Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Following the backroads of Rice County into autumn October 2, 2020

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Fall colors as photographed in rural Rice County, Minnesota, on September 26.

 

THIS AUTUMN FEELS especially fleeting, as if the days are slipping too quickly into the cold and dark of winter’s grip. The sun now rises shortly after 7 a.m. and sets just before 7 p.m. The darkness is closing in and I feel it.

 

Ripening corn and soybean fields surround this farm site in Rice County.

 

This year, more than ever, I feel an urgency to get outdoors, to delight in every single moment of autumnal beauty, of semi warm temps, of days without snow.

 

Heading uphill on the backroads of Rice County last Saturday.

 

And I feel this way due to COVID-19. The reality is that the winter ahead will prove challenging as we hunker down indoors, limiting our contact with others as we attempt to stay healthy and protect others. At least that’s my plan, Randy’s plan.

 

Cornfields ripen, awaiting the harvest. I feel like we’re all waiting. Just waiting in this season of COVID.

 

We’ve already managed seven months of this cautiousness, this recognition that we hold a responsibility to do our part. For ourselves. And for our friends, family and neighbors. I’m particularly worried these days about the upsurge in cases in Wisconsin, where our daughter and her husband and our son live. But I worry, too, about Randy facing potential COVID exposure daily at work because of a failure among others to mask, mask properly or to follow other safety/health regulations. I am beyond frustrated, as I’ve stated here in previous posts.

 

Another Rice County farm site. COVID knows no differences between rural and urban. We’re seeing that now in Minnesota, where cases of the virus in rural counties are spiking.

 

We’re weary of it all. Truly weary. Who isn’t experiencing COVID fatigue? But, as our health officials have advised, this is no time to let down our guard, to give up, to live our lives like there’s no pandemic. Because Randy and I are trying to be careful, we gravitate outdoors, whether on countryside drives or hiking. Nature and time outdoors provide a peaceful and uplifting escape.

 

Driving down Rice County’s backroads to view the ripening crops and fall colors.

 

Last Saturday took us onto backroads in our county of Rice, where we’ve found fall colors to be especially lovely. And mostly undiscovered. We had no particular destination and I can’t even tell you where we drove. But we drive and turn and turn and drive and follow whatever roads seem interesting.

 

Farm sites prove interesting to me on these rural drives.

 

The overcast day wasn’t especially beautiful for leaf-viewing. But, this time of year, you take what you get and enjoy whatever appears before you.

 

Color tints treelines in rural Rice County.

 

I encourage each of you, especially if you live in the Rice County area or other parts of Minnesota, to take a fall color drive this weekend. These days are fleeting as leaves change colors and fall, moving us closer and closer to the long winter ahead.

 

TELL ME: Do you have a recommendation for a great place to view fall colors?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Delighting in a Sunday afternoon drive in rural Minnesota May 12, 2020

We met an occasional vehicle on our country drive southeast of Faribault, Minnesota.

 

I ABSOLUTELY, UNDENIABLY needed this. To drive into the countryside on a Sunday afternoon. To get away. To view the greening of the land. To forget for a half hour about the realities of life. To focus on nature. To photograph rural Minnesota.

 

We drove past farm sites.

 

Past lovely barns…

 

Clouds and cold weather defined Mother’s Day in southern Minnesota.

 

And that’s exactly what Randy and I did mid Mother’s Day afternoon, aiming southeast of Faribault to follow back country gravel roads. My sense of direction doesn’t exist. I trust Randy to steer us onto roadways that fulfill my need to go at a leisurely pace, to stop when I see something I must photograph, to appreciate the details of place.

 

Following gravel roads. Up and down.

 

Occasionally the cloud-heavy sky spit rain onto the windshield as we dipped up and down, hilltops offering sweeping vistas of a lush landscape.

 

We spotted corn coming up in this field along 250th Street East southeast of Faribault.

 

Corn popped green, curving rows into one field.

 

Chickens strayed from a farm site across the road to a field.

 

Those chickens seem so small in the vastness of farm fields.

 

Rogue chickens paused in another field to observe us while I swung my lens to photograph them.

 

An old farm site along 233rd Street East.

 

It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a gas barrel like this.

 

At one point, atop a hill, we studied a farm site below with broad barn, weathered corn crib and a red gas barrel next to an aged shed. Such building sites remind me of yesteryear, when an assortment of small structures defined a farm place.

 

That baby goat wanted so badly to scale that rock, without success.

 

Even the adult goats are cute.

 

And then, the road curved, leading us to the sweetest surprise of the drive—goats, fenced on both sides of the roadway. Windows rolled down, we heard their plaintive baa and watched as a baby goat struggled to climb a rock. I ooohed and aaahed over the cuteness of these goats.

 

Spring blooms, finally, in southeastern Minnesota.

 

Too soon we headed back to town. Randy needed to light the charcoal grill to smoke and cook a pork roast for supper. A Zoom call with family awaited us, too. But, in that short time, I found exactly what I needed—a joyful, therapeutic and sweet escape into the southeastern Minnesota countryside.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Documenting rural Minnesota February 6, 2020

 

I OFTEN WONDER, as I travel past farm sites in southern Minnesota, how these places will look in 50, even 20, years.

 

 

Will once grand barns still stand? Will farmhouses be abandoned? Will corporate ag operations completely replace family farms?

 

 

Already the evolution is well underway. Many barns no longer hold livestock, serving instead as storage sheds. Rural houses are not so much farmhouses as dwellings for those working off the farm to supplement their farm income.

 

 

Independent farmers either quit, expand or try to hang on for one more year. Some have become innovative—diversifying, organizing, working together to grow and sell local.

 

 

The rural landscape is changing, shaped by markets and weather and operating costs and government regulations, issues that have always affected farming. Technology, too, now factors into agriculture.

 

 

Some 40-plus years removed from the farm, I’ve witnessed the changes from afar. None of my five siblings stayed on the farm, although two work in ag fields. I no longer have a direct link to the land. And because of that, my children and grandchildren are losing that generational connection to farming, to a way of life. This saddens me. They prefer city over country.

 

 

And so I continue to photograph, documenting with my camera lens the places of rural Minnesota. Therein I present a visual history, a memory prompt and an expression of appreciation for the land which shaped me.

 

 

FYI: This Saturday, February 8, from 1 – 4 p.m., embrace and celebrate locally-grown and crafted during Family Day at the Faribault Winter Farmers’ Market. In addition to vendors, you’ll find hands-on art activities for kids, games, healthy recipes and more. The market is located inside the Paradise Center for the Arts along Central Avenue in the heart of historic downtown Faribault.

These photos were taken last Saturday along Minnesota State Highway 21 on my way to Montgomery.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the road in southwestern Minnesota January 16, 2020

Almost to Morgan last Saturday morning.

 

BY THE TIME we drive into Morgan on the eastern edge of Redwood County, I just want to reach our destination, Belview in southwestern Minnesota.

 

Farm sites abound along back county roads between New Ulm and Morgan.

 

It’s not that we’ve been on the road an interminably long time—around two hours. But the drive seems to lengthen between New Ulm and Morgan, and especially between Morgan and Redwood Falls.

 

A farm east of Morgan photographed in December 2019.

 

This is farm country. Mostly flat. Stretching as far as the eye can see, broken only by farm sites embraced by windbreaks. Or countless power poles fading into infinity.

 

Morgan is a farming community defined visually by its grain elevator complex.

 

Or by the grain elevators and water tower in Morgan.

 

Near Morgan and photographed on January 11.

 

Randy and I talk as we travel, commenting on snow cover in the winter, crops in the other seasons. Oftentimes we reminisce about our farm upbringings, prompted by the rural landscape enveloping us. We are still farm kids at heart, in memory, in the essence of our beings.

 

A not uncommon scene in rural Minnesota, this one in Morgan.

 

Conversation passes the time as does photography. I feel compelled to photograph this place that is so much a part of me. Familiar. Comforting. Forever home.

 

I find myself repeatedly photographing this beautiful barn and farm site west of New Ulm.

 

But my photography isn’t only about me and my connection to this land. It’s also about my desire to document and share this place with those unfamiliar with southwestern Minnesota. I recognize that not everyone appreciates the prairie. Its spacious skies and wide expanse of land can feel unsettling to those who have always only known metro areas. Or trees. I get it. Plop me inside a city and I feel boxed in by tall buildings and uncomfortable on too much concrete among too much traffic.

 

Main Street Morgan photographed in late December 2019.

 

Still, despite the differences between rural and urban dwellers, we all still see the same sun, the same moon. And we are all journeying somewhere on the same planet.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Winter exposure in southern Minnesota March 15, 2018

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Near New Ulm.

 

IN THE NAKEDNESS of winter, when trees are stripped bare of leaves, when fields lie exposed to the elements, rural Minnesota seems especially vulnerable.

 

Near Essig along US Highway 14.

 

In no other season do I notice more the intimate details of this place.

 

Along US Highway 14 somewhere west of Owatonna.

 

Red barns seem redder.

 

By Morgan

 

Power poles appear more intrusive.

 

Morgan, Minnesota

 

Grain elevators dominate, shoving grey mass into an already colorless landscape.

All of this I see through eyes that crave now the melting of snow, the cloaking of the land in the greening of spring.

 

NOTE: All images have been edited to create an artsy look.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The shifting of seasons in Minnesota November 4, 2015

barn

Grey skies hang over a barn and harvested cornfield west of Sleepy Eye along U.S. Highway 14 on a late October morning.

AS THE SEASON SHIFTS here in Minnesota, I struggle to hold onto the light. To the color. To memories of lush landscapes and warm days.

A bare field near Belview in southwestern Minnesota.

A bare field near Belview in southwestern Minnesota on a late October morning.

I am no fan of the transition months—November and March. I’ve always thought these the least visually inviting. Grey skies dominate. Cold winds rage. The land appears devoid of color. Black fields. Muted tones. Everywhere.

One of my favorite barns in the Springfield area along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

One of my favorite barns in the Springfield area along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

But then a barn flashes red in the monotone landscape.

Clouds break apart over a farm along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

Clouds break apart over a farm along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

Sun spotlights through the clouds beaming light upon the land. A patch of blue emerges overhead.

In the final days of October, my camera landed on this stunningly beautiful treeline near Shieldsville.

In the final days of October, my camera landed on this stunningly beautiful treeline near Shieldsville. I’ve seen some of the prettiest fall colors near my Faribault home. This is true every year.

Nearing the end of October, some corn remained to be harvested.

Nearing the end of October, some corn remained to be harvested.

Along U.S. Highway 14 east of Springfield, this brick barn stands strong and tall.

Along U.S. Highway 14 east of Springfield, this brick barn stands strong and tall.

I begin to notice patches of color—autumn leaves still hanging on, corn carpeting fields, defiant red barns still standing.

The barn with the smiling lips, between Sleepy Eye and Springfield, always makes me smile.

The barn with the smiling lips, between Sleepy Eye and Springfield, always makes me smile.

Harvesting corn along U.S. Highway 52 in the Rochester area in mid-October.

Harvesting corn along U.S. Highway 52 in the Rochester area in mid-October.

A country church along Interstate 90 near the Winona exit reminds me of blessings and thankfulness, especially at harvest time.

A country church along Interstate 90 near the Winona exit reminds me of blessings and thankfulness, especially at harvest time.

Reasons to smile. Reasons to appreciate November. This eleventh month raises my awareness of thankfulness. Thankfulness that I live in Minnesota, a state of four seasons, of changing landscapes, of bountiful harvests. And this week of unexpected November warmth.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A photographic journey through rural western Wisconsin November 5, 2014

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Rural, red barn, bin and field

 

SHADOWS AND CURVES AND LIGHT.

 

Rural, round bales

Sky.

Rural, harvested cornfield

Land.

Rural, white barn and silos

Farm buildings.

All draw my eyes to the landscape, my hand to the camera, eye to the viewfinder, finger to shutter button.

 

Rural, red barn and Harvestores

 

Flash of color: A red barn.

 

Rural, red barn, fields and grey sheds

 

Rural scenes unfold before me on this drive through western Wisconsin, from Nelson north to St. Croix Falls in early October.

 

Rural, red barn and lone cow

 

I am linked to the land by my past, daughter of a southwestern Minnesota crop and dairy farmer. Even after 40 years away from the farm, fields and farm sites hold my heart more than any grid of city blocks or cluster of homes or urban anything.

If I could, I would live in the country again, close to the scent of dried corn stalks and fertile black soil.

 

Rural, house by trees

 

I would live under a sky that overwhelms, inside a white farmhouse with a welcoming front porch. That was always my dream.

But dreams cost money. Instead, I have lived in an old house along an arterial street in a town of some 23,000 for 30 years. I am grateful to have a house, to live in a community I love among dear friends.

 

Rural, country church and cemetery

 

Still, a part of my soul yearns, aches for the land I left.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Rural patriotism May 19, 2014

Along Brown County Road 29 between New Ulm and Morgan, Minnesota.

Along Brown County Road 29 between New Ulm and Morgan, MN.

RED

Along U.S. Highway 14 between Mankato and Nicollet, MN.

Along U.S. Highway 14 between Mankato and Nicollet, MN.

WHITE

Along Brown County Road 29 west of New Ulm, MN.

Along Brown County Road 29 west of New Ulm, MN.

AND (touches of) BLUE.

Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A photographic connection to my rural roots April 12, 2014

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Rural Minnesota, farm site

 

I INFORMED MY HUSBAND that I would focus on photographing houses, rather than barns, on a recent 600-mile round trip from Faribault, Minnesota, to Appleton, Wisconsin.

He didn’t believe me. And he was right not to believe.

 

Rural Minnesota, red barn and red building

 

Yes, I snapped images of houses. But I could not, no matter how I tried, keep from lifting my Canon DSLR to capture photos of farm sites as we traveled.

 

Rural Minnesota, turquoise barn

 

They are like a magnet for someone such as myself with rural roots. Having left the farm 40 years ago upon my graduation from high school, I rely today on memories and visual connectedness to fulfill my longing for the land. That and my writing, especially my poetry.

 

Rural Minnesota, machine shed and bin

 

Few people I know farm anymore. No one in my immediate extended family farms, although two brothers remain rooted to agriculture, one via co-ownership in a farm implement dealership and the other as CEO of an ethanol plant, both in my native southwestern Minnesota.

 

Rural Minnesota, farm behind hill

 

The farm where I grew up near Vesta is rented out. Thus I have lost that touch of feet on the farm, familiar creak of the barn door—that direct connection to the place of my youth.

My natural instinct now is to seek out, with my eyes and camera, that which is no longer mine.

(All photos were taken while traveling three weeks ago along Interstate 90 between Rochester and the Wisconsin border. Yes, the snow has since melted. Yeah!)

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling