Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Valley Grove: In loving memory of Bjorn September 19, 2022

On the east side of the Valley Grove Cemetery, massive oaks rise next to a restored prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

HE APPROACHED ME inquiring whether I was the official photographer. I was not. But I was photographing the Valley Grove Country Social on Sunday afternoon in rural Nerstrand.

The beautiful historic churches stand next to the cemetery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

That unexpected encounter proved powerful, revealing why this hilltop location of two historic churches and a cemetery holds such deep personal meaning for many. From the Norwegian immigrants who built the stone church in 1862, replaced by a wooden church in 1894, to today, this land keeps stories and memories and provides a place to grieve.

The hilltop cemetery provides a sweeping view of the prairie and distant treeline. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

For Brett Norgaard, Valley Grove is the final resting place of his beloved son, Bjorn Erik Norgaard, struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver on February 20, 2011, while skiing on frozen Lake Superior. He was only 23. Bjorn’s gravestone, imprinted with a ballad he penned, sits near the site of a massive oak felled in a September 2018 tornado. That tree, in the southwest corner, was a cemetery landmark, the spot where many baptisms occurred.

Memory boxes crafted from a landmark fallen oak at Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Mementoes honoring Bjorn Norgaard. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

A photo of Bjorn rests between two poems he wrote. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Now, in this chance meeting, I learned of Bjorn’s connection to that tree. His father held it—two boxes crafted from that fallen oak, the larger one holding a passport, an American Birkebeiner pin and other mementos of a dearly loved son.

Brett Norgaard asked me to take this family photo. I was happy to do so after hearing his son’s story. Shortly thereafter, rain began falling so I was unable to photograph Bjorn’s gravestone. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

But it was Bjorn’s poems that expressed to me the creative spirit of this outdoorsman, environmentalist, cross country skier, Alaska fly fishing guide, 2006 Northfield High School graduate, son, grandson, friend…

This cemetery is rich in history, in stories and in natural beauty and peace. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

The second verse of his poem, “Oak Leaves,” seems almost prophetic. He wrote:

New season coming, you must change,

but please remain, not yet time to fade away.

For one day we will cease to be,

will you drop your leaves and cover me?

Today Harold Bonde, 94, will be buried at Valley Grove, not far from Bjorn’s grave, not far from the site of the fallen landmark oak. His burial space was marked off during Sunday’s Country Social. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

After Bjorn died, his father found 80 poems in his son’s journals. I understand why he cherishes them. These are the words of a soulful, introspective, nature-centered, sensitive spirit. And although the oak tree no longer stands, unable to drop leaves onto Bjorn’s gravestone, there’s a sense that the tree remains. Strong. Sheltering those who lie beneath the soil and those who walk upon the earth, come here to visit, embrace and remember loved ones. Only days earlier, on September 15, Bjorn would have turned 35.

Many families meandered and conversed in the cemetery on Sunday afternoon. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

On this day of a Country Social, Bjorn’s family remembered him, honored him. I saw love in a father’s hands wrapped around oak boxes, in watery eyes and precious stories. Here at Valley Grove, atop a hill edged by prairie, woods and farmland, and centered by two historic churches, humanity comes in moments like this, when a father shares his grief with a stranger. Compassion rises. A connection is made. Comfort comes. A loss is shared.

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Please check back for a follow-up post featuring the Valley Grove Country Social in its entirety.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling