Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Small town observations from southwestern Minnesota April 3, 2019

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I APPRECIATE THE ODDITIES of small towns. If oddities is the correct word.

But there are things you can do in rural communities that you can’t in others much larger.

For example, while driving through downtown Belview, Minnesota, on a recent Saturday afternoon, I spotted two guys outside the August Donnor American Legion Post washing a tank. One with a hose, the other with hands on hips. Supervising probably.

The scene seemed so iconic rural.

I snapped two frames while Randy and I passed by, returning from the Cenex just down the main street on the northern end of the short business district. I needed a cylinder of Pringles for my mom back at the city-owned care center. She’d asked for them. I found a few canisters in several flavors, a neon orange sticker pricing the potato chips at $2.39. That sticker in itself speaks small town.

I explained my mission to the clerk, who used to work at Parkview, whose mother was once my mother’s table mate in the assisted living part of the facility. That’s the thing about rural Minnesota, too. Lives weave into lives.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Signs of Christmas linger in Minnesota into March March 28, 2019

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ACROSS THE STREET, on my neighbor’s front door, a faded Christmas wreath hangs. Needles dried and dropping. Decorative ribbon faded. In my own side yard, our dried Christmas tree, once buried under snow, lies atop a flowerbed.

 

Christmas greetings on an outbuilding on a farm site just west of Mankato along U.S. Highway 14 photographed on Saturday.

 

It’s not uncommon here in Minnesota to see outdoor Christmas decorations up well into spring. Whatever the reason. I suppose the cold and snow hinder removal, especially this winter.

 

In a New Ulm yard, a sign on a tire swing says, “Santa stop here.” Christmas lights also wrap an entry column on the left. Photographed on Saturday, March 23.

 

Or, after awhile, we simply don’t notice whatever we pass by on a daily basis. That explains, for example, why cardboard covers a section of wall in my dining room. We removed a brick chimney about 10 years ago with plans to add a mini pantry. Such is the stuff of plans detoured by finances. Now I don’t think about that plan much anymore, unless a first-time visitor stops by and I find myself explaining why we have a cardboard wall. But I digress.

 

At the site of Farm Fest and the Gilfillan Estate, the Redwood County Historical Society wishes motorists a Happy New Year.

 

Back to that holiday décor. I photographed several examples of Christmas greetings still in place while traveling back to my native southwestern Minnesota this past Saturday. Hopefully soon spring and/or Easter themed décor replaces signs of Christmas.

 

 

At least one New Ulm business, A to Zinnias Florals & Gifts, recognizes the seasonal change to spring by offering 25 percent off on all bunnies. That would be home decorating bunnies. Not real.

 

Rudolph in a farmyard along Brown County Road 29 west of New Ulm about half way to Morgan.

 

TELL ME: Is it common in your area for seasonal Christmas decorations to stay up too long? Or what defines “too long?”

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Statewide rallies on Wednesday focus on domestic violence March 26, 2019

Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women graphic.

 

FROM GRANITE FALLS on the western edge of Minnesota to Rochester in the southeastern corner. From up north in Bemidji to down south in Mankato. From central Minnesota to the State Capitol. Folks will gather Wednesday at various locations around the state to raise awareness about domestic violence.

Whether you’re from a rural area or a metro area, or some place in between, you ought to care. Domestic violence knows no geographical boundaries, no age limits, no financial status, no occupation, no ethnicity, no anything. It’s prevalent everywhere. It can, and does, happen to anyone.

Your daughter. Your sister. Your friend. Your co-worker. Your neighbor. Your fill in the blank. Maybe you.

While Minnesotans gather in communities large and small, they will also rally collectively in the State Capitol Rotunda from 11 a.m. – noon on Wednesday. They are the voices of survivors. They are the voices of those who help, who encourage, who raise awareness, who empower. They are advocates and community leaders. They are ordinary people. They are, together, a powerful voice. They are us.

Those who gather will also push for legislation that will provide funding for a Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention Program. Such legislation would provide grant monies to nonprofits “for the purpose of funding programs that incorporate community-driven and culturally relevant practices to prevent domestic violence and sexual assault.”

If you’re like me, you probably won’t participate in a rally. But you can, on a personal level, make a difference. Educate yourself. Choose to believe victims and survivors. Stop the blaming. Support, love, encourage. Give financially to a local advocacy group that helps those affected by domestic violence and/or sexual assault. Refuse to look the other way. Refuse to give up. Refuse to remain silent. Speak up. Wherever you live.

FYI: Click here for details on Minnesota communities planning rallies on Wednesday, March 27.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My thoughts on college choices & admission March 14, 2019

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.

 

THE CURRENT COLLEGE ADMISSIONS SCANDAL got me thinking about the whole process of applying to colleges and the pressure on young people today to get into the best, the most elite, the place that will supposedly launch them into successful careers.

Why has this mindset evolved? Who decides if a particular college should get that “best” label?

Why is admittance to certain universities so important that parents will spend lots of money on tutoring and test prep and whatever else to supposedly increase test scores? Some students retake college entrance exams repeatedly in an attempt to bump up scores. I can only imagine the mental angst of that process. And are those scores then truly a reflection of the student’s academic abilities? Or are students setting themselves up for insurmountable challenges if they gain entrance to an especially academically rigorous college?

That’s a lot of questions. I don’t pretend to hold the answers. But I wonder why it’s come to this.

Why are some of the wealthy and powerful allegedly getting away with (until now) buying their kids’ entrances into these top-rated, highly-selective universities? Every single young person should gain admittance to any college on their own merits. But it’s no secret either, that cost excludes many qualified and talented students from colleges. Having money allows others to attend those same colleges.

So, yes, wealth can buy you into a university that is financially out of reach for many families. Yes, financial aid can offset costs, but still may not be enough to make all colleges accessible to all.

Financial talk aside, ideally students should decide on college application choices based on their goals, their aspirations, their passions, their interests. Not on what society or their parents or anyone else thinks. Maybe that so-tagged outstanding university isn’t the best choice. Maybe the best choice is a community college or a state university. Or no college at all.

We as parents, as a society, need to stop putting so much pressure on our kids to achieve. We need to stop comparing, stop interfering, stop trying to micro manage and solve problems. In challenges and failures, our kids learn, too.

We need to stop handing out participation ribbons and trophies to everyone. Kids need to learn from a young age that they’re not always going to be rewarded for simply showing up. Not everyone gets the prize. And that’s OK.

Circling this back to college choices, I hope students choose to further their educations at colleges that challenge them, stretch their thinking, prepare them for their careers, broaden their worlds and more. Not because they think they need to attend a so-called prestigious university.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

How a winter drive refocuses thoughts & inspires creativity March 7, 2019

An abandoned building near Nerstrand, Minnesota.

 

IT IS THE ABSENCE of color. White. Pervasive now in the Minnesota landscape, as one would expect in March.

The whiteness of the southern Minnesota countryside overwhelms vision. Snow layers the land, rooftops, roadways, seemingly every surface. It takes effort to focus on something, anything, beyond the white.

 

 

A much-needed Sunday afternoon drive through rural Rice County provided an opportunity to shift my thinking away from this interminable winter of too much brutal cold and too much snow. Yet, my thoughts never really drifted away from winter. How could they when wind swept snow across the roadway, sometimes finger-drifting drifts?

How could my thoughts wander to spring when everywhere I saw winter?

How could I escape winter when I observed ditches filled with snow to road level?

This drive wasn’t accomplishing what I’d hoped—a temporary alleviation of cabin fever. Who was I fooling? Only a vacation to a warmer climate or a weekend get-away to a hotel could deliver that. Neither will happen.

 

East of Northfield, Minnesota.

 

Realizing that, I tried harder to embrace the winter scenery. My camera allows me to reshape my thinking, to view the world through a different lens. To see beyond the colorless to the color. A red barn.

 

 

A flash of yellow in a road sign.

 

Blue sky backdrops a farm site near Nerstrand, Minnesota.

 

A blue sky.

 

Mailboxes protrude from banked snow in Dundas, Minnesota.

 

With camera in hand, I began to notice the details—to see art-wrapped mailboxes embedded in a snow bank,

 

Snowmobiling near Nerstrand.

 

a snowmobiler powering through winter,

 

 

power poles penciling horizontal lines over blank fields.

And when I saw all of that, the poetry of winter overwrote the absence of light, of all that white.

 

Note: All images have been edited with an artsy editing tool.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When snow piles force you to play chicken March 6, 2019

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I stood in my driveway to show you the height of the snow piled at the end of the drive. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2019.

 

IT’S AKIN TO PLAYING CHICKEN.

That’s the most accurate comparison I can make as we deal with massive snow piles at the ends of driveways and at intersections here in Faribault and throughout Minnesota.

Back out of a snow-banked driveway and you risk hitting a vehicle you may not have seen because of the snow. But even worse, peeking around snow piles at intersections for oncoming traffic.

 

A view of Willow Street, a main arterial street running past my Faribault home. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2019.

 

I live on a corner lot along a heavily-traveled street in Faribault. I am thankful our driveway is on the side street. Most driveways along this arterial route are not. My side street is busy also, serving as a direct route for parents, students and others to get to the Catholic school just blocks away.

I’m surprised I haven’t witnessed a crash at this intersection. I’ve heard vehicles honk warnings. It’s just a matter of time before a collision occurs. That could be serious given the rate at which many vehicles travel. I often wonder at those drivers who exercise no caution when circumstances call for caution.

 

Another snow obscured intersection in Faribault.

 

So what’s the solution? I’d love to see city crews clear the vision-blocking snow piles at the T-intersection by my house. Public safety is at risk. But I also realize crews are overworked and taxed by continual snow removal as storm after storm after winter storm brings record snow to our area. They have done a great job with snow removal during and right after snowfalls.

I’ve observed additional snow clean-up during lulls between snow events. Just last week several blocks around the Catholic school were widened and snow hauled away. I’m OK with that. Those streets needed widening to accommodate on-street parking and room for emergency vehicles.

But my street, a main route through town, could use widening also and removal of vision-blocking snow piles built by city snow removal equipment. Thousands of vehicles, including emergency vehicles, drive this route daily.

For now, drivers continue to nose into the intersection by my house and hope they don’t miss seeing oncoming vehicles.

TELL ME: Are you dealing with vision-blocking snow piles in your community? Have you witnessed or experienced a collision/near-collision because of snow pile issues? What do you suggest as a solution? (Other than fleeing to a warm weather state.)

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Beer, conversations & creativity on a winter day in Minnesota March 5, 2019

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2018.

 

AS I SIPPED my double IPA at Chapel Brewing in Dundas on Sunday afternoon, I snuggled under a fleece throw inside the revamped long ago chapel. I couldn’t shake the brutal cold of the winter day, even inside this cozy, albeit not particularly warm, building. I removed my mittens, keeping my coat zipped over a flannel shirt and hooded sweatshirt.

I perched on a stool next to the wall, next to a window overlooking a snow-covered deck, snow layering locked down tables and chairs. I wondered how many months before the snow melts, before craft beer lovers will sit outdoors on the riverside deck. It’ll be awhile.

For now, they settled for glimpses of spring on a corner TV screen broadcasting a pre-season Twins game. I was in the minority with no interest in baseball. Only a lush flower commercial for Gertens drew my attention and a personal public service announcement of “Hey, look, spring.”

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2018.

 

They laughed. The mostly men dressed in mostly flannel shirts. Some, like me, kept their stocking caps clamped on their heads. I felt a sense of closeness in this gathering of strangers unknown to Randy and me. There’s something about the craziness of coming out on a bitterly cold March afternoon during a forever winter of too much cold and snow that builds community. We’re all in this together. We’re surviving. We’re trying to make the best of what this winter has handed us.

 

Inside Chapel Brewing. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2018.

 

And then in walked the two guys from Cannon Falls, one dressed in striped bib overalls. I flashed to my farmer dad, who would have celebrated his birthday on Monday. He’s been gone now for nearly 16 years. Dad always wore striped bibs. The stranger’s attire offered me no choice but to comment on his clothing. He’s a farmer, too. Prior to arriving at the brewery, he stopped near Medford to look at a digger dug from the snow by the seller. Now that’s gumption, braving bone-chilling cold to shop for a piece of farm equipment.

 

Kolsch beer served at Chapel Brewing. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo February 2018.

 

The things you learn when you decide to strike up a conversation over a beer. I also learned the bibbed farmer appeared in a campaign commercial for a Minnesota politician. He showed me the clip on his phone.

When another beer drinker overhead me say I grew up in Redwood County near Vesta, he chimed in. He’s familiar with the area, having attended Southwest Minnesota State University in neighboring Marshall back in the 1970s. He knew Vesta then as “the cult town,” a term I’d never heard but which likely traces to a religious sect in my hometown. A Twin Cities area native, he didn’t fit into the ag-oriented college all those decades ago. I also learned he lost his wife a year ago and offered my sympathies.

It amazes me sometimes what I learn by observing, by starting conversations, by reaching out to people. I am, by nature, an introvert. I’d rather listen than talk about myself. But I am, by nature and by educational and professional backgrounds, curious. I notice details. I observe. And by observing and caring about others’ stories, I discover connections that spark my creativity. Even in the depth of a long Minnesota winter.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling