Hubbard Fellowship Blog – The Zen of the Prairie

This post is written by Katharine Hogan, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Katharine hails from Vermont, but came to us with broad experience from across much of the country and a strong interest in restoration ecology.  As you can tell from her writing, she is bright and introspective, and a keen observer of the natural world. 

During the hottest part of the summer, I found myself drawn outside late one night by an almost strobe-like flashing outside. Upon walking out onto the lawn, I saw two massive storm systems, one to the west and one in the north. Both were lit up with the almost constant flare of purplish lightning from within and around the heavy clouds. There was no thunder to be heard at that point, and the night was still; even uncannily quiet considering the diversity of life surrounding me in the prairies and river bottoms. The only readily apparent signs of animal life were fireflies dancing by the hundreds over the lawn and in the prairies across the road.

As I sat on the grass watching the lightning and the fireflies and enjoying the comparative drop in temperature, I looked up and realized I wasn’t as alone as I had assumed. On top of a nearby telephone pole sat a great horned owl, silhouetted dramatically by the lightning. We both stayed in our respective positions for some minutes, me watching the storms and the owl presumably watching the world of small rodents and prey that lay entirely beyond my perception. It sat perfectly still, until it almost lazily spread its wings and dived across the road into the vegetation. I found myself wondering if this predator had similar awareness of the storm as I did, and if it did, did it care in the least? Did the storm impact its life and hunting habits in any way, or did it take it all in stride (or wingbeat) as business as usual?

Upon reflection, I think that, in the long run, it sometimes doesn’t matter what storm is about to hit. The larger than life scheme continues on, and is affected less than we might initially think by those disturbances that throw off our normal, comfortable rhythms. Prairies embody this resilience in perhaps more ways than the ecosystems in which I’m used to spending time. In forested Vermont, land becomes more valuable as wildlife habitat as disturbances wane and the trees mature over decades. The Pacific northwest temperate rainforests progress similarly across an even longer time frame. The balance of the deserts in which I’ve spent the most time are even more fragile. Once burned or pushed out by invasive vegetation, native plant communities are hard pressed to recolonize, especially with the increasingly drier climate trends in those regions.

Prairies, however, march to an entirely different drummer (the drumming of prairie chicken wings, maybe?). They thrive on complex patterns of multiple types of disturbance. Grazed short? Not a problem, those species will redistribute their energy pathways and wait for the opportune time to regrow. Burned to the ground? Different species will return for the first time in a few growing seasons with renewed vigor. The annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus) on the Platte River Prairies hasn’t gotten this far by maintaining stability; H. annuus and a myriad of other annual “weeds” come and go as the opportunities of the moment so allow them. Even the severe drought of 2012 didn’t hold the prairie community back significantly; plant populations suffered losses for a time before building up their numbers again.

Prairie plants emerging from the ground following a prescribed fire. The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies.

Resilient prairie plants emerging from the ground following a prescribed fire. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

I have a tendency to overanalyze and get caught up worrying about potential outcomes at the expense of the moment’s opportunities. Like other aspects of my life, this is a work in progress. That hot summer night, from the thought processes inspired by watching the nonchalance of that great horned owl in the face of the massive power and potential destruction of the storm, I realized that the prairie has some valuable life lesson to offer in those regards. It’s okay to experience setbacks, even ones that at the time seem overwhelming. The time for recovery and much of our growth is after those stormy times that can knock down everything beneath them, and not so much in the presence of stability. It’s okay to feel like you just watched all your efforts go up in flames; those efforts have roots underground that will survive and come back when times change. It’s okay when it feels like the world is not giving you much to go on, rain will return and there will be newer, more lush growth than before.

This is what the prairies say to me when I find myself getting caught up with questions from the past and the unknown outcomes of the future. May the unhurried resilience of the prairies help us to sit back, relax a little and enjoy the present for everything that it has to offer. After all, this is the only place we can ultimately ever truly be, and the only time in which we grow.

Thanks for reading! I will leave you all with a sketch I adapted from one of the remarkable photographs of Michael Forsberg, from his book On Ancient Wings (page 104).

DSC_0237

Cranes over the Platte River – adapted from a photo by Michael Forsberg.  (That strange “S” in the sky is from the impression of the manufacturer’s watermark on the paper, in case anyone was wondering why I decided to invent a new type of cloud.)

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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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11 Responses to Hubbard Fellowship Blog – The Zen of the Prairie

  1. Sharron Gough says:

    Excellent! Katharine articulates with precision what it is–why it is–we are drawn to nature and why we choose to be held in receptivity to the flow of her myriad expressions.

    Sharron Gough

  2. Karen Hamburger says:

    Katharine

    Great post and wonderful insights, but I was disturbed by the repeated referrals to the owl as “it”.
    Isn’t it time we give the life that shares our planet a place of equality in our hearts and minds?

    Respectfully
    Karen

    • Katharine Hogan says:

      Hi Karen,
      Thank you for your thoughts! I definitely went back and forth with how to refer to the owl while writing this. In the end it came down to the generic pronoun “it” being the most straightforward option without arbitrarily assigning a gender to an unknown individual.

  3. James McGee says:

    After time one becomes numb to the prevalent use of the word resilient to describe prairie. It is hard to think of something as being resilient when it is all but gone. Sure prairie can survive drought and fire. However, what happens to prairie when fire is withheld. What happens to prairie when a new species is introduced and invades. What happens to prairie when railroads and utilities decide their right of ways could be more easily maintained by broad cast spraying herbicide. What happens when people use a prairie to grow crops, build tract housing, or make a golf course? After the above has occurred, the only place a prairie can be seen is in a book. Even well maintained preserves are losing quality over time and we don’t really know why. I volunteer and send The Nature Conservancy money, but I know it really isn’t enough. I will never see the prairie as it was hundreds of years ago. If I am lucky I will be able to settle for a diminished version in a small plot of neglected public land behind a fading sign.

  4. Ann Bleed says:

    Katherine – This post was inspiring to me in so many ways. I see a Sand County Almanac in the making, with at least a sub-title of “The Zen Lessons from a Prairie.” Please keep at both the writing and the drawing as you go about your restoration work. I am in awe of your sketch. Even the S from the water mark is a neat mark.
    You not only made my day but inspired me to do more of my own restoration work, both within myself and in the world. Please keep it up.

  5. beespeaker says:

    Very powerful piece. Keep writing!

  6. Elizabeth Middleton says:

    Thank you for sharing this reflection. The prairie has so many lessons to teach us about ourselves. I will carry this perspective with me when I am on and off the prairie.

  7. Valerie says:

    Beautiful!

  8. Beautifully worded. I could see and feel myself in the prairie with the owl watching the glorious storm. Thanks.

  9. Great post and illustration, Katherine! Your sketch looks exactly like a foggy morning I spent filming cranes on the Platte and makes me nostalgic for it.

  10. Karen says:

    ” Upon reflection, I think that, in the long run, it sometimes doesn’t matter what storm is about to hit. The larger than life scheme continues on, and is affected less than we might initially think by those disturbances that throw off our normal, comfortable rhythms.” How true for us as well.

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