Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

 

Autumn in rural southern Minnesota, before the snow October 29, 2020

Following a back road between Zumbrota and Mazeppa on October 18, before our recent snowfall here in southeastern Minnesota.

AS I VIEW THE LANDSCAPE layered in snow and consider the unseasonably cold temp of 12 degrees, I reflect that only 11 days ago, southern Minnesota looked and felt much different. Like the season of autumn rather than winter.

Grain trucks parked in Kenyon.

Today I take you back to October 18, to photos from a Sunday drive that started in Faribault and continued east through Kenyon, Zumbrota, Mazeppa, Oronoco and Pine Island, then back home.

An aged silo between Zumbrota and Mazeppa.
Cattle graze in pastureland between Kenyon and Wanamingo.
On October 18, the day of our drive, farmers were busy harvesting, here in a cornfield between Zumbrota and Mazeppa.

As farm-raised kids, Randy and I enjoy these rural drives that transport us back in time and also give us a much-needed break from the realities of COVID-19, of politics, of life stressors. I never tire of seeing cornfields and farm sites, especially during the harvest.

Farmers on the road were a common site, here on Minnesota State Highway 60 west of Zumbrota.

There’s something about immersing myself in the countryside, about simply being in a rural landscape, that comforts me. That soothes and calms. I need that now more than ever.

The Zumbro River Valley stretches before us between Zumbrota and Mazeppa.

We all have, I think, those places which offer us such a respite. Perhaps yours is a room in your house, a place in nature, maybe even within the pages of a book. I’ve been reading a lot lately and highly-recommend Susan Meissner’s A Fall of Marigolds.

Following another farmer, just outside Zumbrota.

Fall. It’s my favorite season, cut too short this year by an early significant snowfall. I’m not happy about it and I doubt many Minnesotans are. We often boast about our hardiness. Yet, we grow weary, too, of our long, cold winters. Most of us, anyway.

A farm site atop a hill between Zumbrota and Mazeppa.

Yet, we choose to live here. This is home. And always will be for me. No matter the season.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Winter arrives in Minnesota, just a little too early October 21, 2020

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AS I WRITE THIS EARLY Tuesday afternoon, snow falls, layering the landscape in Minnesota’s first measurable snowfall of the season. Several inches are expected in some areas, more in others. This marks an unusually early snow event.

A solo maple leaf stands upright in my snowy backyard.

Only yesterday I wrote of the winter ahead. I didn’t expect that to be the next day, but rather late November or early December. This is just a little too early for my liking.

I took this photo from my back door early Tuesday afternoon.

As I look outside, I observe a squirrel rooting around in my backyard, probably intent on finding a place to stash a walnut.

Next door, birds dine at my neighbor’s bird feeders near an almost naked maple tree.

Across the street, snow piles atop jack-o-lanterns on another neighbor’s front steps, reminding me of the 1991 Halloween blizzard of 20-plus inches of snow here in Minnesota.

Already a city plow truck has sprayed a mix of sand/salt/chemicals onto the street at the bottom of a steep hill.

Later a snowplow scrapes the snow from streets.

The first snow of the season always challenges drivers.

A half hour ago, a Fed Ex worker crossed the street after delivering a package to a neighbor. The young man wore shorts. In 32-degree temps with snow falling. Apparently he didn’t get the weather memo or he can tolerate cold.

My snowy Faribault, Minnesota, neighborhood.

All of this I observe from inside the warmth and comfort of my home with no reason to go outdoors. Earlier this morning, before the snow began, I hustled to haul flower pots, a water fountain and other garden art into the garage. Now I’m hoping I won’t need to head out later to shovel…because the snow shovels are still stored in the rafters.

What was I thinking? I am updating this at 8:44 pm Tuesday, 45 minutes after I finished 1.5 hours of snow removal. I estimate our snowfall at 6-8 inches. Heavy wet snow, the worst kind. Tuesday’s snowfall in Minnesota broke state records for the most snowfall this early in the season. Yup. I’m over winter already.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts during this season of autumn in Minnesota October 20, 2020

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A cornfield fronts a farm site between Faribault and Dundas in rural Rice County, Minnesota.

LIVING IN SOUTHERN MINNESOTA, as I have for my entire life, I feel a strong connection to the land rooted in my rural upbringing.

A barn roof is barely visible over a cornfield, rural Rice County.

Each autumn, I reflect on this time of bringing in the crops. Of gathering the last of the garden produce. Of harvesting corn and soybeans from the acres of fields that define rural areas. I miss the sights and sounds and scents of farming this time of year. Once-green fields muting to shades of brown, Combines roaring down field rows. The air smelling of drying leaves and of earth.

A back country road north of Faribault, heading to Dundas.

For those reasons, I always appreciate a drive through the countryside, especially along gravel roads. The pace is decidedly slower than traveling on a paved surface.

A grain truck awaits the harvesting of corn in rural Dundas.

Although farming has changed considerably with bigger machinery and bigger farms and bigger yields, the basic connection to the land remains. At least for me. It’s part of my creative spirit, of my being.

Grain bins define a farm site along a back gravel road in rural Rice County, Minnesota.

Yes, it’s easy to get nostalgic about rural life. I offer no apologies for that because I shall always feel grateful for the 17 years I lived on a farm. I learned the value of hard work, of living with minimal material possessions, of working together, of recognizing that inner strength and fortitude and resilience are important as are honesty and good character.

Country roads intersect near Cannon City.

I am thankful I used an outhouse during my childhood, pitched manure, picked rocks, walked beans, fed cows and calves, pulled weeds, didn’t get birthday gifts… There’s something to be said for having grown up in such a setting, in a way of life that by necessity requires significant physical labor and living within your means.

Harvest finished in rural Rice County.
A grain truck parked in Northfield.
Corn stalk bales line a Rice County field.

In the winter, my hands cracked and bled from exposure to water and the elements. In the spring, when I picked rocks from fields, dirt sifted into holes in my canvas tennis shoes. In the summer, the hot sun blistered my skin as I pulled cockleburrs. (We didn’t have sunscreen.)

Pumpkins and squash for sale from a wagon parked at a farm site along Rice County Road 1 west of Dundas.
A house in Dundas decorated for Halloween.
A seasonal display anchors a corner of a downtown Northfield floral shop.

And so these are my thoughts as I immerse myself in the season of harvest via a country drive. A drive that takes me from the countryside into town, to seasonal displays and thoughts of Halloween and Thanksgiving and the winter ahead.

The road ahead may not be easy…

I fully recognize that the forthcoming winter will challenge all of us. I am determined to stay the course during this ongoing global pandemic. To mask up, to social distance, to wash my hands, to connect only with my small family circle, to try and stay as healthy as possible, to care about others…to tap into my can-do farm girl attitude of strength, common sense and resilience. For this is but a season of life, one which requires each of us to think beyond ourselves, understanding that our choices matter now, more than ever to the health and safety of all.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Autumn in my Minnesota backyard October 15, 2020

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Looking up at trees in view of my backyard, from our solo maple, to the neighbor’s tree to the woods behind our garage.

AS I WRITE, a grey-haired man leans into the fierce wind as he walks his black lab along the sidewalk across the street. In the distance, a block away, I note a fiery red maple blazing color into the cityscape. Soon, though, my neighborhood will be devoid of color, trees stripped of leaves, as autumn shifts ever closer to winter.

A leaf on a perennial in my yard.

These days, more than ever, I am cognizant of autumn’s departure, of what I anticipate to be an especially long winter ahead with COVID-19.

Our neighbor’s beautiful backyard maple set against a cobalt sky. The tree is mostly bare now.

But for now, I want to take you into my backyard, to scenes I photographed within the past 10 days. My yard presents a microcosm of autumn in southern Minnesota. Colorful. Ever-changing. Cobalt skies one day, grey skies the next.

I’ve been bagging leaves in our yard to take to the city compost pile.

Tuesday and Wednesday I worked in my yard, emptying pots of flowers, raking and bagging leaves, all those seasonal tasks I’ve put off. As I age, I find I don’t enjoy this work as much. I’d rather do fun activities like hike and spend time with my grandchildren.

When I took this photo within the past 10 days, leaves on our maple were still green. Now they’ve turned yellow and mostly fallen off. That’s the wooded hillside adjoining our property.

We have only one tree, a maple, on our property. But woods abut our yard. And leaves from neighbors’ trees don’t understand boundaries.

Time to put away the tabletop fountain on the patio.

The clock is ticking to complete autumn yard work before the first snowfall. To then stash away the rakes and pull out the snow shovels. And, for Randy, to drain gas from the lawnmower and check the snowblower.

Maple leaves blanket the lawn.

But for now, I want to savor these final days of autumn. To appreciate the colors of autumn leaves clinging stubbornly to branches, to walk across the lawn, leaves crackling underfoot.

The colorful wooded hillside behind our garage. What I most dislike about this scene in winter is that I can see the “tornado trees,” the trees broken by a tornado which went through our city and neighborhood two years ago in September.

For soon enough, winter will overtake the Minnesota landscape, defining our days.

The last of the wildflowers blooming in my backyard.

As we await the arrival of spring and the cycle of seasons continues.

© Copyright 2020 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