Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Winter photography along the Cannon River January 10, 2023

Randy follows the winding trail along the Cannon River through North Alexander Park in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo January 2023)

ON THE FIRST DAY of the new year, before Minnesota’s first big winter storm of 2023, Randy and I followed the paved trail along the Cannon River in North Alexander Park. It’s one of my favorite walking paths, if the wind isn’t blowing biting cold off the frozen river.

I appreciate that the City of Faribault keeps the trail free of snow and ice. That’s always a concern for me. I don’t want to risk falling and breaking a bone.

On this first afternoon in January, I pulled my Canon EOS 60D from the camera bag with hopes of getting some interesting shots. Photographing in winter always proves challenging in a landscape mostly devoid of color. But on this day, blue skies accented with puffs of white clouds provided a backdrop contrast.

Dried milkweed pods rise from the riverbank. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo January 2023)

Still, finding scenes to photograph takes effort and an eye for detail. I zoomed in on dried weeds along the shoreline, where the riverbank is nearly indistinguishable from the snow-layered Cannon.

Person-made sculpture or random chunk of icy snow? (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo January 2023)

And then I noticed, on a riverside picnic table, an icy sculpture. It appeared intentionally placed there, although it could have been thrown onto the tabletop by a snowblower and simply have been a chunk of snow that happened to resemble an animal. Whatever, I found the art interesting, worthy of my pause.

Oak leaves cling to branches. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo January 2023)

Pausing seems a necessity of January photography in Minnesota. I stopped to study trees, noting stubborn oak leaves clinging to branches as if defying winter.

Treetops against a textured sky. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo January 2023)

I saw, too, how barren branches curve in graceful bends unseen in the fullness of other seasons. Trees possess a certain sculptural beauty when posed in winter nakedness.

I’ve always loved this “BLANKETS” ghost sign on the Faribault Mill. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo January 2023)

Across the river, the iconic 1892 Faribault Mill (formerly the Faribault Woolen Mill; it recently acquired a cotton mill in Maine) stands as a symbol of endurance and history. Inside the mill, craftspeople create quality woolen blankets and more that are acclaimed world-wide. I never tire of focusing on this local landmark which merges with the Cannon.

Walking the dogs before the Vikings-Packers game. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo January 2023)

My walk with Randy, who was well ahead of me given all my photographic lagging, proved a much-needed break to stretch my muscles, to breathe in the crisp air of January. As we aimed back toward the van, my fingers numbing from the cold exposure, we met a Green Bay Packers fan walking his dogs. His green and gold attire tipped me to his football allegiance. I greeted him, but, with head phones clamped on, he didn’t reply. Maybe that was for the best given the Packers 41-17 win over the Minnesota Vikings hours later.

The snow-chunked river bank meets frozen Cannon River meets Faribault Mill in the distance. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo January 2023)

I missed the game kick-off, not that I care given my general lack of interest in football. But occasionally I pause to take in the scene, to see the fans in their Vikings attire, to listen to their rising SKOL chant, to appreciate the details, just as I do with my Canon along the Cannon.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The poetry of seasons as we welcome Autumn to Minnesota September 29, 2022

A wave of cattails signal Autumn’s entrance. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

IN THIS SEASON OF EARLY AUTUMN, the landscape of Minnesota transitions to subdued, muted, softer tones flashed with vivid orange, yellow and red in tree lines or a solitary tree. This time of year truly marks a change as we ease toward Winter, a season devoid of color.

Goldenrods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

A hillside of drying grass contrasts with the looming grey sky. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Grasses tower high above me. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

A month ago, before Summer exited, I already observed Autumn’s entrance at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. Stands of cattails. Groups of goldenrod. Seas of drying prairie grass. All signaled the shift to September days.

I’m sure this scene has changed in the month since I photographed it. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

I love this time of year. Sunny days give way to cool evenings to brisk mornings. I’ve pulled the flannel from the closet. I embrace the feeling, the glory, of each day, recognizing such days are fleeting.

Rustic signs, which I love, mark the trails at River Bend. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

But weeks before this end of September, I delighted in the final days of August with that short walk through the woods at River Bend, then along a grass-lined trail to the hilltop Prairie Loop before I retraced my steps.

A stem of grass bends in the wind. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Prairie grasses, looming well above my head, bent in the wind. I noted the gracefulness of the stems’ movement, the details on a single stalk. If you’ve ever paused to study a stalk, it’s almost like reading a poem. Grain after grain after grain ladders a slim line. In poetry, each word ladders into a line, into a verse, into a poem.

In the light of an August afternoon, a Monarch butterfly feeds upon the flower of a thistle. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

In the flashlight of the afternoon at River Bend, I spotted a lone Monarch flitting among thistles, black-outlined orange wings contrasting with the soft purple of the bloom. A metaphor. Or perhaps a simile when penned poetically. Poem upon poem upon poem.

Lush leaves veined by the August sun. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Autumn edits out Summer, eliminating the excess wordage of a season that is lush and full and busy. Now the lines of the season shorten, every word carefully chosen, a harbinger of what lies ahead. Winter. Sparse. Barren. Cold.

I followed this path from the woods, across the low lands to a hilltop overlooking the prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

But until then, Autumn settles in with the familiarity of a worn buffalo plaid flannel shirt. With the familiarity of cattails and milkweed bursting. Goldenrods. Tall prairie grasses drying, moving toward dormancy. I’ve seen this shift every September for past sixty years now. Yet I never tire of the shift, the change in seasons here in southern Minnesota.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remnants & reawakening April 29, 2021

Across the pond, the power plant, part of the Minnesota Municipal Power Agency and next to Faribault Energy Park.

TRAFFIC DRONES ALONG the nearby interstate, overwhelming the scene with intrusive noise.

The park features dirt roads edging ponds.

Yet, I find reasons to appreciate Faribault Energy Park, a mostly under-used park on Faribault’s northwest side. Located next to I-35, this Minnesota Municipal Power Agency Park features dirt roads circling ponds.

The texture of a birch tree drew my photographic interest.

With trees, a variety of other plant life, waterfowl, songbirds and the rare occasional sighting of wildlife, this makes for an interesting place to walk. Especially for a photographer. Even though I’ve been here many times, I enjoy the challenge of finding new ways to photograph a familiar setting.

I love the artsy bend of these branches against the backdrop April sky.

As I followed the roadways, a theme emerged. Remnants. And reawakening.

Berries left-over from seasons past pop color into the landscape.

Everywhere I looked, I saw remnants of seasons past.

Milkweed pods, oh the texture, the sturdiness, the weathered grey of winter.

Bare branches. Dried berries. Grey milkweed pods. Fluffs of cattails.

I love the contrast of red dogwood against the blue sky.

April marks the transition from dormancy to reawakening. Spring bursts into the landscape in tree buds, in green grass, in the reddening of dogwood.

The park includes a wind turbine and solar panels.

I noticed, too, when photographing the on-site wind turbine, the scuttle of white clouds against blue sky.

Buds open on dogwood.

After months of grey everything, the sky looks bluer, the new green greener.

Looking across the pond, used by anglers, and next to the power plant.

I don’t know if this is a Minnesota thing, this seeing spring colors through an especially vivid lens, or whether this is universal as seasons shift. Or perhaps it’s the photographer in me.

Look in the center of this photo to see a chipmunk among the rocks. Without the telephoto lens on my Canon, this is the best I could do in photographing the rodent.

Yet, as much as I credit myself for environment awareness, I missed the chipmunk camouflaged among rocks along the creek.

Dead on pond’s edge.

I missed, too, the muskrat rippling away from the shoreline into the pond. And the dead fish lying on its side near water’s edge. Randy saw all three and drew my attention to them. Then he wondered why I would photograph a dead fish. “Because I want to show what I saw,” I say. Yes, even the unappealing. Life isn’t always pretty.

Soon the banks along this creek will fill with plant growth.

Yet, we can choose to focus on the beauty in life—in the remnants and reawakening. And we can choose to shut out the noise that threatens to silence the sounds of joy.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

April observations from my Minnesota backyard April 23, 2021

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Oh, to see the trees leafing out…a sure sign of spring in Minnesota.

SPRING IN MINNESOTA brings depth to the landscape. A richness of color. Months of grey and brown fade, replaced by pops of vibrant hues in spring flowers, by vivid blue skies, by bursts of green in leafing trees.

My backyard shows all those signs of spring. As I hang laundry on the line on an April morning with a lingering nip of cold, the sun shines bright. The shrill voice of cardinals pierces through the steady noise of traffic.

Tulips color my yard.

Around the corner, next to the house foundation, 18 red and yellow tulips await the shifting of the sun. Soon they will “open their mouths,” as my now 30-something daughter assessed as a toddler.

Soon ferns will unfold in fullness. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

In the same flowerbeds, ferns rise from the earth. Soon to fill the space, to wave in the wind with a rhythm that seems poetically beautiful.

Oh, the light on these hosta leaves…

Hostas erupt in clusters of green leaves that will eventually spread wide.

Soon the bleeding hearts will bloom. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

And in three spots along the fence, bleeding hearts emerge, buds already forming on one plant.

This week has proven hard on plants with morning temps in the 20s. Tulip heads and bleeding heart buds drooped, bowing to the cold. They’ve since rebounded.

The reality of spring in Minnesota is fickle. One day sunshine and warmth, the next snow flurries and cold. I never quite trust, even in April and into early May, that winter has exited. We’ve experienced May snowstorms and certainly plenty in April. Snow shovels remain at the ready.

The greens of trees and of grass and plants seems particularly vivid in spring.

But for today, I believe in spring. I see it. Overhead in the greening of trees against the blue sky. Below in the push of plants through the cold soil. And in my spirit, I feel a renewed sense of optimism, a joyfulness that comes in this season of hanging laundry on the line with the sun beaming bright.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the road to & from Wisconsin September 14, 2020

 

Eastbound traffic along Interstate 90/94 was particularly heavy in eastern Wisconsin on Labor Day. We were driving westbound back home to Minnesota.

 

IF UNSCIENTIFIC OBSERVATIONS hold any value, then I assess that media reports about more people traveling via vehicle on Labor Day weekend held true.

 

Electronic road signs in Wisconsin are often creative and humorous. I consider humor an effective way to convey a message.

 

Randy and I were among the thousands hitting the road on the long weekend. Our destination: Madison, Wisconsin, some 260 miles/four-plus hours south and east of our Minnesota home. We drove there to see our second daughter and her husband and our son. We realize there’s some risk of COVID-19 exposure involved given their jobs. But we can’t not see them. Well, I suppose we could, but…

Typically, we explore Madison’s art and food scene. But that last happened during a mid-February visit, pre-virus spread here in the Midwest. Or at least knowledge of the spread. We limit our exploration now to whatever we can do outdoors, like walking the city bike trails and exploring other natural areas.

 

This farm site near St. Charles, Minnesota, in the heart of Amish country, is particularly lovely.

 

The drive to and from Madison is an easy one with four-lane highway or interstate all the way, except for a short stretch in Minnesota east of Owatonna. We left mid Saturday morning and expected uncrowded roadways. Instead, traffic proved plentiful as people embraced summer’s final weekend. Lots of pick-ups pulling campers. Westbound traffic was especially heavy on Saturday, eastbound on Monday. The opposite directions we were aiming.

 

I love this stretch of valley east of La Crosse for its scenic farm sites and landscape.

 

The scenery en route is particularly lovely, especially along the Mississippi River bluffs nearing La Crosse, Wisconsin. East of that river city, picturesque farms define the valley.

 

In Monroe County, rock formations rise from the land.

 

And later, rock formations rise alongside Interstate 90 like ships upon the sea.

 

I never tire of seeing these unusual rocks.

 

And then the Wisconsin Dells, with equally intriguing rock formations and tree buffeted gorges, offer another visual respite from the traffic. Even with all the detracting-from-nature waterparks.

 

Crops are ripening in Minnesota. This was the scene Labor Day afternoon as we returned home.

 

One of the aspects I most appreciate about Madison is its closeness to the rural landscape. This barn sits atop a hill just outside the city along I-90/94.

 

Rural Wisconsin as photographed from I-90/94.

 

I always appreciate the rural landscape of fields and barns.

 

Near Madison, this sign from a cattle breeder wishes travelers well. This makes me laugh.

 

And the humorous signage in Wisconsin. When you’re living in the middle of a pandemic, humor helps. To break up the drive and to break away for a moment from the seriousness of life.

 

On the drive home on Labor Day weekend, we were concerned about possible Interstate closure in La Crosse due to a visit by Vice President Mike Pence. Thankfully his visit did not affect us and we noticed nothing unusual except this flag on an overpass and a few strategically placed law enforcement vehicles.

 

TELL ME: Have you “gotten away” recently? Close to home? Or more distant?

Please check back for more posts from Wisconsin.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The greening of Minnesota May 3, 2020

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THIS TIME OF YEAR—early spring in southern Minnesota—I become a tree watcher.

 

 

That may sound odd to an outsider. But to us Minnesotans, who’ve come through another winter, watching trees leaf into a canopy of green doesn’t seem all that strange.

 

 

You can almost see the buds grow and leaves unfurl, a process now well underway. Green tints the skyline. And with warmth and sunshine, those once dormant trees are beautiful to behold.

 

 

Likewise the hillsides are awash in green with plants pushing through the cold earth.

 

 

And tulips open petals, popping vivid hues into the landscape. This is spring in Minnesota. Lovely. In color and in warmth.

 

These tulips from Paula in Holland are popping color into my life. They are in full bloom now in three vivid hues. Just beautiful!

 

See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in the land. (Solomon’s Song of Songs 2:11-12 NIV)

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Wisconsin: Quick, look before the snow melts March 5, 2020

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An iconic Wisconsin farm site photographed from Interstate 90 on February 15.

 

OH, WHAT A DIFFERENCE a few weeks make. I’m talking snow cover here. With temps rising into the 40s, even 50s in some places in Minnesota, and sun shining bright in the afternoons, the snow pack is diminishing.

 

Photographed on February 15 while traveling along Interstate 90 in Wisconsin, this tree stand appears like an island in an ocean of snow.

 

I can now see patches of grass in my lawn, curbing along streets and indications that we are getting closer to spring. As a life-long Minnesotan, though, I recognize the potential for lots more snowfall, even into May.

But for now, we’re delighting in days that lean toward spring. Sixty degrees is forecast for this weekend. Imagine how that will facilitate snow melt. And lift spirits.

 

This hillside barn is located near Madison, in an area more urban than rural.

 

That all said, I’m finally getting around to sharing snowscape photos I took in mid-February while traveling along Interstate 90 in Wisconsin, eastbound toward Madison. Scenes along that route are becoming familiar to me now given the frequency of trips to visit our second daughter, her husband and our son in the capital city.

 

A pastoral scene along I-90 in southern Wisconsin.

 

Wisconsin, for all the jokes about beer, brats and cheese, and fan fanaticism for the Packers and Badgers, is a lot like Minnesota. Friendly folks. Diverse landscape. Mostly rural with just enough urban. Interesting. I’ve enjoyed exploring Madison from botanical gardens to art museums to a repurposed mill next to my son’s apartment building.

 

In the valley east of La Crosse, the length of this barn along I-90 impresses me.

 

A picturesque farm site sits in the valley.

 

Another long barn.

 

 

With the exception of Rochester, Minnesota, and La Crosse, Wisconsin, the four-hour drive to Madison from Faribault takes us primarily through rural regions. I especially like the area east of La Crosse where high rolling hills border farm fields and farm sites in the valley. Hills and wide sky dwarf the farms, a strong visual that always impresses upon me our smallness in this vast universe.

 

This scene, especially, emphasizes our smallness.

 

Such are my thoughts as we travel. I never tire of looking at these rural scenes, often wishing we had time to follow backroads deep into the hills. We did once, years ago while vacationing, and nearly lost our way such are the twisting paths within those hills.

 

Nearing Madison, a traditional farmhouse and barn define this farm.

 

I digress. I expect if I was to photograph these sames scenes today, they would appear much different with snow no longer defining the landscape. What a difference only a few weeks make…

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Color my winter world January 8, 2020

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The nearly colorless landscape of southwestern Minnesota in late December.

 

MY EYES, MY SPIRIT, my very being craves color this time of year.

I need pops of color to break the white monotony of a Minnesota winter landscape. Without color, the bleakness of setting presses down the spirit. Not that winter can’t be beautiful. It’s just that I prefer a world beyond black and white.

So when I’m out and about, I find myself drawn to hues that flash. Like red, especially red. Set against a backdrop of white, red appears even bolder, stronger.

 

Parked in a Morristown, Minnesota, driveway.

 

A red pick-up truck.

 

Red barns, like this one in southwestern Minnesota, really stand out in a winterscape.

 

A red barn, tractor, outbuildings.

 

Right next to the I-90 in the Wisconsin Dells, a colorful waterslide breaks the grey of a foggy late December morning.

 

Even, while driving through the Wisconsin Dells recently, red spiraling on an outdoor waterslide.

 

Taillights are welcome along a foggy I-90 in Wisconsin.

 

And, on that same trip, the welcome red of taillights beaconing through thick fog pressed upon Interstate 90.

During a Midwest winter, red equals the visual equivalent of happiness.

TELL ME: Do you involuntarily gravitate toward color this time of year? If yes, I’d like to hear more.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Winter photo poetry February 18, 2019

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A WINTER LANDSCAPE IN RURAL Minnesota can, at first glance, seem visually unappealing. White upon white upon white.

But then a moment happens. A curtain opens in the mind to reveal a scene that holds spectacular beauty.

Stubble pokes through snowy fields. A farm site stands isolated, yet strong, in all that winter vastness. And then, a layer of golden light slips between land and clouds.

The light. The textures. The immensity of the scene. All collide before my eyes, to create a winter photo poem. Beautiful in its complexity. Beautiful in its simplicity. Winter.

 

I photographed this scene along Interstate 35 somewhere north of Faribault around sunset Saturday.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the road in Wisconsin: Deer & cows & more, oh, my June 4, 2018

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About to enter Wisconsin at La Crosse.

 

SINCE MY SECOND DAUGHTER moved to Wisconsin seven, or maybe it’s eight, years ago, I’ve grown to love this neighbor to the east of Minnesota.

 

Crossing the Mississippi River with Minnesota to the right, Wisconsin to the left.

 

A particularly scenic vista heading west toward La Crosse and eventually Minnesota.

 

 

I like Wisconsin’s rural character, its rolling hills and bluffs and open farmland.

 

East of La Crosse.

 

 

 

Cow cut-outs line a ballpark fence in Mauston. Can you correctly answer the dairy trivia question? Check the end of this post for the answer. And also check back tomorrow to learn all about this herd of cows.

 

I like the quaint farm sites, the cows grazing and the proud promotion of dairy. This is, after all, the Dairyland State.

 

A cheese-promoting mouse statue along the interstate.

 

I’m amused by the obsession with brat frys and cheese and the Green Bay Packers.

 

I’ve never seen so many dead deer as in Wisconsin, except in Pennsylvania. Live ones, too. On the return trip to Minnesota from Madison, I counted 17 dead deer along the interstate. I likely missed some. I didn’t count the miscellaneous roadkill. On the trip out, I saw even more dead deer, but didn’t tally those.

 

I’m not so amused, though, by all the dead deer along roadways.

 

This message flashed multiple times on signs along the interstate on Memorial Day weekend. During the 538-mile round trip to Madison and back to Faribault, I saw only one law enforcement officer, a policeman just outside Kenyon, MN. I wish one would have been around to catch the driver of the car that passed a semi on the left shoulder of the interstate in Wisconsin.

 

Nor do I find the drinking culture particularly positive.

 

As expected, there’s plenty of road construction mixed into summer travel.

 

But all in all, I find Wisconsin an interesting and beautiful state with small town nuances that often delight me.

 

The Wisconsin Dells, with its many waterparks, is a popular tourist destination. Here vehicles are backed up along the interstate following a serious car crash. I was thankful we were on the opposite side. Traffic gridlock stretched for many miles.

 

I am now in the process of discovering a region of Wisconsin previously unvisited. That’s the Madison area. In the past, visits to my daughter took me off the interstate at Tomah and across the state to Oshkosh and then a bit north into the Fox Valley. Now she lives in Madison, a Memorial Day weekend destination. It’s a four-hour drive, an hour less than the previous drive. But it’s still scenic and so quintessential Wisconsin.

 

FYI: Please check back for more posts from Wisconsin, including one on those cows in Mauston and several posts from Madison. All photos here were taken along Interstates 90 and 94, except the image in Mauston.

TRIVIA QUESTION ANSWER: D. Holstein

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling