Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“A quiet place to be” in Mission Township August 31, 2022

Looking skyward at Mission Park, where slim, towering pines are prevalent. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

MISSION PARK IN MISSION TOWNSHIP, “a quiet place to be” north of Merrifield in the Brainerd lakes region, rates as a favorite hiking spot when I’m at the lake. The extended family cabin is conveniently located about two miles away.

At the end of a grassy trail, the woods open to a pollinator garden. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

I enjoy walking here along the 3/4-mile paved trail that winds primarily through the woods. Grassy paths are another option, but I typically keep to the hard surface, with one exception. That deviation is the grassy route leading to an open field Pollinator Habitat.

Milkweeds fill the prairie garden. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

A dragonfly clings to a stalk. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

I’ve always loved the dusky hue of the milkweed flower. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Last trip to the cabin in early July, Randy and I discovered the field of milkweeds and other pollinator-attracting plants pulsing with dragonflies. I’ve always delighted in dragonflies—how they flit, their translucent wings beautiful to behold.

Dragonflies up close are a study in intricacy and beauty. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

But dragonflies also pause, giving photographers like me ample opportunity to photograph them up close. To see and capture details of webbed wings, of hairy legs, of bulging eyes…proves rewarding, amazing, wondrous. This insect is so intricate.

The lone Monarch caterpillar I spotted. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

I noticed, too, a chunky Monarch caterpillar descending a milkweed stalk. Milkweed is a host plant of the caterpillar which will eventually form a chrysalis and later emerge as a Monarch butterfly, now considered an endangered species.

A wide view of the Pollinator Habitat. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Days later, I led the way back to the Pollinator Habitat to show my granddaughter, her little brother and parents the dragonfly haven. The insects were not as abundant and the crew was less than impressed, especially when Randy discovered a wood tick on his leg. Not a deer tick, but the common wood tick which I am quite familiar with as is Randy. We both grew up on farms and wood ticks were a natural part of our outdoor summer adventures.

Marc, left to right, Isaac and Randy head out of the woods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

The six of us quickly exited the pollinator patch right after Randy’s revelation, which he should have kept to himself.

Every time I’m here, I discover a different fungi in the woods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

I had hoped to walk along the paved trail to show everyone the massive orange mushroom I spotted previously. But, instead, we headed back to the park’s main recreational area.

The grandkids loved the new playground equipment. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Mission Park offers plenty of play space for those who prefer to stay off grassy trails into the woods. Like new playground equipment.

A spacious pavilion among the pines, next to the playground, provides a place to gather. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Other recreational options abound with several pickleball courts, disc golf, a ball field, tennis courts, horseshoe pits and volleyball courts. A pavilion offers shelter for outdoor dining. Noticeably missing are bathrooms. There are outhouses, though, with which I am also familiar having used one for the first 11 years of my life.

Thistles flourish in the Pollinator Habitat. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

I appreciate the forward thinking of the good folks of Mission Township who, in 1959, purchased 39 acres for $1 with the intent of maintaining the natural beauty of the land and making it available for recreational use.

Ferns, one of my favorite plants, grow wild in the woods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2020)

This “quiet place to be” has quickly become a favorite nearby place to explore whenever I’m at Jon and Rosie’s lake cabin.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The poetic joy of a butterfly August 17, 2022

An Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly atop a zinnia. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

EVERY TIME I SPOT A BUTTERFLY, joy surges through me. There’s something about the flitting flight of a butterfly that captivates me.

But it’s more than that. I appreciate how these insects appear so carefree, as if their very existence is simply to bring beauty and joy into the world. And maybe it is.

The butterfly perches among my favorite garden flowers, zinnias. My mom planted zinnia seeds when I was growing up on the farm. Zinnias are easy to grow from seed, are prolific, hardy and colorful. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

In recent days, I’ve observed two swallowtail butterflies, one black, the other yellow, among the phlox growing wild in my flowerbeds. And some 10 days ago I photographed an Eastern tiger swallowtail atop a zinnia at the Rice County Master Gardeners Teaching Garden in Faribault.

That well-tended garden has become a new favorite oasis for me within the city limits. On the Sunday afternoon I visited the garden, I found friends Paula and Ed already there, resting on a bench. Paula was involved early on with development of this garden. She no longer is, but remains an active gardener. Paula was the one who spotted the swallowtail among the zinnias.

Per her direction, I headed to the zinnia patch to photograph the yellow swallowtail with wings outlined in black, splotches of blue and orange adding to the coloring.

Black-bordered wings are nearly wide open atop a zinnia. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

The swallowtail perched, unhurried atop the yellow-centered pink flower. I had plenty of time to snap multiple frames. That’s often not the case with butterflies.

That butterflies survive a four-stage life cycle from egg to larva (caterpillar) to pupa (chrysalis) to adult butterfly impresses me. At any one stage, a predator could end their lives. But yet, here was this beautiful butterfly among the zinnias. Like the final verse in a lovely summer poem.

TELL ME: What do you appreciate about butterflies? Do you have a favorite?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The elusive egret May 16, 2022

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Through blurred trees in the foreground, an egret that has just taken flight. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

FROM ONE HOLDING POND to the next, then to the next, they flew. The elusive egrets.

Pond walking. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

On a recent evening, I tried to photograph egrets at the Faribault Energy Park, place of dirt trails, ponds, creek, assorted trees, wildflowers and wetlands along Interstate 35.

A wildlife photographer I am not. But that doesn’t keep me from trying.

Wings so broad and white. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Randy spotted the egrets first, in the waterway near the small shelter just off the entry road into the park. I hurried toward the shelter thinking I would quickly get the shots I wanted. But, as I soon discovered, egrets are observant and evasive. Before I even reached the site or had adjusted my camera for action shots, the two egrets were in the air.

Either landing or taking off, I can’t recall which. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

They flew toward the nearest holding pond. I followed, stood on the dirt trail, zoomed from afar and clicked the shutter button multiple times. When I moved, the egret of my focal attention took off. I was intentionally trying to respect the birds and remain unobtrusive. But I suspect, even if I had simply been walking the trails minus my camera, their behavior would have been the same.

Hanging near the shoreline in the third pond. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

By this time I determined that egrets are camera, or people, shy, preferring to just be left alone in their watery habitat.

This unfocused image shows motion as the egret takes flight, neck curved. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

They are an interesting bird. Long of neck, curved when they fly. Wide white wing span, which leaves me wondering how they possibly keep those feathers so snowy white. Thin black legs resembling sticks. Long, jolt of orange beak. And not exactly graceful in flight. Rather clumsy-appearing, in my opinion.

My final photo as the egret flies during the golden hour or sunset. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I wonder what those egrets thought of me, earthling far below or nearby. Without wings. And although my legs are long given my height, they are no match for an egret’s long twiggy legs. I can’t compete with their vision either. That I observed in the short time I attempted to photograph…the elusive egret.

TELL ME: Do you know anything about egrets and/or their behavior?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The woods are… April 6, 2022

Inside the woods at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault, MN. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

FOR SOMEONE LIKE ME who grew up on the prairie, woods are not a natural fit. I’ve always felt a bit out of place in the density of trees. Uncomfortable even. But time and distance from a landscape of big sky and wide open spaces have eased me into the woods.

A view of the Straight River from Honor Point. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I appreciate woods, as long as there aren’t “too many” trees. I need to see glimpses, even vistas, of openness. River Bend Nature Center in Faribault offers both. Prairie and woods.

Love this quote on a memorial sign at River Bend. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

On a recent visit, I followed trails into the woods. And, as always, I noticed the beauty therein. I view the natural world through many lenses. Close-up. From afar. With an artsy perspective. But mostly with a deep appreciation.

This mottling on a tree trunk looks like art to me. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

It doesn’t take much to catch my eye, to cause me to pause and reflect. Photograph. Delight. Savor the moment, the scene.

I’m always drawn to leaves in water, here in a melting snow puddle along a trail. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
Loved spotting this patch of green in mid-March. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
Tangled branches and blue sky. Beautiful. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

If you walk with me into the woods, you won’t fast track from Point A to Point B. Sometimes I go at a rapid pace. But most of the time, I can’t. Because I simply see too much. Poetry in puddled leaves. Spring in a patch of green grass. Abstract art in a mottled tree trunk. Dancers in twisted branches.

It took me awhile to get this focused shot with my zoom lens of a flitting cardinal. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Sights and sounds draw me to linger in the woods. The shrill call of a cardinal and a flash of red cause me to pause. I wait. Listen. Photograph.

The sign pointing to the Turtle Pond, where the turtles had not yet emerged on my March 19 visit. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I feel such a sense of wonderment in it all. A peace, too, that comes only from immersing one’s self in the natural world. In the chaos and noises of life, the woods are on this day, indeed, my sanctuary.

TELL ME: How do you react to the natural world?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Make way for goslings (and ducklings) May 11, 2021

Goslings huddle near pond’s edge at the River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

EVERY SPRING, I FIND myself drawn to pond or river’s edge to watch the goslings, the newborn offspring of Canadian geese navigating the shoreline and water.

Geese are fierce protectors of their young. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

They are just so darned cute. Downy yellow. Sometimes huddling in a circle of sibling closeness.

Swimming into the pond at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Still in the protective care of their parents. And, yes, geese can prove fierce when safeguarding their young. I steer clear of these young families, preferring to frame family photos from afar.

Prairie Pond at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
I love how the goslings are bookended in a protective line. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
A goose is barely visible in the dried grasses of Prairie Pond. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

The ponds of River Bend Nature Center (especially the one along Rustad Road) are good spots to spot geese and ducks. When I see young waterfowl, I am reminded of Robert McCloskey’s children’s picture book, Make Way for Ducklings. It won the 1942 Caldecott Medal for most distinguished American picture book and tells the story of a duck family in Boston.

A duck pair in Prairie Pond. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

While River Bend lies a long ways from McCloskey’s Boston Public Gardens pond setting, the universal appeal of ducklings spans the miles between Massachusetts and Minnesota.

A duck emerges among the grasses in Prairie Pond. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Whether in a city, rural area or nature center, downy babies in the care of their parents create, at least for me, a sense that all is well in the world. That no matter the worldwide challenges—especially during a pandemic—no matter the community and personal challenges, the cycle of life continues.

Geese nesting at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Every spring I make way for ducklings and goslings, celebrating their arrival by documenting their arrival. With my camera. But even more, by framing them in my memory during this season of spring.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Among the wildflowers in Kaplan’s Woods May 5, 2021

Spring wildflowers at Kaplan’s Woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

FLOWERS OF SPRING EMERGE in the woods. Among layers of dried leaves. Among fallen limbs. Sometimes blanketing hillsides.

White trout lilies. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
A mass of white trout lilies in the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
An unidentified, by me, wildflower cluster. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

Saturday morning, as Randy and I hiked through Kaplan’s Woods Park in Owatonna, I found myself searching the edges of the wood chip covered trails for wildflowers.

A sign inside the woods details the Parkway. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
I love this foot bridge which crosses the creek and leads into the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
Near the creek, this solo boulder seems out of place in the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

This time of year, especially, I crave flowers. They represent the shifting of seasons, of plant life erupting as the landscape transforms.

Dainty violets are among the spring wildflowers. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
The largest of the wildflowers I saw. Can anyone identify these? Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.
The brightest of the flowers I spotted, this one also unknown to me. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

Green begins to fill the woods, accented by bursts of violet and yellow and white hugging the earth. Low to the ground, easily missed if you focus only on the trail ahead.

Low water. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

We have walked Kaplan’s only a few times and this visit I noticed the low water level of the creek that winds through the woods.

Hillside wildflowers. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

I noticed also the noise of traffic from nearby Interstate 35. Motorists en route somewhere on an incredibly warm and sunny morning in southern Minnesota. I hope that at some point they paused to appreciate the day. The sun. The trees. Maybe even the wildflowers. And the brush strokes of green tinting the landscape.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Fallen & broken April 14, 2021

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Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

LAST WEEK, WHILE RAKING leaves off flowerbeds, I came across a bird nest in the grass. Nestled near a retaining wall, by a row of evergreens.

Inside, a pale blue egg lay in the center, next to the broken shell of another egg.

I didn’t touch anything, didn’t move or investigate, simply photographed. And pondered.

Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

How did this nest, woven with such care and perfection by a bird’s beak, claws and body, end up upon the ground? I speculated that strong winds earlier in the day loosened the nest from the shelter of the neighbor’s evergreens. Or perhaps the nest dropped from the maple in our backyard.

Whatever the story, I felt a sense of sadness at the loss. I recognize the realities of the natural world. Of challenges and predators and unhappy endings.

Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

And that is life. We can choose the materials to build our lives and weave in hopes and dreams, plans and goals. But then along comes a strong wind and, whoosh, just like that our carefully-crafted nests plummet to the earth and we find ourselves struggling, broken. Struggling to rebuild. Wondering why and how this happened. It is then that we need to reach deep inside, to connect with those who listen and care, to remember that we are not alone.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Into the woods at Falls Creek Park March 31, 2021

Moss feathers across the end of a hewn tree.

AS SPRING EASES INTO MINNESOTA, I embrace the transition of seasons in indecisive weather and in the subtle greening of the landscape.

A greening vine in the otherwise muted landscape.

I don’t trust that winter has really, truly, exited. Yet, these early glimpses of spring assure me that the bulk of winter lies behind us.

Randy walks in the woods.

I saw that in the woods of Falls Creek County Park on Sunday afternoon. Randy and I hiked in this 61-acre park a mile east of Faribault off Minnesota State Highway 60. It’s a relatively unused park, one of the reasons we are drawn here.

Water rushes under the bridge and over rocks.

Here a dirt hiking path curves along the waterway winding through woods. Access to that path comes via an arched pedestrian bridge. There water rushes over rocks and we always pause to appreciate the soothing sound of rushing water.

The creek meanders, wide in some areas, narrow in others.
In places, the creek runs clear.
A fork in the creek.

And we also always walk to the side of the creek, to examine the water at the bend, before it flows under the bridge. Recent rain left that water muddied. Later we would find the creek flowing clear.

Loving the light, color and texture on this tree trunk moss.

Entering the woods, I determined to photograph signs of spring in the muted landscape. That requires focus. Examples of spring are elusive and seen mostly in vivid green moss carpeting fallen tree trunks.

A fallen tree provides a canvas for art.

But I can photograph only so much moss. Thus I expanded my perspective. Nature writes details upon the landscape. Even in a scene of mostly muted browns.

Hillsides of trees rising

and fungi laddering

and dried leaves curling.

Nature’s “antlers.”

And the branches of a tree twisting like antlers.

Nature’s sculpture.

And felled trees that appear like natural sculptures.

The makeshift bridge.

All of these nuances I noticed as we walked, as I stopped to take in my surroundings, as Randy steadied me while I crossed a makeshift branch bridge across a spillway.

Randy crosses the bridge out of the woods.

There is much to see in this seasonal transition, if only we pause to appreciate. To look. And really see. To hear. And really listen. It’s there. The poetry of wind and water and woods and words.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Beauty in the greying of Minnesota January 13, 2021

Rime ice coats an evergreen tree at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault.

FOG TRANSFORMS THE LANDSCAPE, sometimes in to an unfamiliar place that leaves us feeling disoriented, lost. But other times, like last week here in Minnesota, fog layered trees with rime ice, creating an enchanting, almost magical world. Despite the grey that pressed heavy upon the land day after day.

Set along Minnesota State Highway 3 between Faribault and Northfield, this barn looks lovely any time of year, even in winter. Love love love this weathered building.

Photographing a world covered in frozen fog droplets proved difficult for me. My camera cannot convey the beauty the human eye sees. Yet, I managed a few images that attempt to show the other worldly qualities of a rime ice shrouded landscape.

Even the ice edging water falling over the Cannon River dam by Father Slevin Park in Faribault possesses a distinct artistry.

I find that in winter here in southern Minnesota, I must look harder to notice nature’s beauty. It’s there, but toned down, converted to black-and-white. Grey. Colorless. Yet present.

A broader view of those iced evergreen trees.

Still, I take fewer photos. Not only because I see less to document, but because the very act of exposing my fingers to the cold is uncomfortable. (I’m thankful for mittens that open to fingerless gloves, a thoughtful gift from Randy many years ago.)

I’m also cautious about icy surfaces, lest I fall and break another bone. A broken shoulder and wrist in recent years, one of which resulted in surgery, fuel that cautiousness.

The snow and ice-shrouded Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf campus is a beautiful and quiet place to walk. I love the many aged buildings including Noyes Hall, pictured here. Some day, post COVID, I need an indoor tour.

And then there’s COVID, which has certainly affected my photographic opportunities. Still, if I determine to look closely at the world around me, decide that my fingers can handle brief cold exposure, I can continue to document, to create, to pursue my passion for photography.

This week brought sunshine to Minnesota, a welcome break from all that dreary grey. We, or at least I, needed it, if anything, as a symbol of hope during these truly difficult times in our country.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The shifting of seasons in Minnesota August 14, 2020

Sumac are already turning red.

 

THE CHANGING OF SEASONS edges into Minnesota, ever so subtly.

 

You can see the changing of the landscape around this pond, the subtle changes in hues.

 

August marks the month of transition, of shifting from summer to autumn.

 

Beautiful black-eyed susans.

 

Of wildflowers in full bloom.

 

Milkweed, necessary for Monarh butterflies.

 

Milkweed pods will soon burst with seeds and fluff.

 

Milkweeds edge the trails and ponds at Faribault Energy Park.

 

Of blooming milkweeds and those heavy with pods.

 

Unidentified berries.

 

Of berries ripening.

 

A trail winds through Faribault Energy Park. This isn’t a quiet place because of the interstate. But it’s a place of natural beauty and mostly undiscovered (meaning never busy).

 

Evenings fall earlier and cool temps sharpen the air. Folks pull on sweatshirts and jeans to keep off the chill. The urge to get outdoors prevails. Backyard campfires blaze warmth.

 

Plums ripen despite a Japanese beetle infestation.

 

Crickets chirp. Squirrels scamper. And gardeners bustle to bring in the bounty. Preparing for winter.

 

Sumac

 

And, in the landscape, hues morph from the greens of summer to the softer, earthy hues and fiery reds and oranges of autumn.

 

In the light of the setting sun, cattails and grasses.

 

Cattails rise in swampland and tall grasses sway.

 

Randy and I laugh at our long-legged shadow selves.

 

At sunset, shadows lengthen, foreboding and dark. As if hinting at days ahead. The dark days of winter that draw us indoors to snuggle under fleece throws, to crave comfort foods, to shelter in place.

 

An unknown wildflower.

 

And this winter to wonder what lies ahead in the uncertainties of COVID-19.

 

This sign marks the entrance to Faribault Energy Park on Faribault’s north side and visible from Interstate 35.  The wind turbine in the park landmarks this spot near the northbound lane of I-35.

 

Note: These photos were taken during a recent evening walk at the Faribault Energy Park.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling