Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Sample billboards along Interstate 90 in Wisconsin February 19, 2020

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Drive Interstate 90 between La Crosse and Madison, Wisconsin, and you’ll see lots of billboards around the larger cities and in the area by the Dells. Edited Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

 

BILLBOARDS CAN CLUTTER the landscape. Too many words. Too many materialistic messages. Too much visual imprint when I’d rather see the natural surroundings.

 

As you would expect in Wisconsin, there are lots of signs for cheese places along I-90. Edited photo by Minnesota Prairie Roots.

 

But I understand the value of signs, large or small, in drawing people into businesses, to destinations, to detour off the interstate. That said, I noticed a lot of vacant billboard real estate while traveling Interstate 90 from La Crosse to Madison, Wisconsin, this past weekend. I can only speculate that in a tech driven world, this form of marketing to the masses is declining.

 

Edited photo by Minnesota Prairie Roots. Anyone know the story behind this billboard?

 

Still, I pay attention to roadside signage and noticed a billboard with a simple and profound message: FORGIVE and BE KIND. I photographed the sign within 10 minutes of Exit 69, the road to Mauston and Oxford. A LAMAR Advertising credit runs along the bottom.

FORGIVE and BE KIND. The words are simple enough. But forgiveness and the added directive to “be kind” can prove a struggle when the pain and hurt run deep. Yet, both can be achieved. It takes work. Time. Healing.

 

Another cheese sign along I-90 in south central Wisconsin. Edited photo by Minnesota Prairie Roots.

 

I’d like to hear your thoughts on the FORGIVE and BE KIND billboard and/or on billboards in general.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Not your typical Valentine’s Day story February 14, 2020

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.

That memorable quote from the movie Forrest Gump rings so true in life. To a point. With a box of chocolates, you can choose. You can use the cheat sheet to find your preferred flavor. Let’s call that planning. Or you can take a risk and just grab a chocolate, any chocolate.

And then you bite into the sweet morsel and it’s either exactly what you expected, a disappointment or a sweet surprise.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Life is like that. Some days all goes exactly as we plan. Other days not so much. And then there are those days when you simply want to take the entire box of chocolates and toss them out because the “you never know what you’re gonna get” part is just too much to handle.

Yeah, this seems rather heavy to write about on Valentine’s Day. But there’s a reason. The other evening, while donating blood, I struck up a conversation with the young woman drawing my blood. I noticed a tattoo on her arm and inquired about the poetic sentence inked thereon. I can’t recall the exact wording, but it was beautiful and honored the loved one who penned it. Her brother. Today marks exactly six months since his unexpected death.

I told her how sorry I was for her loss. And then she asked if I wanted to hear the story behind her tattoo and that’s when the phlebotomist told me about her brother and how they’d always wanted to get the same tattoo and now it was too late. And then, while paging through her brother’s journals, she found the quote that now graces her arm.

He was a writer. And a veteran. I looked up his obit online. He struggled, after two deployments, to readjust to life.

As I sat on the table, blood flowing from my vein into a bag that would bring life-saving blood to someone, I considered this young woman, her brother and the loss of his life. She wasn’t bitter. She wasn’t angry. Sad, yes. Yet, she had no choice but to go on with life, she said. I admired her positive attitude in the newness of her grief.

She talked, too, about how writing helps her deal with her loss. Like me, she holds a degree in communications, is a published writer and loves writing. It was reaffirming, even in the darkness of the topic which prompted our conversation, to talk shop with someone who loves the craft as much as I do. I encouraged her to keep writing. She smiled. And I felt that in some way perhaps I’d helped her. And myself. We agreed that writing is therapeutic and that we can’t allow life to get in the way of our writing. No more excuses.

And then, four minutes and 17 seconds after blood began flowing, the collection bag was full and we wrapped up our conversation while she filled tubes and wrapped my arm in tape. I thanked her. And it wasn’t just for her work with the Red Cross.

There’s more.

As I sat at the snack and recovery table, I commented on a patriotic tattoo covering nearly the entire right arm of a blood donor. It honors those who serve, he said. And then the young man directly across the table—the father of three young children who came with his wife to donate—shared that he’s a veteran. His wife, too. She was by this time already giving blood. We thanked him for his service, which includes several deployments. I couldn’t help but think of the other vet, the brother gone.

This felt like one of those moments meant to be. Here a small group of people came together on a bitterly cold Minnesota winter evening to donate blood at the local Eagles Club. And by the time we all left, we felt a connection, bonding over tattoos and stories and a genuine care and appreciation for one another.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. But on this evening we got the choicest of chocolates. Without a cheat sheet. Without any planning or effort on our parts. Because sometimes life brings sweet surprises when we most need them.

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FYI: I welcome any chocolate, especially dark chocolate. Happy Valentine’s Day, dear readers! Make today the day you will reach out to someone, ask a question, listen to a story, offer support, show compassion and love.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

How a drive along a back road prompts thoughts about farming today February 12, 2020

 

I CALL IT THE BACK ROAD to Morristown, Rice County Road 15 south of Faribault and running west to Morristown. The more-traveled main route follows Minnesota State Highway 60.

 

 

But, I prefer the back way, which takes me past farm sites hugging the county road.

 

Looking across a snowy field along Rice County Road 15 near CR 45.

 

Here I feel immersed in the rural setting with less traffic, open land spreading wide under an equally wide sky.

 

 

I know some of the people who live along this road. They are salt-of-the-earth folks, hardworking, caring… Dairy farmers. Retired pig and crop farmer. A farmer who balances crop farming with a full-time job in town. Families raised on the land, with only one son among those I know along CR 15 continuing in farming. One son’s moved to Nashville, where he’s finding success as a professional oboist. I’m working on a story about him for a regional arts and entertainment magazine.

The times they are a changin’.

 

 

But then agriculture has always been evolving. I think back to my great grandparents and my grandparents who broke the land and farmed with horses in an especially labor-intensive way of life. And then machinery replaced horse power for my dad and his farmer brothers. And my middle brother, who no longer farms, saw even more advances in mechanization and technology. I barely recognize the farms of today.

 

 

I’d like to think, though, that those who still work the land do so because they love and value the land. In recent years I’ve observed a shift in attitudes toward a deepening respect of the soil, of using less chemicals (or even none), of adapting innovative erosion control practices, of protecting waterways…

 

 

I recognize the challenges of balancing the need to earn a living from the land, getting the highest yields possible, with decisions about farming practices. It’s not easy. Public perception and government regulations and weather and fluctuating markets add to the stress. It’s not easy being a farmer today. This is not our grandparents’ farm. Nor even our parents.

 

 

To those who choose to live on and work the land, I admire your stamina and determination. While I miss the peace and solitude of living in the country on land where the nearest neighbor lives more than a driveway width away, I realize I never would have made it as a farmer. I don’t have the guts or the fortitude or adaptability necessary to farm.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Documenting rural Minnesota February 6, 2020

 

I OFTEN WONDER, as I travel past farm sites in southern Minnesota, how these places will look in 50, even 20, years.

 

 

Will once grand barns still stand? Will farmhouses be abandoned? Will corporate ag operations completely replace family farms?

 

 

Already the evolution is well underway. Many barns no longer hold livestock, serving instead as storage sheds. Rural houses are not so much farmhouses as dwellings for those working off the farm to supplement their farm income.

 

 

Independent farmers either quit, expand or try to hang on for one more year. Some have become innovative—diversifying, organizing, working together to grow and sell local.

 

 

The rural landscape is changing, shaped by markets and weather and operating costs and government regulations, issues that have always affected farming. Technology, too, now factors into agriculture.

 

 

Some 40-plus years removed from the farm, I’ve witnessed the changes from afar. None of my five siblings stayed on the farm, although two work in ag fields. I no longer have a direct link to the land. And because of that, my children and grandchildren are losing that generational connection to farming, to a way of life. This saddens me. They prefer city over country.

 

 

And so I continue to photograph, documenting with my camera lens the places of rural Minnesota. Therein I present a visual history, a memory prompt and an expression of appreciation for the land which shaped me.

 

 

FYI: This Saturday, February 8, from 1 – 4 p.m., embrace and celebrate locally-grown and crafted during Family Day at the Faribault Winter Farmers’ Market. In addition to vendors, you’ll find hands-on art activities for kids, games, healthy recipes and more. The market is located inside the Paradise Center for the Arts along Central Avenue in the heart of historic downtown Faribault.

These photos were taken last Saturday along Minnesota State Highway 21 on my way to Montgomery.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Repeat: Be still January 28, 2020

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I ARRIVED A LITTLE EARLY at church Sunday for the 8 a.m. worship service, giving me extra time to view art, writing and more created by students at Faribault Lutheran School and displayed in celebration of National Lutheran Schools Week.

Once upon a time I was actively involved in that event, in planning an annual Book Fest. But that was decades ago when my kids attended FLS.

So this display offered an opportunity to reconnect, to learn more about students, classes and FLS community service projects.

As I browsed the display, my eyes landed on the art of a first grader. My mouth actually dropped. The young student drew a simple picture illustrating Psalm 46:10. That scripture emerged as “my verse” in recent months, popping up in hymns, on a handcrafted paper angel, on a print in my mom’s care center, in devotions… And now here.

As a woman of faith, I see this not as coincidence, but as God desiring to put those words before me. Words I need to see or hear or speak, to comfort me, to bring me peace, to remind me that God is always with me. In deeply challenging days—of which I’ve experienced many in the past year—I feel uplifted yet again.

TELL ME: Have you experienced a similar repetition of scripture, meaningful quotes or such in a time when you most needed them?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. January 20, 2020

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A student watches a video about Martin Luther King Jr. at the “Selma to Montgomery Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, in April 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

AS I FINISHED MY BOWL of oatmeal and blueberries this morning, I watched a portion of Good Morning America. A young boy talked about a program he started, Books N Bros, aimed at “empowering boys, promoting literacy, and bringing awareness to African American literature.”

Sidney’s own challenges—specifically with stuttering and bullying—led him to seek refuge in reading. Now he’s using those negative experiences to make a difference by connecting boys to books. His efforts equal love in action, following the example of Martin Luther King Jr.

King rallied and worked for equality on a national stage. I admire his determination, his strength, his hopes, his dreams to make a positive change in this country. We’ve come a long ways. But much still needs to be achieved in racial and other equality.

 

Visitors could photograph themselves and express their thoughts, as shown here in this Polaroid image posted at the “Selma” exhibit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2015..

 

While we need leaders like King and young Sidney to publicly champion for change, we, too, must get involved. It takes all of us, from small towns to major metropolitan areas, to stand up, to speak up, to do something, not just sit there.

So how do we accomplish that? Assess your strengths—because we all have them—and then use them in a positive way. For me, writing and photography prove a powerful tool to connect, to uplift, to inform and more. Words matter. They can help or they can hurt, empower or diminish, support or break down. I recognize the responsibilities I carry as a writer. And as a photographer.

I’ve also been gifted with the ability to listen, a skill that seems more and more a rarity in a seemingly me-centered world. But our family, our friends, our neighbors, even strangers, need us to listen. Just listen. Not turn the conversation to ourselves and our experiences and challenges, but to stay focused on the person talking to us. Them. Not us.

I can’t write enough about the need for compassion. The challenges of life—and I’ve experienced plenty—have made me a stronger and more empathetic person. Some good emerges from every difficulty, although we can’t always see that when we are in the thick of whatever.

Like young book-loving Sidney, I was bullied as a child. Because of that, I advocate kindness. If we all were just a little kinder to one another, not talking at or over others, we would all better understand the perspectives and experiences we bring to conversations. In other words, listen. There’s that word again.

 

Photographed in August 2018 in a storefront window of a business in downtown Faribault, Minnesota. I’ve never forgotten this powerful message posted in my community. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

Today and every day, I hope you will take to heart the many inspiring words of Martin Luther King Jr. and live those words. Through your conversations and your actions.

TELL ME: I’d like to hear how King’s words have inspired you.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Sometimes you just have to walk away… January 9, 2020

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An especially bright spot in the heart of downtown Faribault is the Second Street Garden, a pocket garden with positive messages like this one. Minnesota Prairie Roots edited file photo August 2019.

 

BY NATURE, I AM a quiet observer. Not introverted. But a watcher, a listener, the person who mostly sits back, especially in a room filled with strong personalities.

But that doesn’t mean I embrace overpowering people, especially those who talk over and at others. That type of self-centered behavior bothers me, bothers being a tempered word choice. Lack of empathy, understanding and compassion hurt personal relationships, communities, countries. I see too many people driven by their goals, their agendas, their misinformed/uninformed assessments of others and of situations. Their “I’m right” and “I don’t care if I’m hurting you” perspectives.

How do you fix that on a personal level? The answer: We usually can’t. I’ve learned that unless someone is willing to engage in civil dialogue, it’s probably a waste of time to even have a discussion. I can only control how I react. And sometimes the best way to react is simply to walk away, to let it go, to extract myself from those who are toxic, who lack empathy and the ability to think beyond themselves.

The Minnesota Nice part of me screams, “That’s not very nice!” But the reality is that we all deserve respect. To be heard and understood and loved. Every. Single. One. Of. Us.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling