The topic of the day

Regular readers of this blog know that I usually publish posts twice a week.  One of those posts is the Photo of the Week, which typically comes out on Thursday or Friday.  The other post is much more variable in topic and format and usually comes out during the first half of the week – often Monday or Tuesday.  Some might assume that when that first post of the week doesn’t emerge until Wednesday it is because I’m having a hard time coming up with something to write about.  That, of course, is ridiculous.  I absolutely keep a long and scrupulously organized list of future topics to prevent that problem from occurring.  It would be terrible to wake up in a panic on a Wednesday morning realizing that I haven’t yet written anything and that I don’t have a clue what to write about.

Today, for example, I’m going to share my thoughts on a topic I’ve been thinking about for a long time.  It’s something I feel very strongly about, and by the end of this post, I think both you and I may be surprised by its relevance to prairie ecology and/or management.  The opportunity to write about topics like this one is something I’m very grateful for, and I definitely don’t take my responsibilities for granted.

Let me start by sharing a little about what’s been happening around here this week.  After a fairly dry winter, we have finally been getting enough snow to shovel.  In fact, it has already snowed twice this week, and we have a fairly significant snow storm predicted for this coming weekend as well.  Snow, of course, is how we get most of our moisture during the winter.  Perhaps more importantly, snow is what breaks up the monotony of brown grass that otherwise dominates dormant-season prairies.  As a photographer, I appreciate snow, frost, and ice because they make it a lot more fun to hike around with my camera.

I took this picture after one of the snows this week.

So, that’s an update on the weather.  Talking about the weather, as I’m sure you know, is the time-honored way to start a conversation with someone when you don’t really know what else to say to them.  I’m not saying that’s what I’m doing here, of course, just that it’s a thing that happens.  All of us are affected by weather, so we all have opinions – either about recent weather events or future ones.  “How much rain did you get?” must be among the most common phrases heard around rural Nebraska during the summer.  My dad regularly sends me emails to share rain or snowfall amounts.  In fact, that’s often the sole content of his emails.  It’s nice to stay in touch.

Here in Nebraska, the other topic of near-universal interest is college football.  During the fall, especially, there is always a game that has recently been played and another game coming up.  The phrase, “How about them Huskers?” will almost always generate a nice vigorous discussion.  I’m not a rabid fan of Nebraska football, but I follow the team closely enough that I can hold up my end of conversations about quarterback play, coaching decisions, or conference standings.  Talking football has helped me start hundreds of conversations with neighbors, landowners, and others around the state.  Since talking to the public is an important part of my job, I should probably be getting paid to watch football!  I’m just going to make a note of that, so I remember to mention it to my boss when I next see him…

Speaking of my job, both weather and football are far easier ice breaker topics than the third option: the dreaded question, “So, what do you do?”  You’d think that after almost 22 years, I’d have figured out how to briefly describe my job to someone outside my field of work.  No such luck.  If you give me 15 minutes and the chance to use photographs as visual aids, I can usually get just about anyone interested in prairies and explain why my job is relevant to society.  If I can get them to accompany me to an actual prairie, I can do it in less than 5 minutes.  But trying to explain why prairies matter and why it’s important to study them and sustain their plant and animal diversity is a tough task when the other person is expecting a three or four word description of my job.  You know, something like, “I’m a dentist”  – or accountant, lawyer or teacher. 

I’m hoping today’s post will help ensure that this and all other prairies are better appreciated and protected.

Anyway, by now, I’m sure you can see why it has taken me much of the week to organize my thoughts around today’s important topic.  I very easily could have had this blog post done and ready to go by Monday afternoon, but I wanted to be sure I handled this in a way that matches its significance.  I hope you appreciate that. 

One of the most satisfying aspects of writing a blog is knowing that every post will live (potentially) forever on the internet.  That means that anyone searching for information about might stumble upon a blog post I’ve written about the topic they’re interested in.  Today’s post is no exception.  It makes me feel good that people all over the world could just type the appropriate key terms into their search engine and this post might pop up.  I sincerely hope it will be helpful to them, and more importantly, contribute meaningfully to conservation.  And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go cross this topic off that list I mentioned earlier. 

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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.

19 thoughts on “The topic of the day

  1. For your next, uh inspired post, I request one in the style of Patrick McManus. I think this one could be a contender, but you need to hone the ridiculousness a bit more

  2. So, anyone searching for Nebraska football or Nebraska weather or job description will happen upon your blog, and you sneakily throw in a little prairie info and pretty pictures in the hope they’ll be interested to read other posts of yours and fall in love with prairies. It’s a plan. What number was that on that long and scrupulously organized list? :-)

  3. The Christain Science Monitor featured you in their Weekly February 18 “slow amd steady grasslands grow”. Nice to see your name there. keep up the good work. Plants and plant communities are my passion also. I enjoy your insightful blogs and your photography, it is in the detail!

  4. It’s a beautiful image. Be glad that your job is capturing the images of the prairie for us to see. Lately I have been following the Prairie Plains Resource Institute. They have an interesting prairie reclamation and education program.

  5. Even things on the internet don’t last forever. Google is getting rid of its Google+ platform soon. All those pictures I have linked to your blog will disappear with Google+.

  6. I grinned all the way through this. I’d never heard of Patrick McManus, but what I’ve read of his work in the past few minutes brought to mind Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories. I’m looking forward to reading more. Speaking of Sandburg, his poem “Prairie” fits well with the prairie photograph you included.

    • I grew up with Patrick McManus. Well, not him personally, but reading his essays in Field and Stream, to which my father subscribed. I quote his “modified stationary panic” every time I teach shelter-building – he is one of my heroes.

  7. I have so many ideas for ways you can describe your job!
    1. I am the Superman of Prairies
    2. I am a Conservationist Who Eats Meat
    3. I am a season-round Photographer. (Not all of the things you do, but it will get you some odd looks from farmers.)
    4. I am A Sandhills Warrior!
    5. I am a Dad.


    • Apparently I can’t type this morning. What is a “fiace,” you might ask. I asked that, too. Apparently, it is the thing on the front of my head that houses my eyes, nose and mouth. Most of you refer to it as your face.


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