Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Oh, blessed summer eve on a Minnesota farm June 30, 2011

If you look closely, you will see the farm dog in front of the 1915 farmhouse to which a machine shed was added.

WIDE SWATHS OF SHADOWS sliced across the farmyard as the sun edged toward the horizon on a whisper of a summer night.

The old farm dog, tethered to a chain next to the 1915 farmhouse-turned-granary-turned storage shed, rose from his resting place on a paw-worn patch of grass. Water and food bowls rested on the single cement step nearby, within his reach.

The dog didn’t bark, didn’t lunge, just let me be as I moved into his territory. He stood, paced and then eased onto his haunches, acknowledging my non-threatening presence as I dropped to one knee to view the world from his perspective.

I wanted only to photograph this guardian of the farm on a summer evening as absolutely picture-perfect as any day you’ll get in Minnesota. Still. Serene. Colors sharp like new crayons. Sunlight, eye-blinding bright to the west, on the other side of the barn, outside the dogs’ reach.

This June evening, for these few hours, this watchdog could not roam the farmyard. He could only eye the visitors seated across the gravel drive at a picnic table. Friends gathered for pizza and lemonade sweetened with fresh strawberries and then more berries atop angel food cake and ice cream topped off with whipped cream.

Laughter punctuated conversation. Then bibles flipped open to words written upon pages thin as butterfly wings. The shrill call of a cardinal pierced the silence between ideas shared and scripture read.

Then, as the farm dog watched, the friends bowed their heads in a prayer of thanksgiving—gratitude to God for protecting the owners of this farm from serious injury in a motor vehicle accident the previous day. A rear-end collision. Truck spinning, tipping onto its side along a Minnesota highway. Glass in teeth and waistbands and hair.

None of this the guard dog knew on this most blessed of summer evenings on a Minnesota farm.

TODAY, JUNE 30, has been designated as “Maroon Day” in Minnesota, historically the deadliest day on our state’s roadways. Since 2000, more fatal crashes have occurred on this final day of June, leading into the July Fourth holiday, than on any other day of the year. Statistics show 30 fatal crashes resulting in 35 deaths.

All of Minnesota’s nearly 600 state troopers, in their signature maroon vehicles, will be patrolling today.

Buckle up. Drive carefully and be safe.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The Ice Man and his dog June 20, 2011

I’LL NEVER SEE THIS GUY again, this man in the muscle shirt with hair shaved scalp-close, fingers cradling a cigarette, a can of Keystone Ice nearly knocking at his knee as he slumps, cross-legged, on a block of Kasota stone by Riverfront Park in Mankato.

Lines harden his forehead. Shadows darken his eyes. Skin exposed to summer sun has already bronzed his face, his upper body, his muscular arms.

I wonder about his life, but don’t ask. Have he and his two buddies, passing the time nearby on their own blocks of hard, hard stone, had hard lives? I can almost see it in their eyes, imagine their lives. Jobs lost. Relationships broken. Regrets. Bars. Beer and cigarettes. Maybe whiskey and women.

But I don’t pry, and only he—the guy with the Keystone Ice—volunteers any information, speaks to me after I approach the trio because I see a photo opportunity in a man and his dog, brick buildings and a riverside railroad track. My eyes sweep across the scene, pushing the view into the lens of my camera, into these images that tell a story.

Rugged life in a river town. A blue collar man’s grimy, steel-toed work shoes. Elevators. Train tracks leading away. Peeling paint. Boarded-up buildings which The Ice Man wishes were torn down and which I tell him should be refurbished.

We disagree. But he still smiles a smile as wide as the manic, muddy Minnesota River raging past the park.

He tells me then, after I snap a series of photos, that he can’t take his dog—a service dog, he claims, and says he has the card to prove it—into Riverfront Park. Dogs are banned from some Mankato parks and this is one of them.

He suggests I photograph his dog next to the white line and words sprayed onto the tar: NO PETS IN PARK.

At first I balk, say, no, I won’t do that.

But then I reconsider, give The Ice Man his defiant moment. As his dog struggles to cross the line into the park, he tugs on the leash, holding her back. He’s already told me how, a day earlier, he hasn’t crossed the line to hear a $15 outdoor concert staged here. Instead, he’s followed the trail nearer the venue site, listened to the music from there. He’s clearly proud of his evasive, I’ve-outsmarted-them tactic.

Then we part ways. I continue reading poetry imprinted upon a sidewalk circling the park’s trail head building. He returns to his hard stone to swig his Keystone Ice beer and smoke his cigarettes.

His life is so different from mine. Yet, for five minutes we’ve connected and the poetry of his life shows in these images of The Ice Man and his dog.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling