Hubbard Fellowship Post – Dillon the Prairie Doctor

This post is written by Dillon Blankenship, one of our Hubbard Fellows.

Becoming a Prairie Doctor (or Living in a World of Wounds)

Last weekend I drove back to Arkansas to attend a wedding. It is a sizable drive (approximately nine hours from Wood River), but is manageable with a sufficient supply of snacks and music. The trip went smoothly enough and, with the recent honing of my plant identification skills, I was more aware than ever before of the interesting flora to be seen from the interstate. Of course, much of the scenery included corn and soybeans, but there were also many “wild” plants along the way – goldenrod, sunflowers, hoary vervain. Missouri’s I-29 was lined with Illinois bundleflower.

Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) is a native wildflower commonly seen in roadsides this time of year.

Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) is a native wildflower commonly seen in roadsides this time of year.

Unfortunately, there were a lot of sinister plants to be seen too. Musk thistle, drying up now, sloughed its last seeds into the wind. Old stalks of teasel formed highway-side monocultures. Sericea lespedeza engulfed the road edges and outcroppings as I entered the Ozarks and I was welcomed home by a new patch of Queen Anne’s lace beginning its invasion of the field by my house.

I acknowledge that there are some differences of opinion on exactly how invasive or detrimental some of these exotics are, but given the large amounts of time I have devoted to invasive species control thus far in the fellowship, this sea of weeds was a depressing thing to behold.

It made me think of the oft-quoted line from Aldo Leopold’s Round River essay that, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

These plants were not new to my journey. They were likely there when I first drove to Wood River to interview for the Hubbard Fellowship in February, and they were certainly there when I drove back to Arkansas in June. The difference is that now I can spot these wounds a mile away (I literally see them in my sleep). When I passed them just a few months ago, I had not yet been educated by my mentors at the Platte River Prairies, nor had I invested so many intimate hours into working with these plants (as I spaded and sprayed their cohorts into oblivion).

I am furthering my ecological education on our prairie in many ways – through mastering species identifications, studying the interactions of fire and grazing, working in restorations, conducting wildlife research, and so much more – yet the ever-present threat of invasives continues to have the most pervasive impact on me. I showed some of my friends around the central Platte recently and found myself saying things like, “…and this,” (with a graceful Vanna White arm swing)  “is all Reed canary grass” or “this pretty flower covering the sandbars to the horizon is the nefarious Purple loosestrife.” (editor’s note – we also have many areas that are not completely overrun with invasives…)

Purple loosestrife and reed canarygrass on the bank of the Platte River.

Purple loosestrife and reed canarygrass on the bank of the Platte River.

Even so, now that I am aware of the damages, I do not think I should shirk away in depression or ignore the problem to save my sanity – this assertion goes beyond the scourge of invasive species to encompass all the other wounds out there.  As Leopold continues, you have to know to see, and then you have to study so you can formulate the best prescriptions possible for healing the natural world.

Wish me luck.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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13 Responses to Hubbard Fellowship Post – Dillon the Prairie Doctor

  1. Nate says:

    Great post Dillon!
    Your mention of Aldo Leopold reminded me of another quote of his:
    “We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.”
    Keep striving!

  2. Todd says:

    Great Post Dillon!! I feel your pain on seeing these invasives behind the eyelids.

  3. Lisa says:

    That is one of my favorite Leopold quotes because I identify so closely with it. When I travel with my family they give me a poke every time I point out some ill-advised stream-side land use and say, “That’s going to create some water quality problems.”

  4. Jeremy says:

    Great post! The million dollar question is, how do we get these “wounds” or problems to be seen by the “laymen”? We must get others to see that there is a problem before it can be fixed on a wide scale.

  5. James McGee says:

    When you cannot save everything, you should be content to be able to say that you did all you could.

  6. Novalene thurston says:

    Being an eloquent writer must be one of the criteria for your fellowship. Thanks for the post.

  7. Joanne says:

    Sending good luck wishes your way.

  8. Karen Hamburger says:

    Dillon
    The more I learn about nature the lighter my foot print becomes. I’ve struggled with this same agony. And the complete blindness of others dumbfounds me.

    My most difficult observations are when the price of corn goes up and what little prairie that is left, even the most erodible parts, go under the plow….all for a few more ears of corn and a few more dollars.

  9. Earthyman says:

    About 5 years, we made a trip to the Black Hills in South Dakota. We always go through the Badlands south of Wall Drug. To my dismay, everything was covered with Yellow Sweet Clover. My thought was that the government entity in charge of seeding actually specified this be done. Do you or anyone else know this to be true?

  10. Eliza Perry says:

    You took the words right out of my mouth! Super well-written reflection on a new/heightened awareness I imagine all past and future Hubbard Fellows will be confronted with.

  11. Becky says:

    Beautifully and well written Dillon…..and all who commented. It is the path of knowledge that opened our eyes to see the seemly innocuous invasives for what they truly are. If only we had remained blind to this….but then we would not have seen the truth and become part of the solution.

  12. Patrick says:

    Never forget the power of one, Dillon. Concerted and consistent effort, over time, even by one person, can produce significant and lasting improvements to the landscape. The problem is usually our own impatience. Love the learning, enjoy the journey, and listen and look to the many living things that thank you in their own way for your efforts.

  13. James C. Trager says:

    Excellent post, Dillon. That is one of my favorite (and among the saddest) Leopold quotes.
    A few years ago, I had a home-school high school student earning credit by working with me on restoration projects here in eastern Missouri. He told me near the end of his stay, during a period when was making college visits, that I had ruined his life. Everywhere he drove on his college quest, he said, “All I saw were invasive species!”
    A world of wounds, indeed.

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