Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

When violence touches your life June 2, 2022

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I see grief in the grey tile, part of a “Love Remains” mosaic displayed on the exterior of the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism office. Barb Larson, a Chamber employee, was murdered there in 2016, shot to death by her ex-husband, a former Faribault police officer. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I HAD A MUCH DIFFERENT POST planned for today. But then the identity of a homicide victim was released by the Rice County Sheriff’s Department and my focus shifted. I knew the 41-year-old man shot to death in neighboring Morristown early Tuesday morning. A suspect was arrested at the scene and has been charged with second-degree murder.

The victim, Brian, grew up two blocks away, where he and his sister lived with their grandparents. The siblings attended the same Christian day school as my children. The pair were older. On the occasional days the school bus didn’t run, their grandpa would stop to pick up my girls and all four kids rode to school together.

Much time has elapsed since then. Yet, I remember Brian, his short, slim frame and reddish hair. Many years have passed since I’ve seen him out and about walking around Faribault, always wearing a backpack. I have no idea what he did in life, but that connection to him and his family all those years ago means something. My heart hurts for his sister.

WITHIN MY CIRCLE OF CONNECTIONS

This isn’t the first time homicide has indirectly affected me. In May 2004, the father of a close friend was murdered. In May 2010, the sister of a blogger friend from Duluth was murdered by her ex-husband. In May 2013, a former neighbor’s daughter and unborn baby were killed by their husband/father.

Violence has touched my life too many times.

IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD

In May 1999, a SWAT team swept through my neighborhood searching for a knife used in the stabbing death of a 19-year-old some two blocks from my house.

On another occasion, a breathless young man showed up on our doorstep one evening, pleading for us to let him inside. Randy and I refused, not wanting to put ourselves or our family in danger. Instead I called 911. As I begged the police to hurry, a group of men rounded the corner of our house obviously looking for the guy at our door. That they didn’t dash up our front steps and attack him still surprises me all these years later. The potential for violence was real. Eventually law enforcement arrived and left with the young man safely inside a squad car.

And then there was the middle-of-the-night awakening to a woman across the street screaming for help. Screaming for someone to call 911, which I did. Again, I urged officers to hurry. Eventually police arrived as did an ambulance. I never learned what happened on that night all those years ago, only that no one died.

When I count all of these violent acts to which I have been indirectly exposed, I consider the number high. I expect most of you have never known a murder victim (or a murder victim’s family) or had to call 911 to report a crime in progress. I’m thankful if that fits you.

HOW I’VE REACTED

I’ve learned a few things through these experiences. I’ve learned that, no matter who you are or where you live, violence can touch you personally. And when it does, you find the strength, the resolve, the ability to do something. That may mean making a 911 call. That may mean showing up with food and a hug and doing anything you can to support a friend. That may mean mailing an encouraging card, phoning, texting, emailing. Remembering. For those families who’ve lost loved ones to acts of violence, remembering is vitally important. Their lives are forever changed and they need our love and support.

These are my thoughts today as I consider how violence has, once more, indirectly entered my life.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Connecting with nature as spring greens the Minnesota landscape May 18, 2022

Aiming my camera lens skyward on a beautiful mid-May afternoon at Falls Creek County Park, rural Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 15, 2022)

I FIND MYSELF, daily, tipping my head back to view the trees, leaves unfurling, greening the landscape.

An especially vivid green tree in the woods at Falls Creek Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

In these early days of a much-too-late spring in Minnesota, the greens appear especially intense, vivid, lush. The infusion of color is almost like visual overload after months of living in a colorless, drab world. I welcome the change with my eyes wide open.

At sunset, hillside trees and the maple in my backyard create an artsy scene. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

From the woods that bump against my backyard to area parks and nature centers, I feel such gratitude for places where I can immerse myself in nature. Even if that’s simply looking skyward.

Even though buckthorn is an invasive tree, the scent of its flowers is lovely. Photographed at Falls Creek County Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

In this tech-centered world, we need to pause, to take a break, to connect, really connect, with nature. Falls Creek County Park, just east of Faribault along Minnesota State Highway 60, offers such a place to embrace the natural world.

A footbridge leads into the woods at Falls Creek County Park. (Minnesota Prairie roots copyrighted photo May 2022)
So soothing…water rushing over rocks in Falls Creek. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)
Falls Creek flows under the footbridge. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

As soon as I step onto the footbridge over Falls Creek, I feel a sense of peace. In the sound and sight of water rushing over rocks. There’s nothing more soothing than that symphony, except perhaps the rush of wind through trees.

A fallen tree blocks the trail at Falls Creek Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

This park is more wild than tamed. Narrow dirt trails, packed hard by hikers’ shoes, call for caution. Roots can trip. Sections of eroded creek bank along the main path require focused walking, especially over a makeshift bridge of branches. In one area, a large, fallen tree blocks the route.

Wildflowers galore in the park woods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

Still, despite the obstacles, this park is navigable. And worth visiting, especially now, when wildflowers blanket the woods. White, yellow, purple.

Winding Falls Creek. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

On a recent hike through Falls Creek County Park, Randy and I encountered another hiker and his two unleashed dogs who rushed us. I didn’t appreciate that, never do. But we also met a pre-teen girl and her dad on the bridge, she with book—some series about drama divas—in hand. The title fits his daughter, the dad said. They come to the park to read and to listen to music along the creek. How wonderful, I thought, to see this young girl into reading. And reading in the woods besides.

On the bridge, the first stone I spotted. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I tipped the pair off to painted stones I’d discovered, pointing to the bright pink stone at the end of the footbridge. I found two more in the woods. “Look to your right,” I said. I delight in such unexpected messages that always cause me to smile and uplift me.

An encouraging message on a stone tucked into a tree. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

On this day, I took to heart the words—Everything will be okay!—printed on a stone painted a metallic, glittery turquoise. On this day, I needed to read that encouraging message left in the woods, left for me to see as I immersed myself in nature, in this Minnesota spring.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflections from Redwood & Rice counties on NATIVE LIVES MATTER May 2, 2022

Part of a temporary public art installation at Northfield’s Earth Day Celebration. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

IN THE GEOGRAPHICAL BACKGROUND of my childhood, I knew of the “Indian Reservations” to the northwest near Granite Falls and then to the east near Morton. My hometown of Vesta sits between the two, no longer referred to as “reservations” but as the Upper Sioux Indian Community and the Lower Sioux Indian Community.

A Dakota man and Alexander Faribault are depicted trading furs in this sculpture at Heritage Park near the Straight River and site of Faribault’s trading post. Ivan Whillock created the sculpture which graces the Bea Duncan Memorial Fountain in my community of Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2012)

Today I live 120 miles to the east in Faribault, next to Wapacuta Park. Rice County is the homeland of the Wahpekute (not Wapacuta), a tribal band of the Dakota.

The Earth Day art carried two messages: NATIVE LIVES MATTER and CLIMATE JUSTICE. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

A temporary public art installation at the recent Earth Day Celebration in neighboring Northfield prompted me to reflect on Indigenous people in southern Minnesota. Growing up in Redwood County, my knowledge of area Native Americans focused primarily on “The Sioux Uprising.” History teachers then used that term, rather than the current-day “US-Dakota War of 1862,” which should tell you a thing or ten about how biased that perspective back in the 1970s. How thankful I am that my awareness and understanding have grown and that attitudes are shifting to better reflect all sides of history.

The message grows, blossoms in the Earth Day art. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

The NATIVE LIVES MATTER message bannering the art installation at Northfield’s Earth Day event reinforces a Land Acknowledgment Statement adopted by the City of Northfield in November 2020. That reads as follows:

We stand on the homelands of the Wahpekute and other Bands of the Dakota Nation. We honor with gratitude the people who have stewarded the land throughout the generations and their ongoing contributions to this region. We acknowledge the ongoing injustices that we have committed against the Dakota Nation, and we wish to interrupt this legacy, beginning with acts of healing and honest storytelling about this place.

NATIVE LIVES MATTER fits the spirit of the Land Acknowledgment Statement. Those three words caused me to pause, to think, to consider what I’d been taught all those decades ago and how my thinking has shifted as I’ve aged, opened my mind and learned.

Dakota beadwork displayed and photographed at the Rice County Historical Society Museum, Faribault, in 2010. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2010)

The Rice County Historical Society, which exhibits a collection of Native American artifacts in its Faribault museum, shares a statement similar to the City of Northfield’s on its website:

We acknowledge that the land that is now Rice County, MN, was their (Dakota) homeland and for many tribal members today, it is still their home.

In all of this, I feel a sense of gratitude regarding increasing public recognition of the land history and contributions of Indigenous People in Minnesota. In my home area of Redwood County, nearly 1,000 individuals from the Mdewakanton Band of Dakota call the Lower Sioux Indian Community home. To the east in Yellow Medicine County near Granite Falls, nearly 500 individuals from the Dakota Oyate call the Upper Sioux Indian Community home.

Words on a marker in Reconciliation Park in Mankato where 38 Dakota were hung on Dec. 26, 1862. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2012)

I hope educators in my home area are today teaching students about the local Dakota and even bringing elders into classrooms. I graduated, after all, from Wabasso High School, the name Wabasso coming from a Native word meaning “white rabbit.” I would then go on to attend college in Mankato, site of the largest mass execution in the US with 38 Dakota killed in a public hanging on December 26, 1862.

I would be remiss if I did not share that, during the US-Dakota Conflict of 1862, family members on my mom’s side fled their rural Courtland farm for safety in St. Peter. They later put in a claim to the US government for crop loss.

Details on a sign outside the Cathedral of our Merciful Savior in Faribault. Bishop Henry Whipple, who served here, advocated for the rights of Native Americans and had a strong friendship with them. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2020)

Now, 160 years after that event in my ancestors’ history, I continue growing my knowledge, widening my understanding of Minnesota history and of the Indigenous people who first called this land home.

A graphic of Minnesota is painted on the back of the art installation. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

FYI: Please click here to read previous posts I’ve written on the US-Dakota War (also called Conflict) of 1862.

Also, I suggest you read an article on the Minnesota Public Radio website about efforts to change the Minnesota State flag. The flag depicts, among other details, a Native American in the background riding off into the sunset while a settler focuses the foreground, hands on a plow, rifle nearby. I agree that change is needed. But, as too often happens, the issue has become politically-charged.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Beyond me, myself & I February 5, 2022

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Coronavirus (Photo source: CDC)

THIS IS A COVID-RELATED public service announcement for residents of Faribault and then of broader Rice County. But, even if you don’t live here, read on.

First some facts: Rice County residents continue to die of COVID or COVID-related illnesses. Look at stats from Rice County Public Health or the Minnesota Department of Health. Or read the obituaries.

From the front page of the Faribault Daily News. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2020)

In a county with a population of about 67,000 we have lost 163 of our friends/family/neighbors to this awful virus. And, yes, I’ve known some of those who died. My heart hurts.

Early on in the pandemic, there was no vaccine to protect against serious illness or death. Much was unknown. That has changed. We have vaccines now and approved options to treat those with COVID. And, yes, the vaccine is less effective against the omicron variant with many break-through cases. Yet, those who are vaccinated/fully-boostered are much less likely to become seriously ill or die than the unvaccinated.

Our county infection rate remains high with a current 11.54 percent positivity rate. Still, that’s better than many other counties, especially rural counties farther from the metro. A week or so ago, a neighboring county had a positivity rate of nearly 40 percent. Yes. Forty.

Our vaccination rate in Rice County seems stalled at around 64 percent. We can do better.

Free, from the national government stockpile, N95 masks which Randy and I recently got from Hy-Vee. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo January 2022)

And we can do a heckuva a lot better at wearing face masks in indoor public settings. The omicron variant is highly-contagious and it’s our responsibility as members of this community to do our best to protect ourselves and others. Underline others. This is not solely about me, myself and I. This is about community, the common good. Our friends. Our neighbors. Our families. Our co-workers. Masking is one way to prevent the spread of this virus. There are people in our communities/families/circles who are especially vulnerable to complications from COVID because of age and/or health issues. Wearing face masks is one simple way to show we care about the health of others by helping prevent spread of the virus.

N99 masks are now available for free locally through the City of Faribault and Rice County.

Now our local government officials have made finding protective face masks a whole lot easier by offering free N99 masks to the public. The City of Faribault received a shipment. Residents can pick up masks at city hall, the fire station, the police department, the community center and the library, while limited supplies last.

Rice County Public Health acquired N99s from the Minnesota Department of Health and is giving them away (one to two per person) at city halls in Dundas, Faribault, Lonsdale, Morristown and Nerstrand; at libraries in Faribault, Lonsdale and Northfield; at the Faribault Community Center; and at the Rice County government services building.

And, yes, the tighter, snug-fitting filter masks (N99, N95, KN95) are necessary to effectively protect against the highly-transmissible omicron variant. Cloth masks, gaiters, etc. are not nearly as effective against omicron as the earlier delta variant. Still, anything is better than nothing. But let’s opt for the now available N99, N95 or KN95.

The best protection is still vaccination, which includes the booster shot.

I remain concerned about our overtaxed healthcare system with overworked staff, delays in care due to staff and ICU shortages, and more. I’m not talking just COVID here. I’m talking healthcare for every single one of us who may need it. Stuff happens. Heart attacks. Motor vehicle accidents. Cancer. This list goes on and on. Again, this is about all of us, not me, myself and I.

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NOTE: I moderate all comments and will not publish anti-mask and anti-vaccine views or misinformation on this, my personal blog. Thank you for doing your part to keep our communities healthy.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Minnesota healthcare leaders: “Heartbroken & overwhelmed” December 15, 2021

Coronavirus. (Photo source: CDC)

SOME TWO WEEKS until Christmas and nearly two years in to the COVID-19 pandemic, Minnesota medical leaders on Monday issued a strong warning to the public along with a plea for the unvaccinated to get vaccinated.

Nine healthcare executives—including the head of the world famous Mayo Clinic—signed a letter which published in newspapers throughout Minnesota. These two statements banner the message:

We’re heartbroken.

We’re overwhelmed.

The carefully-crafted letter is powerful. Emotional. Factual. And, oh, so necessary. I feel deep gratitude to these healthcare leaders who joined in sending a strong message to Minnesotans. We need to hear this. All of us. Vaccinated. And unvaccinated.

The decision not to get vaccinated affects every single one of us. That’s clear in the words of these medical professionals, in daily media reports and in information from the Minnesota Department of Health. Emergency rooms are full. Hospital beds are full. And that means challenges in accessing healthcare. For treatment of COVID-19, cancer, injuries, heart attack… That should concern anyone and everyone. None of us knows when we might need immediate emergency medical care. The situation is “critical,” according to the letter.

I appreciate the honesty. The statement “…every day we’re seeing avoidable illness and death as a direct result of COVID19” points directly to the root of the current crisis. And the frustrations felt in the medical community. “How can we as a society stand by and watch people die when a simple shot could prevent a life-threatening illness?” Exactly. How? Why? I don’t get it and I share the frustrations of those nine Minnesota healthcare leaders and their associated healthcare teams.

They conclude their letter with an “ask.” Get vaccinated and boosted. Wear a mask (regardless of vaccination status). Socially distance. Get tested if you feel sick. Encourage others to follow those steps. None of that is new. But it just does not seem to be sinking in. Especially in rural areas. My roots are rural. I love and care about our rural communities. But the truth is that in many areas of Greater Minnesota, vaccination rates are low, COVID case counts high. This virus doesn’t care about rural or urban boundaries.

In Faribault, I see very few people masking in public. Our vaccination rates in Rice County could be better, especially in those under age 49. Of those eligible for the vaccine, from age five on up, only 62% have completed their vaccine series, according to Rice County Public Health (December 13 statistics). We’ve already lost 147 of our friends, family members and neighbors to COVID in our county. Some died before vaccines became available. And I expect, although I can’t confirm, that some recent deaths of seniors may be from break-through cases in that vulnerable population. But many likely are among the unvaccinated, a situation repeating throughout the country.

I feel for the doctors, nurses and other medical personnel staffing our hospitals. I have no doubt they feel heartbroken and overwhelmed. The stress. The demands. The never ending flow of COVID patients. The death all around. The grief. The helplessness. Day after day after day. Endless physical and mental exhaustion.

I am grateful for their fortitude. Their strength. Their compassion. Their care. And now, today, I feel grateful for this united message from nine healthcare professionals calling on all of us to come together, to do our part to end this pandemic.

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NOTE: I moderate all comments and will not publish anti-vaccine, anti-mask and other such views on this, my personal blog.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A river of grief October 29, 2021

Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.

GRIEF RUNS LIKE A RIVER through the communities of Faribault and Northfield. Rushing. Rising. Roaring. Flooding over banks.

This week, three tragic events have claimed the lives of three. A beloved priest. A woman who lived a life of service. And an, as yet, unidentified individual.

We are two Rice County communities collectively mourning.

The latest loss occurred at 9:25 pm Thursday when a car slammed into the Warsaw Town Hall in a fiery crash that set both vehicle and hall afire, according to the Rice County Sheriff’s Department. The driver, the sole occupant of the car westbound on County Road 39/230th St. West, remains unidentified. This location, a T intersection (CR 39 and Dalton Avenue meet), has been the site of numerous crashes.

UPDATE, November 2, 2021: The driver of the vehicle involved in the fiery crash has been identified as Robin (Robinson) Roberts of Waseca. My heart breaks for Robin’s family, whom I know. Robin was the granddaughter of my former, and now-deceased, next door neighbors. She was a beautiful soul in every way from her mega smile to her loving and caring spirit. She cared for her Uncle Terry after his dad passed and his mom was no longer able to care for him. Terry had downs syndrome and was like a brother to Robin. We felt blessed to have Terry (who passed several years ago) and his parents living next door to us for many many years. And I feel blessed, too, to have met Robin, a joyful and kind woman who brought much compassion and love into this world.

Only a day prior at 9:36 am Wednesday, another tragedy occurred, this one nearly 300 miles to the north on Lake Vermilion in Greenwood Township near Tower. Eva Gramse, 72, of Faribault died in a fiery house explosion, according to the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Department. Her husband, Michael, was found outside their cabin and was airlifted to a Duluth hospital with severe injuries.

The Gramses are well-known in Faribault. Michael Gramse founded MRG Tool & Die, now led by their son Rod as president of the company. But the couple’s imprint extends beyond their business with both actively involved in the community. Michael Gramse has advocated for youth pursuing careers in trades. And Eva, according to media reports, advocated for underprivileged children and led a bible study at her church, Peace Lutheran. I knew of her from previous involvement with Faribault Lutheran School, a Christian school my children attended. I expect the depth of Eva’s impact on my community will emerge in the coming days as friends and family share stories of this woman who meant so much to them.

In neighboring Northfield, that community is grieving the tragic death of the Rev. Dennis Dempsey, 73, who served the Church of St. Dominic for 15 years up until recently. He died on Monday when a vehicle struck the bike he was riding in Rosemount. The driver of the vehicle has a history of speeding and other violations and faces possible charges in this deadly incident.

By all accounts, Father Denny as he preferred to be called, was beloved by many. With 41 years in the priesthood, including time at a Venezuelan mission, he touched many lives. Those who knew him speak to his kindness, his love of the outdoors, his support of the local Latino community, his overall caring spirit and love of people. My connection to him comes through dear friends served by this man of God. Their hearts are broken.

St. Dominic’s celebrates their much-loved former priest today (Friday) with visitation from 4-8 pm and a 7 pm Vigil Liturgy service. Father Denny’s funeral mass is set for 10:30 am Saturday at his current parish, Church of the Risen Savior in Burnsville.

Grief runs like a river. Through Northfield. Through Faribault. To grieve is to have loved…

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Of rural roads & polka music in Minnesota Czech country October 21, 2021

A farm site near Richter Woods County Park, rural Montgomery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

AS WE ROLLED THROUGH THE COUNTRYSIDE on an October afternoon in rural Minnesota, Randy switched on the radio. To KCHK, a New Prague-based radio station.

Gravel roads, sky and fields stretch before us in the southern Minnesota countryside. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Polka music pulsed through the van in a rhythmic beat. It was an unusual station choice given I listen primarily to contemporary Christian music on KTIS and Randy enjoys talk radio. But, occasionally on his 22-minute drive home from work, Randy tunes in to KCHK to listen to late afternoon featured 50s-70s music.

A farm site tucks behind a hill in LeSueur County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

In the heart of Czech country, though, the radio station is known for its day-time polka programming.

Occasionally we passed between colorful treelines. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)
A common Minnesota harvest scene: a farm truck parked in a field. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)
Love the copper hue of this barn roof on a farm just off State Highway 13 between New Prague and Montgomery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

As we drove along back country gravel roads—past farm sites and harvested fields and farmers working in the fields—the rhythm of polkas, of accordions pushed in and pulled out to create music, set a joyful tone. The music fit the scenes unfolding before us.

The music reminded me, too, of wedding dances back home decades ago in southwestern Minnesota. Of couples twirling across a well-worn wooden dance floor. Of booze bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. Of extended families gathered in a simple town hall to celebrate a marriage. Of The Bunny Hop and The Butterfly and all those dances that brought people together for an evening of fun.

Just harvested corn flows into a grain truck along Lake Avenue west of Lonsdale. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Those memories lingered as polkas played on KCHK. As just-harvested corn flowed into a grain truck. As we passed a mailbox with the name Skluzacek posted thereon. We were deep in the heart of Czech country near New Prague/Lonsdale/Montgomery.

Near Richter Woods County Park west of Montgomery, a farm site overlooks the countryside. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

There is something incredibly comforting about the mix of memory and music and meandering in rural Minnesota. Moments like this impress upon me the need to simply be. To recognize the value in an afternoon drive in the country. No destination. No haste. No agenda.

A farm site hugs a cornfield along Lake Avenue west of Lonsdale. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Time to just appreciate. The hard work of the farmer during harvest. The farm sites. Gravel roads.

As we passed this rural property along 60th Street West southeast of New Prague, I photographed this horse sculpture. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

And the unexpected sighting of horseshoe art where horses graze.

Oh, the glorious hues of autumn in rural southern Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

I treasure the memories shared and made with my husband of nearly 40 years as we followed rural routes, polka music thrumming in the background.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Into the woods at Falls Creek Park October 16, 2021

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On the expanse of grass outside the woods, silver maples shimmer against the blue sky of autumn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

A MILE EAST OF FARIBAULT just off Minnesota State Highway 60, the 61-acre Falls Creek County Park offers an escape into the woods. Mostly undiscovered, it’s rare to encounter others while hiking here.

Last Sunday afternoon, Randy and I headed to the park, pulling into the vastly over-sized gravel parking lot pocked with potholes. From there, we headed downhill across a grassy expanse, past the picnic shelter and toward an opening in the woods.

A wooden footbridge over Falls Creek allows entrance to narrow dirt trails. There are no maps to guide hikers, so you must rely on visual cues, obscured in October by fallen leaves. But we’ve been here before, always taking the main trail following the creek.

An unusual find in the creek: shoes/boots. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

The creek is always my first stop. I pause on the bridge, typically to watch water rush over and around rocks. But this visit, the shallow water pooled, littered with leaves and a pair of hiking boots—perfectly good hiking boots from the looks of the shoes. I wondered how they landed there, in the water.

In the places where water remains in the creek, leaves float. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Mostly, the creek bed was dry, a result of this year’s drought. In areas where water remains, minnows darted. The water is at least clear, a rarity in this agricultural region.

Randy scales a steep hill into the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

A short distance into the woods, Randy spotted a worn path up a steep hillside. I’d never noticed this during prior visits. Before I could dissuade him, he hoofed his way up, slipping and sliding and grabbing onto trees. When Randy lost his footing, I feared he would tumble and injury himself. As much as I yearned to follow, I recognized my limitations and my desire to keep my bones in-tact.

Berries jolt color into the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

As he disappeared along the hilltop treeline, I continued along the creek route. But soon my mind went to that niggling place of worry, about the time I reached the point where the path sidles next to the eroded creek bank. One misstep and I could plunge over the edge. Not that it’s that high. But far enough to cause injury.

I backtracked, dug in my backpack for my cellphone (hoping for service), and then called Randy. He answered. “I didn’t come here to walk alone,” I told him, also inquiring about his location. He couldn’t pinpoint that except to say that he would head back. I feel thankful that Randy, unlike me, possesses a good sense of direction.

Remembering the hiking boots/shoes in the creek. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

“I don’t like being out here alone,” I added, noting that I’d observed two people on the path, too far away for me to clearly see them. Obviously those hiking shoes dumped in the creek prompted the beginning of a mystery plot in my writer’s brain.

Despite that concern, I aimed for the strangers…finding a cordial couple about my age examining mushrooms on a decayed tree. We talked mushrooms and my missing husband and they offered to help find him should need be. Their story of getting lost in these very same woods did nothing to assure me that Randy would find his way back. But he did. At a different point, where an unseen spring ran down the hillside and he did more slipping and sliding, this time in mud.

Randy follows the leaf-laden trail as it edges close to the eroded creek bank. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

We reversed course and, together, followed the creek-side path deeper and deeper into the woods…until turning around and retracing our steps. I wished again for a trail map guide.

Near the footbridge, pools of water remain, collecting the fallen leaves of autumn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

We veered briefly off the path to another trail leading to the creek. Again, no water. Only rocks on a dry creek bed.

Seemingly abandoned in the shelter. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Then it was back to the main route, a pause on the bridge to again wonder about those hiking boots and then a pause at the shelter to speculate about an abandoned bike, jacket and beverage bottle.

Not a soul remained at Falls Creek Park. At least no one visible to us. Only mysteries—of abandoned and tossed belongings and of unmarked trails leading deep into the woods.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflections during the season of harvest in Minnesota October 14, 2021

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Harvesting corn in southern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

DUST RISES FROM FIELDS, clouding the air as combines rake through rows of dry soybeans.

Barely visible, the top of the same combine featured in the photo above. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Combines comb corn rows, too, in this season of harvest in southern Minnesota.

Follow country roads, like this one in eastern Rice County, to view fields at a slower pace. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Take a drive in the countryside these days and you will observe farmers hard at work, bringing in the crops.

A common site, semi trucks parked in fields, awaiting the yield, this one in western Rice County. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

As October moves to mid-month, a sense of urgency presses into long days in the field. By 7 pm, darkness envelopes the land and farm machinery still moves, like a mammoth beast lumbering across acres of corn and soybeans, eyes aglow.

A silo peeks above a cornfield in eastern Rice County. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

It is in this season of harvest that I feel a bit melancholy, missing my once close connection to the land. The scent of earth. The view of acres and acres and acres of crops drying to muted hues, visual evidence of a farmer’s work. The sound of combines roaring. The taste of dust and dirt. Golden orbs of soybeans sifting between fingers spread wide.

A farm site spreads across the land in western Rice County. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

While I once experienced all those first-hand on my childhood farm in southwestern Minnesota, today I feel an outsider looking in. Watching. Remembering. Feeling grateful for the years I lived on a farm, never realizing then just how much those days would mean to me later in life.

Grain bins, like these in eastern Rice County, symbolize harvest as storehouses for grain. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Each autumn I yield to the call of harvest. I reconnect to the land. Observing. Recalling. Missing my farmer dad and my Uncle Mike, a bachelor farmer who lived the next farm place over to the east. They are decades gone now, their final harvests long-finished.

Acres of wildflowers bloom in a field off Rice County Road 20 between Northfield and Cannon City. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

These emotions rush like a blustery October wind into my thoughts as winter approaches. As harvest continues, as seasons pass and life goes on.

Cornfield to the right, farm site to the left, all part of a Sunday afternoon country drive in southern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

TELL ME: Do you go for country drives to view the harvest? Or, if you live in a city, how do you celebrate autumn? I’d like to hear, wherever you live. I welcome harvest memories also.

© Copyright 2021 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