WHEN SOUTHERN MINN SCENE, a regional arts and entertainment magazine in southern Minnesota resumed publication late last year, I reclaimed my column. I’m delighted to be back crafting “Through a SoMinn Lens,” an essay of images and words, but mostly images.
A look back at 2021 themed the recently-published January issue. I titled my piece “Reflections and hope during a pandemic year.” I wrote a reflective essay and then searched my photo files for supporting images.
I encourage you to view my column, which features 26 photos, by clicking here. I aim to tell the story of 2021 in southern Minnesota from an everyday perspective. Through my camera lens as I’m out and about. I focus on words, people, events, nature, art, small town Main Street… This is my world. Perhaps your world, too. Or maybe a place not at all familiar.
Yet, wherever we live, whatever we do, we share the commonality of humanity. We need to remember that as we begin 2022, as we continue pushing through this pandemic with hope.
WHENEVER I NEED TO CONNECT with nature nearby, my go-to destination is River Bend Nature Center, just across the Straight River on Faribault’s east side.
In this 743-acre natural space, I can immerse myself in a diverse landscape of woods, prairie and wetland. Each setting provides not only a sensory change from the noise and motion of living along a busy street, but also a much-needed mental break.
When I’m at River Bend, I forget about what’s happening in my life or the world. Rather, I focus on being present in nature. Listening. Observing. Connecting.
That word, connecting, fits River Bend, which emphasizes its purpose as helping connect people to outdoor education, recreation and natural resource conservation close to home.
My own children, while growing up and attending school in Faribault, went on many field trips to River Bend. I remember also one winter evening when our then-young son delighted in a star-gazing event, complete with telescopes, on prairie’s edge. Today I occasionally take my grandchildren to walk RBNC’s trails. Randy and I also hike the paths.
Perhaps my favorite part of this spacious nature center is the prairie. It reconnects me with my prairie roots. With southwestern Minnesota, the land of open spaces and spacious skies. I love to walk through the path sliced into the prairie at River Bend. The path edged by tall prairie grasses and wildflowers. The path where I can pause to take in the vast sky with no trees blocking my view. I need to visually breathe.
On my most recent visits, the prairie has focused my attention. Specifically the wildflowers—those interspersed among the grass and those planted in the rain garden near the interpretative center. While fading, the flowers remain an integral part of the prairie eco-system as they form seeds and then grow and/or re-sprout in the spring.
I also spent time in the nearby woods, stopping at the Turtle Pond to photograph turtles sunning on logs. They delight me and generations of kids, including mine, fascinated by those lazing turtles.
River Bend holds generational appeal. I’ve seen young families pushing babies in strollers, teens driving remote-controlled vehicles on limestone shelves, older couples like us walking, and much more.
Whenever I’ve witnessed anything military-related, those words fit. Service men and women, from my observations, are well-trained in proper protocol, team work and respect. Once instilled, those strengths remain, even decades after active military duty.
There’s something comforting about the military rituals of Memorial Day. The gun salute by the Honor Guard. The playing of Taps. The advancement and retirement of the colors by the Color Guard. All happened during Faribault’s Memorial Day observance.
But even the best practiced traditions sometimes go awry. I saw that happen late Monday morning as a member of the Color Guard removed the Minnesota state and American flags from their place of honor in front of the Central Park Bandshell.
The wind caught the flags, wrapping the veteran in red-white-and-blue. I marveled at his discipline. I would have fought with the fabric, attempting to untangle myself. But he didn’t. He simply walked with the American flag covering his face and torso.
Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned from that scene. The veteran’s actions exhibited trust and an adherence to his military training. He continued as called to duty. Focused. Determined.
When he completed his mission and turned toward the crowd, I observed a broad smile. Old Glory draped across his left forearm. A touching reminder of freedom.
TO CELEBRATE MEMORIAL DAY in Faribault means coming together as a community. First during a ceremony at the Rice County courthouse, then the 10 a.m. parade through the heart of downtown followed by a program at Central Park.
This represents Americana. Tradition. A public way to honor those who died in service to our country.
It’s a day when politics are set aside and the focus shifts to patriotism and gratitude. We are simply Americans, thankful for freedom.
As has been our tradition for decades, Randy and I unfolded our lawn chairs along Central Avenue to watch the parade pass by. Little changes. Veterans and flags and fire trucks and Scouts and vintage vehicles and horses define the 15-minute parade. Absent this year were high school bands and the Shattuck-St. Mary’s Crack Squad.
But we were happy simply to have a parade, canceled last May (and rightly so) due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On this Memorial Day 2021, American flags stretched in the morning breeze. Parade participants waved. And kids waved mini flags distributed by Scouts and American Heritage Girls. Veterans clutched flags. And flags adorned vehicles. It was all about the red-white-and-blue.
While this parade rates as short and simple, I none-the-less cherish it. I cherish the tradition. I cherish the opportunity to come together as a community. And I cherish the opportunity to remember and honor those Americans who died while serving our country. Our America.
Please check back for photos from the Memorial Day program at Central Park.
YOU DON’T NEED THAT, I remind myself as I covet the vintage mixing bowls, the floral apron, the whatever. I’m at that point in life when I feel the need to declutter, to downsize, to let go. Not acquire more stuff.
While I wandered among tables, pausing to chat with friends I haven’t seen in more than a year, I delighted in the beautiful spring day and the opportunity to be out and about among others.
With camera in hand, I documented some of the merchandise. I recognize that memories and personal interest draw me to certain items. Like the bag of Red Owl charcoal, a reminder of my brief cashier’s job at that grocery chain. Red Owl was also the “go to” grocery store when I was growing up.
An autograph book from the 1890s also drew me to flip through the pages, to read the messages written to Mary. I have an autograph book stashed in a closet somewhere. I ought to find it.
Print items and art and oddities focused my interest, too.
There was so much to take in at the flea market, before I moved on to the farmers’ market.
Given my farming roots, I admire and appreciate those who gather eggs, spin yarn, grow plants, harvest honey, cook jams and jellies, bake sweet treats and more for sale at farmers’ markets. Theirs is a labor of love. To share the bounty, the works of their hands, truly is a gift.
When I peruse market offerings, I also view products from a photographic, artistic and poetic perspective. The dark jewel tone of blackberry jam. The golden hue of honey. Both are beautiful to behold.
My final stop took me to the food vendors and the decision to purchase The Buffaloed Turkey Plate to share with Randy. Other food offerings were standard fair food. I appreciated the opportunity to order more creative, locally-sourced food from The Local Plate.
I love local events like this. They build community. And this year, more than ever, I appreciate local. And I appreciate community.
AS I WRITE MONDAY AFTERNOON, snow continues to fall. Steady, for hours and hours. Layering the landscape that, only the day prior, was devoid of snow.
After an especially lovely Saturday of sunshine and 50 some degrees, this return of winter seems like a mean trick of Mother Nature. I rather enjoyed pre-spring. But as a life-long Minnesotan, I expected snow and cold to return. Yet, maybe not with such force, as if the weather has something to prove.
I always carry my camera. And here’s what I found: Natural beauty even in a drab landscape transitioning between seasons.
Signs of spring in maple sap collection bags and buckets.
And sap dripping slowly into the containers.
Signs of winter in ice edging the Turtle Pond.
A lone child’s snow boot, which left me wondering how that got lost without anyone noticing.
And the photo I didn’t take of young people clustered along a limestone ledge with their remote control vehicles climbing the layered rock. Limestone was once quarried from this area.
And then the bark-less fallen tree Randy pointed to with shades of brown sweeping like waves lapping at the lakeshore. Artistically beautiful. Poetic.
Just like words imprinted upon plaques adhered to memorial benches honoring those who loved this place, this River Bend.
Moss carpeting the ground in a line across a ridge of land in the woods. The only green in a landscape of brown tones.
Dried grasses and dried weeds on the prairie. The muted remnants of autumn.
Tracks muddied into the earth.
and fungi and all those things you notice if you only take the time to pause. To appreciate the natural world. To step into the woods. To walk the asphalt trails heaved by frost and tree roots. Or to follow the dirt trails that connect soles to ground. Soul to nature.
RURAL MINNESOTA. For Randy and me, that represents our upbringing, the place of our roots, the land that is part of our personal geography.
We both grew up on farms, in large families—his three kids larger than mine at nine. We both picked rock—he more than me as Morrison County in central Minnesota sprouts more rocks than Redwood County. We each labored in fields and barns and understood the value of hard work and our importance in the farming operation. Even at a young age. That carries through in our strong work ethics and our strong link to the land.
And, though we left our rural communities at age 17, we still hold dear the small towns—Buckman and Vesta—that were such an important part of our upbringing. Both have changed with familiar businesses long gone. Society changed and locals began driving farther for groceries and other necessities.
It’s easy to get caught in the memories, of the back then, of wishing nothing had changed. But it has and it does. And life goes on.
Returning to our hometowns, our home areas, causes me to reflect while simultaneously appreciating that which remains. Cafes and churches and hardware stores. Post offices and bars and grain elevators. These are the community gathering spots that still mark many of Minnesota’s smallest communities, those towns that span only blocks from east to west, north to south.
But more than buildings, people form community. Even in Faribault, where Randy and I have lived since 1982, we’ve found our small town in a city of around 25,000. That’s in our faith family at Trinity Lutheran Church, the “town” that centers our lives. An uncle and I discussed this recently. He lives in Minneapolis. His neighborhood is his community, his small town.
No matter where you live, whether in rural Minnesota or New York City, the mountains of Idaho or the plains of Nebraska, I hope you’ve found your community and place of joy.
TODAY I CONTINUE my photo review of 2020, selecting one image from each month, July – December, to highlight here.
In JULY, our family escaped into the peace and natural beauty of the central Minnesota lakes region, staying in a guest lake cabin on property owned by a sister-in-law and brother-in-law. Our eldest and her family and our son joined Randy and me. There, among the towering pines and next to a lake, we delighted in watching loons and the resident eagles. We played in and on the water, dined lakeside, sat around the campfire, made smores and so much more. The first evening, when the 4-year-old granddaughter declared she was “too excited to sleep,” Randy and I took her outside in her pajamas to view the star-studded night sky. Love-filled moments like these imprint upon my memory, reminding me how important my family is to me.
Spring and summer brought voices rising in protest, in strong strong words that resonated with so many, including me. In the small town of Dundas in AUGUST, I photographed banners posted on the windows of an aged stone house. Thoughtful. Powerful. Necessary.
SEPTEMBER took Randy and me back to the family lake cabin for a second short stay, this time just the two of us. While en route, we stopped at Grams Regional Park in Zimmerman for a picnic lunch and hike through the woods. There I photographed a cluster of leaves. Autumn is my favorite season with its warm days, crisp evenings, earthy scents and hues of red, brown, orange and yellow. I never tire of looking at and photographing leaves.
In OCTOBER, the grandchildren stayed overnight with us and we took them to River Bend Nature Center. To walk, and sometimes run (with the grandparents trying to keep up). Again, it is the memories of time spent with those I love most that caused me to choose this image as a favorite.
A lovely afternoon in NOVEMBER drew Randy and me to the Cannon River Wilderness Area between Faribault and Northfield. With camera in hand, as always, I photographed leaves in the Cannon River, an image that holds the beauty of the season, of the outdoors.
Closing out the year, I photographed a line of decorated Christmas trees showcased in Faribault’s Central Park as part of the Drive-by Tree Display in DECEMBER. The trees later went to families in need. As the sun set, I aimed my camera lens toward tree toppers. I chose this photo because to me this shining star represents hope. Hope that comes in the new year as we leave behind a truly challenging 2020.
I want to leave you with one final message: You are loved. I discovered this message posted along a bike trail in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin, near our son’s apartment. When life gets difficult, overwhelms and threatens to take away your joy, remember that you are valued, that others care, that you are not alone.
COVID-19 RANKS AS THE STORY of 2020, including here on Minnesota Prairie Roots. Since early March, I’ve photographed hundreds of scenes that relate to the pandemic. I’ve scrolled through my many COVID-themed posts to showcase a selection of images that summarize the pandemic’s effects on our lives.
For me, the most personal image is also a universal one. In early March, I visited my mom, who is in hospice in a southwestern Minnesota nursing home. I didn’t know it then, but this would mark my last in-person visit with her in 2020. The last time I would hug her, kiss her cheeks. For our seniors living in long-term care centers, 2020 brought isolation, separation from family and, for too many, death. The empty chair in this photo symbolizes the absence of family.
March also brought shortages. Of toilet paper. Of hand sanitizer. Of Lysol wipes. Of Tylenol. I stocked up on a few supplies. Just enough to get us by if we got sick and couldn’t get out.
Separation brought a new appreciation for technology with our family connecting via Zoom from the north metro to Madison, Wisconsin, to Faribault.
The deadly reality of COVID-19 hit home when the Rev. Craig Breimhorst of Faribault died in April, the first of now 52 Rice County residents to lose their lives to the virus. My heart hurts for all those who are grieving, some of whom I know.
Signs remind us daily of COVID, including messages bannered on the Paradise Center for the Arts marquee as theaters, restaurants, libraries, museums and more closed to prevent the spread of the virus.
Even playgrounds became inaccessible as communities roped and fenced off equipment (including at North Alexander Park in Faribault) to stop the spread of COVID. Since then, we’ve learned a lot more about the virus, with surface spread not the primary form of transmission.
In May, while watching a car cruise in downtown Faribault, I photographed a local walking along the sidewalk wearing a face mask. This is my “favorite” COVID photo. Simple. Yet powerful. Face masks, by mid-summer, became the norm. Yet, some still refuse to wear them, or wear them improperly, an ongoing source of frustration for me. Minnesota has a face mask mandate for a reason—to stop the spread of COVID and to keep us safe. Just wear a mask. And over your nose, please.
The pandemic changed how many of us worship. Randy and I have not attended church services since early March. When our kids learned we had been to Sunday morning services, they advised (told) us not to continue attending in-person. Our eldest remarked that she and her friends were struggling to convince their Baby Boomer parents of COVID’s seriousness. It didn’t take us long to determine just how serious this virus; we’ve attended church online ever since. In my hometown church, the pastor took to preaching from a hay rack. St. John’s now worships in-house.
High school and college graduation ceremonies also pivoted, mostly to virtual celebrations. In Northfield, Minnesota, the community honored grads with banners posted downtown. Some families still hosted receptions. We opted out, not wanting to risk our health.
Our sole social activity this summer was attending outdoor concerts in Faribault’s Central Park nearly every Thursday evening. It’s a long-time community tradition. We felt safe there with concert-goers distancing throughout the sprawling park. Some wore masks, like the couple in this photo, with a rope defining social distancing lines.
The annual Faribault Pet Parade in August also went on, but as a drive-through only. No masses of kids and pets walking in the streets. Randy and I watched, all by ourselves in our lawnchairs positioned along Fourth Street, and I spotted one vehicle with a COVID message.
For many, the cancellation of county fairs, and then the Minnesota State Fair in August, dashed any hopes that summer could retain any normalcy. Food stands, like this one at Ace Hardware in Faribault, popped up in parking lots and elsewhere.
In Northfield, the Defeat of Jesse James Days celebration scaled back. Randy and I walked through Bridge Square, where I photographed a solo guitar player strumming. It was a lovely September day, minus the overcrowding typical of DJJD.
September took us to the central Minnesota lakes region for a short stay at a family member’s guest lake cabin. While en route, we stopped in Crosby, where I photographed this distinctly Minnesotan masking sign.
In November, when the COVID situation in Minnesota went to really bad, I photographed a hard-hitting electronic message above US Highway 14 in Rochester, home to the world-renowned Mayo Clinic. Concerns about hospital bed shortages not only concerned Minnesota, but the entire US. And this was about more than just COVID.
One of my final COVID photos of 2020 was taken at Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church, posted there by the Rev. Greg Ciesluk, also a friend. His message puts the virus in perspective. As we transition into 2021 with vaccines rolling out, I feel hopeful. Truly hopeful.