Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Free state park passes available at Minnesota libraries June 8, 2022

Photographed from the public dock at Rice Lake State Park, rural Owatonna. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2020)

IT PAYS TO CHECK OUT community bulletin boards, like the one at my local library. While perusing the paper postings at Buckham Memorial Library on Saturday, I discovered information about free passes to Minnesota state parks. Anything free piques my interest, especially as inflation rises and most of us are trying to save money, me included.

Buckham Memorial Library, Faribault, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2017)

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is collaborating with regional public library systems (and two affiliated libraries) across the state to offer free 7-day park passes. Simply go to a participating library (check the DNR website), check out a pass and you can visit a state park for free. Without the pass, entry to a Minnesota state park costs $7 daily or $35 for a year.

The sign welcoming visitors to Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, known for its beautiful fall colors. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2013)

My library in Faribault has three park passes, first-come, first-served. The number of passes available at a library ranges from one to four, depending on community size. After seven days the checked out pass expires and cannot be renewed.

A chipmunk spotted at Rice Lake State Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2020)

So why offer these free passes? According to the DNR website, the goal is “to provide a way for Minnesotans living in low-income communities across the state to visit state parks without the financial burden of an entry fee.” Low income is defined as “where the median annual household income is $58,000 and/or schools nearby the library have more than 40% of students enrolled in the federal free and reduced lunch program.” That definitely fits Faribault. No proof of income is required for anyone checking out a pass.

Maplewood State Park east of Pelican Rapids in northwestern Minnesota is a remarkably beautiful park in the autumn. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo October 2019)

I am thrilled that the DNR and libraries in qualifying communities are teaming up to offer these free passes. Any program that gets individuals and families exploring the outdoors is a good thing. And to visit a state park at no cost, especially if you are on a tight budget, can make all the difference on whether such an outing is possible.

Well-kept and well-traveled paths take hikers deep into Nerstrand Big Woods, a must-see park, especially in autumn. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo October 2011)

Other participating libraries in my immediate area include those in Owatonna, Waseca and Blooming Prairie. We have several state parks nearby: Nerstrand Big Woods, Sakatah Lake and Rice Lake.

This free park pass program, which just began in June and will continue through June 2025, reminds me of a similar program available to library patrons in the metro. Through Metropolitan Library Service Agency, an alliance of 101 public libraries in the 7-county Twin Cities metro, residents can access free or discounted admission to arts experiences via a smARTpass. The list of participating arts groups is extensive, but includes the Minneapolis Institute of Art, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the American Swedish Institute and many more, for example.

The Steele County History Center in Owatonna, one of my favorite area history centers. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2022)

I’d love to see something like this in rural Minnesota. We have many wonderful museums/history centers, theaters and arts centers that are not necessarily accessible to all because of cost. (Note that most area arts centers offer free admission to their galleries.) Just as getting individuals and families outdoors and into our state parks is important, so is experiencing the arts and learning about area history. Perhaps some day we’ll get there. We’re off to a good start now with the free state park pass program.

FYI: For more information about the Minnesota State Parks Library Program, click here.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Borrowing bikes in Pine Island May 26, 2022

In Pine Island, site of the “Borrow-A-Bike program. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

NOTHING IN LIFE is free. How often have you heard or read that adage? I expect often enough to recognize that statement mostly always rings true.

Details on borrowing a bike in Pine Island. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

But in the southeastern Minnesota community of Pine Island, located along busy US Highway 52 some 10 minutes north of Rochester, there is, indeed, something offered for free. And that’s the use of a bicycle to ride the Douglas State Trail.

The bike borrowing building is next to the parking lot at Trailhead City Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

When I recently photographed the Borrow-A-Bike signs posted on a lovely aged brick building by Pine Island Trailhead City Park, I assumed the bikes were available for rent, because, you know, nothing is free. Turns out I was wrong.

Biking the Douglas State Trail in Pine Island. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Since 2009, the city has offered locals and visitors free usage of a fleet of bikes to ride the 12.5-mile paved recreational trail between Pine Island and northwest Rochester. The 70 donated, restored and maintained bikes are available in all sizes and even include some tandem bikes. Note that kids need signed authorization by a parent or guardian to borrow a bike and adults must register, sign a waiver, and grab a helmet before checking out a bike.

The trail bridge over the Zumbro River leads into the woods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Bikes are available from 10 am – 6 pm Saturdays and Sundays, May – October, or by appointment weekdays.

A family walks the Douglas State Trail in Pine Island. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

What a great idea to not only draw visitors to Pine Island, but also to encourage people to get outdoors, exercise and explore rural Minnesota.

Douglas State Trail signage in Pine Island. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

The trail follows an abandoned railroad line past wooded areas, open countryside and along the Zumbro River with a half-way stopping point in the unincorporated community of Douglas in Olmsted County. Next trip to the area, I need to find Douglas.

The Pine Island Cheese Company name honors the community’s history in cheese and butter-making. The building is available for event rental from the city. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

This Borrow-A-Bike program is especially needed now with ever-rising gas prices and out-of-control inflation. Couples and families are seeking low-cost ways to enjoy time together and this offers that. Not everyone owns a bike. Not everyone can transport a bike/bikes. This program makes biking easy and accessible to all. Plus, it gets people outdoors and away from screens.

One of two cupolas atop the cheese company building in Pine Island. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Nothing in life is free…until you find something that is—like Borrow-A-Bike in Pine Island.

FYI: Click here for more information about Borrow-A-Bike.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Waiting for ducklings & goslings May 23, 2022

A marshy pond near the entry to River Bend Nature Center, Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 15, 2022)

MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS. That award-winning children’s picture book by Robert McCloskey comes to mind each spring as ducklings and goslings hatch. McCloskey’s book, which won the Caldecott Medal for most distinguished American picture book in 1942, tells the story of a duck family adventuring around Boston. That’s some 1,400 miles from my southern Minnesota home.

Geese atop a nest at River Bend. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 15, 2022)

Opportunities abound to observe newly-hatched spring waterfowl in my Minnesota community of Faribault, where two rivers run through—the Straight and the Cannon—and assorted ponds dot the landscape.

New signage graces the entrance to the nature center in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

One of two mallards I saw. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 15, 2022)
An obviously human-made nest in the pond. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

On a recent stop at River Bend Nature Center, I expected to see goslings and ducklings. But I didn’t. Instead, I saw two adult ducks in the grass aside the road upon entering the center. And then I spotted two grown geese atop a nest and a lone goose cruising the nearby pond. I need to check other locales, like the Cannon River in North Alexander Park. Ducks and geese are prolific there to the point of being a nuisance. I always watch where I step.

Sky and water come together. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Despite the absence of sighting newborn waterfowl at River Bend, I found other scenes to focus my interest. I especially appreciated the sky, a patchwork of blue and white with clouds seemingly suspended overhead.

Pond close-up. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

And below, in the pond, those skies reflected on the water, among dried and greening grasses.

This sign at River Bend points to an actual spring, not a reference to the season. I love these kitschy homemade signs scattered throughout the nature center. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

This time in May, especially with a late spring, seasons mix. Textures and remnants of autumn remain, contrasting with the greening of spring.

Just inside the entrance a short distance is the waterfall, between the road and the Minnesota State Correctional Facility, Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

A short walk to the nearby waterfall yielded disappointment. With the recent rains, I expected water to be rushing over the rock ledges. Rather, there was barely a trickle. The same went for the spring, just off the parking lot near the nature center entrance. No water flowed.

A goose swims alone in the pond. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

But back in the pond, the three geese I watched seemed comfortably settled. Soon, I expect, they will make way for goslings (not ducklings).

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Connecting with nature as spring greens the Minnesota landscape May 18, 2022

Aiming my camera lens skyward on a beautiful mid-May afternoon at Falls Creek County Park, rural Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 15, 2022)

I FIND MYSELF, daily, tipping my head back to view the trees, leaves unfurling, greening the landscape.

An especially vivid green tree in the woods at Falls Creek Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

In these early days of a much-too-late spring in Minnesota, the greens appear especially intense, vivid, lush. The infusion of color is almost like visual overload after months of living in a colorless, drab world. I welcome the change with my eyes wide open.

At sunset, hillside trees and the maple in my backyard create an artsy scene. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

From the woods that bump against my backyard to area parks and nature centers, I feel such gratitude for places where I can immerse myself in nature. Even if that’s simply looking skyward.

Even though buckthorn is an invasive tree, the scent of its flowers is lovely. Photographed at Falls Creek County Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

In this tech-centered world, we need to pause, to take a break, to connect, really connect, with nature. Falls Creek County Park, just east of Faribault along Minnesota State Highway 60, offers such a place to embrace the natural world.

A footbridge leads into the woods at Falls Creek County Park. (Minnesota Prairie roots copyrighted photo May 2022)
So soothing…water rushing over rocks in Falls Creek. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)
Falls Creek flows under the footbridge. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

As soon as I step onto the footbridge over Falls Creek, I feel a sense of peace. In the sound and sight of water rushing over rocks. There’s nothing more soothing than that symphony, except perhaps the rush of wind through trees.

A fallen tree blocks the trail at Falls Creek Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

This park is more wild than tamed. Narrow dirt trails, packed hard by hikers’ shoes, call for caution. Roots can trip. Sections of eroded creek bank along the main path require focused walking, especially over a makeshift bridge of branches. In one area, a large, fallen tree blocks the route.

Wildflowers galore in the park woods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Still, despite the obstacles, this park is navigable. And worth visiting, especially now, when wildflowers blanket the woods. White, yellow, purple.

Winding Falls Creek. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

On a recent hike through Falls Creek County Park, Randy and I encountered another hiker and his two unleashed dogs who rushed us. I didn’t appreciate that, never do. But we also met a pre-teen girl and her dad on the bridge, she with book—some series about drama divas—in hand. The title fits his daughter, the dad said. They come to the park to read and to listen to music along the creek. How wonderful, I thought, to see this young girl into reading. And reading in the woods besides.

On the bridge, the first stone I spotted. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I tipped the pair off to painted stones I’d discovered, pointing to the bright pink stone at the end of the footbridge. I found two more in the woods. “Look to your right,” I said. I delight in such unexpected messages that always cause me to smile and uplift me.

An encouraging message on a stone tucked into a tree. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

On this day, I took to heart the words—Everything will be okay!—printed on a stone painted a metallic, glittery turquoise. On this day, I needed to read that encouraging message left in the woods, left for me to see as I immersed myself in nature, in this Minnesota spring.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The elusive egret May 16, 2022

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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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

 

Minnesota weather talk about this non-spring of 2022 April 28, 2022

At the confluence of the Straight and Cannon Rivers in Faribault, the landscape appears more autumn than spring-like. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

MINNESOTANS LOVE to talk weather. And for good reason. Weather shapes our lives—what we do on any given day, how we feel, where we go…

At the April 23 Earth Day Celebration in Northfield, moody grey skies clouded the day. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

And right now, when we should be in the throes of spring, we Minnesotans feel like we’re stuck in winter. It’s been an unseasonably cold and rainy April that has truly dampened spirits. We want, OK, need, sunshine and warmth after too many months of winter. That said, I really shouldn’t complain. Up North, snow still layers the ground and ice 20 inches thick freezes some lakes.

Treetops riverside against a grey sky in North Alexander Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)
Autumns leaves remain, not yet replaced by spring growth. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)
Devoid of color, the dock and river at Two Rivers Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

Yet, no matter where you live in Minnesota, day after day after day of grey skies coupled with low temps in the 20s and 30s takes a psychological toll. I should be wearing a spring jacket rather than a winter coat. My tulips should be blooming. Heck, the dandelions should be pushing through neighbors’ lawns. Trees should be budding green.

I spotted clam shells among dried leaves in the river bottom at Two Rivers Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

Instead, the overall landscape appears, well, pretty darned drab.

Canadian geese swim where the Straight and Cannon Rivers meet in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

But, last Saturday we experienced a one-day reprieve of unseasonable warmth with the temp soaring to nearly 80 degrees. Typical high this time of year is around 60 degrees. It was a get-outside day. Don’t-waste-a-moment-indoors day. So Randy and I didn’t. We attended the Earth Day Celebration in Northfield, enjoyed craft beer at Chapel Brewing along the banks of the Cannon River in Dundas, walked a section of the Straight River Trail in Faribault and later followed part of the trail along the Cannon in North Alexander Park. Strong winds factored into every facet of our time outdoors, though.

An angler makes his way toward the Cannon River in shirt-sleeve weather on April 23. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

But, oh, how glorious to walk in warmth.

I zoomed in on this fungi high in a tree along the recreational trail in North Alexander Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

This feeling of remaining stuck in perpetual winter will end. I need to remind myself of that…even as the forecast for more rain and unseasonably cold temps (highs in the 40s) prevails.

TELL ME: What’s the weather like where you live?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The in-between season at River Bend April 19, 2022

Oh, how lovely the textured bark. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

TREES DEVOID OF LEAVES open the woods to full view. Such is the benefit of this not-winter, not-yet-spring transitional time here in southern Minnesota.

Signage identifies the the Arbor and Outlook Trails at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

On a recent walk through Faribault’s River Bend Nature Center, I noticed nuances of nature that might otherwise not be seen in a leaf canopy, or at least not as deeply appreciated.

A woodpecker in flight. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Following the Arbor Trail loop into the woods, I noticed first a red-capped woodpecker. I determined to get a photo. But, if you’ve photographed birds, you understand that such an endeavor requires patience, planning and a bit of luck. I caught the bird in flight. Maybe not the sharpest image, but certainly an unexpected moment I managed to snapshot.

Bare treetops, beautiful against a bold sky. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Trees themselves also draw my interest. I find myself especially drawn to oaks. Their sturdiness and expansive canopy exude strength and artistry. But I find birch trees equally as fascinating. Or at least those with white bark, which could be birch or aspen. Without leaves, trees are much more challenging to identify, at least for me.

I love the beauty of dried grasses. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

As I forked off the Arbor Trail to the Overlook Trail, the vista opened to prairie. Now, as you would expect, this native prairie girl loves the prairie. No matter the season. I appreciate the tall dried grasses that arch and dip in the wind. Rhythmic. Poetic.

A solo grass stem bends in the wind. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

A single stem of grass reminds me of youthful summers on the farm, of playing in untamed tall grass. It reminds me, too, of the writing of Laura Ingalls Wilder, a favorite author. I grew up some 20 miles from her childhood home in Walnut Grove. Her ability to notice details inspires me in my writing.

Beauty in a seed head. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Dried seed heads catch my eye. Details. Promise of new growth from last season’s remnants.

One of the many bluebird houses checked and maintained by volunteers. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I notice, too, the bluebird house among the prairie grasses. Thanks to Keith Radel, who hails from my hometown and has lived in Faribault for decades, the bluebird thrives in these parts. Known as Mr. Bluebird, Keith appreciates bluebirds with a passion unequal. He’s determined to protect them, to assure they flourish. It’s heartening to see his devotion to this bird.

I see the deer and the deer see me through a treeline. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

As I return to the Arbor Trail, I wonder if I will see any deer, previously spotted in this area. And then Randy, my walking partner, alerts me to their presence. There, on the prairie, I observe four deer. I move quietly toward the edge of the treeline to photograph them through the trees. Careful. Cautious. Not wanting to scare them away before I can lift and focus my lens. But they are already aware, frozen in place, ears upright, faces turned toward me.

The deer vanish, nearly unseen, into the tall prairie grasses. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Soon they are hightailing it away, vanishing, camouflaged by the high brown prairie grasses. I never tire of watching deer, even though I consider them too numerous and a roadway hazard.

In just a short distance, I’ve noticed nature’s nuances. In a woodpecker. In the bark of trees. In the prairie grasses. And, finally, in a quartet of deer. What a gift in this not winter, not-quite-spring season in southern Minnesota.

© 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

 

Whispers of history & heritage at Valley Grove March 29, 2022

Valley Grove churches rise over the hill as I follow the prairie path back to the church grounds. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

ATOP THIS HILL, here on the edge of the Big Woods among acres of fields near Nerstrand, I hear the whispers. Wrapping around the two historic churches. Rising from the cemetery. Sweeping through the tall prairie grasses.

The cemetery sits next to the churches, then rings the old stone church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

This is Valley Grove, overlooking the countryside, the place where Norwegian immigrants came. Here they crafted their first church from stone in 1862, then built a second, of wood, in 1894. Both still stand.

The Valley Grove Preservation Society cares about the land, too, with restoration and preservation. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
I spotted swirls of prairie grass alongside a trail. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
Dried hydrangea alongside the wooden church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

The churches, cemetery and surrounding 50 acres are today owned, preserved and managed by the Valley Grove Preservation Society. They are a favorite nearby rural destination for me. I appreciate the natural beauty, the history, the country quiet and more. Even the wind.

A view from the parking lot, outside the fenced grounds. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

On a recent March Sunday afternoon I walked the prairie paths, wound among aged tombstones, admired the sturdy churches. And while I’ve wandered these grounds many times and attended community celebrations inside and outside the church buildings, each visit brings new discoveries and reminders of why I love this place so much.

Atop the steeple of the old stone church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I value the rural-ness. On this afternoon, the shrill crow of a rooster, the sharp crack of gunshots and the barks of two dogs running loose broke the silence. In the context of location, the sounds fit. Not that I like gunshots echoing or strange canines circling me. But they did no harm as I continued along the stomped, sometimes soggy grass trail back toward the Valley Grove Cemetery and churches.

Land and sky define the prairie path. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

When following the prairie paths under a wide sky, I hear whispers of the past. Of wheels creaking under the weight of wagons crammed with an immigrant family’s belongings. Of a young mother bent over her baby, singing a soothing song from the Old Country. Of a weary farmer sighing after a long day of breaking the land.

The roofline and steeple of the simple 1862 stone church rise above the rural landscape. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

If this place could speak, it would whisper the stories of all those Norwegian immigrants who settled in and around Valley Grove and then gathered on this hilltop location to worship, socialize, celebrate, mourn.

The 1894 church closeup. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
The bell in the wooden church still rings for special occasions. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

On this winter day, the church doors are locked. But I’ve been inside both buildings. They are basic. Simple. Mostly unadorned. The wooden church is still used today for special worship services like weddings. The old stone church serves primarily as a social gathering room. Both are well preserved. Valued.

In the foreground, the back of the old stone church, which sits near the wooden church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Soon four tapestries, woven in the Norwegian billedvev tradition, will grace the walls of the stone church. Minneapolis weaver Robbie LaFleur was commissioned by the Valley Grove Preservation Society to create the art. It features the plants, animals, land, immigrants and churches of Valley Grove. A grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places funded the project. LaFleur’s tapestries will be showcased during a Syttende Mail celebration from 2-4 pm Sunday, May 15.

One of many Oles buried at Valley Grove. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Much art already exists at Valley Grove, within the cemetery. I consider tombstones to be works of art, documentations of lives. The stone markers are many, from aged to recent. Names engraved thereon reflect the primarily Norwegian heritage. Ole. Erik. Einar. Inger. If these tombstones among the oaks could speak, oh, the stories they would tell. Of life in the Old Country. And of life in the New World, of this place, this Valley Grove.

FYI: Please check back for a post about the Valley Grove Cemetery.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Edging toward spring in Minnesota, sort of March 28, 2022

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Biking at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault, on March 19. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

GIVE MINNESOTANS A STRING of warm March days like we experienced briefly around the official first day of spring, and we’ll pop out of hibernation in full force.

Note that as I write this, though, snow globe snowflakes descend, layering the landscape and reminding us that, even if the calendar shows spring, in reality it is not. Temps are back into the 30s and 40s after those few days of 50s and 60s, topping 70 degrees.

During that brief hiatus from winter, I observed lots of people out and about while I was out and about. Walkers. Bikers. Babies in strollers. Kids playing in yards. A teen on a hoverboard. And a teen on a skateboard.

Warm weather multiplies the number of motorcycles on the road, too, as they roar out of storage. Note that some bikers ride even in winter, although not during snowfalls.

On that Monday of 70 degrees, I hung laundry on the line and then threw open windows to air out the house. Within minutes of opening windows, the street sweeper crept by, spinning dust clouds. I raced to close street-side windows.

Spring will come. As a life-long Minnesotan, I realize that. It’s just that as I age, winter seems longer. And colder.

TELL ME: Has spring arrived where you live? How do you define spring’s arrival?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling