Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Nika & the giving tree December 28, 2020

A welcoming message banners the Division Street entrance to the Northfield Public Library.

RECENTLY, I NEEDED to replenish my stash of library books. That meant a trip to the Northfield Public Library 20 minutes away. The Faribault library remains closed to in-person visits due to COVID-19. I’m the type of reader who needs to browse shelves, hold a book and read its summary before deciding whether to check it out.

Plus, Northfield, COVID or not, always rates as a delightful community to visit.

“Rocky the Giving Tree” against the backdrop of the Northfield library.

As soon as Randy and I pulled up to the Northfield library, I noticed a small tree draped with winter scarves near the base of the library hill. But first things first. Books.

I found four, one of which I started and finished that very day. Yes, sometimes books are that good.

Inside the library, a portion of a poem by Northfield Poet Laureate Rob Hardy. This seems to fit well The Giving Tree.

Once I’d gathered those books and snapped two photos inside the library, I focused my attention on the tree. The Gratitude Tree, now renamed The Giving Tree. Previously I photographed gratitude notes here, among the branches.

The library tree is serving as a host site for The Giving Tree and similar projects.
Empty clothespins indicate scarves already taken from a tree once sporting many more items of winter wear.
A tag on each item explains the project.

But this time, hand-knit scarves hung among the branches, each with a note attached indicating these are part of the 100 Kind Deeds Day Project. Need a scarf or other winter wear (I spotted a single hat)? Take one.

Handknit with love…and draped in The Giving Tree.
In the background sits the historic Archer House, severely damaged in a recent fire and its future unknown.
The scarves are almost like an art story.

As I photographed the collection, I wondered about the backstory. After researching online, I discovered this is the endeavor of 10-year-old Nika Hirsch of Northfield, founder of This Life Rocks. Annually for the past four years, Nika has invited the Northfield community to accomplish 100 kind acts in 24 hours. This year she dropped toys off at a hospital, picked up trash in a park and gathered donations for The Giving Tree.

Just across the street from The Giving Tree/library are the lovely historic buildings of downtown Northfield.

But there’s more. Remember that name, This Life Rocks? Well, this all started a few years back after Nika was diagnosed with selective mutism, a disorder often linked to social anxiety resulting in difficulty speaking with most people. With therapy, hard work, the love and support of her family and others, and a project—painting encouraging messages on rocks to leave in public places—Nika has accomplished much. The rock painting allowed her to communicate in a non-verbal way.

The beautiful Northfield Public Library serves as host site and backdrop for The Giving Tree.

Watching videos of Nika, I am amazed at how much she’s overcome, how confident and strong in the face of challenges. Nika truly inspires. She makes this world a much better place with her hands-on care, with her positive attitude, with her motto to live life with enthusiasm. And with her kindness.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Finally, well into COVID-19, I go to the library August 11, 2020

Buckham Memorial Library, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I’VE PREVIOUSLY POSTED about my deep love of libraries tracing back to my childhood. As a child, I had limited access to books. My small rural Minnesota community had no library. Nor did my elementary school, which sourced books from the county library 20 miles away in Redwood Falls. On occasion, I would be among students selected to board a school bus to travel to that library and return with books temporarily borrowed for our school. I loved those opportunities to browse and choose.

 

The LFL installed outside the community owned Vesta Cafe in July 2012. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

Today my hometown of Vesta still does not have a public library. County bookmobile service ended long ago with budget cuts. But, thanks to my efforts and those of locals and the generosity of Little Free Library co-founder Todd Bol, a LFL sits outside the Vesta Cafe with additional materials inside. Bol gifted the mini library to my hometown in July 2012.

 

A LFL in downtown Decorah, Iowa. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Fast forward eight years and these mini libraries are seemingly everywhere. And during a global pandemic, especially when public libraries closed for a period (some still with restricted hours), the LFLs proved invaluable to book lovers like me. I found a few good books to read, but still longed to step inside a public library with an abundance of reading materials. That happened three weeks ago.

 

This photograph was taken last September (pre pandemic) outside the Northfield Public Library during a cultural event there.

 

Randy and I headed up to neighboring Northfield on a recent Saturday afternoon to look for and check out items at the library. Unlike Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault, the Northfield Public Library reopened months ago (May 26) for regular hours that include evenings and weekends. That makes it accessible to everyone. Masking, social distancing and other protocols are in place and required to protect patrons and staff.

 

The books and magazines I checked out from the Northfield library.

 

I arrived at the NPL with a list of books I wanted. I wasn’t sure computers would be available to access the card catalog. Because I am unfamiliar with the lay-out of the library, I needed help to find some titles and staff generously assisted. I left with a bag full of seven books and two magazines.

 

 

Since then, I’ve been happily reading my stash of Minnesota-authored books. Only one—Love Thy Neighbor, A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America by Ayaz Virji with Alan Eisenstock—was not on my list. I spotted the book on a shelf of library staff picks, this one recommended by Sue. I read the book in a single day. One day. That’s how good this book is and how necessary to read. Especially today when headlines daily reveal instances of hatred, racism and so much more dividing our country. Insensitive, inflammatory, just plain horrible words and actions, including in southern Minnesota.

In summary, Love Thy Neighbor is the story of a medical doctor who relocates his family from a busy eastern urban setting to rural southwestern Minnesota to practice medicine as he desires, with a deeper personal connection to patients. Initially, all goes well and Dr. Virji and his family find themselves settling in, accepted, enjoying their new life in rural Minnesota. But then the November 2016 election happens and things begin to change. And that is the focus of this book—the shift in attitudes toward Muslims, how that negativity affected this small town family doctor and his family, and what he did about it.

I’d encourage you to read this enlightening book that recaps Virji’s struggles and the community talks he gave to help those in his small Minnesota community (and elsewhere) to understand his faith and the challenges he faces in a more toxic national environment.

 

 

Once I finished that book, I moved onto another environment—into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota in A Year in the Wilderness, Bearing Witness in the Boundary Waters by Amy and Dave Freeman. It’s been an enjoyable escape into the remote wild, to a place I’ve only ever visited through others. The Freemans, like Dr. Virji, wrote their book with a purpose. To educate, to enlighten and to protect the BWCAW from sulfide-ore copper mining. Incredible photos enhance this detailed documentation of living for a year in the wild. I’d highly recommend this title also.

 

I especially enjoy reading books by Minnesotans and appreciate the Northfield library tagging these books with Minnesota-shaped art.

 

The remaining books in my library book stash are mysteries/mystery thrillers, my preferred genre. I quickly read Desolation Mountain by one of my favorite Minnesota authors, William Kent Krueger. Interestingly enough, that fictional story in the Cork O’Connor series also references potential mining near the BWCAW.

New-to-me author Chris Norbury’s books, Castle Danger and Straight River, also connect to the northeastern Minnesota wilderness. And southern Minnesota, where the main character returns to the family farm in Straight River. I always enjoy reading books that include familiar places. Norbury lives in Owatonna and references area communities. And those of you who grew up in this region recognize that the book titles are actually an unincorporated community in northeastern Minnesota and a river here in southern Minnesota.

I’m determined to stretch my reading beyond the seed mystery love planted decades ago through Nancy Drew books. To that end, I appreciate when library staff pull and showcase books they recommend. Like Dr. Virji’s book.

And I appreciate libraries. I look forward to the day when Faribault’s library opens again for regular hours. Currently, it’s open by appointment only, for 30-minute Browse-and-Go Visits between 10 am – 5 pm weekdays or for No-Contact Curbside Pickup. Because Randy is gone to work between those hours, he has no opportunity to get books locally. And so we will continue our trips to Northfield.

Now, you may wonder why these two communities within 20 minutes of each other and in the same county differ in library reopening. I expect it has much to do with numbers, usage and demographics as it relates to COVID-19. My county of Rice, according to information posted by Rice County Public Health on August 7, has had 1,020 lab confirmed cases* of COVID since March. That breaks down to 830 cases in Faribault. Northfield has had far fewer at 141. The balance of 49 cases are spread throughout other communities in Rice County.

I can only speculate that numbers factor into local library decisions about operations. But who knows? I am a word person, not a numbers person.

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FYI: My friend Sue Ready, a book lover and writer who lives in the Minnesota northwoods, is a good source of info about Minnesota-authored books. She reviews books on her Ever Ready blog, Click here. Sue also heads up the Northwoods Art & Book Festival in Hackensack, MN., which brings together Minnesota artists and authors. This year’s event was canceled due to COVID-19.

* The number of COVID-19 cases in Rice County as of Monday, August 10, were 1,038.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Featuring Faribault poet Larry Gavin March 11, 2020

Cover art courtesy of Red Dragonfly Press.

 

FARIBAULT RESIDENT AND FELLOW poet Larry Gavin reads at 7 pm Thursday, March 12, from his latest poetry collection, A Fragile Shelter—New and Selected Poems, at the Northfield Public Library. This marks his fifth volume of poetry published by Northfield-based Red Dragonfly Press.

I’ve known Larry since he taught English to my eldest daughter at Faribault High School. And then to my second daughter and son. It was during parent-teacher conferences that I learned more about this gifted poet and writer and the connections we share.

 

An abandoned farmhouse along Minnesota State Highway 19 east of Vesta on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. The house is no longer standing. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Like me, Larry writes with a strong sense of place. His poems are down-to-earth, descriptive. I see his love of the outdoors, the natural world, imprinted upon his writing. He grew up in Austin, in a decidedly rural region of southeastern Minnesota. And he lived for 15 years, decades ago, in rural southwestern Minnesota to study writing with some remarkable writers like Robert Bly, Bill Holm, Leo Dangel and others. The prairie influence of place and details is there, in Larry’s poetry. Just as it is in mine as a native of the Minnesota prairie.

I’d encourage you to read a post I published in 2011 featuring a Q & A with this poet. Click here.

 

Larry and I both had poems published in the 2013 volume of Poetic Strokes. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

Over the years, Larry and I have sometimes found ourselves crossing as poets—work published in the same places, reading together with other area poets at events, our poems selected for poet-artist collaborations, our poems published on billboards…

It’s always been an honor and a joy to read with Larry, especially to hear him read. His voice is a radio voice—flawless, dipping and rising with the rhythm of his poem, each word flowing into the next in a way that mesmerizes. He taught me that poetry is meant to be read aloud. I find myself now, whenever I write a poem, reading it aloud to hear if a word/line works or it doesn’t.

 

I took poetic license and photoshopped this image of the button I wore identifying me as a poet at a poetry event. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Poetry today is not your grandmother’s poetry of rhyming verses and flowery, fancied up writing. At least not the poems I write nor those written by Larry. At a poetry reading last year, he talked about “found poems,” poetry inspired, for example, by a note posted in a public place. His humorous poem about a would-be babysitter, who cited experience picking rock, prompted an outburst of laughter. I like that, too, about Larry’s writing. His poems aren’t all stuffy and serious.

To my friend, fellow poet and recently-retired English teacher, Larry Gavin, I extend my congratulations on publishing another collection of poetry. To read or hear his poetry is to recognize his talent as a wordsmith, for he crafts with a love of language, of the land, of life.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Embracing & celebrating the Hispanic Heritage in Northfield September 14, 2019

 

AFTER A WEEK OF TORRENTIAL RAINS, the sun broke through to a perfect Saturday afternoon in Northfield.

 

 

 

 

In this picturesque, historic Minnesota river town, people gathered to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month at the public library. And what a celebration.

 

Art on the back of the portable stage.

 

 

 

 

Dancing centered the event as colorfully-costumed dancers entertained the crowd in this community tagged as the place of cows, colleges & contentment.

 

 

On this Saturday, it was also a city celebrating the culture of its Hispanic residents.

 

 

Giving us all a snapshot of this beautiful culture woven into our Minnesota communities.

 

 

 

 

I appreciate any opportunity to learn more about another culture. If I’ve observed one thing about those of Hispanic heritage, it’s the importance of family and of being together.

 

 

I also love the bright colors of this culture as noted in flags and costumes.

 

 

Attending this event simply made me happy with the vivid costumes.

 

 

Upbeat, thrumming music.

 

 

Wide smiles. All bring joy.

 

 

 

 

From the dancing

 

Sunlight filters through the colored tents, casting an orange hue onto young artists.

 

 

The art tents.

 

to the hands-on art

 

 

 

The candy table

 

to the vendors

 

 

 

 

to the food trucks and more, I felt immersed in the Hispanic culture for an afternoon.

 

 

Right there in the heart of Northfield. The celebration continues into October.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Spread a little sunshine with words of gratitude July 26, 2019

 

GRATITUDE. How do you define that word, express it, show it?

 

 

I express my thankfulness mostly in words, written and spoken.

 

 

For that reason I was especially drawn to a tree on a hillside outside the Northfield Public Library. Upon the branches dangle colorful tags. And on those paper pieces, people penned their responses to this prompt: What are you grateful for?

 

 

 

 

I filtered through some of those answers last Saturday when heavy rains ended and the sky broke to partially cloudy. To read those responses brought more sunshine into my day, I expect exactly as The Spread Sunshine Gang intends. The Gratitude Tree is a project of the group, “a non-profit with the mission to share goodness, kindness and generosity to the Twin Cities metro area and beyond,” according to the Sunshine website.

 

 

 

 

 

That mission makes me smile as do these additional thoughts from the website:

The Spread Sunshine Gang believes the world needs more love, happiness, forgiveness and kindness. We are a motley crew of hard-working people who make time to spread a little sunshine. Through random acts of kindness and dedication to paying it forward we create events for others to do the same.

 

 

 

 

I love this, absolutely love the purpose behind projects like The Gratitude Tree. In a world where selfishness and meanness and anger seem sometimes all too prevalent, we need to pause and ponder gratitude. And then we need to act on that word and shine our thankfulness and love.

 

 

TELL ME: What are you grateful for? Have you seen a Gratitude Tree or something similar? I’d love to hear.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Embracing everyday & public art, plus a new sculpture in Northfield June 28, 2012

GROWING UP, I DIDN’T have all that much formal exposure to the arts. Not at home. Not in school. Not outside of either.

Life was different back then, in the 1960s and early 1970s, with families in my southwestern Minnesota farming community simply working long, hard hours to survive. We didn’t, for the most part, have art galleries and live theatre, concerts or art shows or any of those cultural centers and events that today are an assumed aspect of life, even in the most rural of areas.

Despite that absence of organized art opportunities, I was not deprived of art. Rather, its presence was subtle—found in the flower gardens of Great Aunt Dora, in the dance of corn tassels on a breezy summer afternoon, in the patchwork symphony of quilts my Grandma Ida stitched, in the blazing orange of a prairie sunset painted across the wide sky, in the distinguishable cadence of a John Deere tractor, in the stones my great uncle rockhounds collected, sculpted and polished to shiny perfection.

Those exposures to art were so much a natural part of my life that I never realized their significance as artful influences.

Today I can find organized art anywhere, including right here in my community of Faribault. I embrace (most of) it with exuberance.

And to the north, in neighboring Northfield, the arts scene is even more vibrant.

The recently-installed “Tree of Knowledge and Delight” at the Northfield Public Library.

At 4:30 p.m. this Friday, June 29, Northfield celebrates its latest addition to downtown art at the official unveiling of the “Tree of Knowledge and Delight,” a sculpture created by 10 Northfield High School students and installed in the Northfield Public Library plaza.

A St. Olaf College emeritus professor of art and a St. Olaf art apprentice guided the students in their non-credit, extra-curricular public art course which resulted in the sculpture. Funding for the Northfield Young Sculptors Project came via a $4,150 Legacy grant approved by the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council.

I viewed the sculpture for the first time Sunday evening. I’ll admit that I didn’t study the sculpture like I should have. But oftentimes it takes me awhile to warm up to abstract art.

Eight branches comprise the tree sculpture.

But if you take the time to examine the tree, you will see the visual themes related to learning and individual artistic expressions—the book, the faces, the snake, the harmony of colors and more.

That students would have this opportunity to create such a sizable piece of public art seems exceptional. What an encouragement to them as young artists.

The “Tree of Knowledge and Delight” will remain at the library plaza for a year before relocating to a permanent home at Northfield High School. Plans call for a public sculpture to become an annual project for NHS students and their professional mentors. And that is good.

Yet, aside from this organized project, I hope students will not overlook the art in their everyday lives. For that is the art which, as I see it, defines the artistic world in its simplest, purest, most grassroots form.

FYI: This project was also supported by the Northfield Arts and Culture Commission, the Northfield Public Library, Northfield High School and the City of Northfield.

Right next to the Northfield Young Sculptors Project you’ll see this knit art wrapped around a “Do not enter” sign post. An attached tag, which includes a photo of a young woman, reads: “It’s immortality, my darlings.– Alison.” This is apparently a memorable line by character Alison DiLaurentis from the teen drama television series, “Pretty Little Liars.” Never heard of it. Any idea who placed this quote and knit art on the Northfield street sign? And what does that message mean anyway?

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling