Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Signs say a lot about small towns like Pine Island November 30, 2022

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Photographed in the window of a downtown Pine Island business, a locally-focused message. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

SIGNS, WHETHER PROFESSIONALLY-CREATED, handcrafted or handwritten, provide insights into a community beyond simply identifying information.

Like many small towns, Pine Island has a hardware store. I’ve always liked the iconic Hardware Hank signage. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

I find myself drawn to signs, especially when exploring small towns. Three months ago my attention focused on signage in downtown Pine Island. This community of nearly 3,900 some 15 miles north of Rochester in Goodhue County provides plenty of signs to catch my interest.

A snapshot of historic architecture in downtown Pine Island. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Likewise, I am drawn to the town’s historic architecture.

This banner hangs in the heart of Pine Island, where the Douglas State Trail runs through. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

This was not my first visit to Pine Island. I’ve dined here, picnicked at Trailhead Park, followed the Douglas State Trail a short distance, popped into an antique shop and more. I wonder how often motorists traveling along busy US Highway 52, if they have no connection to the community, pull off the four-lane to explore. Pine Island, along the Zumbro River, is worth a stop, a walk, a close-up look, as are most small towns.

My favorite signage find in Pine Island. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2022)

As historical accounts go, the Dakota sheltered here in tipis during the winter months, thick pine boughs protecting their temporary homes from the wind and snow. A stand of pines once stood here, like an island in the prairie. The town’s name comes from the Native word wazuweeta, translated to “Isle of Pines.”

Such a welcoming message on the window at Miss Angie’s Place. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

My brief walk through the heart of Pine Island revealed none of that Indigenous history. However, I spotted community pride, diversity, entrepreneurship, compassion and more in signs. Signage says a lot about what people value, about a business community, about communicating in a succinct and eye-catching way.

Entepreneurs posted their services in a business window in Pine Island. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
The smiley face drawn on this “Closed” sign shows a positive and appreciative spirit. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Some of my favorite finds are handwritten or homemade notes posted in shop windows. I appreciate these messages in our fast-paced, technology-based world. A dash of writing, perhaps added art, combine to create meaningful, connective communication that feels decidedly personal.

Words and art make it clear this is a restaurant that serves tacos and more, perhaps with some heat. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)
I especially like the graphics on this sandwich board with the “O” doubling as a head.
The comb and scissors back up the words for this Pine Island hair salon. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

My interest in signs traces to my love of words and of associated graphics. Both matter to me. I even make product decisions sometimes based solely on either. In Pine Island I noted the art on Taqueria Let’s Go Tacos signs and how that connects with the restaurant’s heritage and food. The same goes for The Little Hair Salon with comb and scissors graphics on signage.

Letters mark the location of the IOOF. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

In another location, I needed to sleuth online to decipher the meaning of I.O.O.F. and three other faded letters, FLT, linked in a link on a dirty window pane. The letters stand for Independent Order of Odd Fellows and their mission of Friendship, Love and Truth.

Potted mums and a sign draw customers to the lower level Henry’s Hair Designers. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

These are the things I discover in small towns, those places often passed by as people hurry from one destination to the next. Each community is unique. I discover individuality in words and art bannered upon buildings, taped on doors and windows, printed on sandwich boards…

In this touching scene near Pine Island’s Hardware Hank, the bold yellow sign to the left summarizes the subject of this post. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2022)

I glimpse a town’s personality through signage as I explore places like Pine Island.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Fleeting fall thoughts from Faribault November 4, 2022

Colorful trees photographed from my backyard. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo mid-October 2022)

WE KNOW IT’S COMING. Winter. Yet, we Minnesotans hope for one more glorious autumn day. One more day of warm temps. One more day of no snow. The reality, though, is that this is November and the weather can shift just like that to cold, grey and, well, seasonal.

A maple on my lawn in all its fall glory. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo mid-October 2022)

With the exception of minimal rain in an already drought-stricken state, this fall in southern Minnesota has been exceptional with many sunny, warm days and lovely fall colors.

Autumn brings lots of yard work (like raking leaves) in preparation for winter. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo mid-October 2022)

Minnesota fully embraces autumn with unbridled enthusiasm. It’s as if we need to pack in as much as we can, outdoors especially, before we settle mostly inside for the winter.

The restored clock on the historic Security Bank Building in downtown Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2015)

The end of daylight savings time this weekend signals that seasonal shift. It will get darker earlier and that, psychologically, triggers an awareness of winter’s impending arrival. I find myself just wanting to stay home in the evening, snuggled under a fleece throw reading a good book.

A page from “Count Down to Fall” in the current StoryWalk. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Sometimes that may be a children’s book. Picture books aren’t just for kids. I find the stories and illustrations therein inspiring, entertaining, informative, poetic. In Faribault, Buckham Memorial Library even brings picture books right into the community via a StoryWalk. Pages from a selected picture book are posted in protective casings along several blocks of Central Avenue to the library. The currently featured book is Count Down to Fall written by Fran Hawk and illustrated by Sherry Neidigh.

Book cover source: Goodreads

Recently I listened to Children’s Librarian Deni Buendorf read the book online. I love her enthusiasm as she reads page after page of this rhyming story focused on different leaves—painted maple, oval birch, craggy oak… It’s a perfect autumn read.

Book cover source: Goodreads

Soon this season ends and we enter the long, hard winter months. Interestingly enough, I am currently reading Cindy Wilson’s award-winning The Beautiful Snow—The Ingalls Family, the Railroads, and the Hard Winter of 1880-81. Lest I think winters now are sometimes difficult, I need only reference this book of nonfiction to understand that I have nothing, absolutely nothing, to complain about in the year 2022. Remind me of that come March.

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NOTE: In a project similar to Faribault’s StoryWalk, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport features a Minnesota-authored children’s picture book on panels placed between gates C18 and C19 in Terminal 1. Each book is in place for two months in this Picture Book Parade.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflections on harvest from fields to art October 13, 2022

Harvesting, left, in a field along a gravel road near Dundas. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

DUST HANGS OVER THE LANDSCAPE like smoke. Hazy. The air dirty with debris kicked up by combines sweeping across corn and soybean fields in southern Minnesota. Harvest is well underway here as farmers bring in the season’s crops.

Trucks haul harvested crops from fields to bins and/or grain elevators. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

From back country gravel roads to the interstate, I’ve witnessed this scene unfolding before me in recent weeks. Combines chomping. Harvested corn and beans spilling into grain trucks.

Harvesting beans. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo October 2022)

Farmers work all hours of the day and night in the rush to finish gathering crops before winter arrives. In the dark of night, bright headlights spotlight fields. In daylight, sunlight filters through clouds of dust.

A grain truck pulls into a farmer’s grain drying and storage complex. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Harvest is part of my DNA by having been raised on a southwestern Minnesota crop and dairy farm. Decades removed from the land, I still take notice of the harvest. The smell. The hues. The hurry. I understand this season in rural Minnesota.

“Harvest” by Raymond Jacobson. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

In nearby Northfield, I recently happened upon a bronze sculpture, “Harvest,” which had gone unnoticed by me. It’s been there since 2008 at Sesquicentennial Legacy Plaza along the Cannon River, near the post office, near Bridge Square. In all my visits to Northfield, to the Riverwalk area, I missed this public art created by Raymond Jacobson.

Close-up details of the wheat incorporated into “Harvest.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

The historic Ames Mill along the Cannon River. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

An interpretation of a stone grist mill for grinding wheat into flour is included in the sculpture. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

It’s beautiful, fitting for a community rooted in agriculture. The 3,000-pound sculpture symbolizes Northfield’s heritage of wheat farming and milling. Just across the river sits the Ames Mill, where the gristmill in the late 1860s produced 150 barrels of wheat daily.

Malt-O-Meal was a major funder for the sculpture. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

In 1927, John Campbell of the Campbell Cereal Company took over the mill and began producing Malt-O-Meal hot cereal. Today Post Consumer Brands owns the mill and still makes that hot cereal. Dry cereal is manufactured at a nearby production facility. Many days the scent of cereal wafts over Northfield.

Harvested wheat and a plowed field cast into bronze. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

All of this—the smell of cereal, the “Harvest” sculpture, the historic Ames Mill—reminds me of the importance of agriculture in our region. It reminds me, too, of my rural roots. I am grateful for my farm upbringing. I am grateful, too, for those who today plant, tend and harvest crops. They are essential to our economy, feeding the world, providing raw product.

Wheat stalk details on an informational plaque which is nearly impossible to read due to weathering of the writing. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

That this season of harvest is honored in a “Harvest” sculpture shows a deep appreciation for history, heritage and agriculture in Northfield. The public art gives me pause to reflect on inspiration in creativity. Today I celebrate the artistic interpretation of harvest displayed along the banks of the Cannon River.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts from southern Minnesota on Indigenous Peoples’ Day October 10, 2022

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. Broken promises led to the 1862 war. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo)

TODAY, INDIGENOUS PEOPLES’ DAY, I think of the US-Dakota War of 1862. When as a high school student I studied that war, I felt an immediate connection to the event which occurred in my home county and neighboring counties in southwestern Minnesota. My interest sparked because this happened in my backyard. Today I have a much better understanding of the 1862 conflict among the native Dakota peoples, the settlers and the government. My learned “white” perspective has shifted, my viewpoint has broadened. That has come through listening, reading, educating myself.

A public art installation at Northfield’s 2022 Earth Day celebration. Northfield has a Land Acknowledgement Agreement. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2022)

I see the same shift in attitudes throughout our nation, state and communities today. Land acknowledgment agreements are being written. There’s an awareness that indigenous peoples are the original inhabitants of the land, including in my home county of Redwood and my home of the past 40 years, Rice County.

I recently learned that the Wahpekute, part of the Dakota Nation, placed their dead on scaffolding on land just up the hill from my Faribault home. Land that is now a city park. After a year, the bones of the deceased were moved a few blocks away to a permanent burial grounds. That cemetery is not marked as such. Up until a presentation by Susan Garwood, director of the Rice County Historical Society, I was unaware that Peace Park was a sacred place, not simply a triangle of land with a WW II memorial along busy streets. Efforts are underway in Faribault to landmark such places of importance, to honor the Dakota.

A must-read novel based on fact.

It starts at a grassroots level, this unraveling of the truth, this recognition, this acknowledgment. I’ve toured museum exhibits, read books, attended presentations and more to assure that I am informed. I highly-recommend reading the award-winning book, The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson. (Click here to read my review.)

I value that awareness of Indigenous Peoples’ food, culture, history and more is growing. In Minneapolis, diners can enjoy North American traditional indigenous food at award-winning Owamni by The Sioux Chef, for example.

Back in my home county, the Lower Sioux Indian Community is working hard to assure its culture remains strong through ongoing traditional events and teaching of the Dakota language.

A bison herd has been reintroduced to the prairie at Minneopa State Park near Mankato. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2019)

I still have much to learn about the Indigenous Peoples of Minnesota. That I admit. Perhaps much of it is really unlearning. Today I pause to honor those who called this place, this southern Minnesota, home first, back when prairie grasses stretched high, bison roamed and the land was respected.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Parts of Rice, Le Sueur & Nicollet counties in all their autumn splendor October 3, 2022

The beginning of our day trip took us west out of Faribault along back county roads. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

AUTUMN POPPED COLOR—brilliant oranges, reds, yellows—into the landscape on an October day as beautiful as they come here in southern Minnesota.

Harvesting beans along Le Sueur County Road 12. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Throughout Rice, Le Sueur and Nicollet counties, leaves are rapidly changing, splashing hillsides, groves, shorelines and other stands of trees in spectacular seasonal hues.

Photographed at the public boat landing on Horseshoe Lake just off Rice County Road 14 by Camp Omega. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Randy and I headed on a fall color drive Monday morning, referencing the DNR Fall Color Finder guide promising plenty of colorful leaves to the west. Hours of traveling mostly county roads (including gravel) through the southern Minnesota countryside on our day-long drive provided incredible leaf viewing.

The distant shoreline of Horseshoe Lake blazes fiery colors. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Retracing our exact route through Rice and Le Sueur counties and a small section of Nicollet County would be nearly impossible. But we started out by heading west on Rice County Road 12, eventually following CR 14 to Horseshoe Lake by Camp Omega. The public boat landing there was our first stop to view a lakeside treeline ablaze in fiery hues.

Crops ripen against a farm site backdrop in Le Sueur County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

It wasn’t just the trees that drew my eye. I love, too, the acres of corn and soybeans drying under the autumn sun. The muted gold of corn leaves adds to the sense of seasons shifting.

A grain truck holds the harvest along Le Sueur County Road 12. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Harvest is well underway with combines and grain trucks in fields. I appreciate the rural landscape any time of year, but especially now as farmers bring in the crops.

Cattle in a pasture along CR 101 on the way to the Kasota Prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

From fields to farm sites (especially barns) to roadside vegetable stands to cattle in pastures, I found myself reconnecting with my agrarian roots, my prairie roots, while on this day trip.

A memorable message marks the entrance to the Kasota Prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Fiery hillsides of trees edge the Kasota Prairie in the distance. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)
A lone cedar stands atop a hill on the Kasota Prairie. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Near Kasota, we turned onto Le Sueur County Road 101 off CR 21 and took a winding gravel road about five miles to the Kasota Prairie. It was worth the dusty road, the meandering drive, to reach this grassland. As we pulled into the parking lot and hiked an uneven dirt trail into the prairie, I stopped multiple times to photograph the distant treeline painted in shades of mostly orange, red, brown… This prairie is a must-see, oh, so lovely, showcasing backdrop trees that hug the Minnesota River.

Colorful treelines can be seen along both sides of US Highway 169. Stunning. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Color in the Minnesota River Valley is near-prime. Originally, we’d intended to tour Mankato, but shifted gears when I learned that my poem, “The Mighty Tatanka,” is not yet posted as part of The Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Instead, we drove to St. Peter and took US Highway 169 north out of town. And wow, oh, wow. The colors along the stretch of highway from St. Peter to Le Sueur, especially, are spectacular. This is a must-drive right now. Don’t wait. Not one day. Not two days. Go now.

A memorable barn because of its copper-hued roof. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Heading east on Minnesota State Highway 19 toward New Prague, we turned south at Union Hill and shortly thereafter took a gravel road to State Highway 13, then turned onto Le Sueur County Road 145, landmarked by a barn roof the color of copper set against an autumn backdrop of trees.

A road sign that fit the day’s purpose, to view leaves. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

If I remember correctly, this farm site is along Leaf Trail. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Heading back toward Faribault, another stunning treeline next to a cornfield. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

More gravel roads, including one appropriately named Leaf Trail, and blacktop eventually led us to Millersburg and aiming home to Faribault mostly along CR 46. Interstate 35 may have been a better choice for fall colors based on the colorful trees spotted there on Sunday between Faribault and the first Lakeville exit.

A view of Lake Washington from the public boat landing. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

But by then it was late afternoon, many road miles later with stops at lakes and the prairie and a park for a picnic lunch. We’d had a full day. A day full of autumn in Minnesota at its best. Warm. Mostly sunny. And ablaze in colors, the reason I so love this season.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reflecting on the Wahpekute in my area of Minnesota August 4, 2022

Following the Wahpekuta Trail (albeit incorrectly spelled) at Sakatah Lake State Park, rural Waterville, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

IF I WAS TO CLIMB the hill behind my house through the tangle of weeds, wildflowers and woods, I would reach Wapacuta Park. But it’s easier to take the street and then the mowed hillside to this Faribault city park.

Years ago, this was the go-to spot for our family—for the kids to zoom down the towering slide and scale the massive rock in the summer and to slide down the sledding hill in the winter. Today it’s a place to occasionally take the grandkids to play on the updated playground.

My research shows this sign at Sakatah Lake State Park should be spelled differently, as Wahpehkute. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

But years ago, oh, so many years ago, this spot of land belonged to the Dakota. That I assume given its name—Wapacuta, even though incorrectly spelled. The correctly spelled Wahpekute are members of the Dakota Nation. My county of Rice is the homeland of these indigenous peoples. They are an integral part of Faribault history. Town founder and fur trader Alexander Faribault traded with the Dakota who lived in the area.

A posted map of the park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

To the west, along Minnesota State Highway 60 between Faribault and Waterville, Sakatah Lake State Park also reflects the Dakota influence in its name. The native Dakota called the land thereon Sakatah or “singing hills” in their native language.

Native peoples sourced water directly from the Sakatah lakes, unlike here via a water pump. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

The Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail runs through the park for three miles. That trail spans 39 miles from Faribault to Mankato, another Dakota-sourced name correctly spelled Mahkato, meaning “greenish blue earth.” Mankato is the site of the largest mass execution in US history with 38 Dakota hung on December 26, 1862, after the US-Dakota War of 1862. It is a horrible atrocity in our state’s history and one which, to this day, remains unknown to too many Minnesotans.

Southern Minnesota lakes are typically polluted/green, not sky-tinted. Here the fishing pier at Sakatah State Park is inaccessible, not linked to land, due to excessive ice damage last winter. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

We are a state with many location names tracing back to the Dakota—Mankato, Wabasha, Wabasso, Sleepy Eye, Winona, Winnebago… Even the name Minnesota comes from the Dakota Mnisota, meaning “sky-tinted waters” and referencing the Minnesota River.

I saw several motorboats on the lake at Sakatah. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

On a mid-June visit to Sakatah Lake State Park, rural Waterville, I thought about the Dakota who lived on this land, including at a village on the point separating Upper Sakatah and Lower Sakatah Lakes. I imagined the Wahpekute gliding across the lakes in canoes, angling for fish in these waters.

Mushrooms cling to a tree in the woods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

Then, as I followed the Wahpekuta Trail, I wondered about hunting and berry picking and perhaps mushroom gathering in the denseness of woods.

The Sakatah campgrounds fill quickly, like many Minnesota state parks. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

And, instead of campers in these trees, I imagined tipis.

We have much to learn as we follow the trails of history. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

I have much to learn about the Wahpekute. But at least I hold basic knowledge of their early presence here, of their importance in the history of this place I call home.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Southern Minnesota bird stories, past & present July 27, 2022

A tiny bird perches in a fountain at the Rice County Master Gardeners Garden, Faribault, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2022)

I HAVE A MIXED OPINION of birds. I appreciate them at a distance, but not necessarily up close, although I’ve grown more comfortable with their nearness as I’ve aged. Just don’t plunk me in an enclosed garage or other space with a trapped bird. Outdoors is mostly fine.

Unfolding of wings to splash in the fountain. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Recently I observed a cute little yellow bird, a finch, I think, dip into a tree stump water feature at the Rice County Master Gardeners Teaching Gardens at the county fairgrounds in Faribault. With a zoom lens on my 35 mm camera, I photographed the finch briefly splash in the water before flitting away. There was something joyful in that sole moment of focusing on a tiny winged creature.

Water droplets fly as this bird bathes in the fountain. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

We need such moments of simplicity. Of peace. Of birdsong, even if this bird isn’t singing. Moments to quiet our souls in the midst of too much busyness and too many distractions. And too much technology.

I remember how my mom loved the Baltimore orioles that one year, quite unexpectedly, showed up on my childhood farm in southwestern Minnesota flashing orange into the trees. She thrilled in their presence among all the blackbirds, sparrows and barn swallows. In her delight, Mom taught me that not all birds were like the swooping swallows I despised.

In my years of doing farm chores, I grew to dislike the swallows that dived as I pushed a wheelbarrow of ground feed down the barn aisle or shoved cow manure into gutters. That the barn ceiling was low only magnified their, to me, menacing presence. The swallows, I now acknowledge, were only protecting their territory, their young, in the mud nests they built inside the barn. And they ate mosquitoes, which I should have appreciated.

Yet I don’t miss the swallows or the rooster that terrorized my siblings and me, until the day Dad grabbed the axe and ended that.

More than 40 years removed from the farm, I seldom see barn swallows. Rather, in my Faribault backyard, I spot cardinals, wrens, robins and occasionally a blue jay. The front and side yards, however, bring massive crows lunching on remnants of fast food tossed by inconsiderate motorists who find my property a convenient place to toss their trash. I’ll never understand that disrespectful mindset of throwing greasy wrappers and bags, food bits, empty bottles and cans, cigarette butts, and more out a vehicle window.

And so these are my evolving bird stories—of shifting from a long ago annoyance of swallows to understanding their behavior, of delighting in the definitive whistle of a cardinal flashing red into the wooded hillside behind my Faribault home, of observing the feeding habits of crows in my front and side yards drawn to garbage tossed by negligent humans.

TELL ME: I’d like to hear your bird stories, positive or negative.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Transitioning into spring in southern Minnesota March 23, 2022

In one of two open ponds at Faribault Energy Park, geese settle in. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

AFTER WHAT SEEMED an especially long, cold winter in Minnesota, spring is emerging. And although the calendar confirms that with the vernal equinox on March 20, I need only look around me to verify this change in seasons.

Last year’s berries still cling to branches. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Several days of gloriously warm weather, capping with 70 degrees on Monday, meant lots of time outdoors in the warmth and sunshine. And nature, mostly nature.

Dirt roads wind around ponds at Faribault Energy Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I especially delight in following the packed dirt roads at Faribault Energy Park. Even with its location next to busy Interstate 35, the park provides, for me, a preferred place to immerse myself in the outdoors. I love the wide sky, the prairie feel of this landscape.

Just a snippet of the blackbirds I saw in these trees. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

As I began my walk around the on-site ponds that attract waterfowl aplenty, I hear first the overwhelming chorus of birdsong. Red-winged blackbirds, perched high atop a cluster of trees, trill a song of spring. I welcome the music.

Canadian geese. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
An overview of the smaller pond. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
A mallard drake and hen. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

On two of the three ponds, I observe ducks and geese—mostly geese—rippling gracefully across the open water.

This pond right next to the energy plant was mostly iced on the first day of spring. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

The water on the pond nearest the energy plant remains frozen except along the fringes where an angler catches and releases bass and bluegills. It’s a good place to fish with kids, he says, or for someone like him, a kid. I laugh.

By the pond, evidence of a busy beaver. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

As I follow the paths and walk along main pond’s edge with camera slung around my neck, I notice the remnants of seasons past interwoven with signs of spring.

Nearly hidden, last season’s nest. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
Sumac remnants. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)
A dried milkweed pod. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Dried leaves, sumac, grasses, cattails, berries, milkweed pods, pine cones, even a bird nest tucked low in the crook of a tree, remain from months earlier.

Dogwood. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

But now, amid all those visuals of autumn and winter, spring pops. Red dogwood colors the brush.

Pussy willows just beginning to open on the first day of spring. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

Pussy willow buds open, tracing a line of mini cotton balls along slender branches.

Last season’s pinecones. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

I take in this seasonal change. With my eyes, then my camera. And I listen to those blackbirds in concert, interrupted by the occasional applause of geese against the background music of I-35 traffic.

A swan navigates across a frozen pond (near the Energy Park) by I-35. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2022)

It’s good to be here, to experience the beginning of spring. To connect to the earth along muddy dirt roads. To feel, hear and observe the transition of seasons as we step into spring in southern Minnesota.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Valentine’s Day in brutally cold southern Minnesota February 14, 2021

Valentine’s Day weekend weather warnings for southern Minnesota.

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY from southern Minnesota, where my thoughts today focus more on the brutally cold weather than on this day of love. The weather monitor atop the fridge early this morning showed minus 18 degrees outside our Faribault home. That’s air temp. Factor in windchill, and it feels even colder.

The windchill warning on my phone yesterday.

Minnesota remains in a windchill warning with windchills of 35-50 degrees below zero. That’s biting cold. Dangerous cold. Exposed skin can freeze in a matter of minutes cold. Nothing to mess with cold.

Friends mailed this handcrafted valentine from northwestern Minnesota, where the temps and windchills are even colder than here in Faribault. I love this valentine. So thoughtful. So lovely.

If you’ve never experienced cold like this, trust me when I say I can feel the cold filtering from outdoors through the walls and windows after endless days of this frigid weather. Ice films the upstairs windows. If I pull away the rag rug positioned at the bottom of the front door to block air leaks, I’ll find a line of frost. The furnace is working overtime. Water from the kitchen faucet gushes ice cold. I’ve partially opened the cupboard door so heat can flow toward the vulnerable water pipes. No one wants pipes freezing, furnaces stopping or vehicles breaking down.

A valentine’s heart crafted decades ago by my kindergarten son from fabric and paint and, oh, so dear to me.

We postponed a weekend trip to visit our son, daughter and son-in-law in Madison, Wisconsin, because of the weather. We didn’t want to risk our van breaking down during that four-hour drive. Not that it would, but things happen.

Art from the grandchildren, given to us last weekend as an early Valentine’s Day gift. Their art adorns our fridge.

Saturday in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness east of Ely, the temp plummeted to 50 degrees below zero, according to a story on Minnesota Public Radio. If that weather station reading is confirmed, it will break a new record low for February 13 in Minnesota. The record for that date was minus 46 degrees set in 1916 in Detroit Lakes.

A weather alert banners the front page of Saturday’s Faribault Daily News.

Today’s high temp here in southern Minnesota is expected to reach only minus eight degrees. Tomorrow? Minus three.

Vintage valentines from my mom’s collection and displayed on a dining room shelf in my home.

I have no intention of going outside. Instead, I’ll write, read, enjoy a delicious valentine’s meal of tuna steak and veggies, and a glass of wine, with Randy. And I’ll think of those I love—the family I miss, friends who are dear—and summer days of green grass and flowers and the wind blowing warm breezes.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Delighting in a Sunday afternoon drive in rural Minnesota May 12, 2020

We met an occasional vehicle on our country drive southeast of Faribault, Minnesota.

 

I ABSOLUTELY, UNDENIABLY needed this. To drive into the countryside on a Sunday afternoon. To get away. To view the greening of the land. To forget for a half hour about the realities of life. To focus on nature. To photograph rural Minnesota.

 

We drove past farm sites.

 

Past lovely barns…

 

Clouds and cold weather defined Mother’s Day in southern Minnesota.

 

And that’s exactly what Randy and I did mid Mother’s Day afternoon, aiming southeast of Faribault to follow back country gravel roads. My sense of direction doesn’t exist. I trust Randy to steer us onto roadways that fulfill my need to go at a leisurely pace, to stop when I see something I must photograph, to appreciate the details of place.

 

Following gravel roads. Up and down.

 

Occasionally the cloud-heavy sky spit rain onto the windshield as we dipped up and down, hilltops offering sweeping vistas of a lush landscape.

 

We spotted corn coming up in this field along 250th Street East southeast of Faribault.

 

Corn popped green, curving rows into one field.

 

Chickens strayed from a farm site across the road to a field.

 

Those chickens seem so small in the vastness of farm fields.

 

Rogue chickens paused in another field to observe us while I swung my lens to photograph them.

 

An old farm site along 233rd Street East.

 

It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a gas barrel like this.

 

At one point, atop a hill, we studied a farm site below with broad barn, weathered corn crib and a red gas barrel next to an aged shed. Such building sites remind me of yesteryear, when an assortment of small structures defined a farm place.

 

That baby goat wanted so badly to scale that rock, without success.

 

Even the adult goats are cute.

 

And then, the road curved, leading us to the sweetest surprise of the drive—goats, fenced on both sides of the roadway. Windows rolled down, we heard their plaintive baa and watched as a baby goat struggled to climb a rock. I ooohed and aaahed over the cuteness of these goats.

 

Spring blooms, finally, in southeastern Minnesota.

 

Too soon we headed back to town. Randy needed to light the charcoal grill to smoke and cook a pork roast for supper. A Zoom call with family awaited us, too. But, in that short time, I found exactly what I needed—a joyful, therapeutic and sweet escape into the southeastern Minnesota countryside.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling