Trying to Respond Appropriately

Hi everyone. I hope you’re all well. I’m sorry about the scarcity of new posts lately. I’m still having a hard time deciding what I can contribute toward the current national focus on racial injustice and police brutality – all of which is occurring within a continuing global pandemic. Discussing the results of a project to evaluate the impact of a grazing management approach on pollinator resources seems out of place right now. So does posting pretty photos of what I’ve seen in our prairies lately. I’ll get back to those and other topics, but neither seems to add much to the bigger current issues in our society.

My last post was an attempt to share how I’m personally trying to deal with all the emotions and thoughts running through my head right now. A number of you responded positively to that. I’m glad the post resonated. However, I wanted to highlight a comment on that post made by former Hubbard Fellow Jasmine Cutter. Rather than trying to summarize or paraphrase her thoughts, I encourage you to go back to that post and read her comment yourself, as well as the short back-and-forth discussion we had afterward.

Jasmine questioned whether I was using my platform as effectively as I could to support the Black Lives Matter campaign and the protests about police brutality – particularly to Black people and other people of color. I’m grateful to her for pushing me on the issue and proud to call her a friend.

In response to Jasmine’s challenge, let me state a few things unequivocally. First, the murder of George Floyd by a police officer was horrendous and only one of countless racially-motivated crimes by police officers throughout the history of our country. In addition, while my last post focused on the approach of trying to listen and understand the perspectives of others – and I still believe that to be a sound approach – that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t also be angry about racial injustice. Anger and outrage are very appropriate responses. Anger and outrage are needed now to help shock the system we’ve been living under and hopefully spur substantive change.

I support those who are protesting the racially-motivated and unjust murders of Black people across the United States. Those protests have profoundly affected me and forced me to look at myself and our society in ways that are uncomfortable. I think that’s productive, and I’ve been trying to lean into that discomfort by reading, listening to, and trying to absorb the perspectives of those who have suffered and are suffering in ways I can’t comprehend.

I’m deeply ashamed that I sometimes find myself making unfair snap judgments about people based mainly on their apparent race, gender, and/or other traits. My initial reaction is usually quickly overruled by the more rational part of my brain, which points out to the (apparently) racist part of my brain that it’s an idiot.  I try to take advantage of those occasions to have a conversation with myself about what just happened and why. I also profoundly hope that my brief lapses in (judgment? reason? humanity?) have not affected anyone in a negative way.

The current protests and attention to racism have amplified my motivation to keep working on my own flaws and failings and to be the best ally I can for people who face obstacles I don’t face. I pledge to continue looking for ways to help. I hope all of you reading this have also been affected by the protests (and/or have been part of them) and are responding in your own way to enable positive change.

As I’ve been listening and absorbing over the last couple weeks, there are a few voices/stories I’ve found to be particularly inspiring and/or helpful to me. If you’re not familiar with them, here they are:

Drew Lanham (@1blackbirder on Twitter)

There are myriad stories by black naturalists, birders and biologists posted with the hashtags #BlackInNature and #BlackBirdersWeek. Reading those stories and looking at the pictures helps, among other things, change the visual image of what naturalists, birders, and scientists look like.

There are lots of prominent historical figures and story lines I either didn’t know about or had terribly wrong impressions of. One great example of the former is the story of Fred Hampton.


(Record Scratch)


Thanks for listening, and please pardon this incongruous switch in tone and topic. While prairie photos may not add directly to the solving of the massive societal issues we’re grappling with, they are still why most of you come to this blog. So – here are a few photos from a recent visit to our family prairie.

Many caterpillars use their ability to produce silk and ‘sew’ leaves or flower petals together as a shelter for themselves. This allows them to feed out of sight of most larger predators. When I come across one of these, I always struggle with whether or not to disturb it. I want to know what it is – caterpillar? spider? something else? But I also don’t want to harm the subject of my interest. Usually, I break down and peek, but try to do so in a way that allows the inhabitant of the shelter to repair any damage I do.

Last week, while looking for musk thistles at our prairie, I came across two different species of leaf-sewing caterpillars on three different plants – all within about 2 square meters of prairie. Here are some photos.

This pussytoes plant (Antennaria neglecta) had its upper leaves sewn together., as did a number of its neighbors. I couldn’t pass by without investigating…
Most of the ‘tents’ of pussytoes leaves I investigated were empty except for frass (insect poop), but I finally found one that still contained the larva. I’m guessing a moth larva, but don’t know. The other mystery relates to what it was doing there. I didn’t see any obvious evidence of it feeding on the leaf – and didn’t really see evidence of leaf feeding in the other cases where all I found was poop. It must be eating something, right?
Here’s a photo of that full caterpillar, including its head.
Just a few feet away, a second kind of caterpillar was hiding inside this cudweed sagewort (Artemisia ludoviciana) plant, which it had sewn together as a shelter. I peeked inside to look at the caterpillar. It looked like the same species that was in the wavy leaf thistle (Cirsium undulatum) nearby (below).
I think this black and yellow caterpillar was the same species that was in the sagewort plant displayed above. In this case, the caterpillar wasn’t completely hidden, but just created a silken barrier around itself.
Here’s the same caterpillar again with the focus on the caterpillar, not the silk.

Be well and be safe, but also feel free to be angry and introspective. Let’s get through this together and try to come out on the other side as better people and a better society.

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.

24 thoughts on “Trying to Respond Appropriately

  1. Chris, thanks for this post. As a fellow nature blogger, I too have been struggling to figure out how to write about the protests without losing readers who come to my blog for nature photos and stories. I’ve had many people tell me that they’re tired of the news and they just want the escape of something non-controversial. I understand that because I’m exhausted by the news also, but I don’t think there’s any way around this, so we should be a part of the discussion and hopefully a part of the solution. I haven’t been able to write anything for several weeks, so I give you credit for finding a way to make your voice heard on this issue.. And maybe you’ve given me the courage to try to write about it too.

  2. I really appreciate what you wrote about your perspective on racism. You described what I could not within myself. I don’t know you personally but feel connected in your words. There is a lot of work to be done within this white soul, Peace Christina

    On Wed, Jun 10, 2020 at 7:38 AM The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: ” Hi everyone. I hope you’re all well. I’m sorry > about the scarcity of new posts lately. I’m still having a hard time > deciding what I can contribute toward the current national focus on racial > injustice and police brutality – all of which is occurring w” >

  3. Just sending approval and appreciation. Glad you learned about Fred Hampton. I’m a Drew Lanham fan, so glad to see his mention.I don’t know how any of us can ignore the current policical and social environment, I’m glad you don’t. And, as always, I love the photos and little lesson in plants and insect.

  4. Chris,

    This is the very first thing I have read this morning, and I find it deeply touching and spot on when expressing thoughts of an ally. You have managed to capture so many of the thoughts I have, but am unable to articulate in such a concise manner. Somehow, I missed your last post in the, literally, hundreds of emails that pour in every day. I will be going back to that one shortly. Last night, I also found a new series to listen to called “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man”, posted by Emanuel Acho. He has 2 episodes out, hopefully, there will be more. I am originally from Mpls, so watching everything unfold there, see places I knew, areas I one time spent time in destroyed, has really cut deep. Yet, it also gives me real hope that “Times They are a Changin”, truly. Your posts also always give me hope and some calm. Nature goes on and being able to view it through your lens is always a renewal of hope. Please, continue on.

    Jo Bartikoski


  5. I am so glad that you posted your views on the current situation in our country. Not so current, right? Actually things are finally coming to a head. Your views reflect my own exactly and I couldn’t have said it better. Self reflection. Conversation. Reaching out. Supporting. So much to do and now is the time.

  6. Well done Chris.

    Just as we appreciate and cherish the diversity of life in your photos and in the prairies, we need to appreciate and cherish the diversity of life in our society.

    The oft quoted Golden Rule is golden for a good reason.

  7. Thanks very much for your column this week. It’s much needed and well-received by me. I read the Wiki article about Fred Hampton and admit I also was totally unaware any of that was happening back then, when my head was still firmly up my backside about racial justice around the nation. I have changed a lot since then, though am still early on the path to enlightenment.

    I am also interested in the work of Drew Lanham but don’t tweet, which blocks me from his Twitter site.

    Very gratefully, John I. Blair Arlington, Texas


  8. Chris, I deeply appreciated this honest, heartfelt post.As an elder of Native and settler heritage, partially raised in the deep south, I am the embodiment of the history of our country. Owning my inherent biases has been a lifelong quest for me, of course, only partially successful. Growing up in the 50’s south, it is inevitable that I carry residues of that racism. Being Native from a family that suffered much violence and passed, only somewhat successfully, for three generations as white, trying to protect their farm in the midwest, taught me a lot about being on the receiving end of racism. A lifelong disability as a result of polio reinforced how nasty folks can be. I think we must do our best to change so much that is problematic about this country. That said, I believe talking honestly about it is the only way forward.

  9. Of course no reasonable person approves of racism or brutality, and of course there are many battles worth fighting. However, picking one’s battles is a key to effectiveness. You are an exceptionally talented person, and as far as I know, the best voice out there for prairie. I hope you will stay focused.

  10. I don’t think your brain is racist because it makes snap judgements. You are a product of your environment. Your thinking is based on not interacting much with people who are different races. Your views have probably only been shaped by bad things people have told you and one-sided stories. I lived in Nebraska and Iowa a long time. I used to think the problem was cultural differences too.

    When I went to the University of Iowa, I met a student who was native Alaskan. I thought it was important to understand cultural differences. I treated the poor guy like an examination subject. After he was more than done with my interrogation, he said, “You know, I am a human.” That really stuck with me. The importance is not what we know about each other. It is how we treat each other.

    Now I live in a Suburb of Chicago which probably has more diversity than any where on the planet. That does not mean I don’t watch someone who I know does not live in my neighborhood to see what they are doing. It is just that when you live in an area that is all white, a person of a different race stands out more and is easily identified as someone who does not belong.

    You know all about how diversity makes natural communities more resilient. I don’t see why diversity in human communities would give any different result. It is when people act against diversity in their communities that instability occurs.

    You will be alright. Just get to know some people who are of different races. Treat them with the same kindness you always show others and things will work out.

    • I understand law enforcement’s need to defend themselves. However, I think the Law Enforcement Today article comes across awfully. It makes black people sound like a bunch of murderers and criminals. If this is what police are reading, then it is no wonder they are presuming guilt and targeting minorities. Society can hardly blame people for protesting, considering how minorities get treated.

      • According to the FBI the violent crime rate fell 51% between 1993 and 2018. Blacks make up 13% of the population and commit 37% of violent crimes. 12% of the nations police officers are black… Statistics paint a story of how much progress has been made, and no one disagrees that there are still inequalities to address. The violence of some of these protests; the sudden lack of concern for the measures in place for Covid – doesn’t paint the protesters in any better light than the police.

        • I would not like being summed up by one number that does not have anything to do with me, lumping me in with violent criminals.

          I have a lot of respect for police. It’s a hard job that few people can do well. I think the protests are about access. The protestors feel the system only works against them and not for them. It is a sad state that people are more afraid of systemic discrimination than a pandemic.

          • Black Demogaphics – this might be a valuable resource to support. They present a much more balanced narrative than main stream media. Their data points to the progress and the opportunities for improvement. It doesn’t make blanket emotional statements.

  11. It’s always in the close up details of tiny things in your images that fills me with wonder and appreciation for the prairie’s beauty and diversity. Of course, the vista views are amazing, too, but the visual examination of the particulars of a natural living form are easily missed in daily trekking, whatever the routine. Details, diversity and particulars need more attention now and many of us have more time to examine if we are so lucky to be able to practice social distancing and stay home. Oh, the irony!

  12. Thank you for your thoughtfulness, your honesty. Challenges us, especially as naturalists, to actively seek ways to be inclusive, to find common ground, literally and figuratively, where we all work to mend ourselves, each other, and the earth.

  13. Thank you. Just THANK you! I have been struggling with the notion of ‘complicity’. If I agree or disagree but do or say nothing, I’m complicit. In America, we are ALL complicit if we do not participate in all of our futures, and just sit back and watch. That’s a really uncomfortable notion, but it is true. We each have a responsibility to act. And I’ve been thinking, oh, but HOW do I act? What do I do, what do I say? I can vote. That’s easy. I can educate myself. Not too difficult. But the truth is, I’ve been cowardly, and haven’t wanted to put my opinions, my support, my discomfort out there in the public arena. It was easier to be angry and dismayed in private. I needed a boost in the butt, and you just provided it with your example. So Thank you.


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