Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Hunting for squirrels, but not how you think April 10, 2019

 

FROM AFAR, I THOUGHT Peter Jacobson carried a bow and arrow, hugged near his body.

 

 

But then, as I drew near, I saw instead an antenna and hand-held radio device. Not one to pass by, I stopped and asked about the equipment.

 

 

Turns out this science teacher was tracking collared squirrels for the wildlife field biology class he teaches at Faribault High School. If only biology had been this hands-on decades ago, I may actually have liked science. And, yes, we dissected frogs, which held zero appeal for me.

 

 

But this, this live trapping, collaring and tracking of squirrels at River Bend Nature Center to learn about their territorial behaviors would have grown my interest in science. Jacobson’s students are out in the field, observing, formulating questions, gathering data.

The study is Minnesota Department of Natural Resources approved with students also earning college credits from Vermilion Community College. Jacobson mentioned a DNR study of moose as we talked about his small scale tracking of squirrels.

 

 

I had one question for him. I asked if he could determine how to keep squirrels out of flower pots, a perennial problem for me. I’ve tried to resolve the issue by laying sticks and stones in and across pots around newly potted flowers and plants.

Jacobson laughed, noting the squirrels likely enjoy the challenge. And that was my wildlife biology lesson for the day.

 

TELL ME: I’d like to hear about any creative and interesting science projects that were part of your high school education.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Spring afternoon at River Bend, a photo essay April 9, 2019

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AUTUMN’S OAK LEAVES cling to branches.

 

 

Swatches of green pop in the woods.

 

 

Fungi ladder tree trunks.

 

 

 

 

Brilliant red flashes against weathered grey.

 

 

Ponds populated by trilling peepers reflect the changing blue of the sky.

 

 

Geese honk territorial warnings best respected.

 

 

A camouflaged bird blends into stands of invasive buckthorn.

 

 

Dried vegetation proves a visual reminder that spring is not yet fully here in Minnesota.

 

 

But tell that to the woman walking barefoot.

 

 

Just behind the boys with feet still snugged inside winter boots.

 

 

At River Bend Nature Center in Faribault, people hiked and biked and rested on benches and even tracked squirrels in Sunday’s 60-degree temps. (More on the squirrels later.)

 

 

If not for the forecast of major snowfall later this week, I might believe these brown woods will soon leaf into a canopy of green.

 

 

No one would doubt that on Sunday, an ideal day to delight in the outdoors, to read poetry in the woods.

 

 

Spring spread her wings over River Bend on a lovely early April afternoon in southern Minnesota.

 

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The art of Decorah, Part II November 27, 2018

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A close-up of stacked stones at Phelps Park in Decorah, Iowa, where the Civilian Conservation Corps crafted walls, a fountain and more.

 

WHEN YOU THINK public art, what pops into your mind? Sculptures? Murals? Sidewalk poetry? All fit the definition.

 

An example of the stone art at Phelps Park.

 

But public art stretches beyond the obvious. If you look for it, you will see art everywhere, as I did on a September visit to Decorah. This northeastern Iowa river town is rich in art, natural and otherwise.

 

In a downtown Decorah plaza, “Doe and Fawn” by Victoria Reed.

 

Art enriches a place by adding texture, interest, depth.

 

Look up to see this sculpture on the Nelson & Co building in downtown Decorah.

 

Art personalizes a place with character.

 

The colorful mural by The Cardboard Robot.

 

Art colors a town with vibrancy.

 

On display at Donlon Toy Jungle (inside Donlon Pharmacy), this 6-foot KNEX Ferris Wheel.

 

Details posted with that Ferris Wheel build.

 

Just another angle of the KNEX Ferris Wheel.

 

Art brings a community together, creating a cohesiveness that unites in working toward a common goal.

 

An artful door leading to apartments in downtown Decorah.

 

Art comforts.

 

Stacked stone art in Dunning’s Spring.

 

Art empowers, strengthens.

 

Inside The Cardboard Robot, shoppers are encouraged to be hands-on creative.

 

Art expands our imaginations to create.

 

This new bridge at Dunning’s Spring Park replicates a stone bridge of 140 years ago. Master stone mason Ted Wilson crafted the bridge along with Sean Smyth. The bridge features dry stonewalling, meaning there’s no mortar between joints.

 

We need art. Today more than ever. To bridge our differences.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Why I love Decorah, Part I November 26, 2018

Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum in downtown Decorah draws many visitors interested in learning about their heritage.

 

TWICE I’VE VISITED DECORAH in northeastern Iowa. It’s one of those towns that feels comfortable, inviting, an ideal destination for someone who prefers rural to urban.

 

Decorah is named after Ho-Chunk Chief Waukon Decorah. I spotted this portrait by noted artist Charles Philip Hexom on a stairway wall at the public library.

 

What makes Decorah so appealing to me?

 

 

 

 

The architecture.

 

“Doe and Fawn” sculptures by Victoria Reed stand in a public plaza near a downtown co-op.

 

Love this mural of “Irene” painted by Valerie Miller of Steel Cow.

 

A stone sculpture on the Nelson & Co. building.

 

The art.

One of my favorite spots in Decorah, the waterfall at Dunning’s Spring Park, site of a former grist mill and gifted to the city in 1946.

 

The natural beauty.

 

Valdres House, one of many authentic Norwegian rooted buildings at Vesterheim. This is a typical Norwegian landowner’s house, dismantled and shipped from Norway to Decorad in the mid 1970s.

 

The downtown shops and eateries. The city’s appreciation of its strong Norwegian heritage, even if I’m of German heritage.

And the people. While at Pulpit Rock Brewing, Randy and I shared a picnic table with a young couple and their daughter (and her grandpa). They were quick to answer our questions about places to eat, sleep and explore.

Upon their recommendation, we stayed at a new hotel on the edge of town and met a trio of college friends together for their annual girlfriends’ reunion. They welcomed us into their circle at a gas-fired campfire on a perfect early autumn evening. When did hotels start adding this amenity? I loved it. There’s something about fire…

 

The Upper Iowa River runs through the 34-acre Decorah Community Prairie and Butterfly Garden. This view is from a scenic overlook in Phelps Park.

 

And water. Water is part of the draw for me to this river town.

 

Magnificent stone work at Phelps Park, which also includes a fountain (not on at the time of my visit) crafted from stone.

 

Upon the recommendation of the family at the brewery, we sought out Phelps Park. There we found extensive stonework done by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I often wonder when I see such work, “How did they build this without modern equipment?”

Outside an historic downtown building with a corner tower, I chatted it up with an elderly man on a bench. He drives in from the farm every morning to meet friends for coffee and to sit and people-watch. He lives out by the supper club, he said, which meant nothing to me. But I pretended like it did. He’ll never see me again.

That’s the thing about travel. If you engage with the locals, you’ll learn a thing or ten about the place you’re visiting. Stuff you won’t find on a website, stuff best learned in conversation.

TELL ME: Do you chat it up with locals when you’re traveling? I’d like to hear your stories.

PLEASE CHECK BACK for more photos from Decorah. Have you ever visited Decorah and, if so, what appeals to you there?

NOTE: I took these photos during a mid-September visit to Decorah. The landscape obviously looks much different today. So if you’re not inclined to visit this Iowa city now, think ahead to next spring or summer.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The season of autumn in images & words October 23, 2018

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AS LEAVES SPIRAL IN BURSTS of wind to the ground, the season of autumn nears the exit here in Minnesota.

 

 

We are all cognizant of that impending departure. The farmers as they hurry to harvest crops. The squirrels as they gather and hide walnuts. And those of us who still have yards to prepare for winter.

 

 

I feel that pressure. To get the leaves raked,

 

 

the flowerbeds cleaned, flowerpots emptied,

 

 

the tabletop fountain hefted above garage rafters.

 

 

I wish for more days of cobalt skies, sunshine blazing warmth onto my back as I rake leaves, stuff them into trash cans.

 

 

 

 

I wish until I realize that by wishing, I am missing the season. So I grab my camera and turn it toward the maple leaves on the solo tree in our backyard, toward the woods edging our property, even to the neighbor’s bare branched trees.

 

 

Of course, I wish I could slow time, grab back summer days, hold onto each leaf stem yanked by the wind. But I can’t.

 

 

Every season brings its joys, its sorrow, its light, its darkness. That is a given. I can yearn for another season. Or I can choose to embrace the season in which I am living.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2018 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

 

My first photo shoot after breaking my wrist September 11, 2018

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MY PASSION FOR PHOTOGRAPHY runs deep. Like my love of words. Together they comprise this blog. Take away one and balance vanishes. My photos illustrate my words and my words my images.

But this summer, after slipping on rain-slicked steps and breaking my left wrist in early June, I could no longer use my camera. It takes two hands to operate my DSLR—one to hold the camera and click the shutter button and the other to support and manipulate the lens.

 

 

I knew my blogging would be intermittent without the ability to gather new content with my camera. But I had no choice except to post less often and to snap the occasional passable photo with my smartphone.

 

 

Given my orthopedic doctor’s initial timetable for my recovery, I expected the camera ban to last until the end of September. But as healing and therapy progressed, he gave me an early out, freeing me from my splint in late August and approving photography—with the admonition not to do “anything silly.” Whatever that means.

 

 

Upon my return home after that medical appointment, I grabbed my camera and stepped into the backyard to try my hand at photography. These are my first images post bone break and implant surgery. I quickly learned that I could not manipulate my telephoto lens. I simply did not have the strength. I have since exchanged that long and heavy lens for a regular lens. That I can twist.

I’m easing back into photography, realizing that if I push my passion too much, I risk slowing my recovery. It feels great to have my hands back on my camera.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling