenger side mirror, here the grain elevator in Morgan.

 

IF I STOPPED TO PHOTOGRAPH everything that grabbed my interest while on the road, I would never get anywhere. So I’ve learned to shoot on the fly—from the passenger seat and out the windshield or the side window. I set my camera’s shutter speed in sports mode (a fast speed to catch action) and then scan for photo ops.

Photographing in this style calls for a watchful eye, an ability to compose/frame a scene at a moment’s notice and a lot of luck. Factor in dirty/tinted windows and reflections and the challenge is even greater.

 

I often think, this creamery in Courtland would make a lovely brewery. I’m unsure of its use, but I think it’s a residence/apartments.

 

Still, I manage to capture plenty of images that I wouldn’t otherwise get.

 

Courtlands’ Swany’s Pub, left, always draws my eye for the signage.

 

With that background, I take you on the road, westbound toward my native Redwood County. My photo tour begins about 1 ½ hours into this road trip, in Courtland, This small town is a pass-through point for busy US Highway 14. It’s also the home of my maternal forefathers. Not a lot changes in Courtland, although the Crow Bar burned down a few years ago and has since been rebuilt. It’s across the street from Swany’s Pub.

 

The curve of this tire shop draws my focus.

 

The Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in New Ulm, which I have yet to visit.

 

A billboard near New Ulm advertises Schell’s Brewery’s seasonal snowstorm beer.

 

Continuing west, New Ulm now requires driving through this long river town (due to a major road construction project on Highway 14). I love New Ulm, just not the time it takes to get through the city when you want to reach your destination quickly. The strong German heritage of this place, its natural beauty and a variety of attractions (including Schell’s Brewery) make me a fan of New Ulm.

 

Harvest was in full swing during my most recent trip to southwestern Minnesota a few weeks ago. This is near New Ulm.

 

Once outside the seat of Brown County, the rural landscape continues on the long stretch of roadways to Morgan.

 

Driving through Morgan, a small farming community.

 

Waiting at the elevator in Morgan.

 

I photograph this co-op elevator nearly every time we drive through Morgan.

 

Now I’m back in Redwood County and the familiarity of grain elevators and small town Main Streets.

 

Near Redwood Falls, a grain truck in a cornfield.

 

Photographing breaks the boredom of too many miles between Morgan and Redwood Falls.

 

Driving through part of the business district in downtown Redwood Falls, Minnesota.

 

Redwood always brings out mixed emotions in me. I attended junior high here, the worst two years of my youth due to bullying in school. From both teachers and classmates. Yes, teachers. But Redwood also evokes some wonderful memories of visiting my maternal grandfather, of hiking in beautiful Alexander Ramsey Park (known as The Little Yellowstone of Minnesota) and buying fabric in the basement of the J.C. Penney’s store. I sewed most of my clothes as a teen.

As I photograph these places, I am documenting my life. Not always directly, but indirectly. And if not my life, then the lives and places of those who call southwestern Minnesota home.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“Back home” in rural southwestern Minnesota November 22, 2019

Along U.S. Highway 14 west of Mankato. I grew up some 80 miles west of here.

 

ALTHOUGH I’VE LIVED IN TOWN longer than in the country, I still feel most at home in the familiar surroundings of endless land and vast sky. Southwestern Minnesota. It is the place of my roots, the place of my heart, the place where I feel overwhelmingly comfortable.

 

Farms edge U.S. Highway 14 in this region of Minnesota.

 

I expect most people connect to a geographic location. Do you?

 

Another farm along Highway 14 west of Mankato.

 

Every time I’m back home, because, yes, I still call this rural region back home, I sweep my eyes across the landscape, noticing always how small I feel in this setting. The sky and land overtake every aspect of this place, dwarfing farm sites and farm machinery and people. Only grain elevators seem to hold any sort of visual power.

 

An old-style machine shed in southwestern Minnesota.

 

As I travel through this farming region, I study building sites, pleased by sturdy, maintained barns, dismayed by those with roofs caving. Too many barns are vacant of animals, an almost certain start of their demise.

 

Grain bins define a farm site near Delhi, Minnesota, in my native Redwood County.

 

Like the farmer’s daughter I am, I notice the status of crops from spring planting to harvest. It’s in my DNA, this natural instinct to focus on corn and soybean fields, to assess the growing season, to care about the weather.

 

A farm site west of New Ulm, Minnesota.

 

Although I’ve left this land of my youth, I remain grateful for the earth, the sky, the wind, the communities, the schools, the churches and peoples of southwestern Minnesota. All influenced and shaped me. And still do.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A must-see NYC photo blog November 21, 2019

A Minnesota version of the Statue of Liberty at the Holiday Haven motel in Detroit Lakes. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2019.

 

FOR A FEW YEARS NOW, I’ve followed the work of award-winning New York City photographer Keith Goldstein. His credentials are extensive and impressive.

But beyond that lengthy list of accomplishments is my genuine appreciation of his work. He specializes in street portraits and in architectural photography. Goldstein captures some pretty incredible pictures of people going about everyday life in the big city and I often wonder how he does it. But he’s that good, unobtrusively photographing individuals in an urban environment that is also part of each photo story. I often find myself studying a frame, surprised by what I see.

New York City is about so much more than the nearby Statue of Liberty and Wall Street and 9/11. This noted photographer reveals that in his images.

Recently, Goldstein’s photo blog has focused on NYC buildings, truly foreign to my rural flatlander background. I’ve only been to this East Coast city once, decades ago while in college. I remember standing on a street corner then, craning my neck toward the skyscrapers. And nearly being run over by someone pushing a garment rack down the sidewalk. I don’t ever intend to return to NYC. I really don’t much care for big cities.

 

Photographed in June 2014 at a shop in Farmington, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

But, through Goldstein’s photography, I am shown this world so different from mine in rural Minnesota. I see the humanity of NYC, raw and exposed. Sometimes I just want to reach into those portraits and wrap my arms around the people who are hurting. Give hugs. I want to stop and listen and offer a smile and encouragement. In the sea of humanity that defines this place, Goldstein manages to find the individuals, to tell their stories through the lens of his camera.

 

Another Statue of Liberty, this one at Hot Sam’s Foto Park near Lakeville. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2012.

 

I consider his photography a gift. Real. Unfiltered. It’s important that I see the peoples and architecture of New York City because these images broaden my world. Goldstein’s photos stretch my compassion and my understanding of these United States of America. We are, no matter where we live, still just people with emotions and needs and hopes and dreams. And we all hold within us the capacity to connect and to care. Goldstein, in his art—because his work truly is art—offers that. And for that I am grateful.

TO VIEW Keith Goldstein’s blog, Far Earth Below, click here.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

New efforts to help Minnesota farmers in crisis November 19, 2019

Tilling at sunset, Redwood County, Minnesota.

 

I WITNESSED THE DESPAIR first-hand. The overwhelming concern that can settle in when bad weather affects crops, prices drop and the bills pile high.

 

A well-kept, stately barn west of New Ulm, Minnesota.

 

Too many years I observed the struggles my dad faced as a farmer. Even as a kid I understood. But now, as an adult reflecting on my past, I understand even more. I observed the stress Dad faced in 1976 when a drought left him without enough feed for the livestock and necessitated purchasing a boxcar full of hay from Montana. I recall, too, the time he dumped milk down the drain, part of a National Farmers Organization protest over low milk prices. And then, when a tornado hit our farm, he had to make agonizing decisions about whether to rebuild.

 

A farm site in my native Redwood County, Minnesota, where the land and sky stretch into forever.

 

Certainly, my years on a southwestern Minnesota crop and dairy farm in the 1960s and 1970s differ from today in many ways. Farms are bigger now, family farms fewer. Technology weaves into every aspect of farming. And many farmers (and their spouses) now hold off-the-farm jobs to make ends meet, to continue farming. Yet, the basics of unpredictable weather and prices and resulting stress remain unchanged.

 

About 10 days ago, farmers in southwestern Minnesota rushed to harvest crops.

 

This has been an especially difficult year for farmers in Minnesota. Too much rain. Dairy prices that have plummeted. I don’t know all the intricacies of what’s happening. But I understand enough to recognize that many farmers are in crisis. Financially. And mentally.

 

Harvesting with snow already on the ground near New Ulm, Minnesota, on a recent Saturday.

 

Unlike the era in which my dad farmed, people are doing something about these issues. The Minnesota Departments of Agriculture and Health are holding safeTALK training at locations around the state—including in my community of Faribault on Wednesday, November 20—to help people help farmers in crisis. The training is aimed specifically at suicide prevention and intervention.

 

The grain elevator in Morgan in southwestern Minnesota.

 

This latest focus on the mental health of the ag community is long overdue. Farmers have always been there for one another in times of need, when another farmer, for example, battled a disease like cancer. But when it came to mental health, not so much.

 

Still bringing in the corn in early November in southwestern Minnesota.

 

These latest efforts reflect a societal shift in mental health awareness. More and more of us are talking about it. And that is a good thing. Now we need more mental healthcare professionals in rural areas. Talk is only as valuable as the resources and action to back it up.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling