Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Minnesota Prairie Roots photo picks for January-June 2020 December 31, 2020

Paper hearts, symbolizing hope and togetherness, decorate the entry to Rice County Government Services as the pandemic begins. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

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.

Exhibit visitors could page through these books featuring photos by Edward S. Curtis. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2020.

JANUARY started off rather “normal” with a visit to a photography exhibit in small town Montgomery. If you’ve followed me long enough, you recognize how much I value rural areas and the arts. For that reason, I chose a scene from the Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center, host of “The North American Indian” exhibit of early 1900s photos by Edward S. Curtis, as my photo pick for January.

Randy starts down the driveway with the snowblower. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2020.

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.

Posted in the window of Keepers Antiques, downtown Faribault, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2020.

Then came MARCH. The month that, here in Minnesota, marked the beginning of the pandemic and a year rearranged around COVID-19. The journalist in me emerged as I photographed signs on downtown Faribault businesses.

The graceful arc of sumac draws my eye at Faribault Energy Park. I don’t often edit photos beyond cropping or downsizing. But this one I did and I love the results. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2020.

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.

The vivid hues and the softness of the image make this a favorite. Tulips from Paula in Holland, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2020.

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.

What a wonderful surprise to find this clean and clear creek water. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

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.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Reflecting on September 11 in photos from NYC, thoughts from Minnesota September 11, 2020

My son drew this picture of a plane aimed for the twin towers a year after 9/11. He was a third grader in a Christian school and needed to think of a time when it was hard to trust God. To this day, this drawing by my boy illustrates to me how deeply 9/11 impacted even the youngest among us.


SEPTEMBER 11, 2001. The date is forever seared into our memories as the day terrorists targeted the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a jetliner flying over Pennsylvania. When those planes crashed. When those towers fell. When fires raged. When thousands died, we grieved. Individually. And collectively as a nation.


On the campus of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, a plaque honors an alumni, Ann Nelson. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2019.


Yet, as a Minnesotan nearly 1,200 miles removed from New York City and D.C. and Pennsylvania, I did not experience the same depth of fear and grief as others much nearer to the target sites or with loved ones lost.


I reconstructed a tower using the same blocks my son and his friend used on September 11, 2001, to duplicate what they saw on television. These are also the same airplanes they flew into the tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Sure, I remember where I was—at home with my kindergarten age son and another boy in my care. I remember how the boys stacked wooden toy blocks and then crashed toy airplanes into the two towers, copying the scenes played and replayed on television because I could not bring myself to shut off the TV.

I recall, too, the eeriness, the feelings of uncertainty and worry and disbelief.


The Faribault firefighters pay special tribute to the fallen New York firefighters on their memorial sign. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


But none of this, none of this second-hand experience, compares to those who lived it and saw it. Like NYC photographer Keith Goldstein, a gifted creative whose work I follow on his blog, Far Earth Below. Keith excels in portrait photography. On the street, not the studio. Real. Everyday life. Raw and emotional and difficult sometimes to view. But honest in every way.

Keith was there on 9/11. He saw the devastation, destruction, death as he headed from his East Village home toward the towers. He found himself unable to photograph the horror unfolding before him. But several years later, as construction began on the Freedom Tower, he lifted his camera to undertake a project, “Looking On, Watching the Building of the Freedom Tower.”

The photos of people watching construction of the tower are signature Keith Goldstein. Honest. Emotional. Real. Every time I view Keith’s work, I wonder how he does it. How does he manage these focused, powerful images without his subjects noticing his presence? It’s a gift, a talent honed from years of experience.

That talent was recognized by Olympus Passion, which published a portion of his “Looking On” project in November 2018. Keith shared that publication on his blog today and I invite you to study his images and read the story he wrote about his 9/11 experiences. I expect you will be as impressed as I am by his work and the insights his photos provide.

I invite you also to continue following Keith’s photo blog. I appreciate how his images show me a world far removed from my Minnesota home. A world much different. Yet, a world I need to see because, even though my life and world are much different than his, we still live in this place called America.

Keith is as kind and decent and caring as they come. We’ve communicated occasionally via email, so I know this to be true. Several years ago he gifted me with a colorful print on aluminum of an immigrant vending t-shirts. My choice of photos. Choosing an image proved challenging. But I wanted a portrait. Signature Keith.

As different as we are, we are connected by our love of photography. And by our desire to share the world we view through our cameras.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Minnesota Faces: A Minnesota blogger January 9, 2015

Portrait #2:  Audrey, unfashionably dressed Minnesota blogger


Bundled up to ring Salvation Army bells 2013


Baby, it’s cold out there.

I’d intended to run a different portrait today. But when weather intervened, I pulled out this selfie, which isn’t really a selfie. My husband, Randy, took this photo of me on December 7, 2013, after ringing bells, outdoors, for the Salvation Army. The temperature hovered around zero degrees Fahrenheit.

I bundled into Randy’s insulated Dickies coveralls, topped those with a heavy fleece-lined sweatshirt, wrapped two scarves around my neck, pulled on a Mrs. Claus hat and snugged into warm mittens and felt-lined snow boots for our two-hour shift. My goals were minimal skin exposure and warmth. Not fashion.

This past week in Minnesota, you would have spotted many folks bundled up, aiming to stay warm. When I shoveled snow on Tuesday and Thursday, I was dressed nearly exactly as you see in this year-old photo.

With temps plunging well below zero, wind creating “feels like” temps in the minus 30s and 40s and blizzard/white-out conditions in portions of our state, practicality and survival trump fashion.


This portrait is part of a new series, Minnesota Faces, featured every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling, photo by Randy Helbling


A teaser trailer to Mason City, Iowa, attractions September 23, 2014

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IOWA. We Minnesotans joke about our neighbor to the south.

“What’s in Iowa?”

“Why would you ever want to go there?”

Well, my fellow Minnesotans and anyone who has ever shunned Iowa, there are many reasons to visit this Midwestern state. Iowa is about much more than the slogan, “Fields of Opportunities,” bannered on a Welcome to Iowa sign as you cross the border aiming south.

You'll see lots of farms as you drive through Iowa, including this one off Interstate 35 just across the Minnesota border.

You’ll see lots of farms as you drive through Iowa, including this one off Interstate 35 just across the Minnesota border.

Yes, you will see an abundance of endless fields and lots of barns. Northeastern Iowa is even designated a Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area celebrating agriculture.  But you’ll also discover charming river towns and other interesting attractions, too.

Welcome to Mason City, a community of some 28,000 in northeastern Iowa.

Welcome to Mason City, a community of some 28,000 in northeastern Iowa.

We’ll start our journey off Interstate 35 just across the border in Mason City, home of my friend, Beth Ann Chiles, who blogs at It’s Just Life. Beth Ann welcomed my husband and me into her northeastern Iowa community, touring us around town on a hot and steamy August Sunday afternoon. Yes, we were practically dripping sweat. But, it was a great tour and a wonderful day and overnight spent with a friend whom I cherish.

Friend and blogger Beth Ann, right, was our personal tour guide in Mason City.

Friend and blogger Beth Ann, right, was our personal tour guide in Mason City.

Here’s a sneak peek from my visit to Mason City:

This sign does not point to downtown Mason City, but rather to a quirky and interesting attraction.

This sign does not point to downtown Mason City, but rather to a quirky and interesting attraction.

Any guesses as to what this might be?

Any guesses as to what this might be? Photographed in the heart of downtown Mason City.

My husband kicks back in an historic building that draws lots of interest.

My husband kicks back in an historic building that draws lots of architectural interest.

Not just any old street corner in any old neighborhood.

Not just any old street corner in any old neighborhood.

Check back for a closer look at these attractions as we tour Mason City before journeying toward the eastern border of Iowa.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Keep voting for Minnesota Prairie Roots as best blog in southern Minnesota August 16, 2014

southern minnesota scene best of logoVOTING CONTINUES now through Labor Day for the Best Local Blog/Blogger in southern Minnesota. “The Best of SOMINN 2014” is sponsored by the regional arts and entertainment magazine, SouthernMINN Scene.

And just to remind you all, Minnesota Prairie Roots is one of three blogs vying for this honor.

I’d appreciate your vote. I’m in the “miscellaneous” category. Yeah, I know…

Unlike other elections, you can vote once daily per email address. Yes. Hey, I don’t make the rules. So, please, exercise your democratic right and stuff my ballot box.

Thank you for your support.

I make this campaign promise: I will continue to blog about people, places, events and more with a passion. I love writing. I love photography. And I love this place called Minnesota.

And I appreciate all of you faithful readers, especially the nearly 1,000 of you currently subscribing to Minnesota Prairie Roots.

Click here to vote.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Update: Vote for MN Prairie Roots daily for best blog August 5, 2014

southern minnesota scene best of logoABOUT MINNESOTA PRAIRIE ROOTS‘ nomination for Best Local Blog/Blogger in southern Minnesota…

Turns out you can vote for my blog/me more than once, as in once a day per email address, until voting closes on September 1. I just learned that today.

If you’re so inclined, continue voting for me every single day by clicking here (I’m in the miscellaneous category near the bottom of the page).

I know it’s a hassle. But I didn’t make the rules for this contest sponsored by the regional arts and entertainment magazine Southern Minnesota Scene.

To those of you who’ve already endorsed my writing and photography by voting for Minnesota Prairie Roots, thank you.

A big thanks also to all who have spread the word via social media. I am grateful.

Most of all, I am grateful for all of you, my loyal readers.


Too much pink? October 27, 2012


Northeastern Minnesota writer Ada Igoe, who blogs at “Of Woods and Words,” writes this week about all the pink out there during this, Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

While I don’t agree with everything she says in her “Rage Against the Pink” post, I agree that this whole “pink” thing is being overdone and has become too commercialized. Just like the right amount of salt can flavor a dish, too much salt can ruin it.

In a row of green and yellow Olivers, I spotted this pink one at the Rice County Steam & Gas Engines Show earlier this fall. I have no reason to doubt the genuineness of this tractor owner in calling attention to the fight against breast cancer.

How do we separate those who truly are genuine in their pinkness as opposed to those simply out to perhaps earn a buck or get some media attention for whatever they are selling or promoting?

Ada raises issues like that in her thoughtful piece. I’m not going to steal and repeat all this blogger wrote. Rather, I will point you directly to the source, so click here.

And just for the record:

  • My mother is a breast cancer survivor.
  • My uncle, Dr. Robert M. Bowman, created Femara, a hormone therapy drug used to treat breast cancer in post-menopausal women.
  • A dear friend is currently being treated for breast cancer.
  • Last evening I waited in line for one hour and 15 minutes to comfort friends and their daughter who lost their youngest daughter/sister to colon cancer after two courageous years of battling the disease. Stacey was only 39.
  • Sometimes it’s genuinely easy to separate those who mean well by emphasizing pink from those who have other than the best intentions. Absolutely, this pink tractor showcases one family’s personal story and does not seek to commercialize or gain anything financially from using the color pink.

    WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS on the use of pink to promote breast cancer awareness? Overkill? Just right? Let’s hear.


Meet blogger Gretchen O’Donnell & her family June 10, 2012

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So we’re a bit camera shy…bloggers Gretchen O’Donnell, left, of “A Fine Day For an Epiphany” and “The View From my Window” and Audrey Kletscher Helbling of “Minnesota Prairie Roots.” In other words, of the several frames my husband shot, this is the only one that was in focus and publishable.

MOST OF US have been there—met someone and instantly clicked.

I’ve felt that way about Gretchen O’Donnell of rural Bigelow, whom I “met” last fall. We didn’t actually meet-meet until Saturday when Gretchen and her family rolled into Faribault.

They were in town to attend the musical, A Year with Frog and Toad, in which their friend, Eric Parrish of Worthington, is starring. It was the perfect opportunity for me to meet Gretchen, a talented writer who is among my favorite Minnesota bloggers. She was one of 10 bloggers I profiled in a recent article published in Minnesota Moments magazine.

Gretchen has been blogging for a little more than a year now at “A Fine Day For an Epiphany.” And she also recently began blogging for The Worthington Daily Globe at “The View From my Window.” She is a blogger who writes for the pure joy of writing. And anyone with that type of passion is destined to become a friend of mine.

Read Gretchen’s posts and you can sense her love of language and of storytelling. She writes with honesty and humor about everything from growing up on Orcas Island in Washington to a skunk perfuming the family cat to her attempt at canning tomatoes. She’s also writing a book.

What you read on Gretchen’s blogs are Gretchen in person. She is warm and friendly and engaging and caring and exactly the type of person you would want to call a friend.

The O’Donnell family, clockwise from left, Gretchen, Ian, Colin, Lucy and Katie.

Her family—husband, Colin, and children Ian, Katie and Lucy—are equally as likable. My husband, Randy, and I loved having them for supper on Saturday. Now Gretchen would argue that we dined together for “dinner.” She hasn’t adopted the rural southwestern Minnesota terminology of “supper” for the evening meal.

Nor has this Washingtonian (is that a word, Gretchen?) adapted totally to the flat prairie landscape of southwestern Minnesota where she’s lived for about 15 years. She misses the mountains and trees and ocean. I told Colin on Saturday that I’m working to convince his wife that the prairie possesses its own beauty. She may be coming around.

Let me tell you a little more about the O’Donnell family. They love theatre. I suppose that is obvious since they drove nearly three hours from Bigelow (on the Iowa/Minnesota border) to Faribault for the Saturday evening musical at the Paradise Center for the Arts. Last summer the O’Donnells acted in Beauty and the Beast in Worthington. This August all five are performing in The Music Man.

When I asked for a fun photo, this is what I got. Love it.

I just want to interject here that when the O’Donnells drove to Faribault on Saturday, they did not take the interstate. “That would be boring,” Gretchen said. Precisely the way I think when it comes to travel, Gretchen. Their more back roads route took the family through Mankato where they caught a glimpse of The Blue Angels. Had they traveled the interstate, they would have missed the U.S. Navy precision flying team.

And now, thanks to Ian, eldest of the three O’Donnell children, I am going to try raw asparagus. I know this has nothing to do with planes or theatre, but when the kids were plucking black raspberries from wild bushes in my backyard, we got on the subject of gardening. Ian told me how much he likes raw asparagus. I promised I would try it. (But I never promised this physics-loving boy that I would ever like physics.)

Can you believe these O’Donnell kids even eat horseradish? Yes, I put out a jar of the homemade condiment and they, along with Colin, ate, and enjoyed it. Gretchen passed. She’s tried it once and that was enough. I understand. I feel that way about lutefisk.

Then there’s Katie…she likes reading and science and apparently singing since she has a solo in The Music Man. I asked her about being the middle child and, well, let’s just say she and my middle sister could commiserate over shared middle child experiences.

And finally, there’s little Lucy, darling, sweet, adorable curly-haired Lucy, a five-year-old who chalked a swimming pool onto my driveway, clung to her crocheted blanket (named “Buddy,” not a boy, but a girl blanket) and her mom for all of about five minutes before she felt right at home and who, the last time the family dined at the Rainforest Cafe at the Mall of America, was terrified of the gorillas.

It is details like these that endear me to a family like the O’Donnells. They are real and honest and good people who possess strong family values and a strong faith in God and a strong work ethic. Gretchen and Colin even limit computer time for their kids and, gasp, don’t allow the television set to be switched on on Thursdays. And, yes, their kids are polite and well-behaved and fun and absolutely wonderful.

When we parted on Saturday evening, it seemed as if we’d known the O’Donnells for years rather than for only three hours.

O’Donnell family, you’re welcome back to our home anytime.

FYI: To read Gretchen O’Donnell’s personal blog, “A Fine Day For an Epiphany,” click here.

To read her other blog, “The View From my Window,” click here.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling