Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

An early April evening at River Bend April 13, 2021

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One of several immense cottonwoods looms next to the parking lot.

DAYLIGHT WANED AS RANDY and I entered the woods at River Bend Nature Center by the parking lot near the entrance. We haven’t walked this area in a while and were surprised to find the woods littered with fallen trees and limbs. Not just a few, but lots. I expect the powerful winds during a September 2018 tornado in Faribault caused the damage.

From atop a hill, I looked toward the lowlands. We’d just walked the path to the left after exiting the woods.

As we hiked, the shrill trill of frogs in the nearby wetlands reverberated. I’m always amazed by this spring time opera/mating ritual.

The treeline that caught my photographic eye.

A ways into the woods, the dirt path bent right, with another forking to a prairie outlook. We continued on the chosen trail until I noticed a copse of lean trees I wanted to photograph. “I’m surprised we don’t see any deer,” I said, stepping across dried grass and branches to find an open space through which to aim my camera lens.

To the left in this photo, a deer leaves the protection of a treeline.

I snapped a few frames before Randy noticed a lone deer. The deer obviously saw us, too, as it emerged from behind the treeline and leaped through the tall prairie grasses.

There’s something about tall grass that speaks to me. Perhaps because of my Minnesota prairie roots.

We continued down the trail, now on the other side of the horseshoe shaped route that connects with the main path into this section of River Bend. Once on the arterial trail, we walked a short distance before turning right toward the swampland. The overwhelming chorus of thousands of frogs increased in volume to the point of almost hurting my ears.

I love the simplicity of this scene.

Underneath, the ground felt spongy. Occasionally I paused to photograph something. A lone bird atop a bare tree. Tall grasses silhouetted against an evening sky shifting toward darkness. I wished we’d arrived a half hour earlier for optimal lighting during a photographer’s golden hour.

We turned and partially retraced our route once we reached this point leading to the prairie.

But sometimes it’s good for me to simply walk and take in my surroundings. To appreciate the natural world with my God-given eyes rather than through the eye of a camera. To be in the moment. To hear the soprano of frogs singing spring songs in southern Minnesota in early April.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The poetry of spring along the Cannon River in Faribault April 6, 2021

A budding tree against the backdrop of sunset.

OH, HOW GLORIOUS spring in Minnesota.

These past few days, especially, of sunshine and 70-degree temps have sprung spring. To see buds forming, to hear birdsong, to feel sun upon skin…oh, the joy.

On Saturday evening, as the sun set, Randy and I followed the asphalt trail that winds along the Cannon River in North Alexander Park. It’s a favorite place to walk. Uncrowded. Beautiful.

The trail follows the river, curving around trees.

I love the way the trail curves around trees.

The river draws waterfowl.

I love how the river draws my eyes to view reflections and to appreciate the ducks and geese which populate this waterway. The quacking of a lone mallard pulled me to river’s edge. I observed how the water trailed in a lengthy V as the duck paddled across the still surface. Poetry seen, not written.

The historic Faribault Woolen Mill, a subject I enjoy photographing any time of year.

Across the Cannon, the iconic Faribault Woolen Mill focused my eyes as it reflected in the river. And I thought of all the blankets woven here, the history of this place.

Water rushes over the Cannon River Dam by Father Slevin Park.

At the Cannon River Dam, aside the trail, I noticed how the dam walkway seemingly follows a straight line to the historic mill. Sometimes it’s about perspective, pausing to consider a place in a different way. I challenge myself, in my photography, to view my surroundings creatively. While I created, people fished, a popular activity along this stretch of the Cannon.

Looking down the Cannon, before it spills over the dam.

The river absorbed the pink tint of twilight. Soft. Muted. Another poem to photograph.

And if I’d had my zoom lens on my Canon EOS 20-D, I would also have photographed the two bald eagles following the river like a road map. I never tire of watching these majestic birds.

The top of this evergreen is lopped off, removed following a tornado several years ago.

As day edged closer to night, Randy and I retraced our route back to the van. A bit farther down the trail, teens packed basketball courts, their raucous voices rising.

Ballpark lights and a treeline contrast with the orange hue of sunset.

To the west, the sun glowed fiery orange like an exclamation mark ending a glorious spring day in southeastern Minnesota.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Into the woods at Falls Creek Park March 31, 2021

Moss feathers across the end of a hewn tree.

AS SPRING EASES INTO MINNESOTA, I embrace the transition of seasons in indecisive weather and in the subtle greening of the landscape.

A greening vine in the otherwise muted landscape.

I don’t trust that winter has really, truly, exited. Yet, these early glimpses of spring assure me that the bulk of winter lies behind us.

Randy walks in the woods.

I saw that in the woods of Falls Creek County Park on Sunday afternoon. Randy and I hiked in this 61-acre park a mile east of Faribault off Minnesota State Highway 60. It’s a relatively unused park, one of the reasons we are drawn here.

Water rushes under the bridge and over rocks.

Here a dirt hiking path curves along the waterway winding through woods. Access to that path comes via an arched pedestrian bridge. There water rushes over rocks and we always pause to appreciate the soothing sound of rushing water.

The creek meanders, wide in some areas, narrow in others.
In places, the creek runs clear.
A fork in the creek.

And we also always walk to the side of the creek, to examine the water at the bend, before it flows under the bridge. Recent rain left that water muddied. Later we would find the creek flowing clear.

Loving the light, color and texture on this tree trunk moss.

Entering the woods, I determined to photograph signs of spring in the muted landscape. That requires focus. Examples of spring are elusive and seen mostly in vivid green moss carpeting fallen tree trunks.

A fallen tree provides a canvas for art.

But I can photograph only so much moss. Thus I expanded my perspective. Nature writes details upon the landscape. Even in a scene of mostly muted browns.

Hillsides of trees rising

and fungi laddering

and dried leaves curling.

Nature’s “antlers.”

And the branches of a tree twisting like antlers.

Nature’s sculpture.

And felled trees that appear like natural sculptures.

The makeshift bridge.

All of these nuances I noticed as we walked, as I stopped to take in my surroundings, as Randy steadied me while I crossed a makeshift branch bridge across a spillway.

Randy crosses the bridge out of the woods.

There is much to see in this seasonal transition, if only we pause to appreciate. To look. And really see. To hear. And really listen. It’s there. The poetry of wind and water and woods and words.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflections on this season of spring in Minnesota March 29, 2021

In this file photo, snow edges the patio as I’m about to hang laundry on the clothesline in early spring.

WHEN I STEP OUTSIDE to hang sheets and towels on the clothesline, I feel such gratitude for the arrival of spring in southern Minnesota. Winter gets long in these parts.

Crocuses are in full bloom in my front yard flowerbed.

I long for sunshine and blue skies and more light than darkness. Birds tweeting. Crocuses unfolding and tulips stretching above the earth. And no more freezing my fingers while hanging laundry in the morning. Early spring brings all of those.

Laundry on my clothesline. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I love hanging laundry outside. The rhythm of pulling items from the laundry basket then clipping and repeating soothes me. The physical task gives pause in my day, reconnects me with generations of women who did the same, connects me to nature via the warmth of the sun and the music of birds.

And then, when I reverse the task in the afternoon and carry the air-dried laundry indoors, I breathe in the scent of nature. The air of spring.

A biker swings his bike onto Minnesota State Highway 60/Fourth Street past the Rice County Courthouse on a recent warm spring afternoon.

For others, spring signals biking season. And plenty of bikers have been out and about. Some even earlier, in winter.

My grandson hopscotching in his two-year-old way.

And the kids, oh, the kids. Taking them outside is so much easier with no snowpants or snowboots to pull on. Randy and I played with our grandkids in the driveway of their home last weekend with Izzy circling on her bike and Isaac jumping, rather than hopping, on chalked hopscotch squares. Then we headed to the neighborhood park with Izzy zooming ahead on her bike and me pushing her brother in the stroller, trying to keep up, but failing. At the playground, we pushed both kids in the swings with Isaac calling for “higher.”

Always the first flower of spring in my yard. The beautiful crocus.

How wonderful this time with our grandkids. To be in the moment. To feel their joy. To watch them soar and climb. To hear them laugh. To experience their delight. I feel blessed in this season of life.

TELL ME about your joyful spring moments.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Poetry flashback as we welcome spring March 20, 2021

Billboards in my Roadside Poetry Project poem posted in Fergus Falls 10 years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2011.

THE OFFICIAL ARRIVAL OF SPRING today seems reason to celebrate, especially here in Minnesota, the land of long winters. Or, as my California-raised son-in-law once thought, Almost Canada.

Billboard #2 in my poem. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2011.

From here on, daylight lengthens. And, after this past pandemic year, I’m thankful for the seasonal transition into more sunlight and resulting warmth and melting of snow. That said, this is still March and in Minnesota that likely means more cold and snowy days.

But, as we ease into spring, I feel a sense of renewal. Warm days with temps in the 50s and near 60, like those predicted for this weekend, are freeing, uplifting and promising.

Billboards #3 and 4. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2011.

Farmers, I expect, are itching to get into the fields, although it’s way too early for that. I still think like the farm-raised woman I am, connecting seasons to the cycle of planting, growing and harvesting. That will always remain an important part of my identity and continues to influence my writing and photography.

The last of four billboards featuring my Roadside Poetry spring poem. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2011.

Flash back to 10 years ago and you can read that influence in a poem I penned and submitted to the Roadside Poetry Project. In four lines, each with a 20 character limit, I wrote a spring-themed poem that bannered on four billboards in Fergus Falls. It’s the most unusual spot my poetry has ever published.

The billboards posted along a road on the edge of Fergus Falls in 2011. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2011.

Designed “to celebrate the personal pulse of poetry in the landscape,” according to then Project Coordinator Paul Carney, my poem truly fit that mission. I wrote from experience, from a closeness to the land, from a landscape of understanding.

While the Roadside Poetry Project, funded by the Fergus Falls College Foundation, no longer exists, my poem endures in the legacy of my writing. To have written about spring from the perspective of a farmer’s daughter celebrates my rural Minnesota prairie roots. And spring.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

River Bend in March, before the latest winter storm March 16, 2021

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Ice edges a pond Sunday afternoon at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault.

AS I WRITE MONDAY AFTERNOON, snow continues to fall. Steady, for hours and hours. Layering the landscape that, only the day prior, was devoid of snow.

After an especially lovely Saturday of sunshine and 50 some degrees, this return of winter seems like a mean trick of Mother Nature. I rather enjoyed pre-spring. But as a life-long Minnesotan, I expected snow and cold to return. Yet, maybe not with such force, as if the weather has something to prove.

That all said, let’s forget the winter storm and backtrack to Sunday afternoon, when Randy and I hiked the trails at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. It’s one of our favorite places to escape into nature.

I always carry my camera. And here’s what I found: Natural beauty even in a drab landscape transitioning between seasons.

Signs of spring in maple sap collection bags and buckets.

And sap dripping slowly into the containers.

Signs of winter in ice edging the Turtle Pond.

A lone child’s snow boot, which left me wondering how that got lost without anyone noticing.

And the photo I didn’t take of young people clustered along a limestone ledge with their remote control vehicles climbing the layered rock. Limestone was once quarried from this area.

And then the bark-less fallen tree Randy pointed to with shades of brown sweeping like waves lapping at the lakeshore. Artistically beautiful. Poetic.

Just like words imprinted upon plaques adhered to memorial benches honoring those who loved this place, this River Bend.

Moss carpeting the ground in a line across a ridge of land in the woods. The only green in a landscape of brown tones.

Dried grasses and dried weeds on the prairie. The muted remnants of autumn.

Tracks muddied into the earth.

And birch

and fungi and all those things you notice if you only take the time to pause. To appreciate the natural world. To step into the woods. To walk the asphalt trails heaved by frost and tree roots. Or to follow the dirt trails that connect soles to ground. Soul to nature.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Spring fling in Minnesota March 11, 2021

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My two-year-old grandson splashes in melted snow while on a walk Sunday afternoon in Faribault.

MARCH BRINGS TO MINNESOTA the teasing of spring.

Recent sun-filled days of unseasonable temps soaring into the sixties proved a respite. And this winter, especially, I needed a break from cold and snow, from the sheltering in.

Tuesday afternoon I threw open the windows. Fresh air breezed through the house. I kept the kitchen screen door open long after dinner, the scent of sautéing onions carried outdoors.

Outside, two fleece throws flapped on the clothesline. Dancing in the wind, occasionally twisting.

Faribo Frosty still stands tall in the Hoisington family’s front yard Sunday afternoon when Randy and I stopped to show our grandkids, Isabelle and Isaac.

As the wind blew and the sun shone, the snow pack continued to melt. Only remnants of snow remain in shadowed spots next to the fence, along the north side of the house, next to the driveway.

Dormant brown grass defines the landscape now.

Crocus emerging.

In my front yard, tender crocus shoots poke through the mulch leaves of autumn. Too early. As always. But the crocus react to sunshine and temps, not to the calendar.

A single maple leaf lies atop the snow along the fenceline in my backyard Tuesday afternoon.

March in Minnesota tempts us with spring. Melting snow and puddles. And, as I write this Wednesday morning, grey skies drizzle rain. Snow is back in the forecast. As are possible thunderstorms. Even tornadoes. A mixed bag of March weather. Typical Minnesota.

A weather graphic from KSTP posted Wednesday afternoon.

Now as I update this Wednesday evening, southern Minnesota has experienced its first severe weather scare of the season. Tornado warnings were issued late this afternoon in multiple counties, including my county of Rice. When warning sirens blew in Faribault, I headed to the basement while Randy kept me updated on weather in Northfield (where he works) and our eldest texted from her south metro basement.

I stepped into my backyard shortly after the sirens blared to snap this image of a towering cloud late Wednesday afternoon.

While clouds appeared sometimes overpowering and ominous, no tornadoes developed. To the north, in the central and northern parts of Minnesota, snow fell. Up to six inches in some locales. It’s almost as if two seasons collided with spring bumping against winter.

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FYI: I invite you to read another blogger’s take on March in Minnesota by clicking here. Kathleen Mickelson is an incredibly gifted writer with a strong poetic voice. Yes, she’s a published poet. She loves the craft of writing and is a pretty darned good photographer, too. And an all-around lovely individual.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

More than simply an ice cream treat March 2, 2021

A Peanut Buster Parfait from The Little DQ of Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

SPRING UNOFFICIALLY ARRIVED in Faribault this past weekend. You’d never guess that from viewing the snow cover, freshened by two inches of new snow overnight Sunday. But The Little DQ opened on February 27, signaling the shift toward spring. At least for Randy and me.

Every year about this time, the walk-up/drive-up Dairy Queen along Lyndale Avenue reopens after a three-month seasonal closure. And we find ourselves there picking up bargain Peanut Buster Parfaits. Seldom do we treat ourselves to DQ. But this opening special has become a tradition in recent years.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo of the Little DQ of Faribault.

So Monday evening, when I’m certain Randy would rather have settled onto the sofa than leave the cozy warm house after a long day of work, we headed across town to the DQ. Past the fire station and the courthouse, turning onto Fourth Street. The suspension in our 2003 Chevy Impala, closing on 270,000 miles, creaked with each switch in direction. Past the pizza place and our church and the recently-closed Family Video and the abandoned Farmers Seed and Nursery building. Across the train tracks and, shortly thereafter, a left turn onto the frontage road. Past Kwik Trip and then onto the pothole pocked street by the DQ.

I noted the electronic sign welcoming back “your smiling faces.” And I noted, too, the posted temp of 21 degrees.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

We arrived at a good time, on a cold evening past the dinner hour, to find only one vehicle ahead of us. A red pick-up truck. I counted out dollar bills and change, $4.28, to cover the $1.99 plus tax parfaits. Once cash was exchanged for treats, I clutched the two plastic encased parfaits and Randy aimed the Chevy back home.

We passed homes still aglow in holiday lights while a country tune played on KCHK 95.5 FM out of New Prague. I’m not a country music fan and Randy listens only occasionally for the weird stories. But something about the gentleness of the song and heart-breaking lyrics appealed to me. I got the music, he got you… He got the sunshine, I got the rain…

As Ronnie Milsap crooned, I took in our surroundings. Colored lights framing a solo second-story window in an aged wood-frame house. And, a block away, an American flag hung vertically as a window covering. Along Division Street, I spotted a snow fort in a front yard, mentally marking that I need to revisit this in daylight.

At a four-way stop, I saw a screen in the maroon vehicle ahead playing some show to entertain the kids. And I wished the family would turn off the device for a moment or ten and take in their surroundings. Neon blue lights outlining a front porch. Slant of light upon snow. Snow mounding along roadways.

In my hands, the Peanut Buster Parfaits transferred cold into my fingers. And shortly thereafter, when I spooned into the ice cream and fudge traced with peanuts while snuggled under a fleece throw in the recliner, I grew colder. And, for the longest time, I couldn’t get warm on this first day of March in Minnesota.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts of spring in February February 19, 2021

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Leaves unfurling in southern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2018.

THIS FEBRUARY MORNING, with spring still months away in Minnesota, I crave a landscape flush with color. Snow gone. Spring flowers popping. Grass greening. Trees budding.

Daffodils bloom in my front yard. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I think we all need a glimpse of warmer, sunnier days after a wicked weather week across much of our country. I feel, especially, for the people of Texas. The unseasonably cold weather of ice and snow wrought incredible challenges with no power, broken water lines, even death. I feel for anyone living in Texas.

Crocuses blooming in my yard. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Even though we’ve endured a lengthy stretch of subzero temps here in Minnesota, it’s just cold. Not destruction. Not heartache. We can manage and function and mentally remind ourselves that this won’t last forever. Temps are already rising.

Beautiful bleeding hearts bloom on two bushes in my backyard each spring. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

With those thoughts, I searched my files for photos of spring flowers. To brighten your day. To bring you joy. To remind you that in every season of life, we face challenges which stretch and test and grow us. But we can, and often do, come out on the other side as better people. More empathetic. More understanding. More grateful than ever for life, even if it’s sometimes hard.

These tulips were sent to me, as bulbs, from Paula in the Netherlands last spring. I later planted the bulbs in my yard and hope they erupt this spring. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

We push through the difficulties, often with the support of loving family and friends, to bloom color into the world. Or at least that is my hope.

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BE ASSURED THAT MINNESOTA looks nothing like the photos above right now. Snow layers the land in a landscape devoid of color. Under the snow and decaying leaves, spring flowers await warmer days when the frozen earth opens to the sun and sky.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Embracing winter in Minnesota January 6, 2021

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My two-year-old grandson with his new snow shovel.

WHEN YOU LIVE IN A NORTHERN state like Minnesota, where winter defines at least half the year, preparation for cold and snowy weather is a necessity, not an option.

It’s a lesson taught from early on. Snowsuit, waterproof mittens and snow boots for the kids. Check. Check. Check. Sled. Check. Snow shovel. Check.

No matter your age, dressing properly to protect from the elements and then having the right tools to deal with the snow are essentials. So we’ve equipped our grandchildren, Isabelle and Isaac, with snow shovels and sleds. Izzy got her mama’s childhood snow shovel and Lion King sled. Isaac got a new shovel purchased at the local hardware store. And we bought bright new sleds for both at a regional retailer.

Then it’s up to the parents, or the grandparents, to bundle the kids and get them outdoors. It’s a process. But important in teaching the little people that winter can be fun.

Our southwestern Minnesota farmyard is buried in snowdrifts in this March 1965 image. My mom is holding my youngest sister as she stands by the car parked next to the house. My other sister and two brothers and I race down the snowdrifts.

I loved winter as a child growing up on the wind-swept southwestern Minnesota prairie. There snow drifted into rock-hard mountains around the house and farm outbuildings. There Dad shoved snow with the John Deere tractor and loader into more mountains, where my siblings and I played for endless hours. We carved out snow caves and raced on a vintage runner sled. Such is the stuff of memories. And of winter in Minnesota.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our farm driveway in this March 1965 photo, rural Vesta, Minnesota. My uncle drove over from a neighboring farm to help open the drive so the milk truck could reach the milkhouse.

While my grandchildren’s memories will be different—they live in a new housing development in the south metro—I hope they continue to embrace winter with joy and enthusiasm. Just as their mom (Dad grew up in warm and sunny California) and maternal grandparents did before them.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling