Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The choice is ours November 10, 2020

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The historic Ames Mill sits along the banks of the Cannon River in downtown Northfield. Malt-O-Meal hot cereals are made in the mill. You can often smell the scent of cereal wafting through this southern Minnesota community.

THE CITY OF NORTHFIELD, about a 20-minute drive northeast of my Faribault home, has long-rated as one of my favorite Minnesota communities. For many reasons.

Crossing the pedestrian bridge over the Cannon River in downtown Northfield.

It’s situated along the banks of the Cannon River, making for a picturesque setting.

Standing along a river walk, I photographed the pedestrian bridge in downtown Northfield.
I spotted this art on the hood of a car parked along Division Street near Bridge Square.
From the river walk, nearly under the pedestrian bridge, I photographed the Cannon River and distant buildings.

Homegrown businesses fill the historic downtown, which edges the river. Here you’ll still find an independent bookstore plus antique shops, boutiques, restaurants, an arts center, the public library and much more.

Bridge Square, Northfield’s downtown community gathering spot often chalked with messages.

And, in the heart of Northfield’s business district you’ll also find a community gathering spot. Bridge Square. Here you can buy popcorn from a vintage wagon in the summer, take the kids or grandkids to visit Santa during the holiday season. You can rest here on a bench and engage in conversation. Watch the river flow by or the water fall over the fountain sculpture or the nearby dam.

This motor vehicle bridge lies next to the Ames Mill, across the river from Bridge Square.

But Bridge Square is so much more than a Norman Rockwell-like place to meet, gather and relax. It’s also a spot where opinions are expressed. Students from St. Olaf and Carleton, two noted private liberal arts colleges based in Northfield, use this space to gather and voice their concerns. And, even though I may not always agree with their views, I appreciate that they share them. To see young people concerned enough about an issue to publicly express their thoughts gives me hope.

Among the many messages, peace vs division.

For the first time in a long time, I feel hope. Out of all the chalked messages I read on Sunday while at Bridge Square, I found one that really spoke to me. Peace vs division. Oh, how we need that. Peace. Not division.

A message printed on a step leading to the river walk. You’ll also find poems imprinted into sidewalks in downtown Northfield.

That stop at Northfield’s town square, with so many issues printed in chalk on cement, could easily have overwhelmed me. I could have despaired at all the problems that need fixing. But rather, I choose to see this as an acknowledgment of concerns. Of the possibilities. Of the solutions. Of choices which can bring peace rather than division.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Lessons learned from an orange cat November 4, 2020

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I GLANCED OUT THE BATHROOM window to see an orange cat sitting on the back steps. Eyes closed. Every bit the image of contentment on a cold Minnesota morning.

The spot just outside the kitchen door and next to the garage sheltered the tabby from the wind, offering a place of warmth and sunshine following an unseasonably early record snowfall here in southern Minnesota on October 20. Since then, temps have risen from the 30s into the 60s and only a few patches of the 8-inch snowfall remain in shaded areas and in piles pushed by snowplows.

As I watched the cat, I focused on his/her closed eyes. Peace emanated as this feline did whatever cats do when their eyes are closed. Maybe the cat napped. Maybe not. But that stray cat with eyelids pressed shut somehow soothed me, reminded me that finding a place of peace is possible if we choose to seek, recognize and embrace it.

THOUGHTS? I’d like to hear where and how you’re finding peace these days. We can all learn from one another.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Embracing nature, seeking peace in chaos October 7, 2020

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Posted near the amphitheater at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault, Minnesota.

IN EVERY WALK with nature one receives far more than he seeks—John Muir.

A scene at River Bend, looking from the swamp across the prairie to the distant treeline on Sunday afternoon.

Those words, imprinted upon a memorial plaque at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault, hold a depth of meaning worth pondering. To think that every walk outdoors gives us more than we expect, or search out, seems valid. Especially now, during COVID-19, when many of us are rediscovering the beauty and healing power of the natural world.

Even the drying swamp grasses prove beautiful against the autumn sky.

Are you among the many embracing the outdoors with renewed enthusiasm and appreciation? I certainly am.

This is an example of the many beautiful tree-lined streets in Faribault. I shot this along Second Avenue, with Central Park on the left and The Cathedral of Our Merciful Savior on the right.
To the northeast of Cannon City, we stopped along a back gravel road so I could photograph this distant, colorful hillside across acres of ripening corn.
Northbound along Interstate 35 just north of Faribault, leaves are changing color.

Whether walking at a local park or hiking through a nature center or following a city street or driving along a back country road or even traveling along a busy interstate, I feel a heightened sense of gratitude for the sky, the trees, the land, all that surrounds me.

Wildflowers still bloom at River Bend as autumn wanes.

And as autumn presses on toward winter, I also feel an urgency to get outside. On foot before ice and snow pack trails and I feel less secure in my footing. Maybe this will be the winter I buy metal grippers that clamp onto my boots. Maybe this will be the winter I reclaim my youthful enthusiasm for the season.

A prairie plaque honors a volunteer at River Bend.

Many days I long to get away. Away from traffic and noise and busyness and people to the quiet of woods, the silence of the prairie, the peace that nature offers.

Autumn colors trees at River Bend.

There’s so much turmoil now. Too much hatred. Too much dissent and too much untruth and too much of everything that’s mean and unkind and disrespectful of others. I yearn for a world where we all hold genuine compassion and care for one another.

The hole, the decay, in this tree reminds me in some ways of our country right now.

I’ve never, in my sixty-plus decades on this earth, witnessed such chaos, discord, selfishness…

Like these bold berries pop color into the River Bend landscape, we can pop positivity into the world. We can choose to be bold, to stand for decency and the common good.

I have within me the power to act with decency, with empathy, with understanding. With kindness.

North of Faribault along I-35.

To settle my mind into a frame of peacefulness, I embrace prayer and nature. To do so is to receive more than I seek.

Currently, I am reading The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu. A friend, who recently moved to the lakes region of central Minnesota, gifted Katja Pantzar’s book to me. I’m only 58 pages into the read. But already the words written therein about the Finns’ resilience and close connection to nature resonate. In two more chapters, I’ll be into “Nature Therapy, The Benefits of a Walk in the Woods.”

In the woods at River Bend…

I don’t expect the contents of that chapter to surprise me. Whether walking in the woods or through a city park, we can benefit from simply being in nature. To feel the warmth of sunshine, to hear the rush of wind through trees, to watch water tumble over rocks, to smell the scent of autumn…all calm the spirit, restore peace, and lift moods. What a gift.

TELL ME: Are you rediscovering nature during COVID-19? If so, in what ways has this helped you deal with the pandemic? What’s your favorite nature spot?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Let peace & love guide us August 26, 2020

 

It’s truly timely. The message posted in windows spanning the front of an historic building in Dundas.

 

 

VOTE FOR OUR PLANET EARTH

VOTE FOR OUR DEMOCRACY

VOTE DEAR ONES VOTE

 

 

And then in the windows to the right side of the front door:

LET THE SPIRIT OF PEACE

AND THE POWER OF EVERLASTING LOVE

BE YOUR GUIDE

—JOHN ROBERT LEWIS

 

 

And then above the door:

BLACK LIVES MATTER

I spotted these powerful words while in this small southeastern Minnesota community on Saturday for a history cruise. And I felt compelled to stop and photograph the scene, to share this with you before continuing on to the tour.

As someone who grew up after and near the end of turbulent times—the Civil Rights movement (with its racial injustices) and the Vietnam War and an increasing awareness of environmental issues—I get it. The teenage me embraced the peace symbol, wrapped my wrist in a POW bracelet, wore Earth shoes. That was decades ago. Yet, it seems sometimes that little has changed.

 

 

And so those words resonate with me in their familiarity. I appreciate the gentleness of the selected words, yet the power behind them. Urging people to vote by calling them “dear ones” feels intensely personal and loving. Now, more than ever, we must exercise our right to vote. Men and women have died for our freedom, ensuring our democracy and the right to vote. Others have marched for the right to vote, including long-time Georgia Congressman and Civil Rights leader John Lewis, who died in July from cancer.

The quote from Lewis that peace and love should prevail is something we can all aspire to in this deeply divided nation in need of healing. I appreciate the positive message. The words uplift, rather than press down. They enlighten rather than oppress. They encourage rather than attack.

 

 

And, yes, black lives do matter. As does every life. I recognize the frustration, the anger, the desire for change. I don’t condone the violence, the looting, the destruction, which detract from the cause. Let peace and everlasting love be our guide.

John Lewis marched for voting rights for blacks across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965 and suffered a skull fracture at the hands of police. He organized voter registration drives and participated in lunch counter sit-ins. And here we are, so many decades later, with root cause issues unresolved, people still struggling, hurting, protesting.

 

 

If only we remember how “dear” we are to one another, how the words we choose, the actions we take, matter, affect others. Let peace and the power of everlasting love be our guide.

 

 

FYI: The building where these messages are posted was built of locally-quarried limestone in 1866 as the Ault General Store and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is the only remaining structure from Dundas’ original commercial district, which ran along Second Street. When the railroad came to town, businesses moved to the west side of the Cannon River near the new train station. That included the Ault Store.

The local newspaper, the Dundas News, was housed here from 1876-1979 as was the town’s first library on the second floor. Today the old store is in a residential neighborhood and a residence. But it still retains that feel of community, of centering knowledge and of expressing opinion.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A message from Minnesota officers: Let peace prevail July 9, 2016

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Peace ad published in Faribault

 

NEARLY NINE HUNDRED MILES from Dallas, Texas, and an hour from Falcon Heights, Minnesota, a message of peace published this morning in my local newspaper, The Faribault Daily News.

The full-page ad on the back page of the front section comes from the Faribault Police Department and the Rice County Sheriff’s Department. In a succinct 13 words, these law enforcement officers deliver a powerful statement to our culturally diverse community.

It is the final three words that I find universally hopeful: Let Peace Prevail.

Let. Peace. Prevail.

 

 

An essay inspired by a garage sale sign in Faribault September 16, 2015

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Peace symbol sign, tie-dyed

 

I CAME OF AGE in the early 1970s, too young to be a Flower Child or hippie, yet old enough to remember all the anti-establishment and Vietnam War discontent.

I wore hip huggers, hot pants and bell bottoms. Fringed suede belts and go-go boots. A POW bracelet wrapped my wrist.

 

Peace symbol sign, orange

 

My bedroom was paneled and painted lime green, accented with a yellow smiley face bulletin board. A black-and-white movie poster of Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw hung above my bed. I loved the film Love Story, still do, even though it features a line—love means never having to say you’re sorry—that’s ridiculously stupid.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull quotes inspired me and Elton John’s Crocodile Rock rocked me.

 

Peace symbol sign, yellow

 

Mixed in with the funky tie-dyed t-shirts and the too wide pant legs and the too short skirts and the everything parents likely abhorred about teen fashion of the seventies was the peace symbol. Sweet peace. Today, decades removed from my youth, I still value the peace symbol. Peace. It is my hope for this big wide crazy world of ours, a timeless wish that remains constant through the generations.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Youth from around the world bring songs of hope to Faribault July 22, 2014

On a perfect summer night, Songs of Hope performed an outdoor concert at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault.

On a perfect summer night, Songs of Hope performed an outdoor concert at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault.

AS THE GOLDEN ORB of the sun shifted across the sky, as dragonflies dipped above the audience, as a distant train rumbled, Songs of Hope musicians performed before a rapt audience at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault on Saturday evening.

The performers focused on hope, like their name.

The performers focused on hope, like their name.

And the message they brought—in their dancing and in their singing—was hope.

Songs from Guatemala.

Songs from Guatemala.

Inspirational defines these performers who have been attending the St. Paul based international performing arts summer camp, Songs of Hope. Seventy musicians from 15 countries are currently on tour, presenting 33 concerts in 18 days.

Chinese youth perform as the sun sets.

Chinese youth perform as the sun sets.

Songs of Hope is “about people getting together and sharing culture and lives,” Program Director Tom Surprenant said as he introduced the group.

Performing outdoors at River Bend.

Performing outdoors at River Bend.

But with audiences, like the one in Faribault, they share so much more: possibilities, hope, peace, freedom, justice…

In nearly constant motion.

In nearly constant motion.

I was beyond impressed by these young people who sang with such force and enthusiasm and rarely stopped moving as they presented 90 minutes of songs spanning multiple nations from India to Jamaica to Guatemala to Italy to Russia and many other places.

The band provided upbeat music that made you want to dance.

The band provided upbeat music that makes you want to dance.

Even though I could not always understand, music bridges language and cultural differences.

Selections from Jamaica included "Linstead Market" and "Stand Up For Your Rights."

Selections from Jamaica included “Linstead Market” and “Stand Up For Your Rights.”

Truly, skin color, eye shape, height nor any other physical characteristic mattered as these youth performed.

Nevaeh, the daughter of friends, wore the perfect shirt for the concert.

Nevaeh, the daughter of friends, wore the perfect shirt for the concert.

They were to me just kids sharing a hopeful message through song and dance, showing us that we are all human beings who can get along if we make the effort, living in harmony and peace with one another.

Look at the fun these youth were having singing a song, "I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream" about ice cream.

Look at the fun these youth had singing “I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream,” a song about ice cream, a universal treat.

Especially moving was the group’s performance of “I Am Malala,” based on the experience of the young Pakistani girl who was shot simply for pursuing education. “Fight for what you believe in…for education…infinite hope.”

Hands joined in hope.

Hands joined in hope.

After attending this concert, I am, indeed, hopeful.

My heart went out to this boy from Israel given the current situation there.

My heart went out to this boy from Israel given the current situation there.

And I expect so is the young soloist from Israel who sported a t-shirt reading “PEACE & HOPE from ISRAEL.”

FYI: CLICK HERE to see a schedule of the remaining performances in the summer concert schedule, which ends on July 27. The final concerts are in St. Paul, Roseville and Montgomery.

Please check back tomorrow for additional photos from the Faribault Songs of Hope concert. If you have an opportunity to attend a performance, do. Songs of Hope will inspire and uplift you.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling