Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Embracing the writing & art of the Northern Great Plains at SDSU April 19, 2017

“The Prairie is My Garden,” a painting by South Dakota artist Harvey Dunn, showcases the prairie I so love. Here I’ve photographed most of a print which I purchased at a yard sale. I bought the art because I liked it and only learned afterward of its value and prominence. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

ONE OF MY FAVORITE PRINTS, “The Prairie is my Garden,” is rooted in South Dakota. The artist, Harvey Dunn, was born in a claim shanty near Manchester, west of Brookings.

I’ve been to Brookings. Once. While in college, I accompanied a roommate to her hometown where her dad owned the John Deere dealership. I don’t remember a lot about that visit except the fancy house in which my roommate’s family lived and our attendance at the annual Hobo Day Parade. That tradition of South Dakota State University, which peaks in a Jackrabbits football game, is going on its 105th year.

As you’ve likely surmised, Brookings is rural oriented, the university known for its ag focused majors. Students, for example, make ice cream and cheese from milk produced at the SDSU Dairy Research and Training Facility. This is a hands-on college that draws many a rural raised student.

 

The cover of Oakwood 2017 features “Dancing with Fire,” the art of Samuel T. Krueger. Promo image courtesy of Oakwood.

 

This university, where students work with farm animals and where the prairie paintings of a noted Plains artist are housed in the South Dakota Art Museum, seems the ideal setting for Oakwood, a literary journal. Featuring the work of SDSU students, staff and alumni and also of greater Brookings artists/writers and others in the Northern Great Plains region, the magazine releases this Thursday. According to the Oakwood website, the journal embraces a regional identity.

I am happy to be part of that identity with the inclusion of my poem, “Ode to my Farm Wife Mother,” inspired by my mom. She raised me and five other children on a dairy and crop farm about 1 ½ hours northeast of Brookings in Redwood County, Minnesota.

 

A gravel road just north of Lamberton in Redwood County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Most of the poetry I write is based on prairie life. I write with a strong sense of place. The endless open space and wide skies of the prairie lend themselves to creativity. Within the stark setting of rural southwestern Minnesota, I noticed details—the strength of the people, the blackness of the earth, the immensity of the setting sun, the sharpness of a winter wind, the quiet of stillness. I can trace my poetry, my photos, everything I create, to that rural upbringing. I am honored to have my latest poem selected for inclusion in Oakwood 2017 as a writer from the Northern Great Plains.

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FYI: A public reception will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 20, at the SDSU Briggs Library & Special Collections for writers and artists whose work is included in Oakwood 2017. Readings and talks will be featured. Because I live nearly four hours away, I can’t be there. When I can share my poem with you, I’ll do so.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My award-winning water story publishes April 8, 2017

 

 

“Water Stories from a Minnesota Prairie Perspective” has published in southern Minnesota based River Valley Woman’s April issue. My story won the nonfiction category in the “We Are Water” writing contest sponsored by Plum Creek Initiative with the support of The League of Women Voters and River Valley Woman. That honor includes a $250 prize.

I don’t have a hard copy yet, but I viewed the story online. And so can you by clicking here and advancing to page 50 of the April issue. The piece is lengthy per submission guidelines requiring 5 – 12 pages of copy.

No matter how many times I’ve been published, I still thrill in seeing my words out there for others to read and perhaps appreciate. You can find print copies of the magazine in many locations like Mankato, St. Peter, New Ulm, Redwood Falls and surrounding smaller communities. Click here for a complete list.

In reading my story, you will learn of my growing up years on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm, the place that shaped me into the person, writer and photographer I’ve become. Farm life as I remember it from the 1960s – 1970s no longer exists. So this story, while written for a competition, was also written for me and my family. There’s an importance in reclaiming memories through written words, in telling the stories that define a place, in sharing my roots with you, my readers.

FYI: Click here to read my first blog post about winning this writing competition.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Weaving memories and thoughts into a winning water story March 2, 2017

AS SOON AS I READ the first six words of the email—I am so pleased to announce—from Plum Creek Initiative, I knew I had won.

I finished reading the good news, then burst out the kitchen door into the garage. “I won! I won! I won!” I shouted. My husband gave me a questioning look. “I won the contest.”

 

From the Plum Creek Initiative Facebook page.

From the Plum Creek Initiative Facebook page.

 

And then I explained. My nearly six-page “Water Stories from a Minnesota Prairie Perspective,” was selected as the winning entry in the nonfiction division of a contest sponsored by Plum Creek Initiative and the League of Women Voters. The placing earned me a $250 prize and publication in a New Ulm-based magazine, River Valley Woman.

 

I photographed these"We Are Water MN" pins in a jar at an exhibit last summer at the Treaty Site History Center in St. Peter.

I photographed these pins in a jar at an exhibit last summer at the Treaty Site History Center in St. Peter. “We Are Water MN,” telling the story of Minnesota water, accompanied a “Water/Ways” exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street Program. I participated in a “When Water Dreams: A Celebration” by reading my poem, “In which Autumn searches for Water.” Mankato photographer Kay Herbst Helms invited me and other poets to read our water poems, connecting with her photo exhibit, “Water Rights.” Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

Tasked to write on the theme of “We are Water,” I tapped into my growing up years for water memories, weaving in my relationship with water and the importance of water. It worked. I felt really good about the story when I submitted it. But when I read that the sponsors were “overwhelmed with the participation and quality of the submissions,” I doubted myself. I shouldn’t have.

 

The Straight River churns at the Morehouse Park dam in Owatonna.

The Straight River churns at the Morehouse Park dam in Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

Here’s what nonfiction judge Renee Wendinger wrote in part about my story: …noted your ability to “retain a balance of idea, craft, and theme resonant to water…[she] reminds us that water is an integral component, making the processes of life possible, a resource we too often take for granted.”

As a writer, I appreciate such specific feedback. This judge, herself a noted author of orphan train fiction and historical nonfiction books, understood and valued my story. That’s reaffirming.

 

Water rushes over limestone ledges in Wanamingo's Shingle Creek.

Water rushes over limestone ledges in Wanamingo’s Shingle Creek. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Writing about water proved much easier than I expected. My stories flowed one into the other, including a reference to Plum Creek. I grew up only 20 miles from Walnut Grove, where author Laura Ingalls Wilder lived along the banks of that rural waterway. I’ve waded in that creek to the Ingalls’ dugout site.

 

The water runs clear in the North Branch of the Zumbro River in Pine Island. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The water runs clear in the North Branch of the Zumbro River in Pine Island. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

Plum Creek Initiative, a long-term water quality improvement and women’s leadership program focusing on water quality in southern Minnesota, draws its name from Plum Creek. The organization has launched a pilot program in my native Redwood County to address water quality issues. That pleases me.

 

The Zumbro River in Pine Island. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The Zumbro River in Pine Island. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I am pleased, too, with this opportunity to write on the subject of water in a way that will perhaps make a difference. Two North Mankato residents won the other divisions—Holly Ahlbrecht with her fictional “Weaving the Water” (selected by judge Nicole Helget) and Laura K. Murray with a collection of poetry (selected by judge Gwen Westerman).

FYI: Click here to learn more about Plum Creek Initiative. Read the official contest winners’ announcement on the Plum Creek Facebook page.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The rural influence in my writing & photography, plus a farm tour July 12, 2016

Barn, 117 red barn along US Hwy 71 south of Redwood Falls

 

BARNS DRAW MY CAMERA lens like moths to a porch light.

 

Barn, 144 farm site between Olivia and Wilmar

 

My response is reflexive, this focal allure of barns while traveling through rural Minnesota.

 

Barn, 112 bluegreen barn along US Hwy 71 south of Redwood Falls

 

Barns, to me, symbolize rural life. Growing up on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm, I labored in the barn—scooping silage and ground feed, scraping manure into gutters, carrying milk pails from barn to milkhouse, tossing hay and straw bales from the hayloft, bedding straw…

My hair, my skin, my clothing smelled always of cows and manure. I bathed but once a week. That seems unfathomable now. But it was the reality of then.

 

Barn, 145 white barn & cow

 

The barn on our family farm provided more than shelter for the cows. It provided an income, a way of life, a training ground for hard work. No matter what, the cows needed to be tended, fed and milked. Vacations were rare—only two my entire childhood, one to the Black Hills of South Dakota and the other to Duluth. On the occasion when my parents traveled farther, they left my older brother and me home to take care of the farm under our bachelor uncle Mike’s watchful eye.

 

Barn, 142 farm site between Olivia and Wilmar

 

I often told my dad I wanted to be a farmer. He discouraged me. He likely knew what I didn’t, that I wasn’t cut out to be a farmer. I am not a risk taker. And to be a farmer, you need to be a bit of a gambler. You gamble on the unpredictability of weather and of prices. Granted, technology has curbed some of the risk. But still, it’s there.

 

Barn, 132 sheep and barn between Morton & Olivia

 

Instead, I pursued a degree and career in journalism. And then, eventually, I became a full-time stay-at-home mom, setting aside my writing to raise my three kids. Until I found time again to write.

 

Barn, 109 east of Wabasso along US 71

 

In my writing today, unlike my past deliver-the-facts newspaper reporting, I have created a unique voice rooted in rural Minnesota. I may not smell of cow or manure, but those scents linger in my memory, infusing into my writing and photography. I bring a small town rural perspective to my work. I find my joy in writing about and photographing everyday life, everyday places, everyday people, mostly in Greater Minnesota.

The early 1950s barn on the Redwood County dairy farm where I grew up today stands empty of animals.

The early 1950s barn on the Redwood County dairy farm where I grew up today stands empty of animals. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

And it all started in a Redwood County barn.

Fresh eggs and caged chickens attracted lots of interest.

Fresh eggs and caged chickens photographed at an event several years ago at Valley Grove Church, rural Nerstrand. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

YOU, TOO, CAN EXPERIENCE farming this Saturday, July 16, by touring agricultural businesses throughout the region during the annual Eat Local Farm Tour. From Simple Harvest Farm Organics in rural Nerstrand to Mississippi Mushrooms in Minneapolis to Hope Creamery in Hope and 26 other sites, you’ll discover Minnesotans and Wisconsinites passionate about local foods. You’ll meet beekeepers, cheesemakers, berry growers, cattlemen/women, trout farmers and more.

Click here for a listing of sites on the Eat Local Farm Tour, which runs from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Note: With the exception of my home barn, all barns and farm sites featured in this post are located along U.S. Highway 71 in rural Minnesota, from south of Redwood Falls to south of Willmar.

 

 

Thanks for great friends, a grandbaby on the way & no more mice November 26, 2015

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I created this Thanksgiving display in a stoneware bowl. My sister-in-law Rena created the Thanksgiving card.

I created this Thanksgiving display in a stoneware bowl. My sister-in-law Rena crafted the Thanksgiving card.

DURING THIS THANKSGIVING WEEK, thoughts naturally turn to, well, thankfulness.

Life has presented numerous challenges in recent years. But I still have many reasons to give thanks. Like most of you, the obvious food and shelter cannot be omitted from my list of blessings along with my family, my dear dear family.

The extended Kletscher family poses for a photo on the Fourth of July. Seven are missing.

The extended Kletscher family poses for a photo on the Fourth of July 2015. Seven are missing. My nephew’s wife, in the purple-and-white striped shirt, gave birth to a daughter in August. Hattie joins two other great nieces, Sierra and Evelyn, born this year. What a blessing to have all of these new babies on both sides of the family. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

In five more months, my immediate family will grow in size as my eldest daughter and her husband welcome their first baby, my first grandbaby. Excited? Yes, you betcha.

I just know that my husband, Randy, will be a wonderful grandpa. He’s not the most demonstrative with words or emotions. But when it comes right down to it, he’s as good as they come. He works hard. He’s loyal and strong and smart. And funny. He makes me laugh. That is a blessing. Plus, he’s great with kids. Our 2 1/2-year-old nephew Landon, who moved a year ago to rural Faribault with his family, considers Randy one of his “papas” (aka grandpas).

And then there are those close friends… Honestly, these are the people who are here for me through the ups and downs of life. They don’t judge. They don’t criticize. Rather they listen and encourage. They pray and support and show care and compassion. Life would be a lot harder without them.

A snippet of the stained glass window in the balcony.

One of my favorite depictions of Christ, this one in a stained glass window at Trinity Lutheran Church, North Morristown. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Which brings me to my faith. Thank God for God.

This photo from March shows the basement project in progress. We removed Styrofoam insulation and paneling from the clay tile walls. I then painted walls white. We also removed Styrofoam sheets from the ceiling and I painted the ceiling boards white. Later, we also removed the rest of the paneling from the stairway and surrounding area, replacing it with sheetrock. That, too, was painted white.

This photo from March shows the basement project in progress. We removed Styrofoam insulation and paneling from the clay tile foundation walls. We brushed and scraped loose concrete and paint from walls before washing with Borax and painting white. We also removed Styrofoam sheets from the ceiling. I painted the ceiling boards white. Later, we also removed the rest of the paneling from the stairway and surrounding area, replacing it with sheetrock. That, too, was painted white. Floors are now covered with carpet tile. We installed a Beaver waterproofing system and a sump pump. (Yes, eventually I’ll post more about this project.)

And thank God we finally finished our basement project after more than a year. (OK, the steps aren’t carpeted yet, but I’m still calling the project done.) We now have a waterproofed basement with white walls and ceiling. The clean industrial look. Gone are the mold, dark paneling and red carpet. Totes are now neatly organized on a corner shelving unit. But the best part of all—the absence of mice after we uncovered, and sealed, their entry point. Everyone knows the arrival of cold weather in Minnesota brings mice inside.

Given my love of words, I created this Thanksgiving display with thrift store art purchases and Scrabble letters.

Given my love of words, I created this Thanksgiving display in my dining room with thrift store art and Scrabble letters.

I’m not particularly fond of Minnesota’s cold and snowy months. But I am thankful to live in a state that embraces and supports the arts. In the past year, I’ve participated in three poetry readings, been published in two anthologies (poetry and creative nonfiction) and penned poems for a joint photo-poetry exhibit. All of these opportunities connect me to other writers. Minnesota truly is a great place to engage in all facets of the arts.

That's my post, labeled "Barn Memories," featured today on Freshly Pressed.

That’s my post, labeled “Barn Memories,” featured on November 30, 2013, on Freshly Pressed. Daily, WordPress editors highlight the best content from WordPress sites in a section now tagged “Discover.” My work has been showcased thrice on Freshly Pressed. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

I also count this blog as a major blessing. Through my writing and photography, I’ve connected with some pretty fantastic people both in person and online. And, as a blogging bonus, I’ve also sold photo rights to clients ranging from creative agencies to authors to an Austrian musician to a local funeral home and more. I’ve had an especially good year in photo sales, just at a time when the extra income is especially needed. (If you’re interested in buying rights to my photos, email me at audrey at mnprairieroots.com.)

Yes, I am thankful for you, dear readers. You are the best. Happy Thanksgiving!

I purchased this vintage turkey candle several years ago in a Redwood Falls thrift store. The candle has never been lit and never will be.

I purchased this vintage turkey candle several years ago in a Redwood Falls thrift store. The candle has never been lit and never will be.

Read a related story on NPR about gratitude being good for the heart and soul. Click here.

This concludes my three-part “blessings” series.  Click here to read my first blessings post and then click here to read my second.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots named “best local blog” in southern Minnesota October 17, 2014

Minnesota Prairie Roots has been voted the best in southern Minnesota.

Minnesota Prairie Roots has been voted the best in southern Minnesota.

WE DID IT.

Yes, readers, I use the plural “we” because, without you, I never would have garnered the award of Best Local Blog/Blogger in southern Minnesota for 2014.

I was notified several weeks ago of the honor bestowed upon me by the regional arts/entertainment/lifestyle magazine, Southern Minnesota Scene. Editor Rich Larson phoned with the news and then interviewed me. You can read his story by clicking here. Reverse roles for me since I’m typically the one asking questions or gathering information. I prefer holding the pen and notebook.

The cover of Southern Minnesota Scene's November issue featuring the 150-plus "best of" winners.

The cover of Southern Minnesota Scene’s November issue featuring the 150-plus “best of” winners.

Larson requested that I not share the news online until the magazine published. Fair enough. Look for a hard copy of Southern Minnesota Scene so you can read about all 150-plus winners in the “Best of SoMINN 2014.” Or go to the publication’s website by clicking here.

The process of being named best local blogger started late this summer with online nominations. Thank you to all who nominated me. Once ballots were tallied, the top three then entered the online voting process to choose the winner.

I was competing against Kevin Krein, who blogs at Anhedonic Headphones and also writes for Southern Minnesota Scene. Fiction writer Dennis Vogen, a Faribault native who has published three books and is working on his fourth and fifth, was the other nominee. He blogs, too, but has published only eight posts. Too busy, I suspect, working on those books. As Vogen suggested, maybe a category for “best writer” should be added.

I questioned editor Larson about the number of ballots cast in the blogging category. But he declined to release stats, indicating only that the voting was close. He reveals in print, however, that more than 25,000 individual votes were cast in the entire competition and that Owatonna produced the most winners. Last year it was Northfield.

While recognition of my hard work at Minnesota Prairie Roots is welcome, I can’t take sole credit for my success as a blogger. Without you, my devoted readers, this blog would not exist. Thank you for your ongoing support of my writing and photography, for continuing to read and appreciate the stories and photos I share.

You own this award, too.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My prize winning poetry: rooted in rural Minnesota September 19, 2014

LAST SATURDAY I SHOULD HAVE BEEN in northern Minnesota reading my poem, “Sunday Afternoon at the Auction Barn,” at a book release party.

Should have been mingling with other writers at Blueberry Pines, between Park Rapids and Menahga, at lunch, during a writer’s workshop and during readings from The Talking Stick Volume 23, Symmetry.

But, instead, I was cleaning my mom’s house in preparation for putting it on the market. It’s a matter of priorities and setting aside one’s own desires to do what must be done.

While others were enjoying the fellowship of many fine Minnesota writers, I was scrubbing walls and woodwork and floors and holding back tears.

Turek's Auction Service, 303 Montgomery Ave. S.E. (Highway 21), Montgomery, has been "serving Minnesota since 1958." Daniel Turek, Sr., started the third-generation family business now operated by Dan, Jr. and Travis Turek. They sell everything from antique vases to real estate.

Turek’s Auction Service, 303 Montgomery Ave. S.E. (Highway 21), Montgomery, has been “serving Minnesota since 1958.” Daniel Turek, Sr., started the third-generation family business now operated by Dan, Jr. and Travis Turek. They sell everything from antique vases to real estate. Photographing this auction barn last winter inspired my poem.

Oh, yes, I would much rather have been in the Minnesota northwoods reading my prize winning poem. Margaret Hasse, who’s published four collections of poetry, awarded “Sunday Afternoon at the Auction Barn” second place, selected above 89 other poems for that honor.

She wrote:

“I loved how you turned a humdrum occasion of bidding on antiques in an old barn into a closely observed and luminous occasion. The writer John Ciiardi once wrote that close and careful observation can “leak a ghost.” The surprise of your poem was the elevation of a commercial or material enterprise into a spiritual gathering—with a fellowship, liturgy, reverent respect, and people who commune. The ending—visual and concrete—was just right. The poet Franklin Brainerd wrote a poem something to the effect, “in a world of crystal goblets, I come with my paper cup.” There’s something both unpretentious and appealing about “sipping steaming black coffee from Styrofoam cups.”

TS 23

 

I can’t publish the actual poem here. To read it, you’ll need to order a copy of The Talking Stick 23, Symmetry. I’d highly recommend doing so. This anthology features 91 poems, 23 pieces of creative nonfiction and 15 works of fiction from some outstanding Minnesota writers or writers with a strong connection to our state.

The Talking Stick, published annually by the Jackpine Writers’ Bloc, holds a strong reputation, evidenced by the more than 300 submissions from 159 writers. Another one of my poems, “The Promised Land,” and a short story, “Eggs and Bread,” also published in this volume.

Last year I earned honorable mention for my short story, “The Final Chapter.” And before that, my poem, “Hit-and-Run,” also garnered honorable mention.

Such awards reaffirm one’s skills as a writer.

Cornfields snuggle up to one side of Vista's church yard. It's the most beautiful of settings.

Cornfields snuggle up to Vista Evangelical Lutheran Church in southern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

And recently, also in northern Minnesota, my poem, “Hope of a Farmer,” was selected as a Work of Merit by judges at the Northwoods Art and Book Festival in Hackensack. That poem I can publish here. Like nearly every poem I pen, this poem is rooted in rural Minnesota.

Hope of a Farmer

In the slight breeze of a July afternoon,
when ninety degrees and humidity press upon me
at the edge of a corn field stretching into forever,
memories rise and shimmer like heat waves.

I see my father’s work laid out before him—
first, seeds dropped into rich black soil,
next, corn rows carefully cultivated,
then fervent prayers for timely rain.

And I remember how he hung onto harvest hope,
to the promise of golden kernels
brimming grain wagons that swayed
and rumbled to the Farmer’s Co-op Elevator.

This the wind-blown corn leaves whisper
while stalks rise toward the prairie sky,
reaching, reaching, reaching
toward the heavens like the faith of a farmer.

Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling