Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Minnesota prairie roots revisited, remembered, reflected January 25, 2023

My “Hope of a Farmer” poem exhibited at the Lyon County Historical Society Museum. The exhibit also includes my poem, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2022)

WHEN I RETURNED to my beloved southwestern Minnesota prairie in September, I did so with one primary purpose—to see my poetry showcased in the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit at the Lyon County Historical Society Museum in Marshall. Any additional attractions—like viewing a public art sculpture outside the local ice arena and a stop at Brau Brothers Brewing—would only enhance the day trip.

Randy Walker’s “Prairie Roots” sculpture defines the entrance outside the Red Baron Arena on Marshall’s east side at 1651 Victory Drive. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

My one regret is that Randy and I didn’t stay overnight, allowing more time to explore local sites without feeling rushed. Forty years have passed since I visited Marshall en route to the Black Hills on our honeymoon. The college and county seat town lies 20 miles to the west of my hometown, Vesta in Redwood County, and 140 miles from my current home in Faribault.

A serene country scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2013)

This area of Minnesota is the place of my roots. My prairie roots. It is the place of wide open space, expansive skies, small towns and endless acres of cropland.

A prairie sunset photographed from Minnesota State Highway 67 between Redwood Falls and Morgan. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

The land where I grew up inspired my blog name, Minnesota Prairie Roots. The name fits me as a person and a creative. The sparseness of the prairie taught me to notice details, to fully engage my senses. To appreciate the landscape and people. The vastness of the flat land and the star-flushed night sky and achingly beautiful sunsets. Here I connected to the land—bare feet upon dirt, bike tires crunching gravel, dirt etched into my hands from working the soil. Here I connected to the people—down-to-earth, hardworking, linked to the land.

A favorite children’s picture book about the prairie gifted to me by my friend Kathleen.

For those who are not of prairie stock, the sparse landscape can seem uninteresting, empty, desolate. Even I admit the challenge of “if you’re not from the prairie…” A children’s picture book by that title, written by David Bouchard and illustrated by Henry Ripplinger and published in 1995, speaks to the prairie sun, wind, sky, flatness…grasses.

The tall grasses stretch to the prairie sky. The bent tops of the stems are also meant to resemble hockey sticks given the sculpture’s location outside the ice arena. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Tall grasses are often associated with the prairie. Yet, those grasses were mostly missing from the landscape of my youth as cultivated crops covered the earth. But on our farm site, a sliver of unmown grass grew between granary and grove and gravel driveway, stretching high, stems bending in the wind. That Little House on the Prairie (Walnut Grove is 20 miles from Vesta) space opened summer afternoons to imaginative play. I hold many memories rooted in those tall grasses, in the prairie.

Depending on the time of day and viewing point, the steel grass stems showcase different colors. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
The sculpture reflected in an arena window. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
Just another view of the grass stems, emphasizing the orange and yellow hues. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Prairie Roots. That name graces a public art sculpture outside the Red Baron Arena in Marshall. Minneapolis artist Randy Walker was commissioned by the City of Marshall in 2018 to create the sculpture reflecting the prairie landscape. I knew in advance of my September visit that I needed to see this artwork if time allowed. We made time. Walker used 210 painted steel poles to represent tall stems of grass, prairie grass. They are colored in hues of yellow, orange, red and green, reflecting seasonal changes and light.

Prairie grass grows within the sculpture. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2022)

And in between all those steel stems, prairie grass grows, thrives.

A grasshopper clings to a steel grass stem in the “Prairie Roots” sculpture. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

I even spotted a grasshopper on a steel stalk, taking me back decades to the hoards of grasshoppers that amassed and hopped through that patch of uncut grass on the farm.

Viewing the sculpture toward the field, this perspective shows the meandering course of the Redwood River in the Marshall area on the floor of the gathering space. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Walker’s sculpture holds visual appeal against an expansive backdrop sky and open field (when viewing the art from the arena entrance outward). Via that perspective, I see the enduring strength of the prairie, and the immensity of land and sky, this place of my Minnesota prairie roots.

Please check back for more posts about my day trip back to southwestern Minnesota in September 2022.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In Lyon County: Prairie-rooted poetry at the museum September 20, 2022

The sprawling Lyon County Historical Society Museum in the heart of downtown Marshall, across from the post office. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

RECENTLY I TRAVELED back to my native southwestern Minnesota, destination Marshall, 18 miles west of my hometown of Vesta. Specifically, I targeted the Lyon County Historical Society Museum to view the award-winning “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit. Two of my poems, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother” and “Hope of a Farmer,” are featured therein.

Me, photographed next to the panel featuring my poem, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother.” My one regret is that my mom (pictured in two smaller photo insets) never saw this exhibit in person. She died in January. (Photo by Randy Helbling, September 2022)
To the far left is the panel featuring my poem, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother.” In the center is my poem, “Hope of a Farmer.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
My poem, “Hope of a Farmer.” That is not my dad in the photo. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

The exhibit, which won a 2021 Minnesota History Award from the Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums, opened in January of the same year. Finally, I got to Marshall last week. Up until my visit, I was unaware that two, not just one, of my poems are included. When I read the title “Hope of a Farmer,” I thought to myself, I wrote a poem with that title. And then, as I read, I realized this was my poem.

The second floor exhibit celebrates Lyon County in the award-winning exhibit, “Making Lyon County Home.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Now I’m doubly honored that my rural-themed poetry inspired by my farmer father and farm wife mother were chosen to be part of this outstanding exhibit focusing on the people, places, businesses, communities, activities, events, history and arts of Lyon County.

A clothes pin bag hangs in an exhibit space near my “Ode” poem, quite fitting. Visitors can turn a dial to generate “wind” blowing dish towels on a clothesline. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Excerpt from “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother” (click here to read the entire poem):

In the rhythm of your days, you still danced,

but to the beat of farm life—

laundry tangled on the clothesline,

charred burgers jazzed with ketchup,

finances rocked by falling corn and soybean prices.

This panel honors literary and visual artists of the region. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

As I read the “Imagining the Prairie” informational panel, my gratitude to the LCHS staff, volunteers and Museology Museum Services of Minneapolis (lead contractor for the exhibit) grew. I appreciate that an entire panel focuses on the arts: The Lyon County landscape…has inspired painters and poets and artists of all kinds. I’ve long thought that as I see the prairie influence in my writing and photography. Farms, vast prairies, wide skies and tumbling rivers define the landscape of southwestern Minnesota.

Corn rows emerge in a field near Delhi in southwestern Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Excerpt from my “Hope of a Farmer” poem (click here to read the entire poem):

I see my father’s work laid out before him—

first seeds dropped into rich black soil,

next, corn rows carefully cultivated,

then fervent prayers for timely rain.

A fitting quote from Bill Holm. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

A quote from poet, essayist and musician Bill Holm of nearby Minneota, summarizes well the lens through which we prairie natives view the world and the creative process. The prairie eye looks for distance, clarity, and light…

A grain complex and the Oasis Bar & Grill in Milroy, near Marshall. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Holm, who died in 2009, was among southwestern Minnesota’s best-known writers, having penned poetry and multiple books such as his popular The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth and Boxelder Bug Variations. His boxelder bug book inspired his hometown to host an annual Boxelder Bug Days, still going strong.

Poetry by Leo Dangel in the ag-focused part of the exhibit. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

To see my poems featured alongside the work of gifted writers like Holm and equally-talented poet Leo Dangel in the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit was humbling. Dangel, who died in 2016, wrote six collections of poetry. The prairie and rural influence on his work show in the featured poems, “A Farmer Prays,” “A Clear Day,” and “Tornado.”

My poem honoring my mom… (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Both men taught English at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, reaffirming their devotion to this rural region and to the craft of writing. The exhibit includes a section on the university, which opened in 1967 within 10 years of my leaving the area to attend college in Mankato. I sometimes wonder how my writing would have evolved had I stayed and studied on the prairie.

A serene country scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County, which is right next to Lyon County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

When I returned to Marshall for the first time in 40 years, nothing about the town seemed familiar. Time has a way of changing a place. But when I reached the top floor of the county museum, saw my poems and began to peruse the “home” exhibit, I felt like I was back home. Back home on the prairie, among cornfields and farm sites and grain elevators and all those small towns that dot the landscape. Back home under a wide prairie sky with land stretching beyond my vision. Back home where I understand the people. Back home in the place that influenced my writing as only the prairie can for someone rooted here.

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Please check back for more posts featuring the Lyon County Museum and the area.

The ode honoring my mother initially published in South Dakota State University’s 2017 literary journal, Oakwood.

And the poem about my father was chosen as a “Work of Merit” at the 2014 Northwoods Art & Book Festival in Hackensack.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Honoring Howard Mohr, author of “How to Talk Minnesotan” September 8, 2022

Image source: Goodreads

MINNESOTA SEEMS, TO ME, a hotbed for writers. And five days ago we lost one of our most beloved, Howard Mohr. He was perhaps best-known for his wildly popular, at least in Minnesota, book, How to Talk Minnesotan: A Visitor’s Guide, published in 1987. The book was later updated and adapted into an equally popular musical.

Many years have passed since I read my copy of this entertaining, humorous, and, yes, truthful, summary of Minnesota life. In honor of Mohr, who died September 4 of Parkinson’s at Fieldcrest Assisted Living in Cottonwood, I pulled my book from the shelf and reread it.

A corn field in southwestern Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

That Mohr, 83, recently moved from his Lyon County farm home of 52 years to a facility called Fieldcrest seems especially fitting. He lived in farming country, my native southwestern Minnesota, the place of small towns defined by grain elevators and land defined by fields of corn and soybean. He understood the people and place of the prairie. So when I read the sentence in his book declaring the produce of Minnesota writers to be as valuable as a crop of soybeans and corn, I felt he nailed it.

A harvested field and farm site in my native Redwood County, Minnesota, where the land and sky stretch into forever. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I’ve long celebrated writers rooted in the prairie like Mohr, Bill Holm, Robert Bly, Frederick Manfred, Leo Dangel… My friend Larry Gavin of Faribault, too, poet and writer who studied under those writers and lived for 15 years on the prairie. Some shared their knowledge, their talents, by teaching at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. That’s near Cottonwood. Mohr taught English at Southwest State. He also penned Minnesota Book of Days, How to Tell a Tornado (poetry and prose) and wrote for “A Prairie Home Companion,” also appearing on the show.

A serene country scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I’m most familiar with How to Talk Minnesotan. The content reflects my rural upbringing. The dairy and crop farm of my youth lies a mere 15 miles to the south and east of Cottonwood, thus rereading Mohr’s book is like traveling back home, a reminder of that which defines me as a native of rural Redwood County. Even after nearly 40 years of living in Faribault, in town, I still call the noon-time meal “dinner” and the evening meal “supper.” My adult kids don’t, so I/they, always clarify when invitations are extended to a meal. To me “lunch” will always come mid-afternoon or in the evening before guests leave.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our Redwood County farm driveway in this March 1965 photo. I’m standing next to my mom in the back. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Mohr’s references to the noon whistle, Jell-O (once popular, not so much now) winter survival kits, snowbirds (those who leave Minnesota in the winter and return in the spring), hotdish (casserole), pancake feeds, seed corn caps, lutefisk, Lutherans, bullheads (smaller versions of catfish), the “long goodbye” all resonate. I especially understand his point that Minnesotans are obsessed with the weather. We are.

Bars made by Lutherans. ( Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Some 10-plus years ago, when my now son-in-law moved to Minnesota from Los Angeles after falling in love with my eldest daughter, I gifted him with Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan. I figured this would help him adjust to our language and state. Whether it did or didn’t, I don’t know. But Marc hasn’t moved back to his native California. And he never commented on Mohr’s statement that Californians struggle to adapt to life in Minnesota. Marc fits in just fine. I do recall, though, his comment on “bars,” a word with duo meaning here in our state. “Bars” are both a place to gather and drink alcohol and a baked or unbaked sweet treat (made with lots of sugar and often topped with chocolate) pressed or spread into a 9 x 13-inch cake pan.

Maybe I really ought to make a pan of bars, cut them into squares, plate and serve them with coffee for “a little lunch” as a way to honor Howard Mohr, writer, satirist, humorist. He yielded a mighty fine crop of writing.

FYI: I encourage you to read Mohr’s obituary by clicking here. Be sure to read the insightful and loving comments. And if you haven’t read How to Talk Minnesotan, do. If you’re Minnesotan, it will be a refresher course in our life and language. If you’re not from here, you’ll better understand us upon reading this guide.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling