Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Oh, for the poetic beauty of sunrises & sunsets in Minnesota May 1, 2017


SOMETIMES I WONDER if nature can offer anything more beautiful than a sunrise or a sunset. But then I have not seen the mountains of the West or the deserts of the Southwest or the ocean other than the Atlantic once.



Still, the sunrise and sunset are universal. We all see the same sun, just in different places.



Farm fields and a wide sky backdropped my youthful vision of the sun. To this day, for me, there’s nothing quite like a prairie sunset, the blazing ball of the sun overwhelming the southwestern Minnesota landscape. Those childhood memories leave me grieving for the sunsets I’ve missed while living in a valley within a city for 33 years. Hillside and trees filter and block the sinking sun.



Still, living in Faribault, a southeastern Minnesota community situated along rivers and lake, gives me an opportunity to view the sunset waterside. And there is beauty in that, too, in the reflections that dance poetry across water backdropped by a day shifting from twilight to dusk to dark.



FYI: These images were taken in mid-March from the shores of Wells Lake at King Mill Park along the Cannon River in Faribault. Click here to see additional photos of the above sunset as I entered Faribault along Highway 60 from the east.


Writing poetry as the sun rises

My fingertips linger within a mere whisper of the keyboard
as I pause, half-thought, words interrupted mid-phrase,
to tilt my head toward the window and the sunrise
spreading gold and pink across the sky like jam on toast.

In that morning moment, I desire nothing more
than to dip my fingers into the jar of dawn,
to sample her sweetness, to taste of her earthy goodness,
to delight in sunshine and rain and succulent fruit plucked from vines.

But language beckons me back to the keyboard,
to dip my fingers into the jar of words,
to choose and shape and share the poetry that rises within me,
in rhythm and verse upon the breaking day.


FYI: My poem about the sunrise published in Poetic Strokes, A Regional Anthology of Poetry From Southeastern Minnesota, 2012.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Minnesota Faces: A pastor with prairie roots February 20, 2015

Portrait #8: Pastor Gordon


Portrait 8, Pastor Gordon Deuel at Little Prairie


This week, the beginning of Lent and Christ’s journey toward crucifixion, seems an appropriate time to feature a portrait of a pastor.

I met the Rev. Gordon Deuel several summers ago when he was still shepherding Little Prairie United Methodist Church, rural Dundas. He left in June 2013 to become the Elko New Market Campus Pastor for Lakeville-based Crossroads Church.

My introduction to this clergyman happened on a Sunday afternoon when my husband and I stopped at Little Prairie School, a former country school located kitty corner from the Little Prairie church. Pastor Gordon noticed us lingering, walked across the road and unlocked the door into the historic building.

Later, we strolled over to the church and poked around. That’s when I captured this portrait of the preacher in beautiful natural light.

While talking to Rev. Gordon, I learned that he, like me, is a native of southwestern Minnesota. He’s from Hendricks, which is about as close to South Dakota as you can get without being in it. I always feel a special kinship with prairie people. We are rooted deep in the land, appreciative of wide open spaces and big skies, fields and small towns. We don’t dismiss the prairie as the middle of nowhere, as some place to pass through en route to somewhere better. The prairie is home, whether we still live there or not.

With that commonality of place, I connected with Pastor Gordon that Sunday afternoon in August 2012.

Now, 2 ½ years later, after visiting the City of Hendricks website, I understand even more how people and place shaped the pastor. Here’s a snippet of well-crafted writing designed to draw visitors and new residents to this rural community of some 700 folks just a stone’s throw from South Dakota:

The residents of Hendricks have focused on creating a town which is a perfect place for children. Our school district is one of the best in the nation. Our weather is temperate and provides for four seasons of fun. We are well grounded in our past, as we continue to worship in a prairie church which is now on the National Register of Historic Places. We look to better our tomorrow through efforts such as our wind farm and organic farming. We believe you will find the Hendricks, Minnesota, quality of life second to none.

And I expect, as in Lake Wobegon, that “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average” in this “Little Town by the Lake.”


This is part of a series, Minnesota Faces, published every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Lake Wobegon quote is from Minnesota writer Garrison Keillor.


Chasing the light in Luverne September 18, 2013

An overview of the gallery's inviting first level.

An overview of the gallery’s inviting first level.

WALK INTO THE BRANDENBURG GALLERY in Luverne with a camera and you likely will feel unworthy and intimidated, but mostly in awe.

Brandenburg is among natives honored on a lower level hallway Rock County Hall of Fame. He's on the lower right.

Brandenburg is among native residents honored in a lower level hallway Rock County Hall of Fame. He’s on the lower right, inducted in 1992. Brandenburg graduated from Luverne High School in 1963 and, after college, worked as picture editor at the nearby Worthington Daily Globe while also freelancing for National Geographic. He left the Globe in 1978 to do contract work for National Geographic.

This gallery houses the work of native son Jim Brandenburg, probably Minnesota’s best-known nature photographer.

A Brandenburg bison photo hangs to the left and the photographer talks about his work in a video, right.

A Brandenburg bison photo hangs to the left and the photographer talks about his work in a video, right.

For more than three decades, Brandenburg traveled the globe photographing for National Geographic. Yes, he’s that good. He’s accumulated numerous awards and has been published in so many places I can’t possibly list them all. (Click here to read his biography.)

Some of Brandenburg's photo books.

Some of Brandenburg’s photo books.

For years I’ve wanted to tour this gallery in the extreme southwestern corner of my state, to view, close up, the images I’ve seen in books, plus more. I wanted to study his photos—the light, the angles, the perspective.

Light plays upon walls, floors and Brandenburg photos in a stairway display.

Light plays upon walls, floors and Brandenburg photos in a stairway display.

Brandenburg is known for his focus on light. Light, as all serious photographers understand, can make or break a photo. This noted photographer features some of his best “light” photos in a published collection, Chased by the Light—A 90-Day Journey. Images from that book are among those showcased in the gallery.

The first floor of the gallery, which doubles as the Luverne Chamber of Commerce office, is artfully and comfortably decorated.

The first floor of the gallery, which doubles as the Luverne Chamber of Commerce office, is artfully and comfortably decorated. Here are three of Brandenburg’s prairie photos. The tall grass prairie, he says, played in to his development as a photographer. He calls prairie grass magical.

Given my deep love for my native southwestern Minnesota prairie, I most appreciate Brandenburg’s prairie images, displayed on the first floor of the gallery. If you doubt that beauty exists on the prairie, you won’t after seeing these photos.

Brandenburg's published books include Brother Wolf--A Forgotten Promise.

Brandenburg’s published books include Brother Wolf–A Forgotten Promise. The photographer says he swapped a hunting rifle for a camera and never tires of capturing an animal with his camera. The red fox , not the wolf as one would expect, is his favorite animal.

The gallery’s lower level offers a variety of images, but focuses on scenes from Minnesota’s northwoods, where Brandenburg now lives and works near Ely. Think mostly wolves.

The lower level gallery, also a conference space.

The lower level gallery, also a conference space.

After meandering through the gallery, I contemplated not only the talent Brandenburg possesses as a photographer, but his deep knowledge of the natural world and the patience required to wait for the ideal light or for an animal’s arrival. To anticipate, to react or not, to click the shutter button at the precise moment takes a certain talent. And I was graced, for an hour, to walk in the light of such incredible talent.

The entry to the gallery, located in the Rock County Courthouse square.

The gallery, located in the Rock County Courthouse square.

FYI: The Brandenburg Gallery, 213 East Luverne St., is open from 8 a.m – 5 p.m. Monday – Friday and from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturdays. There is no admission fee. Note that I had difficulty finding the gallery as the address does not seem to coincide with the street on which the gallery is located. When you see the courthouse, you’ve found the gallery, located right next door in the old county jail, now the Rock County Veterans Memorial Building. The building is actually along McKenzie Street.

A familiar scene to me, autumn leaves photographed in the Big Woods of Minnesota, within 20 miles of my home.

A familiar scene to me, autumn leaves photographed in the Big Woods of Minnesota, within 20 miles of my home.

Also, note that I asked permission to photograph in the gallery and was given the OK to do so.

FYI: Please click here to read my first in a series of posts, on Blue Mounds State Park, from the Luverne area.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Unlocking the poetry within an abandoned farmhouse April 30, 2012

An abandoned farmhouse along Minnesota State Highway 19 east of Vesta on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

Abandoned Farmhouse

My old bones rattle in the winter wind,
grown weary from years of standing,
bitter cold encompassing my body.

Despair surrounds me
like rot in the weathered heap of the barn,
like rust consuming the junk pile.

Alone, all alone now, abandoned
except for the dying circle of trees
that embrace me, holding me close.

The years have broken my spirit—
too much silence within my walls,
too many tears shed upon my floors.

Left here, without laughter, without hope.
Dreams shattered in my broken windows.
My door closed, locked with a skeleton key.

Abandoned. Desolate. Alone.
Leaning only on the prairie sky,
in a circle of dying trees.


IN 2001, THIS POEM published in Poetic Strokes, A Regional Anthology of Poetry from Southeastern Minnesota, Volume 3. To this day, it remains one of my favorite poems among all those I’ve penned.

“Abandoned Farmhouse” retains that status because the poem connects to my past, to rural southwestern Minnesota where I grew up in a cramped 1 1/2-story wood-frame farmhouse. When I was 11 years old, my parents built a rambler with a walk-in basement a stone’s throw across the circular gravel driveway from the old house. They needed the space for their growing family as the sixth, and final, child arrived in August of 1967.

The summer after we moved into the new house, we tore down the old house, board by board. Memories of dismembering that house lath by lath, nail by nail, imprinted upon my memory. Decades later I would recall the bones of the old house, the skeleton key that unlocked the porch door, the grove of trees that sheltered it from the strong winds that swept across the prairie.

I would write this poem, personifying an abandoned farmhouse.

My poetic words reach beyond my childhood home, though, to embrace the many abandoned farmhouses that dot the prairie landscape. I often wonder about the families that lived in these houses and about the stories they would tell.

Returning to an even earlier time period, my poem also reflects a pervasive loneliness that often troubled early pioneer women in a land that could feel desolate, harsh and inhospitable.

This past March, I captured that desolation in an abandoned farmhouse photo (above) taken within five miles of my childhood home. It aptly illustrates my poem.

To this day, I see both beauty, and despair, in abandoned farmhouses.

©  Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Shared with you in celebration of National Poetry Month, which ends today, April 30.


Prairie poetry in Fergus Falls June 12, 2011

SATURDAY MORNING MY HUSBAND and I hit the road, heading north on Interstate 35 and then west on Interstate 94 to the west central part of Minnesota.

This was our destination:

It's approaching noon on Saturday, and we've nearly reached our destination, Fergus Falls.

Because of this:

The first of my four Roadside Poetry billboards in a stretch of ditch along North Tower Road in Fergus Falls.

I got word last Monday that my winning Roadside Poetry Project spring poem will come down on June 17, to be replaced with a summer poem. (Click here to read a previous post about my poem.) So if I wanted to see “Cold earth warmed by budding sun sprouts the seeds of vernal equinox” and my name—all sprawled across four Burma Shave style billboards—we had to get our butts up to Fergus Falls.

So we did, making the 200-mile trip this weekend under big skies that stretched all the way to the Dakotas.

After a few stops, including a swing into Melrose to view an historic Catholic church (more on that in another post), we eventually reached Exit 54 into Fergus some 3 1/2 hours later. We followed Highway 210/West Lincoln Avenue, turned onto North Tower Road and drove past the NAPA Auto Parts store before reaching those poetry billboards. I mention NAPA because Randy works at the NAPA store in Northfield as an automotive machinist and we found it interesting that my poems just happened to be right down the road from the Fergus NAPA store.

We passed right by the NAPA store to reach my billboards just down the road.

When Randy pulled to the side of North Tower Road by my billboards, I determined this was not the safest place to park. So we pulled into the Fastenal parking lot and then descended the steep ditch, wading through tall, and wet, prairie grasses—sweet clover, June grass, alfalfa—and more than a few thistles.

Our shoes and jean legs were soon soaked with moisture. But, you know, that really didn’t matter. I was so focused on viewing my four-line, spring-themed poem and on taking photos that the wet feet and denim seemed more a nuisance than anything worth fretting over on a glorious early Saturday afternoon.

And so, billboard by billboard, we worked our way down the road ditch, stopping by each sign for photos. Eventually I handed the camera over to Randy, who managed to figure out how to turn on the camera, focus it, compose and snap some pictures.

Me posing by the last of the four billboards with my spring poem.

This may be the first and last time my poetry, and my name, will be on billboards, so I savored every letter, every word, every line, every billboard...

Then I snapped this image of my husband, who had plucked a spear of prairie grass and slipped it into his mouth. The frame marked one of those quick clicks of the camera that resulted in a photo that you could never recapture given its spontaneity.

A sweet shot of my husband as he walked away from the final billboard.

I’m uncertain how long we worked the road ditch along North Tower. But long enough to appreciate that this spot on the edge of town, under a sky that always feels bigger, wider, on the open prairie, perfectly fit a poem written by me, a southwestern Minnesota prairie native.

I crouched to capture this image which focuses on the road ditch prairie grasses.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


I’ve never met Garrison Keillor, but… June 8, 2011

SO, HOW WOULD YOU feel if a photo you took was incorporated into a video/slide show narrated by Garrison Keillor?

Would you slip on your red shoes, lace up the laces and dance a polka?

Since I don’t own red shoes like Keillor and I don’t polka, I enthused to my husband repeatedly about my stroke of luck. I haven’t really boasted to anyone else. We don’t do that sort of thing here in Minnesota. But, I thought maybe I could tell a few of you. A photo I shot of winter on the Minnesota prairie is part of a video/slideshow narrated by our state’s most famous storyteller.

Now, how does this happen to a blogger like me who happily blogs along each day with words and photos from Minnesota, without a thought, not a single thought, that Keillor may someday come into my life. Well, I didn’t exactly meet him and I haven’t exactly spoken to him, but…

A MONTH AGO, Chris Jones, director of the Center for Educational Technologies at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, commented on my January 7, 2010, blog post, “Wind and snow equal brutal conditions on the Minnesota prairie.” He was inquiring about using my photo of winter on the prairie in a video/slideshow for retiring President R. Judson Carlberg and his wife, Jan.

Typically I do not personally respond to comments via email. I am cautious that way, protective of my email address and of anybody out there who may not have my best interests in mind. So I didn’t, just like that, snap your fingers, fire off a response to Jones. First I sleuthed. Honestly, I had never heard of Gordon College and I sure can’t spell Massachusetts.

Here’s what I learned from the college’s website: “Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, is among the top Christian colleges in the nation and the only nondenominational Christian college in New England. Gordon is committed to excellence in liberal arts education, spiritual development and academic freedom informed by a framework of faith.”

I am Lutheran and that all sounded conservative enough for me.

So I emailed Jones, with several questions. You really didn’t expect me to not have questions, did you? I asked Mr. Gordon College guy: “Could you explain to me the nature of this video, which photo you are interested in using and where this video will be shown?”

That’s when he dropped Garrison Keillor’s name as the video/slideshow narrator. Sure. Yeah. Use my photo. Wherever. Whenever. Fine with me. Credit me and Minnesota Prairie Roots, send me a link to the completed video and allow me to blog about this and we’ve got a deal.

And so we did. Have a deal. After I promised not to publicly share the video with you. Sorry, I wish I could because it’s an entertaining media presentation, but I gave my word.

I also gave my word that I would make it clear to you, dear readers, that Garrison Keillor doesn’t just go around every day narrating surprise media presentations for college presidents’ retirement parties.

He met Jud and Jan Carlberg on a cruise. They struck up a friendship and, later, when the college was planning the video/slideshow, a Gordon writer “thought boldly, imagining this as a wonderful surprise for the Carlbergs, and started making inquiries,” Paul Rogati, Gordon’s CET multimedia designer, shared in a follow-up email. “When Mr. Keillor agreed to record the narration, the script was written for his style of monologue, with a reference to the winters on the prairies of Minnesota. Your image was a perfect match.”

"The photograph," taken along Minnesota Highway 30 in southwestern Minnesota.

And that is how my photo taken in January 2010 along Minnesota Highway 30 in southwestern Minnesota became connected to Garrison Keillor.

My prairie picture is one of many, many, many images incorporated into this retirement tribute to a “tall Scandinavian scholar from Fall River, Massachusetts” who was inaugurated as Gordon’s seventh president “in a swirling March blizzard” in 1993.

Yes, the whole piece is pure “A Prairie Home Companion” style and it’s a pleasure listening to Keillor’s silken voice glide across the words penned by authors Jo Kadlecek and Martha Stout.

The monologue opens like Keillor’s radio show, but “on Coy Pond on the campus of Gordon College.” It is a pond which “sometimes freezes up solid enough to go ice fishing on,” Keillor professes. And “there are rumors of an ice fishing shack being built” by the retired president with more time on his hands.

Several other references are made to Minnesota in a presentation that mixes humor with factual information about the Carlbergs’ 35-year tenure at Gordon, a “college which includes Lutherans” and which offers students off-campus experiences in places like the Minnesota prairie.

Then, finally, at the end of the video, the Carlbergs are invited to “sometime come up to the prairies of Minnesota to see what winter is all about.” A snippet of my photo appears on the screen, slowly panning out to show the full winter prairie landscape frame.

I’m not sure which the Carlbergs will do first in their retirement—sneak past Gordon College security and park an ice fishing shack on Coy Pond or visit southwestern Minnesota in winter, where, no doubt, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.”


WHEN (not if) the Carlbergs travel to Minnesota in the winter, they will also see scenes like this on the southwestern Minnesota prairie:

An elevator along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

The sun begins to set on the Minnesota prairie.

Barns abound in the agricultural region of southwestern Minnesota, this one along U.S. Highway 14.

A picturesque farm site just north of Lamberton in Redwood County, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling