Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Unexpected discoveries at Falls Creek County Park, rural Faribault June 30, 2020

Falls Creek County Park is located one mile east of Faribault along Minnesota State Highway 60, just off the highway an eighth of a mile along a gravel road to the north. This sign is visible from Highway 60.


YEARS HAVE PASSED since I visited Falls Creek County Park just east of Faribault off Minnesota State Highway 60. I remembered the hill and the expanse of lawn leading to a shelter house. And the creek at the edge of the surrounding woods.


Beautiful wild roses.


I didn’t recall wild roses. Those I would remember because I love wild roses. They remind me of my native prairie home, where, decades ago, pink roses grew random in road ditches. Oh, the sweet scent and the sweet memories.


These wild rose bushes edge a section of the massive gravel parking lot.


Randy noticed the roses first at Falls Creek. We both paused to breathe in the old-fashioned fragrance and to share our rose stories of yesteryear. What an unexpected delight.


Randy termed this a “weed.” I called it a “flower.”


If you’re dipping your nose into roses, check for bees first. They love this flower.


This elusive dragonfly proved incredibly challenging to photograph.


Another wildflower, or weed, depending on your perspective.


After a picnic lunch, I grabbed my camera to photograph roses and wildflowers and an elusive dragonfly before we aimed for the bridge over the creek.


A foot bridge over Falls Creek leads to a path into the woods that follows the creek.


Looking into the creek from the bridge, I watched water tumble over rocks.


I love the sound and sight of water rushing over rocks. It’s mesmerizing, calming, soothing.


What a wonderful surprise to find this clean and clear creek water.


And, as we walked to water’s edge at a crook in the creek, we found water running clear. That is mostly unseen in these parts where rivers and other waterways and lakes are muddy and murky and often nothing you would want to wade into. I dipped my hand into the clean, cool water. Happy at this unexpected discovery, at this untainted water flowing past me.


Greenery galore.


I navigated this path in the woods.


This fallen tree was jammed into the hillside, half the tree on one side of the path, the other half on the opposite side.


From there, we followed the narrow dirt path hugging the creek. In parts, the trail had eroded. Tree roots underfoot and a makeshift crossing of rocks and branches caused me to slow my pace, to watch my feet, to walk with care. The last thing I needed was to stumble and tumble and break a bone or land in the creek with my camera.


Looking up toward the wooded hillside from the creek path.


The woods proved a lovely place of greenery and dappled sunshine filtering through the trees…until the mosquitoes discovered our presence. My body reacts intensely to bug bites. So I needed to turn back and exit the woods.


The shelterhouse sits in a large open grassy area.


Back in the open, across the lawn and up the hill and on the far side of the massive gravel parking lot circled with tire track donuts, Randy spotted more wild roses. These were larger, better positioned to get sunshine. Once again, we paused to admire these dainty-looking, yet strong, prairie flowers. Once again, I breathed in the sweet scent.


Before leaving, we smelled the wild roses one final time.


I will remember Falls Creek County Park now for more than the falls I have yet to see—because of those mosquitoes. I will remember this place for the wild roses that edge the woods. And remind me of my native Minnesota prairie home, where there are no woods.

NOTE: This visit occurred several weeks ago, when the roses were nearly done blooming. We’ve also had substantial rainfall in the past two days, meaning the creek may now be muddy, the trail more eroded.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Photographic perspective June 8, 2020

I delight in dried grasses dancing in the wind at sunset at River Bend Nature Center.


A MONTH AGO, as spring broke in Minnesota, Randy and I headed to one of our favorite local outdoor places—River Bend Nature Center in Faribault.


Beauty in a single grass stem.


As usual, I carried my camera. My camera invites me to see the world in a different and more detailed way. I look through the viewfinder with an artist’s eye and with an intent, creative focus.


Randy surveys the prairie below.


Directions to the prairie route.


An overview of the land.


I use photography to create and to document. And in the process, I find joy. If you’re a photographer, you understand that moment when everything—the light, the subject, the composition—comes together. It’s, to be somewhat trite, magical.


Greenery dangles from a tree, looking lovely in the evening light.


People often comment that I must have a “really good camera.” I don’t. It’s second-hand, an EOS 20D Canon, old by today’s standards. It doesn’t perform especially well in low light. But I love this camera; it’s my second 20D.


I love the muted, dreamy tone of this image, the softness in the light of a setting sun as I shot through the field of dried grasses.


Today’s smartphone cameras can technically surpass the quality of my aging DSLR. But there’s one thing technology can’t replace. And that’s the photographer’s skill-set, talent, experience and creativity.


The moon rises while the sun sets.


I understand the basics of photography—of lighting, composition, focus… But even more, I recognize the importance of perspective and storytelling. Of thinking outside the box. Of creating art with my photography.


A red-winged blackbird catches my eye.


When you see my photos, I want you to feel immersed in a sense of place. In that moment when I stand or squat or kneel to frame an image, I want you there. Or when I set my camera on the ground and aim the lens upward without looking through the viewfinder.


A prairie path…


I strive to tell stories, to introduce you to people and take you to places and events you may not otherwise see. To show you my little corner of the world and beyond, through my life lens.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Poetic & healing thoughts inspired by a walk through River Bend June 4, 2019


RIVER BEND NATURE CENTER in Faribault offers a respite from reality, a place to envelope one’s self in nature by walking the wooded trails or the open prairie.




Here, within this place, nature writes poetry.





I read poetic words in signage and flowers and greenery.






In sky and landscape and vistas.



If I walk too quickly, I miss the poetic lines, the nuanced words that create a rhythm of peace in a chaotic world.





It takes discipline to slow down, to notice the descriptive details that hug the earth, that scent the air, that hide within the natural colors of the world.



How often do we as humans choose to hurry through our days, oblivious to those around us? I challenge each of you to slow down, to pause in the busyness of life and look outside yourself and your lives. See your co-worker. See your friend. See your neighbor. See your family member. Then reach out. Connect. Support. Rain your poetry of love upon others.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Monarchs & milkweed October 8, 2018

Monarch attracting milkweed grows next to a southwestern Minnesota soybean field. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


A TIME EXISTED WHEN I CONSIDERED milkweed a weed as noted in the second syllable of the word. My dad assured me that the plant needed eradication from farm fields. So out it went.


Milkweed, along the prairie path at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Decades later and more informed, I consider the milkweed valuable, a plant to be appreciated and not yanked from the earth. Through the years, we learn a thing or two or twenty.


It all begins with the milkweed, where adult female Monarchs lay their eggs on the undersides of leaves. These plants grow in Stockholm, Wisconsin, outside a bookstore.


Eventually caterpillars emerge from the eggs and grow, here in Stockholm, Wisconsin.


Then the caterpillars spin into a chrysalis for the final transformation. This chrysalis is on the side of my house. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Finally, a Monarch butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, this one photographed about a month ago in New Prague.


I’ve learned that the milkweed is necessary to the survival of the Monarch butterfly. Adult female Monarchs lay their eggs on one plant—milkweed. And the resulting caterpillars feed on milkweed leaves.

I remember a time when Monarchs were many. Through the years, as milkweed plants dwindled, so did the numbers of these beautiful orange and black butterflies.


Milkweed and other flowers rim the shoreline by the King Mill Dam in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


But now people are beginning to care, to understand the importance of growing milkweed, me among them.


I photographed this sign in Russ’ shop when I first met him seven years ago. He had free swamp milkweed seed in a jar on the store counter. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.


When I revisited Russ in September, I found him tending these milkweed plants outside his shop. His commitment to Monarchs remains as strong as ever.


In Stockholm, Wisconsin, Russ the bookseller continues as a strong advocate of milkweeds and Monarchs. I first met him during a 2011 visit and recently returned to find this shopkeeper still advocating for Monarchs. And growing milkweeds.



At Seed Savers Exchange just north of Decorah, Iowa, I spotted packets of milkweed seeds among the many seeds sold in the farm’s retail shop.


Packets of milkweed seed ready for the taking at the Valley Grove event. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2018.


At the recent Valley Grove Country Social near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, a representative of the Northfield Prairie Partners Chapter of Wild Ones handed out envelopes of milkweed seeds and information on Monarchs and milkweeds.


An unripened milkweed pod. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Photographed at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Photographed 10 days ago at my brother’s rural Redwood County acreage.


Beyond all of that, I find milkweed pods beautiful in shape and, when fully-ripened, like art erupting. I am repeatedly drawn to photograph the wisps of fluff embedded with seeds. Seeds that will naturally fly on the wind, fall to the earth and grow new plants. Or, when harvested, shared by those who care about an orange and black butterfly. Like Russ in Stockholm.

TELL ME: Do you grow milkweed for Monarchs?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A photo essay: Loving autumn in Minnesota October 14, 2013

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A favorite part of my backyard, vintage lawn chairs along a limestone pathway now covered with leaves.

A favorite part of my backyard, where vintage lawn chairs edge a limestone pathway now strewn with leaves.

OF ALL THE SEASONS, autumn rates as my favorite in Minnesota.

My neighbor's maple tree.

My neighbor’s maple tree.

Crisp days. Cobalt skies. Colors changing.

The bees are busy this time of year, here working a black-eyed Susan.

The bees are busy this time of year, here working a black-eyed Susan, among the native wildflowers in my yard.

Sharp shadows and angled light.

Leaves upon that limestone path.

Leaves upon that limestone path.

Earthy scents rising from fallen leaves and ripening crops.

A bloom in a patio pot.

A bloom in a patio pot.

Bursts of red and orange, mixed with shades of brown, that color the earth.

Hibiscus mahogany splendor, planted in two patio pots, has nearly reached the roof line of the garage.

Hibiscus mahogany splendor, planted in two patio pots, has nearly reached the roof line of the garage.

Dappled light. Dancing leaves. Magical.

An abundance of produce—acorn squash baking, fresh tomatoes thrown into a pot of chili, the crunch of biting into a SweeTango apple from a local orchard.

A backyard campfire.

Prolific zinnias are still blooming.

Prolific zinnias are still blooming.

I love this season.

There's nothing prettier than an autumn leaf.

There’s nothing prettier than an autumn leaf.

This autumn.

Another view of that stunning hibiscus mahogany splendor.

Another view of that stunning hibiscus mahogany splendor.

I do.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


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


Photo pops of pink & orange September 21, 2012

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PINK AND ORANGE. Not until recent years would I have mixed those colors or considered them an appropriate combination.


Are you kidding? Pink and orange. Together.


But now I revel in the unleashing of creativity in color pairings, a loosening of the choking tie of conservatism and matchy-match this and that.


It’s freeing, isn’t it, to realize everything—from our homes to our gardens, from our paintings to our photos—doesn’t need to be Martha Stewart-like perfect.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The winter whisperers September 8, 2012

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I CAN HEAR THEM. The whisperers.

They rustle through the cornfields, fingertips brushing brittle leaves.

They swish through the tall prairie grasses, hips not just swaying, but sashaying, in the bending breeze.

Their voices drone like a billion buzzing busy bees.

In the woods, I strain to hear them as my flip flops crunch leaves strewn upon the path. I know they are there, hiding among the trees.

When two bikers pedal past me, the whisperers think I cannot hear them whispering. But I can.

At 4:28 in the morning, when the owl’s hoot awakens me from sleep, I cannot hear the whisperers. But I feel their chilling presence slide through the open bedroom window, brushing my bare shoulders with icy fingers.

They cloak themselves in glorious golden robes…

hide among the grasses…

tempt me with wine.

Their distractions and disguises don’t fool me. I hear them whispering of winter in these early days of autumn.

FYI: All of these photos, except the vineyard and the cornfield, were taken at the River Bend Nature Center in Faribault on Monday, September 3. The other two were shot a day earlier east of Waterville.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A Lake Agnes love story June 24, 2011

IT APPEARED TO BE nothing short of a love story played out on a west central Minnesota lake.

Two love birds—or more accurately, ducks—met along the shoreline of Lake Agnes in Alexandria which, to those of you who do not live in Minnesota, claims to be the birthplace of America what with the Kensington Runestone and all found here.

But I digress.

The mallards cared not one wit about the vikings or the Runestone or even me, watching their every move. The drake and the hen had eyes only for each other.

And so the romance spawned on Lake Agnes, on this lake with the name of Greek (not Scandinavian) origin meaning pure/holy/chaste.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling