Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Oh, the joy of autumn days with the grandkids October 13, 2020

Randy walks with the grandkids at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault on Saturday afternoon.

NOTHING BRINGS ME more joy than time with my grandchildren, Isabelle, 4 ½ and Isaac, 21 months. This past weekend they spent all of Saturday with us, overnight into early Sunday evening so their parents could have some much-needed time alone. Randy and I love having the kids. They are easy-going, fun and just plain happy.

Our living room, kid central this weekend with toys pulled from totes and cupboards.

At their young ages, the siblings are content doing most anything from coloring to “helping” make apple crisp. This visit, Izzy headed straight for her Uncle Caleb’s Brio train set. And Isaac, besides pushing any toy with wheels, loved putting together puzzles. The same ones, over and over. (We think he’s pretty smart.) And this visit, Grandpa’s vinyls spinning on the record player also fascinated him.

We stopped often at River Bend to view the colorful leaves.

But, for me, it was our time outdoors that proved most engaging and memorable. We took the kids to River Bend Nature Center on Saturday afternoon, arriving to a parking lot filled with vehicles, including several school buses. Unbeknownst to us, a cross country meet was taking place. We stayed as far away from that busyness as possible, although a cluster of several teens out for a practice run in the woods veered way too close for comfort. That aside, it was a mostly solo walk for the four of us.

Our grandson, 21 months, runs along a trail at River Bend. Once taken out of the stroller, he never went back. Our walk ended with his sister riding in the stroller.

We started out with Isaac in the stroller given the distance we planned to walk. Part way in, we let him walk, or shall I say, run. Even with legs much longer than his, Randy and I struggled to keep up with our grandson. Occasionally he would stop, though, to examine a leaf or pick up a stick.

That’s the part I appreciate about being with little kids. You see the world through their eyes, at their level, from their inquisitive perspective. And that’s refreshing. There are many stop and smell the roses moments.

The street by the MSAD shows the beautiful fall colors gracing Faribault.

We experienced those at River Bend and again on Sunday when we looped our way around the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf campus. Izzy zoomed ahead of us on her scooter. And Isaac likewise moved as fast as his legs could carry him. Fast enough for these grandparents.

Randy lifted Isaac for a closer look at these bold berries on a tree at the MSAD.

Occasionally the kids paused to gather pine cones, colorful leaves and berries or to pick petunias (shhh) from a flowerbed. I bagged their nature finds for them to take home.

I hope we are instilling in them an appreciation for the outdoors and for nature. But, more than that, I hope they will remember these times with us—the minutes and hours and days together. Connecting, sharing, learning and loving each other as only grandparents and their grandchildren can. What a joy. What a blessing.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Embracing nature, seeking peace in chaos October 7, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wildflowers still bloom at River Bend as autumn wanes.

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

A prairie plaque honors a volunteer at River Bend.

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

Autumn colors trees at River Bend.

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

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

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

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

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

North of Faribault along I-35.

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

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

In the woods at River Bend…

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

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

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“A beautiful day in Faribault,” at River Bend October 5, 2020

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A grassy trail runs along the prairie at River Bend, leading to the woods.

TYPICALLY, I STICK to paved and grassy trails when hiking at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. I feel more secure on a firm surface, mostly free of hidden obstacles.

Following the river bottom trail into the woods.
Beautiful maples color the woods.
A view of the Straight River along a trail through River Bend Nature Center.

But, on a recent visit to River Bend, Randy and I followed a dirt trail down a steep hill to the Straight River. I felt apprehensive as we navigated, like mountain goats, down the limestone-pocked hill. He’s always willing to grab my hand, a reassuring act that makes me feel more confident. With two broken bones resulting from falls in my medical history, I hold a heightened awareness of keeping myself safe.

Sumac pop color into the autumn landscape.
Getting creative in the woods with a tipi style structure.
I found myself pausing often to look toward the treetops.

So, as we followed the dirt path covered with leaves and tripping tree roots, I watched my step more than my surroundings. And when you’re a photographer always alert to her environment, this is not ideal. I found myself stopping often to take in the woods and details therein. Randy is also great about alerting me to possible photo subjects. I deeply appreciate that about him, that he values my interest in photography.

Trails are sometimes well-marked, sometimes not.
I may get directionally lost, but I’ve never lost a shoe. I spotted this along a trail.
You don’t see many birch trees in the southern part of Minnesota, so I always delight in spotting one.

He also recognizes that my map-reading skills rate at about zero as does my sense of direction, unless I’m in my native southwestern Minnesota prairie of straight, gridded lines. I rely on him to know where we are going. And sometimes, I’ve found, he fakes that knowledge. That makes me uncomfortable. But we always emerge out of the woods, safe and sound.

Beautiful prairie wildflowers.
Prairie grasses and woods at River Bend.
Goldenrod add an autumnal hue to the landscape.

No visit to River Bend is complete without a walk through the prairie to take in the tall grasses and wildflowers defining that landscape. I need to see wide sky and open land, so much a part of me. Of my history as a daughter of the prairie.

Looking up to the treetops, I see such beauty.
Bold berries burst color on a tree outside the visitor center.
Any day at River Bend is a truly beautiful day as noted on this paver at a look-out patio above the Straight River. Thank you, A, B, C and D for this gift honoring your parents.

Yet, having lived in southeastern Minnesota for nearly 40 years, I’ve grown to appreciate the woods and hills and lakes, mostly absent from the landscape of my youth. Every place, every landscape, possesses a certain beauty, if only we stop in the busyness of life to recognize that. These days, especially, call for each of us to pause and reassess. To consider what we most value. And on my list of faith, family, friends and health, I also add nature.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Anything but a typical walk at River Bend Nature Center August 31, 2020

This path cuts through the edge of the prairie at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault.

 

AS RANDY AND I HIKE the paved trails through the woods and the grassy path edging the prairie at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault, we often see the same sights, have the same conversations.

 

Prairie wildflowers

 

These prairie grasses remind me of my youth, when I played in such grass on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

 

My favorite prairie wildflower, the black-eyed susan.

 

I talk about my love for the prairie and for the wildflowers and for grasses swaying in a poetic rhythm in the wind.

 

Eradicating invasive buckthorn from the woods remains an ongoing battle.

 

We discuss the buckthorn that grows rampant in the woods despite efforts to control it via goats and hands-on removal.

 

Leaves are beginning to change color.

 

I observe details that hint at the changing of seasons.

 

Photographed in the rain garden by the interpretative center.

 

Not even a bumblebee escapes my notice or my camera’s lens.

 

The art of bark.

 

Dead trees, bark, moss and fungi draw me to pause and look. Nature is, after all, in the details.

 

The doe and her baby, barely visible behind her.

 

But on this Sunday afternoon visit, mosquitoes and other pesky bugs push us at a much faster pace along wooded paths. So fast that I miss the doe and her growing fawn just off the trail leading to the Turtle Pond. Randy spots the pair and softly calls my name, enough to cause me to stop. Then he points to the woods where the deer stand. Still. Watching. I fire off three frames before the pair turn and clip through the trees. Disappearing to camouflage themselves within the green and brown hues of the treescape.

 

The hawk blends easily into the woods.

 

A few twists and turns later, I am still speed walking, driven to hurry by those biting insects. But then a bird catches my eye and I stop, speak Randy’s name. He doesn’t hear, fails to the see the bird so blended is it into the trees. I snap one photo before the bird rises, wings spanned wide. It appears to be a juvenile hawk. I am pleased with the hawk and deer sightings because we seldom see wildlife here, other than squirrels.

 

The oddest sighting ever at River Bend, doll well above my head in a tree.

 

But earlier I spotted the most unusual sighting ever at River Bend—a baby doll suspended in a tree. I expect a child lost her beloved doll and someone found it and decided it would be funny to place the toy in a tree. I found it a bit creepy. Like I was walking into Halloween or a Stephen King novel.

 

The first sign in a series of bug signs bordering trails.

 

No-see-ums get their own page in the bug book.

 

The grasshopper, too, merits its place in the bug alphabet book.

 

Along the same pathway, River Bend staffers posted photocopies of pages from The Icky Bug Alphabet Book by Jerry Palloth. More creepiness if you are not a fan of bugs. I don’t dislike bugs unless they pester (flies) or bite me (mosquitoes and no-see-ums) or destroy my flowers/plants (Japanese beetles) or are centipedes. I detest those fast-moving, too-many-legged insects.

 

Info about the bumblebee from Pallotta’s book.

 

I found the bug book informative, which I expect was the intention, along with giving families something of interest to study while in the woods. The Northfield Public Library is doing a similar activity, posting picture book pages on posts in five public parks during August, calling these “Story Strolls.” In downtown Faribault, along Central Avenue, Buckham Memorial Library has also posted a Story Walk, featuring pages from Eric Carle’s Head to Toe. (I’ll post about that soon.)

 

I had not previously noticed this small sign near a tree by the interpretive center.

 

I appreciate nature centers like River Bend, now more than ever during this global pandemic. Living as we do today with so many limitations in our lives—and justifiably so—I’ve grown to understand that I shouldn’t take anything for granted. I am thankful I live in a region where I can find endless natural settings to simply immerse myself in the beauty, solitude and peace of the outdoors. Baby dolls in trees aside.

 

Note: I took these photos several weeks ago, so the landscape has likely changed and the baby doll may be missing.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Photographic perspective June 8, 2020

I delight in dried grasses dancing in the wind at sunset at River Bend Nature Center.

 

A MONTH AGO, as spring broke in Minnesota, Randy and I headed to one of our favorite local outdoor places—River Bend Nature Center in Faribault.

 

Beauty in a single grass stem.

 

As usual, I carried my camera. My camera invites me to see the world in a different and more detailed way. I look through the viewfinder with an artist’s eye and with an intent, creative focus.

 

Randy surveys the prairie below.

 

Directions to the prairie route.

 

An overview of the land.

 

I use photography to create and to document. And in the process, I find joy. If you’re a photographer, you understand that moment when everything—the light, the subject, the composition—comes together. It’s, to be somewhat trite, magical.

 

Greenery dangles from a tree, looking lovely in the evening light.

 

People often comment that I must have a “really good camera.” I don’t. It’s second-hand, an EOS 20D Canon, old by today’s standards. It doesn’t perform especially well in low light. But I love this camera; it’s my second 20D.

 

I love the muted, dreamy tone of this image, the softness in the light of a setting sun as I shot through the field of dried grasses.

 

Today’s smartphone cameras can technically surpass the quality of my aging DSLR. But there’s one thing technology can’t replace. And that’s the photographer’s skill-set, talent, experience and creativity.

 

The moon rises while the sun sets.

 

I understand the basics of photography—of lighting, composition, focus… But even more, I recognize the importance of perspective and storytelling. Of thinking outside the box. Of creating art with my photography.

 

A red-winged blackbird catches my eye.

 

When you see my photos, I want you to feel immersed in a sense of place. In that moment when I stand or squat or kneel to frame an image, I want you there. Or when I set my camera on the ground and aim the lens upward without looking through the viewfinder.

 

A prairie path…

 

I strive to tell stories, to introduce you to people and take you to places and events you may not otherwise see. To show you my little corner of the world and beyond, through my life lens.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Finding peace immersed in nature at River Bend April 29, 2020

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Sunset at the prairie pond, River Bend Nature Center, Faribault, Minnesota.

 

THIS EARLY INTO SPRING here in southern Minnesota, everything seems amplified. Colors. Sound. Even the air temperature.

 

Into the woods at River Bend Nature Center.

 

You can almost see the grass growing, its green especially vivid in the still mostly monotone landscape. The greyness of woods reminds us that winter only just exited, and could return. Yes, we’ve experienced measurable snowfalls in May.

 

Beauty in birch tree bark under blue skies.

 

But for now, the weather has proven mostly glorious with shirt-sleeve temps and lots of sunshine, although on Tuesday much-needed rain watered the earth.

 

Rock signage marks Honor Point inside River Bend Nature Center.

 

One evening last week, Randy and I headed to River Bend Nature Center for a walk in the woods and along the prairie to the pond. The incessant peeping of frogs created a symphony as we drove into the center, van windows rolled down to hear the music. I always wonder why we can never see these musicians, only hear them.

 

Looking over the river valley from Honor Point.

 

Once parked, we entered the woods, crossed the Turtle Pond, wound through the trees, paused to scan the river valley, then looped back through the woods, eventually reaching woods’ edge.

 

The grazing geese I opted to avoid.

 

I especially enjoy the section of our hike which leads us onto the prairie, a place of dried grasses in April. My eyes welcome the openness. But on this evening, we detoured from our usual route. A cluster of geese grazed the land and I wasn’t about to get too close. Their protesting honks as we drew near proved deterrent enough.

 

The bird that’s not real atop the martin house.

 

I paused momentarily to photograph a martin house, thrilled to see a bird perched on the edge of the apartment complex…until I realized the bird wasn’t real.

 

Cattails…love them any season.

 

Onward to the pond, a favorite spot to photograph cattails, which have always intrigued me. They are especially lovely in the filtered light of sunset.

 

This birdhouse hangs on a branch over the Turtle Pond.

 

By then my ears ached from the cold of the evening air. The din of frogs continued as we headed back to the parking lot and our van.

 

On the way out, one last stop along the road to photograph this nesting goose.

 

We had, for an hour, immersed ourselves in nature. Listened. Observed. Retreated from reality, if only for awhile. And sometimes an hour is all you need to find peace.

 

RELATED, SORT OF: I invite you to check out my nature-themed blog post, “Praise God for His Glorious Creation,” published on the Warner Press website, by clicking here.

Disclaimer: I am paid for my work as the Warner Press blog coordinator and blogger.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Into the woods March 25, 2020

Hiking at River Bend Nature Center on Sunday afternoon, March 22.

 

THE NEED TO GET AWAY from it all—the barrage of COVID-19 thoughts and media reports—and the need to exit the house brought Randy and me to River Bend Nature Center in Faribault on Sunday afternoon.

The weather still feels very much like winter here in southern Minnesota with a cold wind, temps in the 30s and 40s, and patches of snow remaining in shaded areas or unmelted piles. So we dressed warmly, pulled on gloves and snugged on stocking caps before setting out.

 

Social distancing of vehicles in the parking lot at River Bend Nature Center on March 22.

 

As our vehicle rounded the curve and descended the hill into the heart of River Bend, I noticed something unusual in the parking lot. Social distancing. Most vehicles were parked every other space, with more vehicles than usual.

 

The entrance to the interpretative center, now closed.

 

I grabbed my camera, photographed the parking lot and then started downhill toward the trail-side center, eventually angling right toward the Turtle Pond. Along the way we met clusters of people, whom I assumed to be families as no social distancing was happening. Most, in passing, dropped into single file lines to distance themselves from others like us. I found myself fully aware of the space between us and other hikers on paths not always wide enough for the suggested six feet of separation.

 

This couple kept their distance from us, as they should have.

 

At one point I stepped to a side look-out and waited while other walkers passed, thus avoiding the too-close contact. I noticed, too, a young couple cut through the woods with their dog rather than come near us.

It was an odd feeling, this conscious effort to keep at a distance. It didn’t feel right. I tried to make up for that by greeting others with a smile and a “hello.” We can still be friendly.

 

I saw moss on rock piles and on fallen logs.

 

Randy starts across the bridge over the iced over Turtle Pond.

 

The process of collecting sap is underway at River Bend, pandemic or not.

 

As Randy and I walked, I scanned the woods for signs of spring and that seemed mostly fruitless. Ice still sealed the pond. Icy snow still covered sections of trails. Dried leaves still clung to trees while carpets of green moss and maple sap collection bags hinted of spring.

 

I often lag behind Randy because I stop to take photos.

 

Yet, I felt grateful to be outdoors, healthy and walking beside Randy.

 

Our friend’s daughter had a captive audience to watch her show off her biking skills.

 

We stopped once to talk with a friend who was out with her two young daughters. The 4 ½ -year-old showed off her bike riding skills. And for a moment or ten, we three adults forgot about the global pandemic and focused on the joy of watching a preschooler who recently mastered biking without assistance. The world seemed normal in that small space of time. Except for the awareness that we needed to stay six feet apart.

 

There on the prairie grass, an unexpected find.

 

Then we continued on, eventually crossing the windswept prairie. There Randy spotted a fuzzy caterpillar and we wondered aloud about its early appearance in these still too cold days of March.

 

Looking across the prairie pond.

 

After a brief stop at the prairie pond, we decided we were too cold to continue on. We turned back toward the interpretative center—now shuttered to the public—and aimed for the parking lot. But in getting there, we passed a group of young people tossing a football. Had it been any other day in any other time, I likely would not have thought much of it. But I found myself wondering, “Should they really be doing that?”

 

Trails remain open, but the interpretative center is closed.

 

These are unsettling times when even a walk into the woods to enjoy nature feels anything but normal.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

September at River Bend September 11, 2019

 

FIELDS OF GOLDENROD brighten the landscape—edging roadways, filling fields, erupting seemingly everywhere as summer slips ever closer to autumn in Minnesota.

 

 

 

 

A walk through River Bend Nature Center reveals hues of brown, orange, red and yellow. In leaves changing color. In fading flowers.

 

 

In mature milkweeds and drying prairie grasses.

 

 

In butterflies galore.

 

 

Days carry a visual impression of autumn. But also a feel of autumn. There’s a sense of urgency, of the need to be outdoors as much as possible.

 

 

Autumn marks my favorite of Minnesota’s seasons. So I carry my camera through Faribault’s sprawling nature center to take it all in.

 

 

 

 

The places marked by man with words of adoration.

 

 

The trails that trail through the woods.

 

 

 

 

And always the path cut through the prairie, where I imagine settlers of long ago crossing Minnesota Territory in covered wagons or slicing plow blades through sod or simply journeying westward into dreams.

 

 

These are my thoughts within this land set aside to preserve today for the dreamers of tomorrow.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Poetic & healing thoughts inspired by a walk through River Bend June 4, 2019

 

RIVER BEND NATURE CENTER in Faribault offers a respite from reality, a place to envelope one’s self in nature by walking the wooded trails or the open prairie.

 

 

 

Here, within this place, nature writes poetry.

 

 

 

 

I read poetic words in signage and flowers and greenery.

 

 

 

 

 

In sky and landscape and vistas.

 

 

If I walk too quickly, I miss the poetic lines, the nuanced words that create a rhythm of peace in a chaotic world.

 

 

 

 

It takes discipline to slow down, to notice the descriptive details that hug the earth, that scent the air, that hide within the natural colors of the world.

 

 

How often do we as humans choose to hurry through our days, oblivious to those around us? I challenge each of you to slow down, to pause in the busyness of life and look outside yourself and your lives. See your co-worker. See your friend. See your neighbor. See your family member. Then reach out. Connect. Support. Rain your poetry of love upon others.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Hunting for squirrels, but not how you think April 10, 2019

 

FROM AFAR, I THOUGHT Peter Jacobson carried a bow and arrow, hugged near his body.

 

 

But then, as I drew near, I saw instead an antenna and hand-held radio device. Not one to pass by, I stopped and asked about the equipment.

 

 

Turns out this science teacher was tracking collared squirrels for the wildlife field biology class he teaches at Faribault High School. If only biology had been this hands-on decades ago, I may actually have liked science. And, yes, we dissected frogs, which held zero appeal for me.

 

 

But this, this live trapping, collaring and tracking of squirrels at River Bend Nature Center to learn about their territorial behaviors would have grown my interest in science. Jacobson’s students are out in the field, observing, formulating questions, gathering data.

The study is Minnesota Department of Natural Resources approved with students also earning college credits from Vermilion Community College. Jacobson mentioned a DNR study of moose as we talked about his small scale tracking of squirrels.

 

 

I had one question for him. I asked if he could determine how to keep squirrels out of flower pots, a perennial problem for me. I’ve tried to resolve the issue by laying sticks and stones in and across pots around newly potted flowers and plants.

Jacobson laughed, noting the squirrels likely enjoy the challenge. And that was my wildlife biology lesson for the day.

 

TELL ME: I’d like to hear about any creative and interesting science projects that were part of your high school education.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling