Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

View from my office window September 8, 2020

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ON A RECENT AFTERNOON, I took a visual break from the computer, a mental break from writing, to glance out my office window.

The view isn’t particularly lovely. Lots of parked vehicles in my line of vision. Almost like a car lot, a repair shop, a junkyard.

And then there’s the street itself, a main artery through Faribault, heavy with traffic. The drone of vehicles and wail of sirens assures few moments of peace.

So, when I take a break from work, that is what I see. I often wish my office was located elsewhere in our house, with a view of the wooded hillside that rises to the south and west. But, unless we move the kitchen or demolish the garage and add on, I’m stuck with this spot, this scene.

But, amid all of this, there is a splash of beauty in the flowers that rise right outside my office window. Phlox in white and shades of pink and purple. And hydrangea that anchor each side of the front steps, their massive flowers so beautiful that people occasionally stop to inquire about them. That includes a neighbor, a trucker, and the last person I would think interested in flowers. I’ve promised him hydrangea roots in the spring. Maybe he’ll give me some of his lovely peonies in return.


An Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly feeds on my phlox.


My perennials provide the nature perspective I need when breaking briefly from work. And, on a recent summer afternoon, those phlox presented even more—three Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies swooping, hovering, landing among the blossoms.

I grabbed my camera, with no intention of hurrying outside to photograph the butterflies. I knew from experience that they would be gone before I grabbed my shoes, flew outside and rounded the house. So I opted to photograph through the screen window, filthy from all the passing traffic.

The results were not sharp images and I deleted most. But one stood out. Soft. Butterfly feeding upon vivid pink blossoms. Poetic. Exquisite. A natural respite from the clutter that typically defines the view from my office window.


© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Exploring a greater Boston neighborhood from a Minnesotan’s perspective June 8, 2016

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Porches front mostly well-kept houses in the neighborhood near Powder House Square and Tufts University.

Porches front well-kept houses in the neighborhood near Powder House Square.

WELCOMING FRONT PORCHES grace nearly every home in the neighborhood where my son lives in Somerville, Massachusetts near Tufts University.

Balconies or enclosed porches extend from most second floors.

Balconies or enclosed porches extend from most second floors.

Likewise, second floor balconies front nearly every home.

Perennials were in bloom in many yards when I visited in late May.

Perennials were in bloom in many yards when I visited in late May.

Both are necessities in a neighborhood with minimal green space, not enough to call a lawn or a yard by Minnesota standards. I would be surprised if many homeowners have lawnmowers. Bushes, plants and even artificial turf fill the slim lines of land between houses and sidewalks.

I noticed signs like this around Powder House Square.

I noticed signs like this around Powder House Square. Words printed in the blue circle read: “Municipal Freedom Gives National Strength, Somerville, Mass.”

There are no boulevards. Narrow sidewalks trace next to the street. Asphalt circles trees. The lack of land, of space between homes, is especially evident to me, a rural Minnesotan used to lots of elbow room. Everything feels cramped in this neighborhood of old homes.

The most colorful house I spotted in the neighborhood.

The most colorful house I spotted in the neighborhood.

Noticeably absent are FOR SALE signs on these mostly three-story aged houses, many of them parceled into apartments. Up until recently, my son was paying $850/month rent for the second and third floors of a house apartment shared with three other college students. He’s now subleasing a place nearby for $700/month for the summer.

I was delighted to find a Little Free Library near my son's apartment.

I was delighted to find a Little Free Library near my son’s apartment.

A local noted that houses in the neighborhood are passed down from generation to generation. He lives in his in-law’s house; they live in Florida. I suspect families are hesitant to sell because such a decision means they could never afford to live here again.

A lot of the homes have this barn roof design.

A lot of the homes have this barn roof design.

Most of the homes in this area between Tufts and Powder House Square are similar in design. The barn-like roof lines present a comforting, welcoming and homey appearance. At least to me, a farm-raised woman.

Residential streets in my son's neighborhood are one-way. I can't fathom how residents managed in the recent winter of record snowfall.

Residential streets in my son’s neighborhood are one-way. I can’t fathom how residents managed in the recent winter of record snowfall.

But I didn’t feel welcome here when I learned that my husband and I couldn’t park our van on the street in front of our son’s apartment for three days without a permit. After driving nearly 1,500 miles from Minnesota, parking rules were the last thing I wanted to encounter. But I suppose such regulations are necessary given the lack of space in neighborhoods. Residents are discouraged from owning a second vehicle. Parking is a challenge in this densely populated area.

Miscellaneous whatever on the back of a street sign by Powder House Square.

Miscellaneous whatever on the back of a street sign by Powder House Square.

The son reminded me several times that “It’s not like in Minnesota where you can drive right up to a store.” Or someone’s house. Many residents rely on their own two feet, bikes or public transportation—the “T” or the bus—to get them places.

Could I live in the Boston metro? Maybe if I was 20-something. But now? No. I need space.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Walking around the Tufts’ neighborhood the day after graduation June 7, 2016

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Art on a utility box by campus.

Art on a utility box by campus.

THE MORNING AFTER MY SON’S recent graduation from Tufts University in Medford/Somerville, Massachusetts, life was back to normal.


Snapshots, 331 construction workers in Medford, MA.


Construction workers labored on a campus building project while a police officer stood nearby to stop traffic if needed. His Boston accent matched every preconceived notion I held of a Boston accent. Thick. Unpronounced “r’s.” Perfect Boston diction to my Minnesota ears.


Snapshots, 334 watering dog in Meford, MA.


On this Monday morning while my son attended appointments, my husband and I walked around his neighborhood and lunched at a campus coffee shop on a busy street corner. I people-watched. The construction workers. The cop. A young woman who pulled a water bowl and water bottle from her backpack to hydrate her dog on a street corner.


Snapshots, 338 congrats on house in Somerville, MA.


After lunch we walked around the neighborhood, skirting smelly garbage cans on the narrow sidewalk while also surveying the broken furniture, rolled rugs and assorted goods emptied from college students’ apartments. Parents filled car trunks and U-Hauls. A college co-ed carried boxes from campus to a new off-campus apartment.


Snapshots, 343 scavenging Somerville, MA.


And, in the street, a woman rolled a cart bulging with can-filled garbage bags and assorted loot from all the graduation parties the day prior.


Snapshots, 337 grad napkin on ground Somerville, MA.


I noted the residue of those celebrations—a stray napkin, a congrats banner stretching across a porch, a commencement banner still hanging from a post.


Snapshots, 349 carvimg on tree


And, etched into the bark of a hillside tree, I noticed names. Knifed there by college students, I suppose. Not just this year. But through the years.


Snapshots, 346 house on hill Medford, Ma.


The day sparkled with the kind of light that is bright and sharp and new, as in this is spring, your kid has finished college, new.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Snow removal in my Minnesota neighborhood February 23, 2013

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Shoveling the driveway, take one.

About to begin shoveling the driveway.

“HOW MUCH SNOW did we get?” I asked my husband upon arising Friday morning. I had no desire to bundle up and head outdoors to shovel the sidewalk and driveway. Again.

He guessed about five inches.

“I don’t feel like shoveling.”

“You don’t have to. I’ll blow it out when I get home.”

And so I felt a tinge of guilt, making the mail carrier and the few pedestrians in my neighborhood plow through the snow. But at least school wasn’t in session and kids wouldn’t be trudging through the snow, too, packing it down.

Shoveling the driveway, take two.

The first scoop of snow.

But then, around 2 p.m., the next door neighbor barreled down the sidewalk with his snowblower blazing a trail past our house and then back a second time to clear an even wider path. That Ken did this simply out of the goodness of his heart pleases me.

Up the street, a kindly soul opened the driveway and sidewalks of another neighbor whose property my husband typically clears of snow.

Shoveling the driveway, take three.

Moving right along…

Across the street, the neighbor boy attempted to clear the driveway, a seemingly insurmountable job for the little guy. He was giving it his all, for awhile, clearing only a small section before abandoning the task.

Perhaps someday he’ll blaze a trail through the snow with a snowblower.

Or maybe he’ll just give up and move to Florida.

Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Learning about my new neighbor, from the Minnesota Department of Corrections February 2, 2013

WE AREN’T EXACTLY ROLLING OUT the welcome mat in my Faribault neighborhood for our soon-to-be newest neighbor.

Phillip Louis Davis, after all, isn’t the type of neighbor any of us would want. But he’s served his prison time and now he’s free to go. Sort of. He’ll be under correctional supervision until his sentence expires in November 2018.  And he must register as a predatory offender for the next 10 years.

Thursday evening I attended a community notification meeting to learn more from Michéle Murphy of the Minnesota Department of Corrections about 54-year-old Davis who received a 98-month prison sentence in 2005 for first degree criminal sexual conduct with a 4-year-old. He had previously been charged with third degree criminal sexual conduct involving a 15-year-old at a hotel swimming pool. And, Davis has a history of exposing himself to adult females.

As Murphy began her presentation to about a dozen residents, she noted her goal—to help achieve “reduced anxiety” among those in attendance.

I don’t know that any of us left feeling less anxious. But we certainly exited the meeting more informed.

Informational sheets distributed at Thursday's community notification meeting.

Informational sheets distributed at Thursday’s community notification meeting.

That brings me back to Davis’ freedom. Although he’s free of prison walls, he’ll be under intensive supervised release. This is nothing I didn’t already know, having attended at least three previous community notification meetings involving other Level 3 predatory offenders scheduled for release into my neighborhood. But a review of conditions is always valuable information to carry in your pocket.

Davis, among other requirements, will be on GPS for the first 60-90 days (or longer); can be checked on at any time; must make daily phone contact with his supervising agent; must complete sex offender programming; cannot use the internet or any device with internet capabilities (and, yes, that includes a cell phone); and cannot have contact with minors.

In defining “contact with minors,” Murphy noted, for instance, that Davis can’t even wave at a child or, when he’s at the grocery store, ask, “Where’s the bread?”

That is good to know, especially since this predatory offender is moving into a neighborhood filled with children (15 within eyesight from my front yard) and about a stone’s throw from a school bus stop.

I worry about the children. I was particularly disappointed that the parents of neighborhood children and representatives of Faribault schools and the local school bus company did not attend the community notification meeting.

BUT AT LEAST ONE FARIBAULT FATHER, whose daughter was the victim of another Level 3 predatory offender, was there to raise questions and voice his concerns. You could feel his frustration, hear his anger, especially when he stated that he expects Davis to re-offend. For the sake of my community, I hope he is wrong.

The father also muttered something about wishing he could take matters into his own hands. At that point a representative of the Rice County attorney’s office and Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen warned the audience that vigilantism will not be tolerated, that Davis has served his time and is free to live within our community. They were correct to lecture us. But in that moment, my heart truly went out to that father who has walked through hell.

I struggled, too, at one point to curb my emotions when I asked why these Level 3 predatory offenders keep choosing my neighborhood, the same two blocks of Willow Street (four times now, maybe five, I’ve lost exact count). I got the same answer a police department spokesman gave me several days ago: Some property owners are just willing to rent to offenders.

When I pressed for information on how predatory offenders are getting these property owners’ names, I didn’t really get an answer. I don’t think they are sitting in prison reading the classifieds in the Faribault Daily News searching for an apartment to rent. Nor did I get an answer as to where Davis had been imprisoned or whether he had completed sex offender treatment while incarcerated.

DOC rep Murphy did add that offenders sometimes have friends and family in the neighborhood, which I don’t believe to be the case with Davis. (His offenses against the 4-year-old and 15-year-old did occur in Rice County.) Living arrangements are approved by the supervising agent.

SO HOW MANY LEVEL 1, 2 and 3 registered predatory offenders live in Faribault? Seventy. That number excludes those incarcerated at the Minnesota Correctional Facility, Faribault. Thirty-two more live in other parts of Rice County.

In the entire state of Minnesota, there are approximately 17,400 registered predatory offenders, Murphy said. Of those, 287 are classified as Level 3 “higher risk” predatory offenders, like Davis, for whom community notification is required by state law.

Minnesota, unlike some other states, does not have residence restrictions such as restricting predatory offenders from living near schools, daycares, parks, etc., Murphy said. Cases and statistics show, she said, “It’s not where someone lives, but the relationships they are engaging in (which determine who is victimized).” In Davis’ case, he knew his victims.

Ninety percent of sexually-abused children are abused by someone they know or trust, Murphy said.

Armed with that and other information, we were advised not to engage or approach Davis should we suspect/observe him violating conditions of his release. Rather, we should contact police immediately.

You can bet not a single person at that meeting would hesitate, not for a second, to inform law enforcement of suspected violations. We will be watching—for the sake of our children.

FYI: To learn more about Davis, the Level 3 predatory offender moving into the 300 block of Willow Street on February 7, click here to reach the Minnesota Department of Corrections offender information page.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Longing to skate March 1, 2012

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My neighbor's temporary "pond."

IF I WAS 10 AGAIN, I’d slip on my winter boots and dash across the street to slide on my neighbor’s pond.

Oh, for the joy of slip-sliding across ice, free and untethered from the worry of falling.

Those thoughts flew through my mind this morning as I viewed the pond that just days ago existed only as a patch of dormant lawn, visually unappealing in the deep of the winter we haven’t had here in Minnesota.

Tuesday brought snow to most regions of our state. But here in the southeast, precipitation fell as strong, steady, relentless rain that gushed down hills, pooled along curbs and flooded basements.

And in some spots, like the low-lying lot that dips between two neighbors’ property, the rainwater just kept pouring in, creating a pond.

That water’s frozen now, and, as I gaze out my window, I’m tempted, oh, so tempted, to pull on my chunky and practical Northwest Territory boots and race over to skate upon the ice. Except that the ice likely descends no more than a half inch.

I cannot risk it, risk the falling , the plunging into ice water, to relive youthful moments of skating across corn field-stubbled ponds in buckle overshoes.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Another fire in my Faribault neighborhood September 30, 2011

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THERE’S BEEN ANOTHER fire in my neighborhood, this one two blocks away instead of directly across the street.

And this one happened at 1 a.m. in a vacant, foreclosed house in the 700 block of Willow Street instead of in the late afternoon in an occupied dwelling. (Click here to read about the September 10 fire at my neighbor’s house.)

This time I didn’t race to the scene, allow I certainly could have. The contingent of fire and police vehicles, with sirens screaming, woke me with a jolt early this morning. Typically I don’t think much of sirens in the middle of the night. Living along a busy street, I hear them all too often.

But when multiple emergency vehicles just keep racing by and sirens shut off near my home, I take note.

So I pulled myself out of bed, grabbed my glasses, peered out the window, failed to see anything and slid back under the covers.

At 1:19 a.m., when another fire truck—this time the ladder truck—roared past, I slipped barefoot out the front door, descended the steps to the end of the sidewalk and peered down the street toward emergency lights flashing in the blackness of the night.

I couldn’t see flames, didn’t smell smoke. But, still, I pondered whether I should change into street clothes, grab my camera and go.

I didn’t. While I’m a blogger, I’m no longer a newspaper reporter and photographer. My days of chasing fire trucks ended decades ago. Yet, that urge, that desire, that curiosity, remain.

I crawled back into bed, wide awake, the adrenaline still pumping, wondering how my husband could seem so disinterested in the drama unfolding nearby. He’s calm like that and able to shut out distractions once his head hits the pillow. He wanted to sleep.

Me? Surprisingly, I fell asleep relatively easily. But I slept fitfully, dreamed about firemen and police and a tarp covering bodies on a flat bed trailer.

And when I awoke six hours later, contacted the editor of The Faribault Daily News about the fire and read the story posted online around noon, I was relieved to know that my nightmare was only that, a nightmare, with no truth to it.

Click here to read The Daily News article.

Then click here to read The Daily News article about a fire at the same house during the early morning hours of May 19. That first suspicious fire caused only minimal damage to the home, owned by Wells Fargo.

Compare the two photos in the separate stories. You’ll see significantly more damage done during the second fire.

It’s pretty clear to me that someone is determined to burn down this house.


© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The neighbor no one wants February 24, 2011

I WALKED OUT OF A NEARLY TWO-HOUR meeting last night at the Faribault Police Department wondering how many more times I will need to sit through a session like this.

For at least the third time, if not the fourth (I’ve lost track), I attended a level three sex offender community notification meeting.

On March 1, a level three offender—designated as most likely to re-offend—is moving into a rental unit in the 300 block of Willow Street, within two blocks of my home. The 34-year-old registered predatory offender has been convicted twice, and sent to prison, for sex crimes against 15-year-old females in Dakota and Rice counties.

He also has an extensive juvenile and adult history of criminal and chemical abuse activity. Some of those crimes involved theft and domestic assault and a shotgun. We weren’t given a detailed list of all his crimes, but he’s not the kind of guy you want moving into your neighborhood.

No one was up in arms at the meeting, which was sparsely attended, I believe, due to the “if it’s not in my neighborhood I don’t care” attitude or perhaps a lack of awareness about the offender moving here. But those who attended, especially mothers whose daughters fit his victim age group of young teens, expressed their very real concerns.

The man’s 15-year-old victims included one with whom he had a relationship and another whom he met at a party and who was under the influence of alcohol. In that last August 2004 assault in Rice County, the offender was sentenced to 98 months in prison. He was released on April 26, 2010, into another Faribault neighborhood. (Surprise. I didn’t know that.) Six months later he was back in prison for violating rules of his supervision by having access to the internet.

Presenter Mark Bliven of the Minnesota Department of Corrections advised attendees to educate their children, offering lists of safety tips. Faribault Police Chief Dan Collins added that many crimes are “crimes of opportunity.” We’ve all heard it before—and I suppose a refresher course doesn’t hurt—but I was more interested in hearing specifics about my new neighbor. So, yes, I asked questions, lots of them.

If we are to believe Bliven, residents outside of my neighborhood and the Faribault community ought to be more concerned about this level three sex offender than those of us living close to him. Typically, he said, offenders, if they recommit, do so outside of their neighborhoods, away from the places where they know they are being watched.

Most often, he added, if offenders are returned to prison, it is for non-criminal offenses, ie. violation of their supervised release. My new neighbor can’t drink, can’t hang out with minors, can’t access the internet, can’t break the law, can’t just go (for now) wherever he pleases…

Bliven spewed out statistics, like 16,500 registered predatory offenders were living in Minnesota as of January 1, 2011. That number encompasses mostly sex offenders, but also includes those involved in crimes of kidnapping and false imprisonment.

Within Minnesota communities there are currently 203 level three offenders. About half of those live in Minneapolis. Of the 203, there are 71 under supervision; 132 are unsupervised.

Come March 1, two level three offenders will be living in Faribault.

We know about those two offenders because they are classified as level three, at high risk for re-offending. By state law, community notification is required.

But 63 other registered predatory offenders live in Faribault. Thirty more live in other parts of Rice County. Their identities are unknown to us because they are classified at lower risk levels.

Throughout the meeting, Blevin tried to reassure us. The offender will be on intensive supervised release until April 24, 2020. He must register as a predatory offender for life. He will be on an active GPS for up to 60 days…six probation officers will be watching him.

Neighbors will be watching too.

I wasn’t upset by the information I learned at Wednesday night’s meeting. I’ve been through this before. I expected to hear what I heard. I truly believe that knowledge is power in protecting ourselves and our children.

What I found most unsettling, because I did not expect this, happened after the meeting. As my husband and I were driving away from the police department, we saw a Rice County probation officer—the supervising agent for the offender moving into my neighborhood—open the back door of her car and slip a bullet-proof vest over her head. I don’t know where she was headed or what she was doing, but that was a frightening reality check for me.


CLICK HERE to reach the Minnesota Department of Corrections website for more information about the level three sex offender moving to Faribault on March 1.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling