Why Telling Prairie Stories Matters

Those of us working in the field of prairie conservation face a stark reality.  Regardless of our expertise, work ethic, or number of hours spent restoring and managing prairies, our efforts will fail if we don’t have the support of the public behind us. 

Those of us who love prairies can look at a photo of a grassland like this and think about how fun it would be to explore it in person. It’s easy to forget that most of the public is ambivalent about prairies. They don’t see this as a place to explore – they see it as a place they might have to drive through to get to someplace interesting. That attitude makes prairie conservation really difficult and it’s a challenge we can’t afford to back away from.

Garnering public support for conservation is a challenge faced in all ecosystems, but grasslands (and deserts?) have some added disadvantages.  One of those is that prairies don’t have the kind of obvious aesthetic attraction to people that forests and oceans have.  A second is the fact that relatively few people live in prairie regions, reducing the amount of leverage those regions have in national and international policy discussions that affect conservation.  Finally, except where shallow rock or other geological or topographic barriers exist, many grasslands can be more profitable as cropland or other land uses, making prairie conservation arguments that much more difficult.

Because of those challenges, all of us who work in prairie conservation, regardless of our primary role, need to pull our weight in the fight for public attention and support.  We all need to make sure people remember that prairies exist, see why they matter, and – ideally – see them as places to visit and appreciate.  If we don’t, the grasslands we care so much about will not survive.

I think about this a lot.  It’s a big reason this blog exists and why I work so hard to share photos and stories about prairies through and many other formats as well.  Stories, I believe, are one of the biggest keys to success.  Not my stories, but OUR stories. 

The best stories are those that come from your individual perspective.  What are you seeing in the prairie?  What are you doing while you’re there?  Why do you care? 

The genesis of a great story can be as simple as spotting an interesting flower, butterfly, or bird.  Capturing a photo can be helpful, but it’s not necessary.  It also doesn’t matter whether the species you saw is rare or common.  The power of the story isn’t the flower, butterfly, or bird, it’s your enthusiasm about finding it.  Enthusiasm is contagious.  If you share the experience of finding it with others and your excitement comes through in that telling, it’s a good story.

If you see something that excites you, share that excitement with others! You don’t have to share the natural history of earless lizards (though you certainly can if you want to!). Just showing people that finding one was fun for you is enough.

Good stories can also include what you do in prairies.  As you tell those stories, remember that we connect with other people by identifying with how they feel.  Whether you are struggling to fight off invading trees as a prairie manager, celebrating a particularly successful restoration project, or trying to figure out how you’re going to pull off a tricky prescribed fire, share your emotions with others. They don’t have to understand the context of the situation to empathize with you.  Just give them the basics of what you’re doing and how you feel about it, and a connection will form.

Sharing what you’re seeing or doing usually leads to opportunities to talk about why you care about prairies and their conservation.  Here again, the best sales pitch is whatever is most important to you.  Why do YOU care about prairies?  What made you start caring? 

It can be tempting to lean on facts about why prairies are important for storing carbon or cleaning water.  However, telling someone why prairies are good for them might be better saved for a third or fourth conversation, rather than the first.  Think about two people, each offering you a kind of food you’ve never tried before.  One says, “You’ve got to try this – it’s super good for your blood pressure!”  The other says, “I grew up eating this every holiday season at my grandparents’ house and the amazing flavor always reminds me of family.”  Which is the more compelling pitch?

Most people have very little idea what prairies are, let alone what it takes to manage and protect them. They wonder “what the heck you do all day out there?” Tell them!

Here are some of the arguments I most often get when I encourage people who care about prairies to share their stories, along with my responses:

1. I’m not doing anything interesting enough to tell stories about.

As I said above, it’s not what you’re doing that will engage people, it’s how you feel about it.  Plus, you’d be surprised how interested people can be to hear about you doing things they’ve never heard about.  Sometimes, for example, just bringing up the idea that you cut down trees to help nature can be enough to start a long and productive conversation!

2. I’m not a good writer/photographer.

Doesn’t matter.  Have you seen Facebook or Instagram lately?  Most people who put up photos on those sites aren’t terrific photographers, but they are showing something that matters to them personally, and most (?) have followers that are interested to see those photos because of that.  Similarly, good writing can be hard, but most people are going to pay much more attention to what you’re saying than how you word it.  That’s especially true if you’re writing with enthusiasm.  Try to write like you speak, rather than trying to use fancy words or emulate the way other writers do it.  Be yourself.

3. I don’t like to speak in public.

I get that.  For most people, it’s something that gets easier the more you do it, but if you don’t want to be a public speaker, no problem – there are many other options.  Social media is a great way for people to express opinions without having to physically stand in front of their audience.  While that can enable online bullies and jerks, it can also be a great way for you to share emotions in a way you might not in other situations.  If you have an artistic bent, maybe you can use your favorite medium to get people to think about prairies?  There are lots of ways to tell stories.

In any case, what’s the worst case scenario?  Even a mediocre story gets people to think about prairies for a minute.  Just getting prairies into someone’s consciousness for a brief period is helpful.  Plus, again, if you show how much you care, some of that will rub off, regardless of what you think the quality of your story or storytelling is. 

Enthusiasm is contagious. Even if they think you’re a little crazy, people will be drawn to your stories if you share your emotions. (That said, be careful with fire, everyone.)

Trust me, I understand the energy it can take to start a conversation.  For the most part, I’d much rather spend the day alone in a prairie than in a crowd of people – or, really, in any social situation.  I’m not asking you to walk up to random people on the street and tell them the good news about prairies.  I’m just suggesting that whenever you get the opportunity to tell others about what you care about, you should take it.  Whether it’s through social media, talking with friends at a bar, or standing in front of a local Rotary Club, tell your stories!  Prairies are depending upon you to remind people that they exist and are worth saving .

Part of good storytelling is keeping the story a reasonable length.  I have a lot more to say on this topic, especially about getting people out to prairies and making sure they enjoy the experience. I’ll hold that for another time.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

18 thoughts on “Why Telling Prairie Stories Matters

    • I worked on a prairie reconstruction back in the day. We collected seeds, kept them refrigerated over the winter, started the seeds in trays in the spring. They grow on, and we planted them out in the new reconstructed prairie. I love all the prairie plants, but I have a particular attachment to the Prairie Smoke.

  1. Here’s a poem about our southeastern South Dakota prairie from my book “Frog Creek Road”
    (Sioux Falls, SD: Scurfpea Publishing, 2019.

    Working on Sunday

    It’s a ninety-five degree afternoon
    and I’d rather be swimming at the pool,
    but reluctantly agree to chop thistles.
    You take the west side of the old roadbed.
    I walk east . . . and find them on the south hill.

    Zigzagging down, I head for a cluster
    of hot pink blossoms where last fall a seed
    head fell. With my hoe, I strike the base
    of a stickery plant. I’m at war— Whack!
    Whack! and they all fall down.

    Finding a monarch feeding on nectar,
    I feel regret, but cut the life from that
    thistle too and scan the hill, chopping
    my way down to Bluff Road.

    A doe leaps up from a ravine four feet
    in front of me and disappears in tall
    Indian grass. A spotted fawn follows.
    I meet you at the ridge. Together we
    descend the wooded ravine, eat our
    fill of juicy mulberries and again part ways.

    You walk east toward Frog Creek Road.
    Heading north up the path to the gate,
    I find no thistles. A truck roars past, crows
    cry above, a red-tailed hawk soars over,
    and a buzzard circles the old road bed.

    A murder of crows chase and taunt the hawk,
    who, paying no mind, just keeps gliding.
    At the hilltop I whack one remaining
    thistle, then open the gate and head back
    home, high from our prairie sauna.

    Norma C. Wilson

  2. I worked for a state agency and often spoke to grade school kids all over my district. I can’t overstate the value of getting kids involved early in their lives – I had a long career, and have been amazed at the number of adults who remember first learning about prairies and wildlife at ‘conservation days’ presentations.

    Planting seeds . . .

  3. Perhaps the following description would be helpful with starting a conversation.

    THE EXPERIENCE OF GRASSLANDS
    Few other archetypes have captured the imagination of plant enthusiasts and designers in the last half century like grasslands. In many ways, grasslands provide the ideal mix of design features: at a large scale, they are grand and uniform, giving them tremendous emotional impact; yet on a small scale, they are intricate and layered, creating a staggering diversity of flora and fauna. …

    “Planting in a Post-Wild World”, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, 2015, pp. 71

  4. SANDHILL PLUM BUTTER

    In the tangy, homely taste
    I live again a distant afternoon
    When we stopped along a rutted road
    Deep in rough country near the river
    And wandered into plum thickets.

    Knee-high the straggly bushes
    Scratched our careless legs
    As we struggled through the sand,
    Stretching for every stingy plum,
    Driven by self-indulgence.

    We’d keep this custom every autumn
    Out in Dewey County, Oklahoma,
    Above the South Canadian,
    As our family had so many years before
    Far on the Nebraska plains.

    And when the fruit was processed,
    Trimmed and washed and simmered,
    Mashed and strained,
    Sugared, packed, and sealed,
    Then safely stored on cellar shelves,

    We’d caught the prairie in a jar,
    Wild and tart, generous, glowing
    With the sunshine of a hundred skies,
    Fresh with the fragrant winds
    Off a thousand miles of grassland.

    ©2004 John I. Blair

  5. There are a few small tallgrass Prairie remnants scattered across the Midwest. When I asked the current owner why the prairie has never been plowed the story stats with, Grand Mother or Great Grand Father love the prairie, threatened to haunt us if we plowed it. There are many version to the story why that small corner of land was saved but it was the story that saved the Prairie.
    Glenn Pollock

  6. I just love this post!! This sentiment can be applied to so many environmental issues.
    As people who love nature we have a tendency to be more introspective and take much joy in the solace of nature that we forget that the quiet we love needs a voice. I know I will be reading this post over and over again. You have inspired me.
    Thank you.

  7. Do any of the prairies in Nebraska have non-profit ‘Friends’ groups to help support, promote and educate about the prairie? Wisconsin has dozens of friends groups, mostly for state parks, but also a few for wildlife areas, state natural areas, trails, and prairies. One I’m a member of has been able to help the local manager/biologist generate more local interest in the property and reduce fear of the large scale prescribed burning. http://www.fnbwa.org
    Thanks for a great blog and never disappointing photos.

    • Hi Gary,
      It’s interesting – there really aren’t that many ‘Friends’ groups in Nebraska, or really many ‘prairie enthusiast’ type groups at all. We have millions of acres of remnant prairie but not many people seem to be engaged in their conservation. Maybe because the cause seems less urgent, given how much we still have left, or maybe it’s just that we have a lot lower overall human population compared to states like Wisconsin, Illinois, etc., where prairie is mostly gone. I tend to think, though, that even on a per capita basis, we have fewer people who care deeply about engaging in prairie conservation work, and I’m not sure why that is. We certainly do have dedicated volunteers, including a growing Master Naturalist program, but we just don’t have the kind of organized support, especially on a site-by-site basis, that I see in other states. I’m always impressed when I see what is going on in places like Wisconsin, and I hope we can someday emulate that.

  8. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Finally, it came to me: stories are a way to touch people on a visceral level, pulling them into a world they may never have seen. Stories allow us to imagine those unseen worlds, enter into them, and come to know them. Children don’t say, “Daddy, describe your childhood to me.” Children say, “Tell me a story,” and I believe that child — ready to be experience new worlds — exists inside us all.

    There’s another reason to tell stories, and record them in some way: through writing, poetry, music, paint, or photography. We can return to our own stories, and be refreshed by them. I still read the first post about a prairie I posted on my blog. A Little Nash Ramble was fun to write, amused and informed some of my readers, and put me in contact with Susan and Peter Conaty — two of the most impassioned prairie story tellers I’ve known.

  9. Writing is one art form. Painting on the prairie. Music on the prairie. Film on the prairie (animation too!). I do all of these. Prairies speak to my senses, so should the art I make around them. Thanks for the post Chris

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