As I’ve been pondering various ways to draw the public into prairies and conservation, I’ve been thinking about various ways to first engage someone who has never thought or cared about prairies. What’s the magic word or experience that might inspire someone to see prairies as something other than flat, boring places full of grass?
Because everyone is at a different place in terms of how they currently think about nature, the answer will obviously vary for each person. Despite that, I wonder if there are some common themes. I’m hoping to use today’s blog post to get feedback from you on that topic.
What was it that first got you interested in prairies? Were you fortunate enough to grow up among prairie people? Or was there a particular event, or series of incidents, that brought prairies into your consciousness as places worth paying attention to? I’d like to see if there are some common themes that would be instructive. If you’re willing, please use the comments section below to share a (short) story about your first positive experience with prairies. What was it that drew you in?
I’ll tell you my own story to get the ball rollling. I spent much of my early childhood surrounded by the prairies of western Nebraska. Between kindergarten and fourth grade, I lived in the panhandle, where grasslands were/are a significant portion of the landscape. I saw prairies whenever we drove out of our small town on the way to someplace else and I camped and fished next to prairies when our family went to nearby lakes on weekend trips.
While grasslands formed the backdrop for that part of my life, I really didn’t think about them or actually spend much time exploring them. I loved the outdoors, but the nature I enjoyed were the lakes we fished in, the streams where I hunted for snails and crayfish, and the trees I camped beneath. Later, when our family moved to Lincoln, my outdoor interests were similar and prairies still didn’t really catch my attention, even though I was around them a lot.
The event that turned me into a prairie person happened in my sophomore year of college when my friend Stephen Winter came up to me after ecology class. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Hey, do you ever think about prairies?”
I said something like, “Uh, no, I guess not.”
“Yeah, neither do most people. Isn’t that a little weird? It’s the dominant ecosystem of Nebraska!”
He then told me that he was starting to explore prairies and learn about the plants and other species living in them. Would I want to come out sometime and poke around?
To be honest, what hooked me the most was the fact that prairies were an underdog. Like most kids that age, I was attracted to any opportunity to push back against the majority opinion. Prairies, huh? Ok, I’ll look into them.
That brief conversation led to me taking some great trips with Steve and other friends, but, more importantly, it flipped a switch in my brain that removed whatever metaphoric blinders had been keeping me from noticing the prairies all around me. And they were ALL AROUND ME. How had I not noticed before?
Over the next several years, Steve and I, along with a number of other like-minded friends (or people we recruited) took over the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Wildlife Club and forcibly turned it into a prairie advocacy and management organization. We were insatiable in our desire to learn about and help with anything related to prairies.
In particular, I became fixated on the obsession most Nebraskans seemed to have with trees and tree planting. Ignoring the uncomfortable truth that I’d personally overseen the planting of 500 trees as part of my Eagle Scout project just a few years earlier, I railed against trees, tree encroachment, and tree planting. I was pretty obnoxious.
All that passion, which has continued (and, fortunately, matured) to this day was sparked by one comment/invitation from a friend that simply opened my eyes to the fact that prairies existed and that few people seemed to care. Another major development came a year or two later when I got the first macro lens for my camera and started noticing the incredible diversity of insects and other tiny organisms in prairies. Within the world I’d learned to love, I discovered yet another world few people seemed to pay attention to.
About 30 years after Steve changed my world with a simple question, I’m known to many people as “The Prairie Ecologist” (a title I like except that it implies I’m the only one, which is happily far from true). I’d like to think I would have discovered prairies one way or the other, but who knows? Maybe if Steve hadn’t talked to me that day, I’d now be a fisheries scientist or (shudder) even a forester.
I’m totally kidding, of course. I’d never be a forester. (Again, I’m totally kidding. Foresters are terrific…as long as they’re not doing forestry in prairies.)
Where was I? Oh yeah. So that’s my story. What’s yours? How did you come to discover prairies or fall in love with them? What was your trigger? Share your story in the comments section and we can all enjoy reading each other’s tales of prairie love. More importantly, I really am fascinated to see if some common themes emerge that might help us think about how to bring others into the fold. Thanks for your help.
(Also, thank you Steve.)