Photos of the Week – August 14, 2020

Our family prairie has been a place of tremendous refuge for me lately. The world seems to be going crazy and taking many of my friends and neighbors with it. I can’t even express the gratitude I have toward my extended family for the opportunity to own and manage the quarter section of land (including 100 acres of prairie) only 15 minutes from our house. The simple act of walking through our prairie fills me with a complicated mixture of emotions, including both peace and pride.

False sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) in foreground, and ironweed (Vernonia sp) and other wildflowers in the background. Nikon 10.5mm fish eye lens. IS.O 500, 1/320 sec, f/20

The peace comes from being able to quietly observe life and interactions that have nothing to do with swirling vortex of hate, argument and anxiety that otherwise pounds at my consciousness. I can sit still and lose myself in the earnest and vigorous foraging of a bee on a flower or reflect upon how much the plant community has changed in the days since my last visit. By the time I leave to return to my other sanctuary – my family – I’m much better suited to deflect and/or process the current unpleasantness in the human world.

Painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) on Flodman’s thistle (Cirsium flodmanii). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, 1/500 sec, f/13.

The pride comes from watching the prairie continue to thrive and increase in beauty and complexity as our restoration and management work bear fruit. A visiting botanist might scoff at the rarity of ‘conservative’ plants – species found primarily in unbroken and ‘pristine’ prairies. In response, I could walk them to many populations of plants in that category and describe how the populations of each has spread over the years I’ve been familiar with the site. I could then point out the diversity of pollinators and other insects (including some at-risk species) thriving in the ever-increasing plant diversity and the number of grassland bird species responding to the shifting mosaic of habitat structure we provide annually. And I’d try to describe the immense sense of accomplishment and pleasure I get from every sighting of a cicada, badger, tree frog, or any other animal that calls our prairie home.

False sunflowers, ironweed, and other wildflowers decorate the bottom of a shallow draw. Tokina 12-28mm lens @12mm. ISO 500, 1/250 sec, f/18.

When I was a full-time land steward for The Nature Conservancy, early in my career, any sense of accomplishment was always tinged with anxiety related to invasive species threats or other challenges looming in front of me. For some reason, I’ve never felt that stress at our family prairie, despite a consistent and long list of tasks still to accomplish. Instead, I chip happily away at encroaching trees, harvest and broadcast seeds to boost plant diversity, and spray patches of reed canarygrass around the wetland – all blissfully free of worry. It’s as if the prairie and I have reached an understanding. We’re in this together. What comes will come and we’ll deal with it as we need to. In the meantime, look at all those butterflies!

This long-horned bee (Melissodes sp) was feeding on rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) and paused to wipe pollen off its face and tongue, allowing me to capture a couple portraits of it. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, 1/800 sec, f/13.
Same bee as above, showing its tongue. Camera details are the same as the first photo.
This Woodhouse’s toad would rather I’d just left it alone but I pestered it for a few photos before letting it hop back off into the prairie. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, 1/160 sec, f/14.
Same toad as above. Same lens too, but 1/400 sec and f/11.
Big bluestem in silhouette as the sun emerges from behind morning clouds. Nikon 18-300mm lens @300mm. ISO 500, 1/5000 sec, f/22.
Prairie cicada (Megatibicen dorsatus). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, 1/250 sec, f/18.
A patch of rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) at sunrise last weekend. Rosinweed is one of many plant species that was absent from our prairie before we started broadcasting locally-harvested seed in recently grazed locations. Tokina 12-28mm lens @22mm. ISO 500, 1/125 sec, f/22.

I’ve said many times, here and elsewhere, that I acknowledge the enormous privilege associated with land ownership, especially when it’s accompanied by the kind of gratification and serenity I find in our prairie. Through this blog and other means, I try to share fruits of that privilege with others, spreading as much of the peace and pleasure as I can. More importantly, I hope anyone reading this can find access to a prairie or other natural area – large or small – that provides similar refuge. Goodness knows we can all use a little refuge right now.

Please be safe and be kind to each other.

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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.

22 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – August 14, 2020

  1. Chris, I have a native garden in my urban yard, and many prairies in our local metroparks here in Toledo, Ohio. In each of these places I find the same comfort you describe, and I’m so grateful to be able to lose myself in the wonders of the non-human parts of the natural world. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and beautiful photos!

  2. Thanks for sharing your prairie with us! I have the same feelings when I visit the various prairies in our area. I love spending time sketching and photographing the plants and creatures that call it home. Always something new to see there!

    • Kathy – I just have small patches so I’m spot spraying in the fall with Glyphosate. In situations where it’s more embedded in a plant community people seem to be having good luck with Poast Plus herbicide, which affects only grasses – not sedges or rushes or forbs.

    • Another method is I use late spring burn to clean the ground of old plant matter.
      Reed Canary Grass is a early sprouter. A couple of weeks after the burn the Reed Canary Grass starts growing. I let it get approx 1 ft high then I sprayed the sprouts with a grass specific herbicide. Seems to have knocked it out for this year. For ref. I had an area approx 500 sq ft that I hit.

  3. Chris, just looking at your awesome photos every week, coupled with your thoughtful and timely comments, helps to keep me calm. With so much disturbance around us, Nature, in any form, such as your beautiful prairie, or even an urban garden, can help get us through the insanity around us. As always, Thank You!

  4. Love your refuge as it is so different than mine, the coniferous forest. A vacation indeed when I read your writing and see the photos. Thank you, onward.

  5. Thank you so much, not only for guarding, preserving and restoring our prairie land, but for sharing it all with us. I don’t get back to Nebraska’s prairie very often, but your blog brings me close in spirit every day.

  6. It is photos like these that help the rest of us. Thank you for sharing and keep them arriving in my mailbox. Homesick for the “hills” and keeping it all in my heart.

  7. I feel exactly like you Chris when I walk in Spring Creek Prairie or my friend’s 100 acre prairie or driving down country roads in the Bohemian Alps on as many No Maintenance roads as I can find. I am enveloped in a constantly changing ecosystem where I am safe and surrounded by beauty and being in that world is the anodyne to the other one that is so crazy now. I love seeing your posts as I learn more about this diverse environment by seeing and reading it, and by my observations of the places I’ve walked this spring and summer of the pandemic. I have seen wildflowers I’ve never noticed before, wild bergamot ( I plan to use the dried leaves as an herb), snow on the mountain, blue lettuce (a patch of which was covered with butterflies the other day). I found a recipe for young milkweed pods and tried out a recipe. It’s so rewarding to watch the succession of plants as they bloom and grow, and to see what flowers next. This year a bunch of Black-eyed Susan finally bloomed and spread in my front yard that I had planted six years ago and that was very satisfying. Thank you so much for sharing your photos and thoughts during this time. I always look forward to them.

  8. What beautiful photos!! Thank you for sharing.
    And thank you for acknowledging the chaos happening in the world and how it affects you/everyone. That’s important context. I didn’t comment on your June 10th post when you acknowledged BLM, but I thought that was so important and I really appreciated that.
    thank you!

  9. I have also watched as patches of conservative species have spread out over the years in a burned, but not grazed, prairie reconstruction in Schaumburg, IL. I often laugh at how plants that have been labelled with a coefficient of conservatism of 9 or 10 have spread from my seed garden to cracks in my driveway. This reminds me that it is the composition of an ecosystem as a whole that indicates quality and not the presence or abundance of any single species. In the end, these measurements are only indicators of what we cannot measure which creates this mystery we call diversity.

    I can see cattle trails when I zoom in on google maps to a prairie I am helping restore. The prairie was purchased at least twenty years ago, and grazing has not occurred recently. The cattle trails are not visible in the prairie now. The google map images also show where vehicles had driven through the vegetation. These areas are some of the most degraded on the site. They are dominated by smooth brome and a few other short-lived invasive species. I wonder if these areas had been sprayed with herbicide.

    The areas where sweet clovers have dominated also show degradation. I must wonder if the grazing kept the sweet clovers from dominating thereby helping preserve diversity. Once the cattle had been removed, the stewards now have to do the job. Hopefully, the prairie’s quality will become better and better over time with the invasive species being removed.

    I envy you for having your own prairie. When I volunteer to work on public or private conservation land, I feel some what like a migrant worker. My efforts improve a place I do not own. I often change were I go depending upon what work is needed travelling much like a dicksissel. Unfortunately, when I am working in very public places sometimes people don’t treat me respectfully. Ownership has the benefit that people who act like this can be asked to leave.

    Lack of a stake in communities has social repercussions. In Saint Louis black business men protected a police officer from other protesters when the officer had become separated from the rest of the force. These business men had a stake in their communities. When the recent looting happened in Chicago the people from the Englewood neighborhood were blamed. Later, when Black Lives Matters protestors showed up in the mostly black community of Englewood the community kicked them out. The people of Englewood did not want people who did not live there causing trouble. They said they did not do the looting, it was out of state opportunists. They also said all the protesters do is rile up the police who then beat up their little black boys. I guarantee you, the people in Englewood have a stake and not only the kind that is written in a deed. If the problems that we are facing are going to be solved, then it is imperative that people have a stake in a positive outcome.

  10. Chris, as always, thank you for your beautiful photos and your beautiful words. You capture so well the sense of peace and gratitude that can come from looking closely at Nature. I tend to think of my camera as a prayer partner.

  11. Two things came to mind as I looked at your photos and read your words. The first was a quotation from Annie Dillard, who once wrote, ““We have not yet encountered any god who is as merciful as a man who flicks a beetle over on its feet.” The prairies are one place where people can learn mercy and compassion, even for creatures they’ve never considered worthy of attention. Now and then, even the most hardened can be surprised by the sense of connection they feel.

    And: I couldn’t help remembering this song from the 2011 Points of Light concert. Kindness could help to help any number of our current wounds.

  12. Chris, I feel so much the same way you describe when I walk in a forest, field and marsh area every day. But I have to say, there are few things more beautiful than an open field or prairie, especially in bloom.We have ironweed and false sunflower blooming here also. The bees and butterflies adore it.As do I.I need the sense of peace that comes with nature to take with me into the day. I write about it in my blog also ( Today I saw a lovely bumblebee clinging to the false sunflower. I’m not sure if he was expired or just wet from the rain and drying off. May you always have a prairie to wander in.

  13. Thanks Chris. Two and a half years ago my wife and I started a small 3.5 acre prairie restoration project on a hay field next to our home. It is a mix of dry prairie and sand barren. Now in our third year we have 38 native prairie species present. We started the project in large part as a response to the politics of our times and our growing need to do something positive for the land, something we could take pride in. The change has been astounding and the discovery of new plants (many seeded in but others showing up on their own) is a true joy. Watching the explosion of insect life has been a real pleasure and a respite from the troubles we all face. Even though it is small it has become a magical place where we can take refuge from the chaos around us. It is wholesome and nourishes the spirit. I only wish my photos were as good as yours.

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