Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“The Seed Keeper,” an award-winning book every Minnesotan should read June 21, 2022

Cover design by Mary Austin Speaker. Cover beadwork art by Holly Young. (Credit: Publisher, Milkweed Editions)

VISUALIZE A PACKET OF SEEDS. Then open the envelope and spill a handful of seeds onto your open palm. What do you see? You likely envision seeds planted in rich black soil, covered, watered, sprouting, growing, yielding and, then, harvested. And while that visual is accurate, seeds hold more. Much more.

Photographed at Seed Savers Exchange near Decorah, Iowa. The farm specializes in saving heirloom/heritage seeds. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo October 2018, used here for illustration only)

I just finished reading The Seed Keeper, Diane Wilson’s debut novel and winner of the 2022 Minnesota Book Award in the Novel & Short Story category. I’ve never felt so profoundly and deeply moved by a book rooted in history. Wilson’s writing is like a seed planted, nurtured, then yielding a harvest of insight and understanding.

Part of a public art installation at the Northfield Earth Day Celebration in April. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2022)

Hers is the story of the Dakota people, specifically of several generations of women, The Seed Keepers. Hers is the story of a connection to the land, sky, water, seeds and of reclaiming that relationship. Hers is a story of wrongs done to indigenous people in Minnesota, of atrocities and challenges and struggles. Past and present. Hers is a story of wrongful family separation and of reuniting with family and community.

A full view of the art planted in Northfield for Earth Day. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2022)

At the core of Wilson’s novel are the seeds. The seeds, stored in a willow basket, and eventually passed through the generations. The seeds that not only provided food for their families’ survival, but held the stories of Dakota ancestors and a way of life.

Words on a marker in Reconciliation Park in Mankato where 38 Dakota were hung on December 26, 1862. Wilson references the park, and the theme of forgiveness, in her novel. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2012)

The subject of this book holds personal interest to me because of its setting in southwestern Minnesota, site of The US-Dakota War of 1862. Wilson covers that war, including the hanging of 38 Dakota warriors in Mankato. As a native of Redwood County, I studied that war, even researched and wrote a term paper on the topic some 50 years ago. But I expect if I read that paper now, I would find many inaccuracies. My writing was shaped by the White (settlers’) narrative without consideration of the Dakota. I long ago realized the failings of that narrow-minded, biased perspective.

Even though I wasn’t taught the whole story, at least I was aware of The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. It was centered in my home region and in neighboring Brown County, where my maternal ancestors fled their rural New Ulm farm for safety in St. Peter. Many Minnesotans, I’ve discovered, are unaware of this important part of our state’s history.

The Seed Keeper, though fictional, reveals just how devastating this war was to the Dakota people in removal from their native land, in their imprisonment and in efforts by Whites to control and shape them. I found this sentence penned by the author to be particularly powerful: What the white settlers called progress was a storm of fury thundering its way across the land, and none of us were strong enough to withstand it.

This 67-ton Kasota stone sculpture stands in Reconciliation Park in Mankato. It symbolizes the spiritual survival of the Dakota People and honors the area’s Dakota heritage. The park is the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2019)

Still, strength sprouts and grows in The Seed Keeper through a riveting storyline that stretches back to Marie Blackbird in 1862 and then follows main character Rosalie Iron Wing through the decades to 2002. Even her name, Iron Wing, evokes strength and freedom. Rosalie marries a White farmer, births a son and her two worlds collide.

A photo panel at the Traverse des Sioux Treaty Center in St. Peter shows Dakota leaders photographed in Washington D.C. in 1858. The photo is from the Minnesota Historical Society. The quote represents the many broken treaties between the Dakota and the U.S. government. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013)

I was especially drawn to this statement by a Dakota elder in Wilson’s book: People don’t understand how hard it is to be Indian. I’m not talking about all the sad history. I’m talking about a way of life that demands your best every single day. Being Dakhóta means every step you take is a prayer.

Wilson writes with authenticity as a Mdewakanton descendant, enrolled on the Rosebud Reservation. She’s walked the steps of the Dakhóta.

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TELL ME: Have you read The Seed Keeper and, if so, what are your thoughts? I’d encourage everyone, Minnesotan or not, to read this award-winning novel.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Back at Seed Savers Exchange for a close-up look, Part II October 19, 2018

A garden lab at Seed Savers Exchange, photographed in September.

 

I ALWAYS THOUGHT THAT, as an adult, I would grow a big garden from which I would gather produce to eat fresh, can and freeze. But the reality is that, since leaving my childhood farm 44 years ago, I’ve never lived in a place with enough sunny space for a garden.

 

An easy-to-grow-from-seed flower, the sturdy zinnia, photographed at Seed Savers Exchange.

 

Sure, I’ve grown tomatoes in pots and seeded lettuce and spinach into the earth, but not with great success. I’ve had my most success with herbs. I began growing those only in recent years and wonder why I didn’t do so earlier. The taste of freshly-clipped rosemary, basil and oregano is superior to dried.

 

Cow art at Seed Savers Exchange.

 

While this sign warned of a bull at Seed Savers, I never saw one.

 

Dying morning glories drape the Seed Savers barn accented by a vintage lawn chair.

 

While lack of land and time kept me from gardening, I appreciate the art I learned long ago on a Minnesota farm. There I planted, weeded and harvested in the garden.

 

This signage explains the test garden at Seed Savers.

 

A sign at Seed Savers for cucumbers I tasted in Faribault.

 

Flowers and vegetables mix in Seed Savers gardens.

 

I appreciate those who continue the time-honored tradition of gardening. Like Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. Like family members. Like those who sell fresh produce at farmers’ markets. Like my local library, which has a community garden. From that public garden I sampled this summer lemon cucumbers and chocolate peppers, originating from Seed Savers seeds. And when I entered Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault, I passed by pollinator friendly flowers like the draping Kiss-Me-Over-the-Garden-Gate blooms, also from the Seed Savers collection.

 

About those morning glories on the barn…

 

 

There’s lots to learn at Seed Savers Exchange.

 

Seed Savers, even for a now non-gardener like me, proves an interesting place to visit. For the history. For the education shared in signage and plants. For the reminder that it’s important to save seeds, to grow the food we eat, to plant the flowers that bloom beauty into the landscape and into our souls.

 

So many seeds to choose from at Seed Savers…

 

…even milkweed seeds to plant for Monarch butterflies.

 

TELL ME: Are you or have you been a gardener? I’d like to hear your stories. Or, if you’ve been to Seed Savers, I’d like to hear your take on this place.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Feeling right at home at Seed Savers Exchange in rural Iowa, Part I October 18, 2018

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HAVE YOU EVER VISITED a place where you were so comfortably at home that you felt as if you’d been there before, but you hadn’t?

 

 

Seed Savers Exchange just north of Decorah, Iowa, feels that way to me. A nonprofit that preserves heirloom plants through planting and nurturing and seed saving, Seed Savers appeals to the farm girl in me. The peaceful setting. The red barn. The ruralness of it all. Iowa. So like my native southwestern Minnesota.

 

 

A tangle of plants, some towering, some not, drew me into a garden near the massive red barn where young women scooped seeds from ripe tomatoes during a mid-September visit. This is their work, this preservation of seeds. I thought of hippies and pioneers and how this tedious labor matters.

And I thought of biting into a sun-warm tomato plucked from the garden, juice trickling from the corners of my mouth. Memories from the farm.

 

 

 

 

I watch Monarchs and bees wend among towering stems of Kiss-Me-Over-the-Garden-Gate blossoms, their flight like words of poetry in Diane’s Garden.

 

 

 

 

There’s so much to love about this place. Berries in the back of a pick-up truck. Chicks clustered, safe behind chicken wire. A path that leads away from the farm site to narrow streams. Quiet as only quiet can be in the countryside.

 

 

 

 

 

And then a second garden on the other side of the Lillian Goldman Visitors Center. Here my favorite flower—the simple zinnia and corn drying to harvest and sunflowers heavy with seed. And more, oh, so much more.

 

 

Inside the visitors center, the results of it all—rows and rows and rows of stocked seed packets. Bull’s Blood Beet. Rat-Tailed Radish. Hungarian Heart Tomato. What to choose from among all the alliterations, all the words that write of bounty and beauty. I choose Sea Shells Cosmos Mix for myself, Gold Medal Tomato for a niece with a passion for gardening.

 

 

I wish I could stay here, far from the stresses of life. I feel a peace in being here, sequestered from reality, from noise, from the world. There’s something about Seed Savers Exchange that feels comfortably familiar to me. Like I lived on this land once, walked below this blue sky, wandered among the waving blossoms of Kiss-Me-Over-the-Garden-Gate. Yet I’d not been here prior to this visit. Except perhaps in the poetry of words and of memories.

PLEASE CHECK BACK for more photos from Seed Savers Exchange.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The promise of spring in a seed packet March 20, 2011

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A few of the flower seed packets I have stashed away for the upcoming gardening season.

WHEN MY FRIEND MANDY offered me a pick of flower seed packets recently, I snatched up the cosmos. Next to zinnias, they are my favorite flower to grow from seed.

The simple sight of photographed blooms on a seed package lifted my spirits on a night when snow was falling. Again.

It has been an incredibly long winter here in Minnesota with more snow than I can recall in years. Thus, the possibility of spring seems as unlikely as state high school basketball tournaments without a blizzard.

But for now, a gardener can dream of cupping tiny seeds in her palm and scattering them upon soil that holds the promise of summer. She can dream of snipping stems, of gathering colorful blooms into beautiful, bountiful bouquets.

I WROTE THIS POST 10 days ago and simply didn’t get around to publishing it until today, the first day of spring. This morning, while in church, I heard the boom of thunder. It is raining here, with a brisk wind.

Snow mountains are melting. Wide swatches of muddied grass lie exposed to the elements, a welcome sight after this long and weary winter. But then again, snow is forecast for later this week, as tips of tulip plants push through the soil. This is Minnesota, after all, and we are never quite certain when spring will officially arrive. We mark the season by the arrival of warmth and bared grass and emerging flowers, not by a day on the calendar.

 

A bouquet of wildflowers plucked from a public garden (not by me) in Fulda, Minnesota, last summer.

Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling