Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

To the Minnesota northwoods for a book release party September 20, 2017

 

 

TWO READINGS BEFORE MINE, Norma Thorstad Knapp stepped to the microphone to share “How Much She Had Lost.” As she read of her aging mother’s desire to waltz one more time, emotions rose. My throat constricted. Tears seeped from my eyes. Thinking of my 85-year-old mother, I wondered how I could possibly compose myself enough to read my short story.

 

I pose in front of Blueberry Pines Golf Club, setting for The Talking Stick book release party. Photo by Randy Helbling.

 

I signaled my husband for a tissue, then wiped my eyes. I sipped water through a straw. And I struggled to pull myself together before I stood behind the podium in this room full of writers and their supporters gathered at Blueberry Pines Golf Club between Menahga and Park Rapids for the release of Fine Lines, The Talking Stick, Volume 26.

 

 

Too soon, Sharon Harris, co-editor along with her niece, Tarah L. Wolff, introduced me and my story, “Art Obsession.”

 

Reading “Art Obsession.” Photo by Larry Risser Photography, Minneapolis.

 

I was on, reading the words that this year earned an honorable mention in fiction. Four other pieces, among the six I submitted, also published: “Grocery Shopping” (fiction); “A Lot of Prairie and a Little New York” and “The Weekly Phone Call” (both creative nonfiction); and “Not Quite Perfect Penmanship” (poetry).

 

 

 

 

It’s an honor to have my writing published in this outstanding collection of works by Minnesota writers or those with a strong connection to Minnesota. The 2017 anthology includes 152 pieces by 100 writers. I don’t envy the task of The Jackpine Writers’ Bloc editorial board in selecting stories and poems for publication from among 370 submissions by 159 writers. Noted writers LouAnn Shepard Muhm, Marge Barrett and Rochelle Hurt selected the first and second place winners from the board’s top picks.

As I listened to stories and poems for several hours with minimal comprehension of time, I delighted in the talent of these writers. Marlene Mattila Stoehr drew me in with her “Spurned Heirloom” poem that left me pondering whether my family treasures will some day, too, end up as thrift store cast-offs.

I laughed at Charles Johnson’s “Jimmy Gets an Earful” poem that sounded, oh, so Minnesotan to my ears.

 

The book cover photo was taken by Tarah L. Wolff.

 

A strong sense of place, of Minnesota, imprints upon the pages of The Talking Stick. I can relate to the settings, the experiences, the observations and more crafted into so many of the pieces in this exceptional anthology.

 

After the readings, some of us socialized. That’s Randy and me at the end of the table. I am seated next to Sharon Harris. Photo courtesy of Larry Risser Photography, Minneapolis.

 

This book is a labor of love for co-managing editor Sharon Harris. She holds a passion for writing and for this area of Minnesota. After the readings, a group of us gathered in the bar to celebrate and to talk. I’d never met Sharon, although we’ve corresponded and talked via phone many times through the years. Past commitments have kept me from attending previous The Talking Stick release parties. Sharon is as delightful in person as I anticipated. Her appreciation for the craft of writing is evident in her dedication to creating this anthology.

 

 

I felt an energetic vibe and sense of community among all of the writers. We share a love of writing. That passion flowed in words read to an appreciative audience gathered on a grey Saturday afternoon in a sprawling log cabin style building tucked among the jackpines of northern Minnesota.

Updated below at 4:30 p.m. September 20

FYI: I will be signing and selling (limited) copies of the anthology during a Local Authors Fair from 6 – 7 p.m. November 9 at Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault. Fine Lines, The Talking Stick Volume 26 is also available for purchase online. Check amazon.  Or order through The Talking Stick website by clicking here.

Photos by Larry Risser Photography are copyrighted and used with permission here.

Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Why I appreciate the arts in Minnesota May 11, 2017

A snippet of the colorful and whimsical mural created by Lynette Schmidt Yencho for the Owatonna Arts Center library. Art surrounds these children.

 

GROWING UP IN RURAL southwestern Minnesota many decades ago, my exposure to the arts was minimal. I don’t recall attending a single art show, concert or theatre production outside of a public school. If such opportunities existed, I was either unaware of them or my parents had no money for such extras.

 

During a one-day fundraiser, the Owatonna Arts Center sold original serigraphs (silkscreen prints) produced by Alice Ottinger and Jean Zamboni of OZ Press in Owatonna. The press no longer operates. If you are interested in a print, contact the art center.

 

Opportunities to develop my creative interests did not extend much beyond English, music, art and home economics classes, except for the two weeks of shop class in which I crafted a linoleum block print. I always wished I could play piano or an instrument. But there was no time or money for either. I still cannot read a single note of music.

 

Fruit bowl art in the Owatonna Arts Center library.

 

I don’t begrudge my parents for not exposing me to the arts. They had to keep the dairy and crop farm running and a family of eight fed. Finances were tight.

 

The 65th Annual Steele County Art Exhibition is currently showing at the Owatonna Arts Center. Here’s a sampling of art in that show.

 

Early on I learned that, if I wanted new clothes, I would have to sew them. This was back in the day when sewing clothing was far less expensive than buying ready-made. If I got store-bought clothes, they always came from the sales rack. I loved the sewing process—paging through thick volumes of Simplicity, Butterick and McCalls patterns; perusing bolts of fabric; and then cutting and sewing the fabric into wearable clothing.

In some small way, I created art. Not of my own design. But I could express myself through fabric selection and pattern choice.

 

Another section of the Owatonna Arts Center library mural by Lynette Schmidt Yencho. My love of reading as a child spurred my interest in writing.

 

I also created art in my writing. No teacher encouraged me, other than to praise my near-perfect penmanship, spelling and excellent English language usage skills. My writing was limited to class assignments and later writing for the high school newspaper, The Rabbit Tracks. I attended high school in Wabasso, which means “rabbit” in Ojibwe. Our mascot was a white rabbit.

 

A room of books and art…in the Owatonna Arts Center library.

 

Why do I tell you all of this? I share this because my background explains why I have such a deep appreciation for the arts. That cliché of “absence makes the heart grow fonder” can be applied to the near absence of art in my life early on.

 

Doors open into the OAC gallery housed in an historic building.

 

Today, living 120 miles to the east of my hometown, I have many opportunities to enjoy the arts locally in Faribault and neighboring Owatonna and Northfield at arts centers, public schools, colleges and more. I am grateful that the visual, literary and performing arts hold such high value in Minnesota.

 

More art in the Steele County artists’ show.

 

Some would argue that the arts are not necessary. I contend that they are. We all have within us that innate need to connect with others. The arts offer that interconnection, that weaving together of creativity, of humanity, of a desire/need to express ourselves. I am grateful to be part of the community of artists through my writing of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and blog posts and through my photography. I am thankful, too, for the art opportunities available to me right here in my backyard and throughout Minnesota.

 

TELL ME: Do you embrace the arts either/and or by creating or enjoying them? Please share specifics.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Artwork photographed with permission of the Owatonna Arts Center. Art is copyrighted by the artists and may not be copied and/or reproduced.

 

Published in Oakwood: My latest rural-rooted poem honors my farm wife mom April 28, 2017

An abandoned farmhouse along Minnesota State Highway 19 east of Vesta, my hometown. The house is no longer standing. This image represents my rural heritage and looks similar to the house I called home for the first 11 years of my life. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

MORE THAN 40 YEARS removed from the farm, my creative voice remains decidedly rural, especially in the poetry I write.

My latest published poem, “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother,” honors the woman who raised me, alongside my father, on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm. My parents were of good German stock, a hardworking couple who believed in God, in family and in the land. I carry that heritage with me, ever grateful for my rural upbringing.

 

Dad farmed, in the early years with a John Deere and Farmall and IH tractors and later with a Ford. (Photo by Lanae Kletscher Feser)

A photo of my dad, Elvern, taken in 1980.

 

Life in rural Minnesota in the 1960s and 1970s was hard. I see that now from the perspective of an adult. My dad worked long hard hours in the barn milking cows and equally long hard hours in the fields. Farming was much more labor intensive then.

 

The only photo I have of my mom holding me. My dad is holding my brother, Doug.

 

Likewise, my mom’s job of caring for our family of eight required long hard hours of labor. She tended a large garden, preserved fruits and vegetables to stock the freezer and cellar shelves, baked bread from scratch, washed clothes with a wringer washer, did without a bathroom or telephone or television for many years, and much more.

 

My parents, Vern and Arlene, on their September 25, 1954, wedding day.

 

Sometimes I think how much easier my mother’s life would have been had she not married my dad and stayed at her town job in Marshall.

 

Our family Christmas tree always sat on the end of the kitchen table, as shown in this Christmas 1964 photo. That’s me in the red jumper with four of my five siblings. I write about this red-and-white checked floor in my poem.

 

But then I remind myself of how much family means to my mom and I could not imagine her life without any of her six children. She centered us, grounded us, taught us kindness and gratitude, instilled in us a loving and compassionate spirit.

 

Arlene’s 1951 graduation portrait.

 

She has always been mom to me, a mother now nearing age 85. But there was a time when she was Arlene, not somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother. There was a time when she and my dad danced away a Saturday night in a southwestern Minnesota dance hall. They met at a dance.

 

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

 

Those thoughts inspired me to write “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother,” published last week in South Dakota State University’s literary journal, Oakwood. I am honored to have my poem selected for inclusion with the work of other writers and artists from the Northern Great Plains. It’s a quality publication that represents well those of us who call this middle-of-the country, often overlooked place, home.

 

Ode to My Farm Wife Mother

Before my brother,
you were Saturday nights at the Blue Moon Ballroom—
a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey in a brown paper bag,
Old Spice scenting your dampened curls,
Perry Como crooning love in your ear.

Then motherhood quelled your dancing duet.
Interludes passed between births
until the sixth, and final, baby slipped into your world
in 1967. Thirteen years after you married.
Not at all unlucky.

Life shifted to the thrum of the Maytag,
sing-song nursery rhymes,
sway of Naugahyde rocker on red-and-white checked linoleum.
Your skin smelled of baby and yeasty homemade bread
and your kisses tasted of sweet apple jelly.

In the rhythm of your days, you still danced,
but to the beat of farm life—
laundry tangled on the clothesline,
charred burgers jazzed with ketch-up,
finances rocked by falling corn and soybean prices.

Yet, you showed gratitude in bowed head,
hard work in a sun-baked garden,
sweetness in peanut butter oatmeal bars,
endurance in endless summer days of canning,
goodness in the kindness of silence.

All of this I remember now
as you shove your walker down the halls of Parkview.
in the final set of your life, in a place far removed
from Blue Moon Ballroom memories
and the young woman you once were.

                                         #

Four generations: Great Grandma Arlene, Grandma Audrey, mother Amber and baby Isabelle, all together for the first time in July 2016 in rural southwestern Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

I took some liberties with my poem. I doubt my mom ever drank whiskey. But back in the day, folks brought booze bottles in brown paper bags to dances for set-ups. She didn’t dance in the Blue Moon Ballroom, although one once stood in Marshall. Arlene went to dances in Ghent, in a dance hall whose name eludes me. Blue Moon sounds more poetic. But the rest of the poem is factual right down to the Naugahyde rocker and my mom shoving her walker down the hallways of Parkview.

FYI: You can view my poem on page 78 of Oakwood, found online by clicking here. My bio is published on page 89, listed among the other 40 contributors’ bios. I am grateful to SDSU in Brookings for the opportunity to be part of this magazine which showcases the creative voices of Plains writers and artists. I shall always feel proud of my rural upbringing, the single greatest influence on me as a poet, a writer, a photographer.

Copyright 2017 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 promo for 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.