When I first started learning about prairies, I developed an immense respect for the “wise old people of the prairie” who seemed to be infinite fountains of knowledge. There have been several of those folks in my life, not all of them particularly old, who both inspired me and helped me gain a deeper understanding of grasslands. I loved to tag along with them on prairie walks. I would pepper them with questions about everything we saw, savoring each answer like an exquisite pastry. I was and am eternally grateful to them, and I’ve long aspired to become one of them.
Now that I’ve spent more than 25 years studying, restoring, and managing prairies, I feel like I’m starting to approach “wise old person of the prairie” status, at least among some audiences. In particular, I love introducing new classes of our Hubbard Fellows to our Nebraska prairies and helping them unwrap some of the same fascination I found during my own introductory period. The only people more gratifying to work with are my own kids. They all know that Kim is a better source of information on just about any other science topic (or math or English or…) but – while it’s close – I think I’m still the household expert on prairies. Having our own prairie gives our family particularly nice opportunities to spend time together in my favorite habitat.
I feel like all my kids have a good foundational knowledge of grasslands, and for the most part, they’ve even appreciated getting it. My older three appear to be headed down non-ecology career paths, and that’s fine. As long as they keep their conservation ethic, I’m perfectly happy and proud to have them pursue whatever careers make them happy. My step-son Atticus, however, has been in a biology/ecology mode for long enough that he just might stick there, which would also be wonderful. Last weekend, Atticus and I spent a few hours at our family prairie, and I got to play “wise old person” with him. I think we both enjoyed it – I know I did.
Until I started becoming one, I didn’t realize how personally gratifying it was to be a wise old person of the prairie. It’s not because it’s fun to show off my knowledge. Instead, it’s because I get to rediscover the most basic aspects of prairies each time I help someone else see them. Watching Atticus stalk brown thrashers and eastern kingbirds, and kneel down to admire a katydid nymph feeding on pollen keeps those common species from losing their sparkle for me.
I’m always happy to spend time with anyone in a prairie, and I never have trouble generating excitement about whatever we find, especially if it’s the first time my companions have seen or heard of that species or phenomenon. That said, there’s definitely a higher level of satisfaction and pleasure when my companions are family members. Atticus and I wandered around the prairie for about three hours, but the time flew by. We watched birds, found and discussed a badger den and fungal fairy ring, admired the new calves, checked on the blooming progress of multiple plant species, and canoed in tight circles around our tiny pond – among other activities. During the whole trip, I enjoyed watching Atticus file away new discoveries and call up old ones. He even grabbed my camera and asked to take a turn with it, which I think is the first time one of my kids has done that.
I recognize that I have been very fortunate in my life. After all, I get paid to keep learning and sharing about my favorite habitat type. However, becoming a wise old person of the prairie is something I would have pursued regardless of my profession. It’s more of an apprenticeship than a job, I think. If you haven’t already, I hope you can find your own mentor(s) to follow through prairies. Don’t ever feel badly about asking them too many questions – if they’re anything like me, they’ll relish every opportunity to help you learn. Eventually, maybe you can reach wise old person status yourself. I highly recommend it.