Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Five people, two dogs, no kids April 1, 2020

 

Ducks swim in the Cannon River at North Alexander Park, Faribault.

 

NOW, MORE THAN EVER, the desire to get outdoors, to stretch my legs, to connect with nature, to escape all things COVID-19 related intensifies. I need the mental break, the sense of calm that prevails when I distance myself from the current crisis.

I live in a city of some 24,000 with an extensive recreational trail and park system and a sprawling nature center. We can spread out within city limits or quickly drive into the countryside for a rural escape.

 

Walking the dog along the trail in North Alexander Park.

 

On Saturday morning, before a day of rain began, Randy and I drove to North Alexander Park on the other side of Faribault to walk the Northern Link Trail connecting with the Straight River Trail. The paved path hugs the Cannon River, curving past trees, playgrounds, picnic shelters, and clusters of ducks and geese.

 

A section of the trail passes through a space populated by trees, and birds.

 

I enjoy this section of trail for several reasons—the river, the waterfowl, the diversity in open and wooded spaces, and the minimal number of people walking or biking here. It’s always been that way, even pre-coronavirus. While the trail is typically uncrowded, the park itself is usually busy. Teens shoot hoops. Families picnic. Athletes play baseball and softball. Kids use the playgrounds. But not now. Not during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Fences block picnic shelters.

 

A broad view of the now off-limits playground.

 

Stay off the playground.

 

With a “Stay at Home MN” executive order and social distancing in effect, park amenities can no longer be used. Orange snow fences wrap picnic shelters and playgrounds. When I saw those, I stopped. Sadness swept over me to see these places, where families often gather, where kids swing and slide and climb, closed. This is our new reality. Intellectually, I understand. Mentally, I rebel.

 

In my mind’s eye, I see a little one swinging.

 

A playground near the Cannon River.

 

No sliding here…

 

I want to hear the laughter of children. I want to see kids run and slide. And swing sticks at pinatas during family celebrations, as I have during past walks here.

 

Geese line the bank of the Cannon River in North Alexander Park.

 

But on this Saturday I saw none of that. Heard none of that. Instead I observed only three other adults (besides Randy and me) and two dogs. And I heard the warning honks of nesting geese, breaking the morning silence.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

What makes a great park, in my opinion June 23, 2015

IN THE PAST FEW DAYS, after visiting Bridge Square in Northfield and Morehouse Park in Owatonna, I’ve thought about what makes a great community gathering place. When considering a spot for a picnic or simply a place to relax, what do I seek?

A view of the Straight River from the pedestrian bridge in Morehouse Park.

A view of the Straight River from the pedestrian bridge in Morehouse Park.

Water. Whether a river or a fountain or a lake, water tops my list. There’s something about water that soothes, that eases life’s worries. I’m not a water sports person. But I love the sound of rushing water like that of the Straight River roaring over the dam in Morehouse Park or the fountain spraying in Bridge Square, just across the street from the Cannon River.

Water roars over rocks in the Straight River at Moreshouse Park.

Water roars over rocks in the Straight River at Morehouse Park.

A trail of geese in the tranquil part of the Straight River.

A trail of geese in the tranquil part of the Straight River.

On a beautiful summer afternoon, a woman fishes the Straight River.

On a beautiful summer afternoon, a woman fishes the Straight River.

Water offers a place to wish, to think or not, to fish, to canoe, to observe nature. Still as geese gliding. Hopeful as pennies tossed into a fountain. Turbulent water tumbling over rocks as calming as white noise.

A recreational trail slices through Morehouse Park, bridging the Straight River.

A recreational trail slices through Morehouse Park, bridging the Straight River.

I also want a park that’s aesthetically pleasing, clean, green, obviously cared for and appreciated.

Gorgeous flower baskets hang along the recreational bridge.

Gorgeous flower baskets hang along the recreational bridge.

In Morehouse Park, generous baskets of petunias suspended from a pedestrian bridge make a statement that says this community cares. The park is a busy place with a trail winding through that draws bikers, skaters, walkers and photographers like me.

At Bridge Square, the fountain entices all ages to perch beside the water, to rest on benches, to purchase popcorn from the popcorn wagon.

Morehouse Park includes a playground, tennis court and horseshoe pits along with other amenities.

Morehouse Park includes a playground, tennis court and horseshoe pits along with other amenities.

In both parks I feel a sense of community, of closeness in appreciating a beautiful spot in the heart of a city. There’s a certain vibrancy, a rhythm, a definitive weaving of people and place.

Ducks and geese overrun Morehouse Park. So watch for droppings. Everywhere.

Ducks and geese overrun Morehouse Park. So watch for droppings. Everywhere.

And that is what I seek in a park. Not just a picnic table under a tree. But a certain sense of belonging, of connecting with nature and community on a Minnesota summer day.

BONUS PHOTOS from Sunday afternoon at Morehouse Park:

A sign next to the bridge reads: "When we preserve a historic place, we preserve a part of who we are."

A sign next to the bridge reads: “When we preserve a historic place, we preserve a part of who we are.”

A robin hops along the bank of the Straight River in the dappled sunlight of a June afternoon.

A robin hops along the bank of the Straight River in the dappled sunlight of a June afternoon.

Waterfowl aplenty populate sections of the park.

Waterfowl aplenty populate sections of the park.

Geese hug the riverbank.

Geese hug the riverbank.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In Mankato: Bringing poetry to the public in parks & along trails August 1, 2014

WHEN WE FINALLY DETOURED our way around all the road construction to Lions Park in Mankato, we wondered how we would find my poem selected for the 2014 Mankato Poetry Walk and Ride.

“It’s probably right there, by the garbage,” my husband suggested when I noted a sign post nearby.

There's my poetry sign, by the garbage can.

There’s my poetry sign, by the garbage can.

And he was right. “Bandwagon,” my 14 line poem based on the long-running, locally-produced television show by the same name, is posted next to a paved trail, by a garbage can, at the park’s north entry in a quiet residential neighborhood not all that far from Minnesota State University Mankato.

My poem, "Bandwagon."

My poem, “Bandwagon.”

On this Saturday morning, not a soul stirred as my husband punched (507) 403-4038 into his cell phone and then, when prompted, 428, to listen to me read my poem as part of the “Mankato on the Move” audio tour.

A recreational trail winds past my poetry sign in Lions Park North.

A recreational trail winds past my poetry sign in Lions Park.

This marks the second time my writing has been selected for the Mankato Poetry Walk and Ride, a second year project of the Southern Minnesota Poets Society designed to bring poetry to the public via signs placed in parks and along recreational trails.

I love the concept, the unassuming way in which these poems have been integrated into the community. This exposes poetry in a creative setting—outside the walls of a library, bookstore, educational institution or coffee shop. And for those of us who write poetry, it’s just one more opportunity to showcase our writing and appreciate the creative talents of other poets.

Me by my poetry sign.

Me by my poetry sign.

When I penned “Bandwagon,” I tapped into my memories of watching Bandwagon, a show which debuted in November 1960 on Mankato television station KEYC-TV. The program featured, and still features, audience members dancing to the music of old-time bands. It is one of the longest running, locally-produced entertainment programs in Minnesota television. The show is taped at 6:30 p.m. on the first Monday of the month at the Kato Entertainment Center and then aired the following four weekends.

I haven’t seen Bandwagon in four decades, not since I left the farm where my father drove his John Deere to the hay bunk and my mom may, or may not, have swayed her hips to “Cherry Pickers Polka.” All poets are allowed some poetic license.

John Deere tractors galore lined up at the 2009 Rice County Steam & Gas Engine Show. Santa will likely arrived on a newer model John Deere at this week's SEMA Equipment holiday open houses.

John Deere, an original sponsor of Bandwagon. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Back in the day, I knew the show as The John Deere Bandwagon, given its sponsorship by the farm implement company.

The Ray Sands Band played at the 2011 Germanfest.

The Ray Sands Band plays at a church celebration. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used for illustration purposes only.

I can still hear MC Chuck Pasek introducing the bands and musical selections. And I can still see those couples twirling across the dance floor…

FYI: For more information about the Mankato Poetry Walk and Ride, including locations of the 2014 poetry boards, click here.

Please check back for another post featuring the writing of 12-year-old Hannah Leraas whose poem was selected in a youth division and is posted in Mankato’s Sibley Park. I’ve mentored Hannah.

The Mankato Poetry Walk and Ride is sponsored by Mayo Clinic Health System, Creative Ad Solutions Inc., Voyageur Web and the cities of Mankato and North Mankato.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if other communities, like my community of Faribault with an extensive park and trails system, would start a poetry walk and ride?

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Mankato’s newest public art project: “Poetry Walk and Ride” August 5, 2013

MANKATO HAS LAUNCHED its newest form of public art—poetry posted on signs in parks and along recreational trails.

My artsy effort to illustrate this post.

A scene I created to illustrate the poetry project.

The Mankato Poetry Walk and Ride is designed “to inspire and encourage poets of all ages, to provide public art in our communities and to encourage exercise,” says Yvonne Cariveau who suggested the project to the Southern Minnesota Poets Society of which she is a member.

Serving on the committee for the Mankato and North Mankato CityArt Walking Sculpture Tour, an exhibit of annual rotating outdoor sculptures, Cariveau envisioned a similar concept for poetry.

The Poets Society embraced the idea (member Susan Stevens Chambers organized a contest) and, with support from the cities of Mankato and North Mankato and numerous businesses, the project took off.

My husband and I listen to one of my selected poems.

My husband and I listen to one of my selected poems, “The Thrill of Vertical.”

Today 34 poetry signs are up, mostly in Mankato, with a few in North Mankato, for reading and listening. Yes, listening. Poets recorded their poems, which can be accessed via phone, dialing (507) 403-4038 or scanning a QR code.

Me, next to my "Off to Mankato to 'get and education'" poem posted near Glenwood Gardens.

Me, next to my “Off to Mankato to ‘get an education'” poem posted near Glenwood Gardens.

Two of the 34 poems, 27 selected in a competitive process, are mine.

"Off to Mankato to 'get and education'", posted near Glenwood Gardens, in the background in this photo.

The setting in which one of my poems is posted near Glenwood Gardens.

You’ll find “Off to Mankato to ‘get an education’” near Glenwood Gardens close to the intersection of Glenwood Avenue and Division Street. The poem was inspired by my arrival in the autumn of 1974 as a freshman at Bethany Lutheran College, located not all that far from the posted poem.

"The Thrill of Vertical," located next to Hiniker Pond.

“The Thrill of Vertical,” next to Hiniker Pond.

My second poem, placed at Hiniker Pond Park in what seems like North Mankato but is really Mankato, also was prompted by my college year experiences. In “The Thrill of Vertical,” I write about zipping down the curving and hilly streets of Mankato on my 10-speed bike. Interestingly, the street I remembered in writing this poem is where “Off to Mankato to ‘get an education’” is posted along a recreational trail. Back in the 70s, there was no such trail.

Reflecting on that hurtling ride, I can’t help but think how stupid I was to fly at such speeds, back hunched, hands gripping racing handlebars, no helmet and two narrow bicycle wheels separating me from unforgiving pavement.

Today that crazy college kid abandon is forever captured in words, now published for all to see and recorded for all to hear. Until next June, when the 2013 poetry signs will come down and new ones will be erected.

Likewise, the other published writers—all of whom had to live within a 50-mile radius of Mankato, who range in age from seven to over 70 and are anywhere from new poets to recognized published poets—wrote about topics such as Mankato history, the river, Fudgsicles, family, mentors and more.

The challenge in writing the poems, for me anyway, came in the restrictions of 40 characters or less per line in a poem limited to 18 lines. It is a good exercise for any poet, to write within such confines, to value every letter, every space, every word.

One hundred twenty poems, submitted in specified age categories for those in third to 12th grades and then in adult divisions of humorous and serious, were anonymously judged. Doris Stengel, past president of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, considered the adult entries while Peter Stein, League of Minnesota Poets youth chairperson, judged the youth poems. It is always rewarding as a poet to know that your work was selected on the basis of merit and quality rather than by name recognition.

The poems are posted in locations like this, near the shelter house in Hiniker Pond Park. the unobtrusive signs are about the size of a standard sheet of paper.

The poems are posted in locations like this, along a trail near the shelter house in Hiniker Pond Park. The unobtrusive signs are about the size of a standard sheet of paper.

In addition to the 27 winning poems, seven poems from notable Mankato area poets are among those posted.

Reaction to the poems thus far has been enthusiastic, says project initiator Cariveau, herself a poet. Her humorous poem, “Dreams of Coldstone,” was among those selected.

“People,” says Cariveau, “love the poems and are surprised by them.”

As for my reaction, I appreciate a project that makes poetry accessible. Those who may not otherwise read poetry likely will in an outdoor setting. Short poems. Easily read or heard. Non-intimidating. This is public word art at its best.

FYI: To read a list of the winning poets and the titles of their poems, click here.

For a map showing the locations of the posted poems, click here.

To learn about the Southern Minnesota Poets Society, click here.

You can hear me read my poems by calling (507) 403-4038 and then punching in 427 for “The Thrill of Vertical” and 416 for “Off to Mankato to ‘get an education’”.

Information on the 2014 Mankato Poetry Walk and Ride contest will be posted early next year on the SMPS website.

A chapbook of this year’s poems will also be published and will be available for purchase via the SMPS website and perhaps at other locations in Mankato.

P.S. I did not showcase other poems here in photos because I was unaware of their locations when I was in Mankato to photograph mine.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Bringing poetry to recreational trail users in Mankato & I’m in June 9, 2013

NOT EVERYONE EMBRACES POETRY. I get that.

But I appreciate how, in recent years, poetry has become more accessible to Minnesotans. Perhaps, in the process, a few non-poetry lovers have learned to like poetry, to appreciate its value as a form of expression, as an art, as a link to the past, and as a connection to each other and the land and emotions.

These new public poetry forms have surfaced on sidewalks, billboards, and in motionpoems, for example.

My artsy effort to illustrate this post.

My artsy effort to illustrate this post.

And now, in Mankato and North Mankato, poetry will be posted on signs along biking and walking trails as part of the newly-launched Mankato Poetry Walk and Ride.

I am delighted to have two of my poems—“Off to Mankato to ‘get an education’” and “The Thrill of Vertical” selected from among more than 120 submissions for this project supported by business and corporate sponsors and the cities of Mankato and North Mankato.

The contest was open to anyone living within a 45-mile radius of Mankato with suggested themes of CityArt sculptures, Mankato history or culture, nature and/or family and relationships. Lines were limited to sixteen with a maximum of forty characters per line. There were serious and humorous divisions for adults and general poems for several youth brackets.

I tapped into my past, my four years attending college in Mankato—Bethany Lutheran and Minnesota State University, Mankato—to write my winning poems:

Off to Mankato to “get an education”

With typewriter and suitcase
stashed in the trunk of the rusty Impala
alongside my blaze orange backpack,
I plow into Mankato from the farm.

Seventeen years old with barn scent
clinging to clothes, I settle in
with my cheerleader roommate
and her sprawling stereo system.

We share nothing in common,
except a love of art, hers visual,
mine an artful appreciation of words
clacking, line by line, upon paper.

Remember, this was the late 70s, dear readers.

You’ll need to visit Mankato to read my second poem, among the 27 selected during anonymous judging by Doris Stengel, past president of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, and by Peter Stein, League of Minnesota Poets youth chairperson. The poems are expected to be in place by the end of June.

As a bonus, poets are recording their poems so bikers, walkers and others can pause along the trails and hear the poems read via their phones.

Bonus two, the Southern Minnesota Poets Society, which coordinated the contest, is publishing a chapbook of the winning poems.

I don’t have details yet on where my poetry will be located. But, be assured that when the poems are posted, I’ll head to Mankato to check mine out and some of the twenty-five others like “Everything is Sky Tonight,” “The Sounds of the Red Jacket Trail” and “Night Fishing.”

JUNE 11 UPDATE: My poems will be posted at the intersection of Glenwood Avenue and Division Street and at Hiniker Pond Park in Mankato.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling