THE OFFICIAL ARRIVAL OF SPRING today seems reason to celebrate, especially here in Minnesota, the land of long winters. Or, as my California-raised son-in-law once thought, Almost Canada.
From here on, daylight lengthens. And, after this past pandemic year, I’m thankful for the seasonal transition into more sunlight and resulting warmth and melting of snow. That said, this is still March and in Minnesota that likely means more cold and snowy days.
But, as we ease into spring, I feel a sense of renewal. Warm days with temps in the 50s and near 60, like those predicted for this weekend, are freeing, uplifting and promising.
Farmers, I expect, are itching to get into the fields, although it’s way too early for that. I still think like the farm-raised woman I am, connecting seasons to the cycle of planting, growing and harvesting. That will always remain an important part of my identity and continues to influence my writing and photography.
Flash back to 10 years ago and you can read that influence in a poem I penned and submitted to the Roadside Poetry Project. In four lines, each with a 20 character limit, I wrote a spring-themed poem that bannered on four billboards in Fergus Falls. It’s the most unusual spot my poetry has ever published.
Designed “to celebrate the personal pulse of poetry in the landscape,” according to then Project Coordinator Paul Carney, my poem truly fit that mission. I wrote from experience, from a closeness to the land, from a landscape of understanding.
While the Roadside Poetry Project, funded by the Fergus Falls College Foundation, no longer exists, my poem endures in the legacy of my writing. To have written about spring from the perspective of a farmer’s daughter celebrates my rural Minnesota prairie roots. And spring.
PHOTOGRAPHING MINNESOTA COMMUNITIES remains a focal point of my photography. I love to document people, places and events with my camera.
My photos present visual stories. I suppose you could say I am both the writer and the editor. I choose what to photograph and how. I decide, in the moment, whether to show you a detailed up-close subject or whether to cover a broader area. Both are important in storytelling. I also decide the perspective from which I will photograph. Down low. Eye level. Or some other angle.
During a recent visit to Northfield, one of my favorite Minnesota communities about a 20-minute drive away, I had exactly 10 minutes to photograph before our food order was ready for pick up on the other side of town. I asked Randy to act as time-keeper. When I’m photographing, I lose all track of time, so engaged am I in the creative process.
We parked near Bridge Square, the heart of downtown Northfield and a community gathering spot. On this late January afternoon with the temp not quite 20 degrees and with COVID-19 reducing the number of visitors to this typically busy downtown, I observed only a few people out and about. Often finding a place to park proves challenging. Not so on this Saturday.
We walked toward Bridge Square, adjacent to the Cannon River. Turning the corner off Division Street, the wind sliced cold across my face. I knew that exposing my fingers to snap the shutter button of my camera would be numbing. My mittens, which open to finger-less gloves, help. I’d highly recommend these if you work a camera in a cold weather environment like Minnesota.
For the next 10 minutes, while Randy walked ahead of me—I always lag when I’m photographing—I concentrated on the half-block square area around me. The signs. The buildings. A woman and her dog. The river.
In this short segment of time, I composed a short story, or at least the beginning of one. With these minimal images, I show you history, nature, voices. A glimpse in to the heart and soul of Northfield. This brings me joy, this ability to follow my passion, to share with you these visual stories through my photography.
FOG TRANSFORMS THE LANDSCAPE, sometimes in to an unfamiliar place that leaves us feeling disoriented, lost. But other times, like last week here in Minnesota, fog layered trees with rime ice, creating an enchanting, almost magical world. Despite the grey that pressed heavy upon the land day after day.
Photographing a world covered in frozen fog droplets proved difficult for me. My camera cannot convey the beauty the human eye sees. Yet, I managed a few images that attempt to show the other worldly qualities of a rime ice shrouded landscape.
I find that in winter here in southern Minnesota, I must look harder to notice nature’s beauty. It’s there, but toned down, converted to black-and-white. Grey. Colorless. Yet present.
Still, I take fewer photos. Not only because I see less to document, but because the very act of exposing my fingers to the cold is uncomfortable. (I’m thankful for mittens that open to fingerless gloves, a thoughtful gift from Randy many years ago.)
I’m also cautious about icy surfaces, lest I fall and break another bone. A broken shoulder and wrist in recent years, one of which resulted in surgery, fuel that cautiousness.
And then there’s COVID, which has certainly affected my photographic opportunities. Still, if I determine to look closely at the world around me, decide that my fingers can handle brief cold exposure, I can continue to document, to create, to pursue my passion for photography.
This week brought sunshine to Minnesota, a welcome break from all that dreary grey. We, or at least I, needed it, if anything, as a symbol of hope during these truly difficult times in our country.
TODAY I CONTINUE my photo review of 2020, selecting one image from each month, July – December, to highlight here.
In JULY, our family escaped into the peace and natural beauty of the central Minnesota lakes region, staying in a guest lake cabin on property owned by a sister-in-law and brother-in-law. Our eldest and her family and our son joined Randy and me. There, among the towering pines and next to a lake, we delighted in watching loons and the resident eagles. We played in and on the water, dined lakeside, sat around the campfire, made smores and so much more. The first evening, when the 4-year-old granddaughter declared she was “too excited to sleep,” Randy and I took her outside in her pajamas to view the star-studded night sky. Love-filled moments like these imprint upon my memory, reminding me how important my family is to me.
Spring and summer brought voices rising in protest, in strong strong words that resonated with so many, including me. In the small town of Dundas in AUGUST, I photographed banners posted on the windows of an aged stone house. Thoughtful. Powerful. Necessary.
SEPTEMBER took Randy and me back to the family lake cabin for a second short stay, this time just the two of us. While en route, we stopped at Grams Regional Park in Zimmerman for a picnic lunch and hike through the woods. There I photographed a cluster of leaves. Autumn is my favorite season with its warm days, crisp evenings, earthy scents and hues of red, brown, orange and yellow. I never tire of looking at and photographing leaves.
In OCTOBER, the grandchildren stayed overnight with us and we took them to River Bend Nature Center. To walk, and sometimes run (with the grandparents trying to keep up). Again, it is the memories of time spent with those I love most that caused me to choose this image as a favorite.
A lovely afternoon in NOVEMBER drew Randy and me to the Cannon River Wilderness Area between Faribault and Northfield. With camera in hand, as always, I photographed leaves in the Cannon River, an image that holds the beauty of the season, of the outdoors.
Closing out the year, I photographed a line of decorated Christmas trees showcased in Faribault’s Central Park as part of the Drive-by Tree Display in DECEMBER. The trees later went to families in need. As the sun set, I aimed my camera lens toward tree toppers. I chose this photo because to me this shining star represents hope. Hope that comes in the new year as we leave behind a truly challenging 2020.
I want to leave you with one final message: You are loved. I discovered this message posted along a bike trail in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin, near our son’s apartment. When life gets difficult, overwhelms and threatens to take away your joy, remember that you are valued, that others care, that you are not alone.
COVID-19 DEFINED 2020. No question about that. Yet, even as many aspects of life changed, we continued onward, facing the challenges. The isolation. The separation. The very real effect the virus had on humanity—in the hospitalizations and deaths of family, friends, neighbors…individuals who loved and were loved. In the loss of jobs, and that includes job loss for me. In the loss of life as we once experienced it.
Through it all, though, I’ve continued to write about and photograph the world around me for this blog. In a more limited way, for sure. In a way that stretched me and grew me and focused my eyes and my heart on the simpler things in life. My appreciation for nature, something as ordinary as a walk in the woods, took on new meaning. Outdoors marked one place I could feel safe, distanced from COVID-19. Physically. Emotionally. Mentally.
So, it comes as no surprise really that my year-in-review photo picks for 2020 theme mostly to nature images. I scrolled month-by-month through my posts, choosing one favorite photo per month. Each image represents more than a scene or moment captured through my camera lens. Each represents a story, a part of my life. An experience. A gift.
Early FEBRUARY brought eight inches of snow in a single storm. And since weather shapes our lives here in Minnesota, I picked a photo of my husband blowing snow from our driveway for my February photo. It’s the perspective of this frame, taken while holding my camera low and angling it up, that makes this image.
As the months passed, I soon realized this thing—this pandemic—would continue. In APRIL, my granddaughter celebrated her fourth birthday, not with friends at an indoor play space, but rather on the driveway watching as her little friends passed by in their parents’ vehicles. Horns honking. Little hands waving. Randy and I continued to frequent outdoor spaces like Faribault Energy Park. Although located next to noisy and busy Interstate 35, it is one of my favorite local parks for the gravel paths, the ponds, the waterfowl, the flowers, the prairie grasses and other plant life.
MAY. In Minnesota, this month represents the shifting of seasons, the greening of the land, the eruption of buds, the dawning of warmer days. By May, I crave color. Paula, a native Minnesotan living in Holland, surprised me with a shipment of tulip bulbs in a pot. What joy. The bulbs sprouted and stretched at a rapid rate until soon buds formed and then popped in vivid hues. What a gift from a fellow blogger whom I’ve never met but have grown to appreciate through her writing and photography. She is a kind soul, down-to-earth and genuine.
My focus on nature continued into JUNE as Randy and I explored area parks and our ever dear River Bend Nature Center. At Falls Creek County Park just outside Faribault, I was surprised to find the creek running clear, not all that common in this part of Minnesota. So I aimed my camera downward to the creek bottom, capturing my June photo pick. There’s something about water…
In this year 2020, so much has shifted. My photos represent that change. Yet one thing remains constant—my love for writing and for photography. Thank you for reading Minnesota Prairie Roots, for appreciating the work I do here as I follow my passions.
Please check back for my year-in-review photo picks from July-December 2020.And, if you’re so inclined, please tell me what you most enjoy reading and seeing here on Minnesota Prairie Roots.
COVID-19 RANKS AS THE STORY of 2020, including here on Minnesota Prairie Roots. Since early March, I’ve photographed hundreds of scenes that relate to the pandemic. I’ve scrolled through my many COVID-themed posts to showcase a selection of images that summarize the pandemic’s effects on our lives.
For me, the most personal image is also a universal one. In early March, I visited my mom, who is in hospice in a southwestern Minnesota nursing home. I didn’t know it then, but this would mark my last in-person visit with her in 2020. The last time I would hug her, kiss her cheeks. For our seniors living in long-term care centers, 2020 brought isolation, separation from family and, for too many, death. The empty chair in this photo symbolizes the absence of family.
March also brought shortages. Of toilet paper. Of hand sanitizer. Of Lysol wipes. Of Tylenol. I stocked up on a few supplies. Just enough to get us by if we got sick and couldn’t get out.
Separation brought a new appreciation for technology with our family connecting via Zoom from the north metro to Madison, Wisconsin, to Faribault.
The deadly reality of COVID-19 hit home when the Rev. Craig Breimhorst of Faribault died in April, the first of now 52 Rice County residents to lose their lives to the virus. My heart hurts for all those who are grieving, some of whom I know.
Signs remind us daily of COVID, including messages bannered on the Paradise Center for the Arts marquee as theaters, restaurants, libraries, museums and more closed to prevent the spread of the virus.
Even playgrounds became inaccessible as communities roped and fenced off equipment (including at North Alexander Park in Faribault) to stop the spread of COVID. Since then, we’ve learned a lot more about the virus, with surface spread not the primary form of transmission.
In May, while watching a car cruise in downtown Faribault, I photographed a local walking along the sidewalk wearing a face mask. This is my “favorite” COVID photo. Simple. Yet powerful. Face masks, by mid-summer, became the norm. Yet, some still refuse to wear them, or wear them improperly, an ongoing source of frustration for me. Minnesota has a face mask mandate for a reason—to stop the spread of COVID and to keep us safe. Just wear a mask. And over your nose, please.
The pandemic changed how many of us worship. Randy and I have not attended church services since early March. When our kids learned we had been to Sunday morning services, they advised (told) us not to continue attending in-person. Our eldest remarked that she and her friends were struggling to convince their Baby Boomer parents of COVID’s seriousness. It didn’t take us long to determine just how serious this virus; we’ve attended church online ever since. In my hometown church, the pastor took to preaching from a hay rack. St. John’s now worships in-house.
High school and college graduation ceremonies also pivoted, mostly to virtual celebrations. In Northfield, Minnesota, the community honored grads with banners posted downtown. Some families still hosted receptions. We opted out, not wanting to risk our health.
Our sole social activity this summer was attending outdoor concerts in Faribault’s Central Park nearly every Thursday evening. It’s a long-time community tradition. We felt safe there with concert-goers distancing throughout the sprawling park. Some wore masks, like the couple in this photo, with a rope defining social distancing lines.
The annual Faribault Pet Parade in August also went on, but as a drive-through only. No masses of kids and pets walking in the streets. Randy and I watched, all by ourselves in our lawnchairs positioned along Fourth Street, and I spotted one vehicle with a COVID message.
For many, the cancellation of county fairs, and then the Minnesota State Fair in August, dashed any hopes that summer could retain any normalcy. Food stands, like this one at Ace Hardware in Faribault, popped up in parking lots and elsewhere.
In Northfield, the Defeat of Jesse James Days celebration scaled back. Randy and I walked through Bridge Square, where I photographed a solo guitar player strumming. It was a lovely September day, minus the overcrowding typical of DJJD.
September took us to the central Minnesota lakes region for a short stay at a family member’s guest lake cabin. While en route, we stopped in Crosby, where I photographed this distinctly Minnesotan masking sign.
In November, when the COVID situation in Minnesota went to really bad, I photographed a hard-hitting electronic message above US Highway 14 in Rochester, home to the world-renowned Mayo Clinic. Concerns about hospital bed shortages not only concerned Minnesota, but the entire US. And this was about more than just COVID.
One of my final COVID photos of 2020 was taken at Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church, posted there by the Rev. Greg Ciesluk, also a friend. His message puts the virus in perspective. As we transition into 2021 with vaccines rolling out, I feel hopeful. Truly hopeful.
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.
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).
My poem, “Final Harvest,” and second piece of creative nonfiction, “A Quick Guide to Practicing Minnesota Nice,” were also chosen for publication in Insights, The Talking Stick, Volume 29.
This year’s book features 139 poems and stories (selected from 300 submissions) by 92 Minnesota-connected writers. My writing has published many times in The Talking Stick and earned multiple honors.
Copies of the latest book and past volumes are available for purchase at jackpinewriters.com. On the back cover of Insights, the editors note, “In the midst of social distancing, in the midst of mask wearing and Plexiglas shields, we are all grieving the changes in our world. But let’s keep one thing the same—you can still curl up with a good book and read. You can open the pages of Talking Stick 29 and see what your fellow Minnesota writers have written, and some how, perhaps, we can all feel a little bit closer.”
I’d encourage you to order a copy of this collection featuring so many talented writers. That includes Bernadette Hondl Thomasy, a native of Owatonna and a reader of this blog. Her “Mother’s Mojo” also earned honorable mention in creative nonfiction. She co-authored the book, Under Minnesota Skies, with her sister Colleen Hondl Gengler. Minnesota, in my opinion, has produced many gifted writers in all genres. And you’ll find a fine sampling of those creatives in Insights, The Talking Stick, Volume 29.
A CARDBOARD BOX, stacked in an under-the-roof storage space on the second floor of my house, holds layers of yellowed newspaper clippings. Not stories of personal value because they are about me or my family. But rather stories I wrote, as a community journalist.
In March 1978, newly-graduated with a mass communications degree from Mankato State (now Minnesota State University, Mankato), I started my multi-faceted job at The Gaylord Hub. I was the first-ever journalist hired at the small rural weekly in Gaylord, the county seat of Sibley County. Prior to that, family at the then second-generation family-owned paper covered all the editorial work.
I did everything from writing news stories and features to taking and printing photos to writing headlines to going to the printing plant and then swinging canvas bags full of newspapers into the back of a van for delivery to the post office. I learned nearly every aspect of community newspapers except selling and designing ads and covering sports. Under the guidance of a supportive, encouraging and kind editor and publisher, Jim Deis, I grew my skills and my passion for small town community journalism.
A feature I wrote in 1979 republished in the June 4, 2020, issue of The Gaylord Hub.
Forty years after I left The Hub, the newspaper still arrives weekly in my mailbox. Jim passed many years ago. His son, Joe, just a kid when I worked at the paper, now serves as the third-generation editor and publisher. And last week he republished a feature, No need for the bubble gum, I wrote in July 1979. Perhaps my one and only sports story. I interviewed the Max brothers—Mike and Marc—for a feature about their sports card collection.
I recall going to the brothers’ home in Lakeside Acres and the piles and piles of bagged, boxed and loose cards numbering some 7,000. But I didn’t remember details of that interview with the 9 and 14-year-olds. So rereading that story I wrote 41 years ago proved entertaining, especially considering where one of those boys landed. Mike Max went on to become the sports director for WCCO-TV in the Twin Cities. And more recently, he expanded to hard news by covering the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
WCCO personality Mike Max, up close in a photo I took in 1979. Photo by Audrey Kletscher from The Gaylord Hub.
But back to that 1979 feature I wrote. Here’s my favorite quote from Mike:
“I was always interested in sports. I saw packs (of collector cards and bubble gum), so I would sneak some money and buy a whole bunch,” he said.
That was despite his mother’s orders to buy “only one pack.” He would buy about eight packs, hide seven in his pocket and show his mom the “one pack” he had bought.
Barb Max said she found out about her son’s tricks, but years later.
I love that part of the story.
But I find equally humorous this paragraph from my feature:
The two plan on keeping their cards, but speculate on selling some of them if the price is right. “I’ll save them until I get real old,” Marc said. “I’ll save them until they’re worth more and more, but maybe someday sell them if I need money real bad.”
A section of the republished story from 1979.
Reflecting on that feature of four decades ago, I am reminded of the importance of community newspapers. These are the stories we are losing as more and more small town weekly newspapers, and even some dailies, are folding. Declines in advertising revenue and subscribers, rising expenses and the growth of online media alternatives have all factored into the demise of print journalism. I can’t even begin to tell you how much that saddens me. We are losing such a valuable part of our communities. The watchdogs. The storytellers. The historians. The source of information about public meetings, community events, deaths—news in general. The media is too often under attack, blamed for reporting too much bad news. Don’t kill the messenger, I say.
I will always remain grateful for the two years I worked as The Cub from the Hub, a name tagged to me while in Gaylord. There I learned and grew as a writer, always striving for integrity, honesty and balanced reporting. By far, feature writing proved the most enjoyable aspect of my work. From Gaylord, I would go on to report for The Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch, The Mankato Free Press (St. James bureau), The Owatonna People’s Press and The Northfield News. Some were temporary fill-in jobs, others full-time. But no matter where I worked, I worked long, hard hours at low pay to cover the community. I reported the hard news and attended endless city council/school board/county board meetings into the late hours of the night. And sometimes I wrote, too, about kids who collect sports cards. Kids like Mike Max and his younger brother, Marc.
As always, I am delighted to showcase a small Minnesota community well worth your visit. As time allows this week (I’m trying to complete other writing projects with deadlines), I will share more Montgomery photos with you. Enjoy!
And if you have any suggestions of small towns (or attractions) in southern Minnesota that I should visit, please pass along your ideas.