Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

 

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

 

Mary Welke’s art reconnects me to my rural roots March 8, 2022

Corn husks define Mary Welke’s mixed media on canvas, “Shucks.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I FELT CONNECTED, oh, so connected to Minneapolis artist Mary Welke’s art as I viewed her exhibit at the Paradise Center for the Arts in historic downtown Faribault.

The lower portion of “Roots” shadows on the gallery wall. These are dry corn roots. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Welke’s mixed media art is unlike any I’ve ever seen. It resonates with me, reconnecting me to my southwestern Minnesota prairie roots. To the farm. To the land. The place that shaped me as a person, writer and photographer.

Nature inspires Mary Welke as seen in these oversized mixed media art pieces. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

That I experienced such a strong emotional reaction is a credit to this artist, who grew up near the Mississippi River in northeast Minneapolis. Her childhood exploration of river and fields and time with her grandmother in a sprawling vegetable garden instilled an early appreciation of nature, which inspires her art.

“Autumn Yield” by Mary Welke. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Understanding that background explains how this urban resident came to create “Field and Farmland,” a project funded by a 2020 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant. She also did her homework—visiting, researching and documenting the prairie and meeting with farmers. The result is art reflecting the prairie, prescribed burns and farmland restoration.

“Spring/Summer Renewal” by Mary Welke. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

The incorporation of organic materials like soil, corn roots and leaves, other crop residue and more drew me into Welke’s art. I felt as if I was back on the farm, watching my dad turn the rich black soil toward the sun for spring planting. I felt, too, like I was walking the rows of a harvested corn field, the scent of autumn lingering in the prairie wind.

I didn’t note the title of this art featuring burlap and twine. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
So much texture in “After Harvest” by Mary Welke. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
Corn husks up close in Mary Welke’s “Shucks.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Welke’s art is layered. Textured. It holds not only a visual depth, but a depth of connection to the land, to farming.

Mary Welke’s “Topographical Prairie Lands” scattered across a black surface. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

This is what I love about art. The ability to relate. To stand in a gallery and contemplate. Remember. Appreciate. And, with Welke’s work, especially, to feel rooted in the land.

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NOTE: Please check back for more posts on other exhibits currently at the Paradise Center for the Arts. Artists Mary Welke, Kate Langlais, Michael Stoecklein and Summer Heselton will participate in a Visual Artists Talk at 6:30 pm on Thursday, March 10. See the Paradise Center for the Arts Facebook page for more info. The art of all four will be on display at the Paradise through March 19.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Past & present meet at River Bend Nature Center February 2, 2022

This sign stands near River Bend Nature Center’s interpretative center. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

MONTHS AGO, BEFORE SNOW FELL and the season officially transitioned to winter, I followed a paved trail into the woods at River Bend Nature Center and then a grassy path to a wetlands overlook.

River Bend, on Faribault’s east side, rates as a favorite outdoor destination. That November day I embraced the lingering remnants of autumn, now overtaken by the cold and snow of winter.

Rugged bark draws my eye as I hike. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

Even in the muted hues of autumn’s end, beauty exists.

But, for me, taking in the evolving landscape stretches beyond simply seeing that which unfolds before me. It’s also about looking back. To my childhood on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

One of many wooded trails in River Bend. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

When I hike the wooded trails of River Bend, I see my younger self riding my bike through the grove back on the farm. Except the bike was a horse, not a bike. I grew up in the era of TV Westerns—of “Rawhide” and “Bonanza.”

The kids’ play area at River Bend. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

Fallen branches at River Bend angled into a shelter resemble those built by me and my siblings. We also constructed buildings by looping baler twine around tree trunks. And we crafted a house, too, from discarded wire fencing. Oh, the imaginations of farm kids let loose in the grove.

Dried oak leaves. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

Dried leaves scattered in the woods bring more memories. Each autumn, I gathered fallen leaves into piles, then dropped the leaves into lines. Walls. Constructing leaf houses filled many a recess at Vesta Elementary School. And many an autumn day for my siblings and me.

A single dried grass stem holds simple beauty. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

I recall, too, hiding in tall grass between the granary and the south grove. When I scan the prairie expanse of River Bend, I imagine myself vanishing. Hiding from brothers with cap guns holstered at their sides. Yes, I owned a cap gun, too, and wore a straw cowgirl hat, although we called them cowboy hats back then.

The wetlands on prairie’s edge. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

My father owned a gun, which he used once a year to hunt for pheasants in the slough hole (as we redundantly termed the slough on our farm). When I look across the wetlands at River Bend, I think of the one time my oldest brother and I accompanied Dad to the low lying pothole to hunt for pheasants. I don’t recall whether that hunt was successful. Eventually, Dad drained the slough to add more tillable acreage. I often wonder about the sensibilities of draining prairie potholes and how that affected the land. The undrained wetlands of River Bend are mostly dry in this drought year.

Dried coneflower seedheads. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

While walking the prairie, I spotted dried seedheads. Coneflower seeds lying atop the grass, where they will eventually reseed. Nature recycling.

Milkweed pods, too, flourish in River Bend’s prairieland. Back on the farm, I pulled milkweeds from soybean fields. “Walking beans” is the correct term. Walking between soybean rows pulling unwanted weeds—especially cockleburs and thistles. Only detasseling corn ranks as worse. I’ll walk beans or shovel manure any day (and I did plenty of that) over corn detasseling on a hot and humid July day.

A dried milkweed pod burst open on the prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2021)

Those dried milkweeds at River Bend bring one final memory. And it is a Christmas memory. One year I crafted a Christmas ornament for my Aunt Rachel from a milkweed pod and a discarded holiday card. (My mom saved everything.) I cut out an elfin girl dressed in a glittery red suit, her face framed by a pointy hood. Then I taped the cut-out to a toothpick and stuck the impish child into the downy snow of an open milkweed pod. Beautiful.

These are the childhood memories sparked by my November walk through River Bend Nature Center. I feel grateful for this sprawling natural space, for the peace it brings me as I follow trails into the present. And into the past.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

So many reasons to visit Valley Grove, especially in autumn October 13, 2021

The artful gated entrance to Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I EXPERIENCE SOMETHING SACRED in this place. This preserved parcel of land where two aged churches rise atop a hill in rural Nerstrand.

Looking down the driveway from the hilltop church grounds, a beautiful view of the valley below. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

This is Valley Grove, among my most treasured local natural spaces to seek solitude. Beauty. Peace. And a feeling of sacredness that stretches beyond spiritual.

The newer of the two Valley Grove churches. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Randy and I sat on the front steps of the 1894 white clapboard church eating a picnic lunch. Bothersome bees hovered, drawn by the sweetness of Randy’s soda and fruit-laced yogurt and homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Photographed from a side of the clapboard church, the limestone church a short distance away. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

A stone’s throw away across the lawn sits the 1862 limestone church, constructed in the year of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict raging many miles away to the west.

The cemetery offers history, art and a place for quiet contemplation against a beautiful natural backdrop. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
An in-process gravestone rubbing. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
I find gravestone engravings especially interesting and often touching. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Valley Grove holds its own history as a community and spiritual gathering place for the area’s Norwegian immigrants. Walk the grounds of the cemetery next to the churches and you’ll read names of those of Norwegian ancestry. The cemetery remains well-used with new tombstones marking the passage of yet another loved one.

Information about Valley Grove is tucked inside a case on the side of the clapboard church. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I have no personal connection to Valley Grove. But I hold a deep appreciation for the history, honored via the Valley Grove Preservation Society. That organization maintains and manages the church and grounds. And its a lovely, especially in autumn, acreage.

Farm sites and farmland surround Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Once I’d finished my turkey sandwich and other picnic foods, I set out with my camera to document. The views from this hilltop site are spectacular. Farm land and farm sites, the low moo of a cow auditorily reminding me of this region’s agrarian base.

Conservation and legacy are valued at Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
Remnants of the Big Woods remain and can be seen from Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
Following the prairie path back to the church grounds, just over the hill. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Tall dried prairie grasses frame nearly every view. Those who tend this land value its natural features of prairie and oak savanna. Paths lead visitors along prairie’s edge and onto the prairie to view distant colorful treelines, part of the Big Woods. The hilltop location offers incredible vistas.

On a mixed October afternoon of sun and clouds, a wildflower jolts color into the landscape. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

But up close is worth noting, too, especially the wildflowers.

An unexpected delight in the cemetery was an old-fashioned rosebush in full bloom. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

And in the cemetery I found an old-fashioned rosebush abloom in pink roses. Just like a rosebush that graced my childhood farm far away in southwest Minnesota where settlers and Native Peoples once clashed. I dipped my nose into blossom after blossom, breathing in the deep, perfumed, intoxicating scent.

Lots of wildflowers to enjoy. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Spending time at Valley Grove, even when church doors are not open, seems sacred. I feel the peace of this rural location. The quiet. My smallness, too, within the vastness of sky and land and spires rising.

High on the hill…Valley Grove churches. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

To walk here, to sit on the front steps of a church on the National Register of Historic Places is to feel a sense of gratitude for those who came before us. For those who today recognize the value of sacredness and continue to preserve Valley Grove. Who understand that the spiritual stretches beyond church doors. To the land. To the memories of loved ones. And to future generations.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Poetic reflections from Faribault Energy Park September 14, 2021

Among the many beautiful wildflowers growing at Faribault Energy Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

DESPITE THE STEADY THRUM of traffic along adjacent Interstate 35 and the drone of the power plant, Faribault Energy Park remains a favorite place to walk. Not because it’s quiet—because it’s not, not at all. But because of the dirt trails that wind through 35 acres of wetlands and ponds.

Dirt trails ring the ponds. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Here, when I put sneaker to ground, I feel connected to the land. There’s something satisfying and comforting about earth directly beneath my soles.

The foxtail, especially, remind me of the prairie. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo September 2021.

And although this isn’t prairie, the openness of this park appeals to me. It reminds me of my prairie roots, of the gravel drives and roads I biked and walked while growing up in southwestern Minnesota. Sometimes my heart hurts for missing those familiar wide open spaces and spacious skies.

The park’s single wind turbine. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

At Faribault Energy Park, I pause occasionally to look skyward, to the expanse of blue. Or toward the churning arms of the wind turbine which, during my most recent visit, spun shadows across the land.

A view of the power plant from across the pond. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

It should be noted that I’m not particularly fond of wind turbine fields. I understand their importance, but don’t like their visual intrusion upon the landscape. Like visual pollution, they detract from the beauty of the land. They seem out-of-place, invasive to my eyes. I feel the same about massive solar panel fields planted on farmland. But here at Faribault Energy Park, only one wind turbine stands, across the road from a solar garden (not field).

Goldenrod, one flower I can identify. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
I’ve always loved milkweeds from fluff to pods to how they are necessary for the monarch butterfly population. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
Dainty wildflowers. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Mostly, I notice the wildflowers and grasses. Goldenrod. Black-eyed Susans. An endless variety of plants that I should take time to research for identification. Rather, I settle for photographing them and appreciating their beauty. How they sway in the wind. How they appear in the sunlight. How they splash color into the landscape.

I especially love how these grass plumes bend and blow in the wind, like poetry. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
Bold berries jolt color into the landscape. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.
I love the hue and texture of this grass, whatever it may be. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

If my current photos were poems, they would write of Autumn and her floral dress flowing, billowing as she walks the runway of Faribault Energy Park. (My poetic interpretation of all those colorful wildflowers edging trails.) Audience applause rising. (My poetic interpretation of the droning traffic on I-35 and the noisy power plant.) I imagine that as easily as I recall prairie memories.

There is an abundance of cattails at Faribault Energy Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2021.

Faribault Energy Park, 4100 Park Avenue North, keeps drawing me back. To follow the dirt trails. To appreciate the landscape. To, for a short while, escape, even if quiet remains elusive.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Revisiting & appreciating Little Prairie Historic Schoolhouse August 18, 2021

Little Prairie School, rural Dundas, Minnesota. The date on the building conflicts with the date on an on-site memorial and I don’t know why. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

MANY YEARS HAVE PASSED since Randy and I stopped at the Little Prairie Historic Schoolhouse, rural Dundas. But on a recent weekend afternoon, we picnicked on the school grounds, next to a cornfield and a stone’s throw away from a vintage outhouse.

We ate our picnic lunch here. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I embraced this rural Bridgewater Township setting as I ate my sandwich and watched the occasional vehicle fly by on paved Rice County Road 8. Mostly, though, quiet prevailed.

Little Prairie United Methodist Church, repaired following a damaging tornado several years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

When I finished my lunch, I grabbed my camera to document the country school and more, including Little Prairie United Methodist Church just across the road. Last visit, the then-pastor toured us through the church and then unlocked the schoolhouse. This time, I had to settle for peering through a school window.

A paver honors Little Prairie founders, the Emerys. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Little Prairie—a name that resonates with my prairie roots—was settled in 1855 when Jacob and Eliza Emery homesteaded here. He’s noted as the church founder on a paver at the Little Prairie Community Memorial, new since our last visit. Emery, as history goes, cut a 3-mile track through the Big Woods to find this 60-acre prairie. Little Prairie.

A memorial honors the people of Little Prairie. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.
Among the “farmer” pavers. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.
Students remembered. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

A study of the memorial pavers reveals names of early settlers, farmers, teachers, families and others with connections to this prairie place. History imprinted upon stone.

I pushed Randy briefly on the merry-go-round, Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Beyond that, when I let this place speak to me, I could hear the voices of children as they played tag on the playground. Or circled on the aged merry-go-round. Screams. Laughter. Joy. Maybe even pleas to stop the dizziness.

The mud scraper. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I could hear, too, the scraping of shoes on the mud scraper bolted to cement steps outside the front doors.

A necessity at rural schools, the water pump. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I could hear the creak of the water pump handle moving up and down, up and down.

The outhouse has been painted since the last time I was here and a screen added.

I could hear the bang of the outhouse door.

A view inside the classroom through a window. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

Locked doors kept me from accessing the school. But I imagined the determined voice of a teacher, the recitation of spelling words, the scratch of chalk upon slate, the clomp of shoes upon wooden floor…

A back view of the simple country schoolhouse. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

This schoolhouse, built in 1858, holds no personal meaning to me. Yet, I cherish it. Within these walls, children learned. They flourished. They grew friendships and knowledge and, I expect, a deep appreciation for their community. This place. This Little Prairie.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Merry-go-round details. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2021.
Information on ordering and purchasing a memorial paver for $225 is available inside this mailbox on the schoolhouse steps. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Appreciating River Bend Nature Center in Faribault August 11, 2021

Black-eyed susans on the prairie at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

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.

A viewing and resting spot by the prairie wetlands, now drying up due to the drought. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

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.

An unknown to me prairie plant. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

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.

Rain gardens front the RBNC interpretative center. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

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.

River Bend has an extensive trail system, some paved, some not. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

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.

A prairie path. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

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.

Coneflowers, one of my favorite prairie flowers. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.
“Rattlesnake Master,” Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.
Wildflowers and grasses mix on the prairie. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

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.

A lone turtle suns itself on a log. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

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.

Signage helps visitors identify plants and flowers. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

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.

A lone daisy blooms among the prairie grass. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

Next week, August 16-20, River Bend focuses on its annual Ramble fundraising campaign. As a nonprofit, RBNC relies on fundraising, donations and memberships to keep the center open and operating. For more information about the Ramble, visit the RCNC website.

TELL ME: Where’s your favorite place to escape into nature near your home?

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Milkweeds flourish at River Bend July 23, 2021

Bees feed on a milkweed flower at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

IN MY MESS OF FLOWERBEDS, which are anything but orderly, random milkweeds grow. Some sprouted in the lawn. Others simply popped up among the phlox and ferns and iris and greenery, seeds blown by the wind, dropping to the ground, rising now toward the sun.

Milkweeds thrive on the prairie at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Back in the days of my youth, I would have yanked these milkweeds from the soil under the direction of my farmer father. Remove those weeds from the corn and soybean fields. I know better now. Milkweed plants are essential to the monarch butterfly.

I love the dusty hue of the common milkweed. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

The milkweed is the host plant for the monarch. They lay eggs on the leaves, the larvae then feeding on those leaves.

The milkweed attracts more than just monarchs. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Without milkweeds, the monarch would become extinct.

Butterfly milkweed, although much less abundant, also grows at River Bend. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

More and more, if you take note, you will see milkweeds growing. At River Bend Nature Center in Faribault, fields of common milkweed, dusty pink in color, grow, as do some of the more flashy orange butterfly milkweed.

The exceedingly brilliant butterfly milkweed, up close. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I appreciate the value of this plant in the natural cycle, in sustaining the monarch butterfly population. This is but one example of how we are all intertwined. Every creature. One dependent on the other.

Milkweed and flowers flourish on the River Bend prairie. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I marvel at this intricate world God created. I love to watch a monarch butterfly flit through the air, settle on a blossom, drink its fill of nectar, then rise and fly. Delicate, yet sturdy. Dependent on milkweed and other flowers, yet free.

What a lovely and beautiful sight in a world where beauty is too often missed in the busyness of life, among all the weeds.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Embracing nature, seeking peace in chaos October 7, 2020

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:00 AM
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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