Listen, Reflect, and Try to Understand

It’s really hard to know what to say right now. I had a list of potential topics for today’s blog post, ranging from whimsical to technical, but I don’t think this is the time for any of them.

Look, I’m just a guy who thinks it’s fun to lay down in prairies to study and photograph flowers and bugs. That doesn’t give me any kind of qualification to help address major societal issues. Regardless, I do have one plea to anyone who reads this. Please – listen, reflect, and try to understand.

It can sometimes be hard to fathom the reasons people act as they do. That’s especially true when their actions are completely contrary to what you think are sensible or appropriate. But people don’t act randomly. Those who protest against pandemic-related restrictions and those who protest against systemic racism, for example, are both motivated by earnestly-felt emotions; fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, frustration, and others. That they are responding based on honest emotions doesn’t make their actions right or wrong – it just means they have reasons for their actions.

For what it’s worth, here’s an approach I’m taking in response to the world’s current craziness. I’m trying to listen to those with views different from mine. I’m trying to reflect on what motivates them to think and act in the way they do, and in that way understand them better. My hope is that if enough of us do this, we can start conversations about difficult issues that begin by acknowledging how each other feels, and why. That seems more productive than simply dismissing those who think differently from ourselves and trying to shout our views in a louder voice than theirs.

Again, this is not an area of expertise for me; I’m just sharing what I’m trying to do.

Even if my approach doesn’t change society, it’s helpful to me. Watching people act in seemingly illogical ways scares the hell out of me. It makes me feel helpless in an out-of-control world. How do you resolve chaos? Gaining an understanding why people are acting in a certain way gives me hope that an issue can be resolved. Even that small bit of perspective makes me feel better.

During times like this, nature is a kind of anchor for me. I can seek out beauty there, and watch prairie organisms interact with each other in ways that are unrelated to the raging debates of people all around them. In that way, a visit to a prairie is an escape from human society. At the same time, it also gives me a chance to reflect and process events and perspectives – sometimes semi-consciously – in a way that helps me when I resurface into the human world.

I’ll leave you with a series of recent photos that reflect what is happening in the world of prairies right now. I hope they provide you with a little sense of peace; a temporary escape from all that’s happening. Please be safe and well. And if you can, listen, reflect, and try to understand.

Lambert’s crazyweed (Oxytropis lambertii) at Gjerloff Prairie.
A tiny grasshopper nymph in our backyard prairie garden.
Western wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.
A true bug (Hemiptera) on hairy puccoon (Lithospermum caroliniense).
Native eastern tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) congregate on chokecherry at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.
Spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) in a sand blowout. Niobrara Valley Preserve.
A katydid nymph on hairy puccoon. Niobrara Valley Preserve.
Bladderpod (Physaria ludoviciana). Niobrara Valley Preserve
A rain drop perched on a cup-shaped leaf of coralberry (Symphoricarpus orbiculatus). Niobrara Valley Preserve
Grasshopper nymph and hairy puccoon. Niobrara Valley Preserve.
A non-native seven-spotted ladybird beetle. Helzer family prairie.
Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), backlit by evening light. Niobrara Valley Preserve.
Sandhills prairie, trail road, and sky. Niobrara Valley Preserve.
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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.

34 thoughts on “Listen, Reflect, and Try to Understand

  1. Thank you for a beautiful, thoughtful piece. I will try to emulate your openness and hope to be a better person for it.

  2. Thanks for your post today, Chris. I’m in Mpls, orginally from Irene Adler near Yankton. I’m so prairie homesick. Your pix being me joy. I found. Stuffed meadowlark at the plant nursery the other day. It’s recorded song is so soothing. Love seeing the spiderwort in Situ. I have three colors of blue-eyed grass in my garden.

    Keep those photos coming. All the best to you and yours.



  3. Thank you for such a thoughtful posting. Tonight I will be looking for glow worms and enjoying a wonderful lightning bug display. That will bring some comfort to a very sad day.

  4. Thank you for this piece particularly at this time – thoughtful and hopefully helpful to many who are feeling similar experiences. Stay safe.

  5. Your words brought some much needed clarity on a day when opinions aren’t particularly welcomed. Thank you.

  6. Well said.


    On Mon, Jun 1, 2020, 1:33 PM The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: ” It’s really hard to know what to say right now. I > had a list of potential topics for today’s blog post, ranging from > whimsical to technical, but I don’t think this is the time for any of them. > Look, I’m just a guy who thinks it’s fun to lay down in p” >

  7. Thanks for posting this Chris. I keep circulating your post about opening our eyes to the need for diversity in N. American conservation circles – thanks.

    Thought you might like to check out, at the intersection of so many of these issues right now, #BlackBirdersWeek trending on Twitter. Finding lots of new & interesting voices in conservation biology.

  8. I appreciate you using your platform to acknowledge current events. I don’t agree that people protesting because an *unarmed*, *handcuffed* Black man was murdered by the police is the same as people protesting because they’re uncomfortable. I think there is a difference between fighting for lives (George Floyd’s, Ahmaud Arbery’s, Breonna Taylor’s, and the dozens of other Black people whose lives are now hashtags) and fighting for property/income/people to go back to work so you’re not inconvenienced. In your third paragraph, I was sure you were going to talk about how inconceivable it is that a cop would kneel on a handcuffed man’s neck for 9+ minutes until he was unconscious/dead and that 3 other cops would watch and not intervene despite this cruelty. I think it’s missing the point to focus on the protests and not why people are protesting. Obviously I respect you immensely. Because of that, I’m sharing my thoughts and reflecting on yours.

    • Thank you Jasmine. The respect is mutual. I’ll repeat what I said at the beginning of my post – I don’t know what to say right now. I was not trying to equate the morality or justification of one group of protestors with another. My point was that in both cases, there are honest feelings behind what they’re doing and I think it’s helpful for everyone to reflect on what those feelings are and how they came to be. How can two of us see the same event or series of events and come away with such different interpretations of what happened, why it happened, and what it means? I’ve been trying hard to listen, reflect, and understand, and doing so has helped me deal with my own feelings of anxiety and fear over the last couple of months, let alone the last week.

      While I wasn’t trying to make today’s post about one particular event or issue, it’s totally fair to point out that I could have said more about the highest profile issue right now. The murder of George Floyd and so many before him was wrong. I’m not hearing a lot of disagreement about that. I’m mostly hearing disagreement about how we should be reacting. While I could have gone in a number of directions with my post, I chose one that I hoped might play a small part in helping us move forward on a better path.

      How do we solve the underlying problems that make Black people live in fear for their own lives in our country? How do we solve the fact that many people don’t trust the media, politicians, or even doctors during a pandemic? In general, I don’t believe we’re talking about good people versus bad people, regardless of the fact that some of the actions people take are good and bad. We’re talking about people who have complex motivations. As I said in the post, taking the time to reflect and try to understand why people are doing things that seem illogical and wrong to me has helped me personally. I also think it’s an approach that, if adopted by more people, can help more us toward larger societal improvements. That was what I was trying to advocate for today.
      If I understand why someone is afraid and/or angry, if I can acknowledge that they have a reason for feeling that way, I can start a conversation that doesn’t begin with both of us shouting our polarized positions at each other. We can talk about why we’re both upset and see if we can figure out what we can do next. Will that work? I have no idea, but I fervently hope so.

      What you said toward the end of your comments is absolutely right – “it’s missing the point to focus on the protests and not why people are protesting.” I’m trying to get people to think about why someone might be driven to protest, hoping that by understanding (not agreeing with) those motivations, we can all see each other as people, not monsters, and thereby have conversations that are productive and help us fix our massive problems. Most of all, I was talking from the place I’m currently at – emotionally – and hoping maybe I could help others who were in a similar place.

      Thank you for continuing to make your own voice heard.
      Your friend, Chris

          • I think the problems are more to do with stereotyping, differences in economic opportunity, and hunger for power.

      • I appreciate your response. I think there are definitely some areas where I’m a better, more patient listener (how folks manage their land and their perspectives on economic and ecological sustainability) and some areas where it feels like giving certain opinions/actions/perspectives equal weight to my own beliefs about what is a human right feels ludicrous. It’s honestly something I’ve struggled with a lot living in rural areas: I often avoid talking about bigger issues like gay rights or immigration or racism with my neighbors because I feel like there is often an implicit work-related concern about alienating these “stakeholders” or partners, but I also wonder what we/I am missing out on by not having these conversations. I think a lot of it is that I don’t want to have to defend my humanity or that of my best friends or family members. But I also think you’re right that there needs to be some level of conversation to make progress. I will keep pondering and will try to take a deep breath and consider the ways that fear makes us act.

        • I recognize the struggle you mention. I feel the same way much of the time. Please understand, I’m not trying to tell you how you should be responding. Hell, I don’t know how I should be responding, let alone anyone else. I admire your forthrightness and willingness to speak out boldly on a wide range of subjects. When trying to solve big societal issues (as with most challenges) a variety of approaches is probably the most effective.

  9. Amen. Thanks for more great pictures- and now I’m going for a contemplative walk and see what’s blooming along our rural road.

  10. Thank you Chris! And amen to all you have said. I am from the great Pacific Northwest and there is nothing I love more than trees, big trees and lots of them. I’ve been reading your work for several years now and seeing a very different perspective. Prairies don’t have trees and if they do you tend to take them out…the unwanted ones. Very opposite of my view. I love your prairie photos and I would like to visit one day. This is a very simplistic note on seeing another view but with practice in all areas it can become a way of life. Open mind and heart full of love and compassion. Keep up the good work, sincerely, Nancy

  11. Chris, thank you for sharing your view point. It is exactly what I have been thinking. Instead of focusing on our differences, try to be compassionate and understanding even if we totally disagree. Anger and hate does not solve anything. Love and compassion is the solution. Changed attitudes can change the world. And yes, appreciating our natural world can be an immense help in getting us there!

  12. I enjoyed reading this post and seeing your photos very much. For me you captured the confusion and heartbreak that I think a lot of us are feeling right now. I appreciate your honesty and your talent.

  13. Lovely post, Chris, both your thoughts on understanding people’s motivations, and as always, the lovely prairie vignettes.
    And if I may, a technical question: Does Toxicodendron rydbergii co-occur with T. radicans at Niobrara?

    • Thanks James. The Flora of Nebraska includes only one Toxicodendron species, with two varieties: T.r. var negundo and T.r. var rydbergii. The first is only in the east half of the state and the second is statewide. At the Niobrara Valley Preserve, it is all T.r. var rydbergii, according to range maps.

  14. A post like yours is so helpful. It’s written with the sort of honesty and humility that draws people in, rather than making them feel immediately shut out. So, thank you for that.

    And because our prairies do provide both peace and escape, I’ll wish you a very satisfying National Prairie Day.

  15. Thank you for your encouraging words, it’s what this world needs right now—more people listening to each other.
    I hope you have a safe and peaceful week.

  16. Pingback: Trying to Respond Appropriately | The Prairie Ecologist

  17. Wow way to go Chris we need to be listening to our brothers and sisters of color. we white folks do have a privledge that those of color do not. Being a biologist and working in rural areas I met a few black brothers and sisters and have many black friends today. as a 70 year old man living now in urban Chicago land I see live so different. I called my brother and friend of 40 years, a black man who lives yet in rural Iowa. Quote he see that nothing will come of this as nothing in the past had and he sort of just expects bad things to happen to black folks as they always have. That made me cry. I pray for him and his 2 sons one lives in Minneapolis now the other a conservation worker near Boone Iowa.

    I value what you did brother and we do have to care for our planet but people need to come first. We have to stop this now Black lives matter. I really get it. Keep up the great work my white brother but keep listening and sharing your human side too. God Bless


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