Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Exploring Madison: First stop, Olbrich Botanical Gardens June 6, 2018

My first view of the downtown Madison skyline with Lake Monona in the foreground.

 

GREEN SPACE. Those words define my first impression of Madison, Wisconsin. This is an outdoor-friendly city with prolific public pathways, with an obvious bend for recreational activities that take folks outside.

 

Closing in on downtown Madison with the state capitol on the left.

 

In woods, parks, gardens, open spaces and tree-lined streets, green colors the lush landscape. Lakes and waterways add to the city’s natural beauty. This capital city of 252,000-plus pulses with bikers, boaters, joggers, walkers and others simply enjoying the outdoors. There’s a certain undeniable vibe in Madison, as if those who live and visit here need to spend every minute outside before winter sweeps cold and snow into the land in a matter of months. But I expect even then plenty of outdoor activity happens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On my first visit to Madison, where my second daughter and her husband recently relocated, I walked through the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, a 16-acre space of outdoor gardens and a tropical conservatory. On the afternoon of our visit, exceptionally high heat and humidity left me drained and occasionally seeking a shaded bench. Time and temps kept us from the Bolz Conservatory, a spot I’ll check out during a cooler season.

 

 

 

 

While the gardens are beautiful, they were not at their peak during our transitioning from spring into summer tour. Yet, it was a delight just to be there with my daughter and husband, walking the pathways, smelling fragrant flowers, enjoying the art and water features, observing young people celebrating quinceanera

 

The Thai Pavillion from across a creek.

 

Of special visual interest is the Thai Pavilion and Garden, the only one in the continental U.S. It was a gift from the Thai government and the Thai Chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association. UW-Madison, located in the heart of the downtown, has one of the largest Thai student populations of any U.S. post-secondary institution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some 1,000 volunteers work these gardens, greet visitors and more. What a labor of love in a place that seems so suited for Madison, a metro area with a small town feel and lots of green space.

 

 

FYI: Check back for a second post from the Olbrich Botanical Gardens as I take you up close into the Thai Pavilion and garden.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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The greening of Minnesota May 23, 2018

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ON A RECENT MAY MORNING, I stepped outside with my aged camera, a Canon EOS 20D DSLR. I hoped to photograph the cardinal I’d heard shrilling within hearing distance. But when I scanned the woods behind my house and the adjoining properties, no flash of red appeared. The sharp song, too, had ceased.

 

 

Instead, I spied a gold finch hidden among the branches of the backyard maple.

 

 

I noticed, too, the green of leaves, how the morning sun danced a rhythm of light.

 

 

No green seems greener than the green of Minnesota in spring. After months of enduring a monotone world of greys, black, browns and white, I need color. Spring gives me that.

 

 

The sky, too, seems bluer, asserting itself with a profound boldness.

 

 

Yet, a softness remains in the landscape, in the unfurling of blossoms dancing in the wind in the light of spring.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The simple joys of life with kids on a spring day in rural Minnesota May 8, 2018

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IT TOOK TWO SWEET KIDS to remind me just how joyful the early days of spring on a rural Minnesota acreage.

 

My favorite photo of Evelyn and Landon as my great niece celebrated her birthday on Sunday.

 

On Saturday, Randy and I watched our great niece and nephew while their parents celebrated their wedding anniversary with an all-day date. We were happy to do so. We love these two little ones who live within miles of our home. The family moved here a few years ago, our only family so close. The kids call Randy “Papa Two.” I’m just Audrey.

 

 

With sunshine and summer-like weather, we spent the entire day outdoors. Roaming. Playing. Running (the kids, not us). By mid-afternoon, the pair had successfully exhausted us. By then, Grandma and Grandpa arrived as our tag-team replacement.

 

 

It was a busy and adventurous day. I’m more cautious in my approach to caring for children than my husband. So when I observed Randy allowing the two to climb among the branches of a lilac (I think) bush, I advised against it. “You gotta let ‘em be kids,” he said. OK, but I wanted them safe and uninjured. Other than a slight slip from a branch and resulting tears, they were just that. OK.

 

 

 

 

I played side-by-side with Landon and Evelyn in the sandbox, pushed them in swings, supervised the watering of greenhouse plants.

 

 

 

We petted goats and watched chickens.

 

 

And we paused, too, to smell the perfume of apricot blossoms.

 

 

Landon told us that he wants to work on tractors when he grows up. No surprise there. He’s crazy about John Deere. And after observing his barbering skills on his little sister’s hair, I advised against that as a career.

Evelyn wants to be a horse girl, whatever that means. She already has the cowgirl boots, which I pulled on and off her feet multiple times. She prefers bare feet to the trappings of socks and shoes.

I love that these siblings would rather be outdoors than anywhere. I love that they have such good imaginations. We sat on the front stoop and in lawn chairs and “fished” with tiki torches, landing five tuna and past-our-limit walleyes from the front lawn “lake.”

 

 

We picked up sticks and loaded them into Landon’s mini gator which he steered like a seasoned farmer across the yard to the campfire pit. His efforts, though, to convince us to start a fire failed. While he and Evelyn can persuade us to do a lot, starting a fire on a hot and windy afternoon was not one of them.

 

 

Piggyback (or maybe horseyback for Evelyn) rides and tiny hands clasped in ours…such sweet moments. I’ll take them. Kids remind us that we need to pause in life, to take a day just to delight in the sunshine, the great outdoors, the carefree days of childhood.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

What’s the deal with all the flies at Valley Grove? April 27, 2018

 

The historic Valley Grove Churches, rural Nerstrand, Minnesota.

 

ALL YOU SCIENTIST, ENTOMOLOGY, biology types out there, I need your input to solve a mystery. I suppose I could google the topic, but I’d rather read your theories or fact-based conclusions.

 

The buzzing started once we stepped inside the front gate and onto the grass between the two churches.

 

Last Sunday afternoon while walking on the grounds of Valley Grove Church, rural Nerstrand, I heard a buzzing. Like a zillion bees. At first I thought I was hearing things because, when I would stop, the droning also stopped.

I questioned whether I could be suffering from tinnitus, an occasional issue given my hearing loss. I’m nearly deaf in the my right ear which causes all sorts of problems in determining sound sources and in hearing in general.

 

 

But this buzzing seemed real. I risked asking my husband if he heard what I heard. He did. We paused on the dormant dried grass. No buzzing. Then we took a few steps and the irritating hum resumed. Then my observant husband, with the way better vision than me, saw the flies. Everywhere. Infinite numbers settled on the grass as if sunning themselves. I strained to see the camouflaged flies and then photograph them. I managed one image of a single fly. Whenever either of us moved, they, too, moved. It was the craziest thing.

 

One of several birdhouses located on the grassland hiking area.

 

I’m a woman who has a history with flies. They were part of my growing up environment on a southwestern Minnesota dairy farm. A fly swatter was always at the ready. Sticky fly traps dangled from ceilings in our farmhouse; one even hung over the kitchen table. Not at all appealing. But I’d rather see a dead fly than have one land on my dinner plate. In the barn, biting, swarming flies were a constant problem. For cows. And for humans.

 

This aged, massive oak is a focal point in the corner of the cemetery.

 

But why were these thousands (maybe even millions) of flies here, on these church and cemetery grounds on a sunny late April afternoon, the first warm weekend of the season in Minnesota? There were no cattle (although the occasional piles of deer and other animal poop). There was no food.

 

 

The insects didn’t swarm the entire grounds—mostly just the area between the two historic church buildings and along the edge of the adjoining cemetery.

 

 

Once I got past the fly territory, I enjoyed my time at Valley Grove. It’s a beautiful place of quiet, of peace, set high atop a hill with lovely rural vistas. There are hiking trails and history in the cemetery (and churches when they are open). Generations of families are buried here. And there are oak trees, including one held together by thick chains in the corner of the cemetery.

This place holds stories. And now it holds one more story—the mystery of the fly invasion.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The weekend we’ve awaited in winter weary Minnesota April 23, 2018

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GOODBYE, WINTER, and welcome spring.

 

Buds are bursting in these trees along the Cannon River in Dundas.

 

This weekend brought spring to Minnesota, just a week after an historic blizzard. And the mood shifted dramatically to exuberance as Minnesotans soaked up the sunshine and warmth, me among them. I even sport a sunburned forehead.

 

“Thin ice” signs remained in place at Lake Kohlmier in Owatonna on Saturday. Edges of the lake were open, the middle still iced.

 

We haven’t had temps this warm—in the 60s—since October. That’s too many months.

 

In Nerstrand, a contrast of seasons in a melting snowman and yard art.

 

On Sunday afternoon Randy found enough snow for a snowball.

 

Randy and I took a drive in the Rice County countryside this weekend. Snow still remains in shadowed spots.

 

While winter still lingers in melting snowmen, patches of snow and ice on lakes, I see spring everywhere.

 

 

 

 

In budding trees and pussy willows and blooming crocuses. Even in mud baking dry in the afternoon sun.

 

Biking Sunday afternoon along a back gravel road in Rice County south of Northfield.

 

It was shirt sleeve warm weather in Minnesota on Sunday, this scene photographed in Faribault at the intersection of Minnesota State Highway 21 and Seventh Street.

 

People were out and about everywhere—biking, riding motorcycles, pushing strollers, pulling wagons, walking, running, drinking craft beers on brewery decks and patios…

 

A fitting sign outside Chapel Brewing in Dundas on Sunday.

 

There was this feeling of we’ve finally made it. If you’ve ever lived in a cold weather state, you understand that delight, that giddiness, that joy which marks the first really warm and sunny day of spring.

 

Randy pulled on his shades as we each enjoyed a glass of beer on the riverside deck of Chapel Brewing Sunday afternoon.

 

Smiles abound, jackets are shed, sunglasses pulled on, winter released. Even if snow still remains in shadowed patches, we understand that spring has arrived in Minnesota. Finally.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Taking snow removal to the second level in Minnesota March 1, 2018

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Randy blows snow off our driveway following a February 2014 storm. This winter has been similar in snow and cold to that of four years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2014.

 

IF RESIDENTIAL SNOW REMOVAL in Minnesota involved simply clearing driveways and sidewalks, our work would be easier.

 

In this image, you can see the depth of snow on the roof.

 

But when snow accumulates and no January thaw arrives to reduce the snow pack, we start thinking about problems like too much snow on roofs and those damaging ice dams.

 

 

Sunday afternoon, after our most recent 4-inch snowfall the day prior, Randy pulled out the ladder and climbed to the flatter section of our house roof. He had about 18 inches of accumulated snow to scoop and toss from roof to ground. After awhile, he was working up a sweat in the bright sunshine.

 

 

Just inside the kitchen, I watched him labor. I’ll shovel snow, but only if it’s on the ground.

 

 

My job was to monitor my husband, to see that he stayed safe and didn’t overdo the shoveling. Now that we’re in our sixties, I tend to think more about how shoveling can cause heart attacks and back issues. And then there is that slipping and falling off the roof factor to consider. Randy seems mostly to ignore my concerns. I wish he wouldn’t.

 

Randy guides our ancient snowblower along the driveway following a late January snowfall of about 15 inches. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2018.

 

Already that day he’d fired up the snowblower to clear snow from our sidewalk and that of three neighbors and also blew snow from our drive and a neighbor’s. I shoveled steps and walks and followed with clean-up. Our snowblower is bulky and heavy and so aged it should probably be in a museum. Has any Minnesota museum ever done an exhibit on how Minnesotans deal with snow? That could be interesting, tracing the history of how that process has evolved. There’s the fashion aspect, the equipment facet, the weather factor…

 

 

With the sun shining and temps rising into the balmy forty-ish range this week, all of Randy’s rooftop shoveling paid off with shingles now visible and ice dams melting. We’re good until more snow stacks and temps plunge. Next week.

TELL ME: If you live in a snowy state like Minnesota, how do you handle snow on the roof and ice dams? If you don’t have to deal with these issues, feel free to comment anyway.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The poetry of winter in the woods February 27, 2018

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HERE IN THE NORTHLAND, Winter pens poetry upon trees. If only we pause to notice.

 

 

I noticed last week as I photographed the visual poetry that glimmered, layered, clung to tree branches within view of my backyard.

 

 

Freezing rain sluiced ice along branches like strings of diamonds draped upon the woods.

 

 

Then snow fell, icing the same branches in white.

 

 

Darkness emerged later with moody Winter unleashing roiling emotions.

 

 

Tangled. Twisted. Tumultuous.

 

 

But hope shone in the shelter of snowy evergreens, lovely in the gloaming of the day. I observed therein the loveliness a poet sees when words flow from the brain into layers of verses. There’s a feeling of satisfaction, of comfort, of accomplishment. And the light, oh, the light.

 

 

 

The sky, too, the setting for these poems of February, delights. Not when grey. But when blue, oh, so blue.

 

 

This is Winter’s poetry, written here upon the Minnesota landscape, if we but choose to see and read it.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Check back tomorrow for a post that contrasts this one with a wish for Winter to exit.