Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Inspiration is at Our Feet

This post was written by Katharine Hogan, one of our two current Hubbard Fellows.  The photo is hers as well.  Katharine has shown to be an introspective thinker and writer, in addition to a curious and hard-working member of our conservation team.  I think you will enjoy this and other posts she writes.

After a rigorous morning spent chain sawing trees on the Platte River Prairies, I headed inside to finish a half-completed blog post. It would be nice to get off my feet; I was breaking in my new fire boots acquired for performing prescribed burns, and my feet were a bit sore from the new stiff leather and soles. It would also be great to finish this blog post that had been persistently hanging around in my head. However, to my dismay after working at it for some time, it simply kept falling apart the harder I tried to make it fit together. Finally, I conceded defeat, but was also frustrated in my attempts to settle on an alternative topic. As my frustration grew, I decided to go for a walk in hopes of the remnants of a crisp autumn day yielding some inspiration.

Annoyed for having spent such a chunk of time on nothing that turned into more nothing, I put on my well-worn, much loved hiking boots that have seen me through countless work and pleasure hours across the country. They were more comfortable than the tall, black boots I had taken off earlier, for sure! I decided to walk up into the sand hills south of the house, get a higher perspective on the land, and enjoy another stellar Nebraska sunset against the golds and reds of prairies grasses falling asleep before the advance of winter.

Even if I didn’t come up with any ideas, going for a walk outside is always good, I thought, as I headed out. Never waste time doing something important when there’s a sunset to watch, right? (I got that one from the dusty, back corner shelves of the Internet…). Yet I had barely even gotten into the pasture when I realized something felt different. My old boots suddenly felt different from all the unspoken familiarity with which I had apparently subconsciously come to associate them. Had they always been that sensitive to the terrain on which I was walking? What a distinct texture the inside of the boots had, and how perfectly fitted they were to the shapes of my feet! But no big deal, I said to myself, just keep walking and your feet will adjust and feel normal.

But they didn’t. I was hyper-aware of myriad sensations in my feet with every step through the crispy vegetation. I couldn’t stop being distracted by it. My normal had changed that week to those fire boots, which in my mind are in some strange way the pedestrian version of being inside a tank, fitted with impressive protection and defense features. Changing from that back to something previously familiar had made that familiar new again, and had made me aware of aspects of those old boots that I otherwise would never have noticed.

I never thought I would add footwear to the list of unexpected teachers in my life. Ultimately, good work boots are pivotable to land stewardship and field science, though, so maybe it shouldn't come as such a surprise.

I never thought I would add footwear to the list of unexpected teachers in my life. Ultimately, good work boots are pivotal to land stewardship and field science, though, so maybe it shouldn’t come as such a surprise.

Is this a large part of how humans learn, constantly yet perhaps subconsciously? Do we make retroactive observations and connections about familiar places, people, and concepts best upon exposure to the new and different? This experience reminded me of other observations that I had previously regarded as unconnected, small events. Upon travelling to Missouri I realized the swathes of cottonwood along the Platte River in Nebraska don’t create the same familiar comfort as the hardwood forests of more eastern regions because they are more monocultural woody systems. Comparatively, forests from hardwood regions are symposiums of many tree species with rich myriad canopy hues throughout the growing season.

Conversely, during a recent trip back to Vermont, I had never realized how imbalanced the scattered old fields and open green spaces of the northeast felt; they are scars that the advance of trees (so undesirable here on the prairies) inexorably tries to heal. The resilient grasslands of the Platte and the Niobrara, practically exploding with a diversity of species and habitats to which I was hitherto unaware, allowed me to see ecological challenges of my old home. Prior to my experiences elsewhere in the country, I arguably was assessing these childhood surroundings with rose-tinted glasses (or maybe glasses tinted with the fiery colors of New England autumns). Even after finishing college in Indiana, I had no real comparison as a backdrop.

There are other observations I could list, but suffice it to say I learned a lesson that day, as I found myself simply standing in the middle of the prairie under an orange tinted sky, staring at my feet. Yes, I’ve always been a proponent of learning through new experiences, but it hadn’t occurred to me with such force how much we stand to learn from new experiences about the places we have already been. We become so readily comfortable in our routines that we lose sight of the immediately surrounding world. This is simply how our brains function to avoid constant stimuli overload. But what exciting potential there is for us if we see our new experiences as a sounding board for our old experiences, and not only the other way around!

I never did end up going for the rest of that walk, nor did I see the sun set. Instead, I found myself heading straight back for the house, laughing aloud at myself at my eagerness to write about the unexpected results of simply wearing a new pair of boots for a few days. This wasn’t the type of post I was originally planning to share with you all, but I hope it may give some of you a little excitement about the hidden world of inspiration and discovery that may be right under your feet.

Or on your feet. Who knows? I sure didn’t.

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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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4 Responses to Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Inspiration is at Our Feet

  1. steve clubine says:

    You need to read “Forgotten Fires” by Omer Stuart. There is a section on every part of the country, although less on the northeast than I would like, but at least it is included. Not only are prairies fire dependent but eastern woodlands were also fire sculpted.

  2. James McGee says:

    I have always used my quality leather hiking boots when helping with prescribed burns. We were never required to wear “fire boots.” The hiking boots were expensive enough. I couldn’t even imagine spending more money for “fire boots.” I used to also wear my hiking boots when doing chainsawing. However, we are now required to wear Kevlar chainsaw boots and I have not been willing to make the time commitment needed to get them from our county. I volunteer enough that I could get them, but I don’t because so many people really enjoy chainsawing and I would rather let them have the fun.

    The shoes I like to wear to workdays are an old pair of running shoes as long as I am not going to be working in a wetland, wet grass, cold, or snow. When I volunteer I like to wear old running shoes because they are so close to being like the Native American’s moccasin. You can really feel the ground through the worn soles of old running shoes.

    I know Nebraskans like to think of your prairies as being resilient. I think this is because you have so much of it. When you have so little, as we doing in the Chicago metropolitan region, every tiny bit is precious. I cringe when I collect seed and see where herds of people have created spider trails throughout what little prairie we have left. To me, my worn pair of running shoes is a tool that is just as important as boots for chainsawing or prescribed burning. These shoes, with their thin soles, allow me to feel the ground and tread between rare plants when I am collecting seed. As I walk through the prairie I try to leave no more sign of my passing than would be left by a deer. I am cautious where you all embrace risk because you all have so much and I have so little.

  3. Susan says:

    Is there a way to share my milkweed photo in comments?

  4. Gary McBryde says:

    Looking at the worn boots reminds me of something i read somewhere many years ago: “The best fertilizer for the land is a farmer’s footsteps.”

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