Who Was That Nice Man?

I usually feel pretty good about being a prairie ecologist and the contributions I make to the world.  But, to be completely honest – and you’ll probably find this surprising – I don’t often find opportunities to use my professional skills to help people around town.  For example, you almost never hear people shout “Is there a prairie ecologist in the house??” or “My house is on fire!  Call a prairie ecologist!”

As a result, I was thrilled to be able to apply my expertise right here in my home town the other day.  I was standing in line at the doctor’s office (nothing serious, thanks for asking) when a woman across the waiting room turned to the woman next to her and asked, “Do you know what ‘buffalo pea’ is?”

“Um, no,” the second woman replied.  (I’m not sure the second woman realized it was a plant question…)

With no regard for my busy schedule or of losing my place in line (ok, I was the only one in line – it’s a small town) I strode over to the woman and said, “Excuse me, I know what buffalo pea is!”

And thus started a very pleasant conversation about prairie wildflowers, the Willa Cather novel she was reading, and her recollection of finding buffalo pea as a young girl  – though she didn’t know the name of it then –and peeling one of the pods apart to see what was inside.  I told her a little about the plant’s flowers and edible fruits, and we talked briefly about how accurately and vividly Willa Cather described the prairie in her books.  The woman was clearly delighted that I’d been able to answer her question and provide even more context on the topic.  Prairie botany saves the day!

Buffalo pea, or ground plum (Astragalus crassicarpus) with ripe pods.  The pods are delicious when they are still green and tender.

Buffalo pea, or ground plum (Astragalus crassicarpus) with ripe pods. The pods are delicious when they are still green and tender.  The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Ok, I know what you’re thinking, but I really don’t need any accolades other than the satisfaction of knowing I helped someone in need.  In fact, I’m sure the woman would have eventually learned about buffalo pea without my help – though she might have had to wait until her grandson’s next visit so he could look it up on his smartphone.  And sure, the woman probably enjoyed her novel much more knowing that she and Willa Cather shared an appreciation for buffalo pea, but, really, I just did what anyone would have done.  Anyone with expertise in prairie ecology, that is.

When we finished our conversation, I excused myself and made my way back over to the receptionist’s desk (there was still no line).  I realized later that I’d forgotten to introduce myself to the woman, or to find out her name.  I can, however, imagine the conversation that must have taken place after I walked away.  The woman surely turned to her neighbor and asked, “Who was that nice man?”

And her companion replied, “Oh, didn’t you recognize him?  Why that’s…The Prairie Ecologist!”

Buffalo pea in bloom.  Helzer family prairie near Stockham, Nebraska.

Buffalo pea in bloom. Helzer family prairie near Stockham, Nebraska.

In case you’re not familiar with Willa Cather’s writing, here are three brief excerpts that mention buffalo pea…

Alexandra often said that if her mother were cast upon a desert island, she would thank God for her deliverance, make a garden, and find something to preserve. Preserving was almost a mania with Mrs. Bergson. Stout as she was, she roamed the scrubby banks of Norway Creek looking for fox grapes and goose plums, like a wild creature in search of prey. She made a yellow jam of the insipid ground-cherries that grew on the prairie, flavoring it with lemon peel; and she made a sticky dark conserve of garden tomatoes. She had experimented even with the rank buffalo-pea, and she could not see a fine bronze cluster of them without shaking her head and murmuring, “What a pity!”

O Pioneers! – Willa Cather

.

One Sunday I rode over there with Jake to get a horse-collar which Ambrosch had borrowed from him and had not returned. It was a beautiful blue morning. The buffalo-peas were blooming in pink and purple masses along the roadside, and the larks, perched on last year’s dried sunflower stalks, were singing straight at the sun, their heads thrown back and their yellow breasts a-quiver. The wind blew about us in warm, sweet gusts. We rode slowly, with a pleasant sense of Sunday indolence.

My Antonia – Willa Cather

.

He struck off by the road,—it could scarcely be called a street, since it ran across raw prairie land where the buffalo-peas were in blossom. Claude walked slower than was his custom, his straw hat pushed back on his head and the blaze of the sun full in his face. His body felt light in the scented wind, and he listened drowsily to the larks, singing on dried weeds and sunflower stalks. At this season their song is almost painful to hear, it is so sweet. He sometimes thought of this walk long afterward; it was memorable to him, though he could not say why.

One of Ours – Willa Cather

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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14 Responses to Who Was That Nice Man?

  1. kismet20 says:

    A delightful entry! I’ve read a lot of Willa Cather (being an English Literature major and all), but had somehow missed these references. And they are especially interesting to me because I figure some of my Nebraska pioneer ancestors must have nibbled on buffalo peas at least occasionally while living near Hastings and Broken Bow. My Great Aunt Lee, who grew up as a girl on the Nebraska prairie and later homesteaded in Oklahoma Territory in a dugout house would have known just what to do with them.

  2. Martha Graham says:

    What a wonderfully written, humorous post. Willa Cather would be proud of you. It made my day.(Ok, I’m retired and there’s not much going on)

  3. Angela Anderson says:

    Delightful! I remember finding and identifying buffalo bean on a rocky outcrop in an oak savanna not long after I came to this country. Very much enjoyed reading Will Cather. My daughter lives in the Nebraska Sandhills and I enjoy visiting there.

  4. Dave says:

    Here is one of my favorite anecdotes of the prairie that is no more. Rueben Pasche was a farmer near here, he has since passed away. He said when he was a boy, they would go out and pick basket fulls of wild strawberries on the prairie. He said they knew they were ripe and it was time to pick them when they could smell them on the breeze. Imagine that, so many wild strawberries you could smell them on the wind!

  5. Becky says:

    Who was that man! You should be proud. Bet you started a lively conversation for her after she left and shared the story of “that prairie man” in the doctor’s office (glad it wasn’t anything serious!) : )

  6. Beth Johnson says:

    “Here he comes to save the day!!!!” I can’t remember where this line came from, but I feel it fits in with your superhero actions. Great post!!

  7. D.E.Bishop says:

    I love meadowlarks and their beautiful songs!

    I grew up on the central SD plains and then the rolling West River SD prairies. I love the land. It carries a vast, peaceful solitude. Thanks for writing about it and studying it. This is my first visit, and I’ll be back. I live in St. Paul, MN now. While there is much to like here, any vestige of prairie space is lacking.

  8. I simply must make up for the deficiencies of my reading back in high school, and read some Willa Cather, now that I have outgrown my youthful dyslexia. Your delightful story and ensuing comments are lovely!

    I marvel at how colorful your butterfly pea (or as we call it in Missouri, ground plum) is. The flowers are cream colored and the fruits green have a mere blush of red around here.

    PS I’ve had a few similar experiences in my life as “the Roving Naturalist”.

  9. Patrick says:

    Ground plum is one of my favorite spring prairie flowers in the Loess Hills, and the fruits are so tender and tasty when young. The progression of the spring flowers is like seeing a parade of beautiful old friends. Only about 6-7 weeks before the first pasque flowers start to poke through!

  10. kaypeters1@cox.net says:

    Yaay for the prairie ecologist! Loved your comments, photos, and Cather quotes. Once a Hamilton County farm girl, Kay Peters

  11. Kody says:

    How’d you know she wasn’t asking about buffalo PEE? But then, I suppose a prairie ecologist is an expert on that too.

  12. Mike says:

    I think you may be suprised at how much you help all sorts of people around the country, mister Prairie Ecologist! Your writing, photography, and blog are an inspiration! Thank you.

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