What was it for you?

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?

My kids had no choice other than to learn about prairies. Not everyone is so lucky as 12-year-old John, here, who got to go to work with his dad and play with box turtles and other wonders.

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?

When I lived in western Nebraska during elementary school, Courthouse and Jail rocks were right outside of town. I remember having a great time scrambling around their bases and frequently seeing them out of the car window, but at no point did I ever pay attention to the prairie they were surrounded by.

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.

I spent numerous summer days wandering around the Cornhusker Boy Scout Camp in southeast Nebraska during my middle and high school years. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I’d been running around some of the nicer tallgrass prairie in the state.

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.)

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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.

65 thoughts on “What was it for you?

  1. Hi Chris! I’m a (shudder) forester who happens to enjoy your blog and your photos. You even autographed your book for me. I like trees, but I also like prairies, and I appreciate each in their proper place. To answer your question, I first noticed prairies during my high school years, on a cross-country car trip with my parents between San Diego and Minneapolis. After growing up in the mountainous west, I was amazed at the seemingly endless flat expanses of sunflowers and grass. So I guess it was those sunflowers under a blue, blue prairie sky that first drew me in!

    • Ah, Sandy, you know I was kidding. You have the right perspective on trees and prairies. I’m impressed that you got hooked on prairies from the car. Didn’t apparently work on me – I wish it had!

  2. I grew up in western Nebrsaska, and the prairie is so much an essential part of me I went on to major in folklore and human geography, with a specialization in Great Plains, 1880-1920. Now that I have lived in the Big City for decades, your column is a continuing joy. Thank you so much for your photography; your photos keep the prairie alive for me.

  3. Reading the book “Bringing Nature Home,” by Douglas Tallamy is the catalyst that has woken up tens of thousands, no doubt. The concepts presented in this book are new to most. After you read this book, you cannot “unlearn” and there is no turning back. Then the bread crumbs begin. What will lead me to my new-found tribe? Mine led me to the non-profit Wild Ones which led me to more learning, a sense of community, sharing of ideas and resources, hands-on doing, outreach, teaching, and the joyful exploration of our prairie treasures in the Midwest.

  4. I was lucky enough to grow up in Kansas with a dad who is incredibly passionate about the environment. Taking me on walks through Konza Prairie turned into me taking my own walks through the family farm, wandering miles and miles away from home. There’s an unmatched feeling of freedom when wandering the prairie. That’s what keeps me coming back.

  5. For me it was learning to identify a handful of common native grass species. Once I knew about 5 species and could confidently ID them on roadsides from a moving vehicle, I felt empowered and I just wanted to learn more and more. Now I regularly go “botanizing” in the Flint Hills with my 2-year old daughter and hope to take more people out with us this spring and summer. I found a whole new level of enjoyment once I started to learn and understand what I was looking at beyond just “oh, it’s a pretty view.”

  6. I first became interested in prairies in college while taking a local flora class through MWSU in the late 1980s. My professor, Dr. John Rushin, took us to several places in Missouri that were fairly close by St. Joseph. One of the places he took us to was Star School Prairie. I had never heard of it before, but I was fascinated by the loess bluffs and the very different flora there. I now live out in Manhattan, KS, so I have an opportunity to see prairie areas all the time – so beautiful!

  7. I grew up in central NY – nary a grassland to be seen. Pastures, yes; fields, yes – grasslands, no. I Guess I learned about them first in high school biology (although, as a youngster I did read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, so that was probably my first introduction to them). I thought they sounded exotic – no trees, tall grasses waving for miles and miles. Bison. And then I learned about the prairie potholes – wanted to see those in the worst way. Saw my first prairies back in, oh, the ’90s maybe, when I drove out to Missouri one spring for a job interview. Desperately wanted to see a prairie. Most of what I found were a vacant lot here and there, and most of the people I asked about where to go to see one thought I was nuts. Did find a multi-acre place, where I parked and walked around a bit, hoping for prairie chickens (I only really knew them by name, so I was clueless). Ended up at the Shaw Arboretum on my way home – their “prairie” was disappointing. I probably had images of “Dances with Wolves” on the brain. I now live in northern IL (four years). Spent the previous six years in southern MI, which is where I got to spend some time learning about the condition of prairies/grasslands of today. Have yet to encounter prairie potholes – and no one here seems to even know what they are. A sad state of affairs for The Prairie State.

    • How about the Rome Sand Plains or Albany Pine Bush?
      In southeast New York there is the Nellie Hill Preserve.
      In northwestern New York is the Chaumont Barrens.

      In Michigan there are the dunes, fens, and alvar in the UP.

      There is good prairie in Illinois if you seek it out. It is quite rare now and hard to find.

  8. I grew up, through middle school, in the sixties, in west-central Illinois. While most of the landscape was either woodlands or intensively cropped fields, there were many prairie remnants about, especially along rail beds. Once or so each year, the areas nearest the tracks were burned, or rather scorched, which I am pretty sure kept those small patches of prairie vibrant. What they lacked in diversity was more than made up by their remarkable beauty. I think that by sixth grade I was hooked. Now I treasure trips back to Illinois, and insist we stop at prairies whenever we can. Here inNew England we mostly lack prairies, yet do have ever more threatened salt marshes which I love, and which have a similar feel to prairie at times. I am often reminded of what has disappeared in my seventy plus years, and the deep truth sung by Joni Mitchell all those years ago, “don’t know what you got til it’s gone.”

    • I lived in Manchester, New Hampshire for two years. Along a power line corridor, I saw more prairie lily than I have seen anywhere else in my entire life. I saw New Jersey tea in barren open areas. Canada tick trefoil lived along the parking lot of the apartment complex where I lived. I even occasionally saw big bluestem in disturbed open areas. Not to mention the pine barrens in Concord. There used to be prairie in New England. This has just mostly been forgotten.

  9. Chris, I have been working with one of our IANR Science Literacy interns on creating a project using Museum-in-a-box (museuminabox.org). This idea would make great content for a collection using the Museum-in-a-box platform. If you have a Hubbard Fellow looking for a cool project, tell them to hit me up! I’d love to collaborate on something like this!

  10. I’ve lived in Alberta, with a 4 year sojourn to southern Manitoba most of my adult life. But overall I preferred the wild lands, and the modern prairie wasn’t very big (patches of true prairie, not pasture or farmland) and not very wild at all.

    A couple years ago we rented an AirBNB on the Sunshine Coast. We were thinking about retiring there. I spent my days walking the trail networks back from the ocean. By the end of the month I was seriously depressed.

    I realized that there was no view but trees. The trails with trees all look pretty much the same.

    I was very glad to come home to Alberta.

    Don’t get me wrong. Prairie isn’t that enticing on it’s own. I am becoming a real fan of diversity. My farm is in aspen parkland. 60 of my 80 acres is reverting to prairie + aspen. I like this land wth it’s rolling hills, sloughs in the hollows, ephemeral streams, ravines and headlands by the N. Saskaatchewan. I like that my stream has several different kinds of forest beside it. And while I rail at the pocket gophers, they are the reason new plants can get started. They have given me birch, spruce, fireweed, for good things, as well as tansy, orange hawkweed, and thistle.

    One report out of a group at the U of Alberta shows that under the worst case IPCC climate change scenario (which if anything is optimistic) Lethbridge’s eco system of short grass prairie will be lapping at the south edge of Wood Buffalo park by 2080.

  11. My husband and I happened to once live in a town with a 1200-acre arboretum smack in the middle of it: Madison WI. Turns out that Madison’s arboretum has more than trees: it has prairies — more than one — that were the legacy of Aldo Leopold, who was Research Director there in 1934 and began the process of re-establishing an original Wisconsin landscape and plant community including tallgrass prairie and oak savanna on old, degraded farmland. We spent many days over many years walking those established trails in all seasons, attending lectures, bird-watching, joining botany field trips, being inspired.

    Eventually, we moved from Madison and bought our own restoration project in central Wisconsin — 100 acres of old farmland that’s now home to acres of native lupine and a healthy population of the federally endangered Karner Blue butterfly. It wouldn’t have happened without inspiration from the Arboretum and its many knowledgeable volunteers. In January 2021, the UW Arboretum was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service. Well-deserved.

  12. Sophomore at UNO I signed up for my first environmental internship in prairie restoration. My zoology teacher at that time Dan Fogell took me to remnants scattered around the Omaha metro area where I would be collecting seed . As he gave me prairie plant identification books and started teaching me all the many dozens of species in these remnants I suddenly realized that our horse pasture on the acreage where I grew up–and which I had always taken for a representation of the prairie that once was–was really dominated by a monoculture of the European grass, smooth brome. THESE were real prairies, some of which were only a couple miles from my home and I’d driven by my whole life. When I’d park and walk into these areas tucked here and there around the city, I felt kind of like I was entering a Secret Garden full so many amazing species of wildflowers and grasses that I never knew existed while other people just drove by clueless. The fact that there are so few of these areas left I think made them feel extra special. Of course all this was reinforced by my time out at Wood River with you and Gerry.

  13. I am a city girl, born and raised in St. Paul, where I still live. I stumbled upon botanical printmaking and discovered how wonderfully adaptive grasses are for printing. Always looking for new species, I discovered the prairie grasses and FELL IN LOVE with prairies. Not only do I print with them, I also talk with exhibit viewers about prairie preservation and restoration.

    Fear not! Harvesting means giving the grass a hair cut — I never pull the plant up by its roots.

  14. Love your Post! My wife, Patty, and I acquired 47 AC’s of Native Prairie and Woodlands in south central IL, back in 2001. We have 40-1/2 AC’s of Native Prairie…. 29 AC’s are original untouched Savanna Prairie with all seeps, fens, springs, and underground water veins still intact! 11-1/2 AC’s were in crop rotation and in 2004, we did a Prairie Restoration and the balance is Native Oak/Hickory woodlands. We were looking for some recreational land and I saw a “Land for Sale” sign while driving through the small farming community. I called the Realtor and received permission to walk the property. This was the 3rd week of April… when I got to the property, I was amazed at all the wildflowers and bushes in bloom. After walking around the property for 3 hours or so… I called the Realtor and said I would put some $$ down on the land to hold it… the very next day I took my wife up to see the land and all the wildflowers in bloom… She fell in LOVE with the property!!!! This land had been in a Old Farmers family since the 1870’s. The original untouched Prairie was part of a WILD Grass hayfield and a WILD Grass pasture. The old pasture had not been used in 8-10 years and the hayfield was cut only once a year, usually in late August when the WILD grass was tall enough to cut for hay. We didn’t know what we had, no clue as what was still lying out in the JUNK LAND… as the old farmer called it! We thought all the wildflowers were wonderful…. there were plants in bloom from April till fall!!! WHO KNEW!! We first enrolled the land into a WHIP program, Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program, for 5 years…. we started a spring burn regime each of those years and noticed more and more wildflowers growing/blooming! By 2004-2005, we realized there was a intact Prairie remnant out in our land…. in 2009, we enrolled the Prairie into the current LWR program, Land Water Reserve program. Our beautiful Prairie will forever be protected from farming and development practices. We started a intensive “Search and ID” program in 2015, of ALL plants throughout the Prairie and Woodlands. We are still engaged in the “Search and ID” program, and our current Plant Species Total is 603. We have 10 or so plants on the State Endangered List and another 15 or so plants that are on the States Threatened List! We have 6 Species of Native Orchids!!! Like I said… WHO KNEW!! It has been a extremely interesting “RIDE”…. and still is!! The most amazing thing is that the Prairie landscape was never destroyed… it just laid hidden…. waiting!!! And to think the old farmer was SO happy to sell that Junk/Waste land!!! Burns have been the best tool for the Prairie…. but we have, and still continue, to hand cut small trees, etc, each year that continue to grow out in the Prairie! It is a labor of love…. and we are so honored and thankful to own and enjoy a wonderful and precious Prairie! Our Prairie is/was, part of the “Southern Till Plain” Prairie ecosystem here in IL. 98% of this type of Prairie was destroyed and converted into farming crop fields! Our 29 AC’s of original Prairie is one of the largest intact parcels of Southern Till Plain in IL. It has been a extremely interesting LEARNING experience!!!

  15. I was 50 years old and we moved into a new house on two acres…I knew in a few years I would be older and did not want to be mowing grass the rest of my life. Soon after I seen a small new paper add…and they were looking for volunteers at the Kane Forest Presevre District across the street…I like keeping busy and being outside. So I decided why not…I was soon was working over in their prairie once a month on a Saturday afternoons…I was totally amazed at all of the wonderful plants in that prairie and decided I wanted the same in my back yard.. It been twenty years now and I have a wonderfull back yard prairie…with a host of birds, bees and other wild life. I now also volunteer for not only Kane County Forest Presvere but also a six thousand acre…nature preserve in Batavia , Ill.. Fermi Natural Areas.. I now have my whole famlliy volunteering restoring area Prairies.

  16. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. After college I did a lot of backpacking trips with Desert Survivors. We went to deserts in southern CA and NV. I was stunned to see how much diversity there was in places that people thought of as great places to put landfills and nuclear waste repositories. I’d seen more wildlife in the deserts than in the mountains, and more importantly, no other people – ever – besides our group. (Could be that you have to carry 20 gallons of just water to make it through the weekend.) Also, I loved the openness; no pesky trees to block any views. Moving to the Sandhills was kind of serendipitous for me – for some unknown reason I was drawn to it and everything lined up just right. Now that I’m here, I see the same qualities of open space, peacefulness, diversity, and more wildness (from the proportional lack of people) as the “other” desert.

  17. I grew up in central Illinois where the soil was black and loamy and great for growing corn and soybeans. I learned later how the prairie was plowed under to create the productive fields. I did not learn to appreciate prairies until much later.

    I live now in Indiana – my exposure to prairies is limited to mostly restorations in state parks here and during limited travel in the Midwest.

    Birds….seeking out different species were my reason to learn about different habitats. If you want to see a Henslow Sparrow, you need to find a prairie.

    Then Monarchs- I call them the gateway drug to learning about species that are found in prairies. Learned about milkweeds, then discovered what other plants serve as host to other butterflies and moths. And learned that the Carolina Chickadee needs 6-9000 caterpillars to raise a brood. (thanks to Doug Tallamy’s work and books)

    So I planted a mini prairie in my yard (around1000 square feet) using seed from Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin. Coming home from work late afternoon I would wander around and be amazed at all the insects on whichever plant was currently blooming.

    Now every year I add more native plants (and shrubs and trees) to increase the diversity and support more species of insects which help the birds thrive.

  18. Little House on the Prairie… the book series I read when I was a child half a century ago. And growing up in NW Wisconsin, so having a chance to see bits sometimes.

  19. I grew up in Chicago and was a total city person. When I went to college in rural Minnesota I gradually acquired a taste for the natural world, and when I went back to Chicago after graduation, I just assumed there was nothing in Illinois to see or hike since it was a corn & soybean wasteland. One day I got an invitation to visit the newly-opened Nachusa Grasslands, and was shocked to see amazing plants I had had no idea existed. When I realized I’d never seen a native Illinois plant (even our weeds were imports) I got involved in prairie restoration. Now I have a permaculture orchard in Michigan and am spearheading a Rotary initiative to re-establish pollinator habitat with native prairie plants across southwest Michigan.

  20. I grew up in the sandhills of Yuma County Colorado, northeast of Wray and 6 miles from Nebraska and two and a half miles from the next door neighbors. I took grasses and entomology as 4-H projects in addition to garden and hogs. I left the farm at 16 to become a geologist/civil engineer but never lost an appreciation for the subtle beauty of the prairie. I am a native of the prairie.

  21. What got me into prairies…A dog and dirty river days. I used to fish the Cedar River (Northeast Iowa) every day I could when I was younger. Usually wading or by canoe. My dog was my fishing buddy. When we’d get a lot of rain, on a lot of farmland, that made for dirty river days. No fishing. That meant heading, with my fishing buddy, to the little bits of conservation ground in the area. I was an oak woods man back then. I first learned the trees, then the understory plants, then where they belong. I lamented the oaks lost cause in the war with the maple on unmanaged land. I began seeing things through more of an ecological eye. My interest broadened then to the remnants of other ecosystems in the area, like prairie. One of my favorites was Hayden prairie. The shooting stars are fantastic there in the spring. Especially after a burn. Now I’m in Nebraska. And like before, I lament the prairies lost cause in the war with the trees…on unmanaged land. Now I’m a prairie guy. I am fortunate enough to have a little prairie of my own and I thoroughly enjoy that I get to manage it.

    For me, it was evolution…or should I say, succession.

  22. My camera drew me to prairies. I started by taking photos of flowers but soon was hooked on insects–so many insects, doing such interesting things: insects I’d never heard of before, insects that looked other-worldly. Lately I’ve become equally enamored of prairie grasses.

    Going out into the prairie is a treasure hunt. I’ve spent hours in prairies as a hiker, a volunteer, an appreciator, a photographer. I’m now blessed to live near Madison, Wisconsin, where the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, with its world-renowned prairies, is just a short drive away.

    And, like Chris, my camera is always at hand, ready to help me see the magical prairie-world. Sharing my photos feels a bit like prairie missionary work.

  23. I grew up in southeastern Nebraska just a few miles from your lovely tallgrass prairie photo taken near the Cornhusker Boy Scout Camp. Although I was a “town” girl (Humboldt) our back yard was in the country, and overlooked a grassland that often had grazing animals I have no memories of THINKING about prairies as a child, but I spent a lot of lovely time horseback riding and hiking in them.

    Then I went to school and work in Lincoln and Omaha, didn’t give prairies much thought but did enjoy driving trips through them. A few years ago, a friend asked me if I loved prairies, and when I thought about it and surprised myself by saying I did, she invited me to be on the board of Prairie Plains Resource Institute. My love of prairies took a more educated turn at that point, and the June driving trips on my favorite highway (Nebraska 2) through the Sandhills to ranch country in northeast Nebraska opened my eyes to the beauty of different types of prairie.

    About that same time, I discovered your blog and your work and learned much more about the incredible plant and animal richness that had been right at my feet my whole life. I’ll end with what my former husband from Connecticut told me he thought when he drove into Nebraska the first time: The landscape is incredibly powerful.

  24. I grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan. We had cattle and pasture (original prairie grasses). I loved the variety of grasses and their beauty as they rippled in the wind. I rode horses through coulees. I always fantasized about living on the edge of a coulee. The old farmstead and pasture that I most fantasized about was razed and plowed under, which still saddens me. I remember my mom taking the trouble to take us out to the pasture to see crocuses blooming in the wild. Our vacation spot was Cypress Hills, a unique landform near Maple Creek, Saskatchewan. There I also rode horses through the prairie and loved the potentillas and wild roses.

  25. The spark of my love for prairies happened one winter when my husband stopped along a country road and told me to look out over that field. “Looks like white sheets tossed out on the ground. What is it?” Then there was a cacophony of sound as hundreds of snow geese lifted off the ground. Subsequently there was the loggerhead shrike, a flight of sandhill cranes and the appearance of long-billed curlews that piqued my curiosity.

  26. I grew up in Madison Wisconsin and was first introduced to prairie by my dad, when we went on walks in the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, in which the Curtis Prairie, which is considered the “first” prairie restoration, is located. It was years later, around 14 years old, when I saw a remnant prairie for the first time. Whoa. I started learning what the plants were, plants I’d never seen before, that hooked me. It was lucky for me that I had mentors, in the Prairie Enthusiasts, and the Ice Age Trail, who got me out to some of the jewels of remnant prairie, doing stewardship, and I got hooked.

  27. I grew up in south-central Kansas with good native prairie only a short drive away that I visited with parents and friends but didn’t properly appreciate until I left the state for college. My school in northern Indiana had several small prairie restorations on campus, and my first ecology class had us tromping through them to learn their plants. The next time I was back in the Kansas Flint Hills I enjoyed searching for the 30 or so species that I had learned from Indiana, but it was suddenly clear that there were so many more plants that I didn’t know. That spark burns hot to this day!

  28. So enjoying reading your story and those of your readers. Amazing, these defining moments when we discover a part of our souls in this prairie land!
    My story: a midwestern upbringing, a decade living in the Caribbean, and then a return to the state of my birth, Kansas. 7:30 AM on a late winter morning, preliminary announcements before the beginning of a biology class, my professor soliciting assistance to inventory the survival of grasses and forbs planted the year prior in a prairie reconstruction. Having not a clue but still curious, I raised my hand and I was hired. Under my professor’s patient tutelage, I subsequently spent 60+ hours crawling over the 1.5 acre reconstruction, learning Latin names while identifying wildflowers and grasses emerging from the warming springtime soil. With that experience the hook was firmly set and I never looked back, letting this newly found passion for the prairie landscape give focus to a life journey. Forty years later and it still does! Now there is yet one more task – paying it forward, sharing with, inspiring upcoming generations to also learn to know, love, and care for prairie.

  29. I first fell in love with prairie after meeting Diana Horton at the University of Iowa. She directed me to some important references and the first prairie I ever really saw as something special. It was a cemetery prairie east of Iowa City. I volunteered to help cut brush on a degraded remnant prairie on campus. I read “The Prairie Keepers: Secrets of the Zumwalt” by Marcy Cottrell Houle.

    Several years later I moved to a suburb of Chicago. I began volunteering. After over a decade of volunteering I sought more freedom to work independently and choose the work I was doing. Consequently, I have been driving to Nachusa Grasslands where their stewardship model allows volunteers to have more freedom than is granted to those working on county or state land.

    I am not sure Bill is exactly happy that I showed up at Nachusa. I have a reputation of being difficult. However, if I don’t bother Bill too much, I think he might let me keep volunteering.

  30. I was working at the Saskatoon Zoo next to 54 acres of fescue prairie the city slated to build houses on. Hikes with the Grassland Ecologists at U of Saskatchewan teaching us to see the minute beauty and interconnected ecology. Many groups came together to eventually have 34 acres protected. The Saskatoon Natural Grasslands.

  31. I live in New Jersey. I’ve never (that I can remember) seen a prairie in person. Someone whose blog I follow followed you, and so I checked out this blog, and I loved the macro photos of plants with names and information, bugs were cool, too. Reading your blog over the years has made me want to come out your way and see the prairies for myself.

  32. To me every type of natural habitat and ecosystem is equally important, and there’s always something new to observe and learn when visiting. It’s kind of a treasure hunt really.
    I also think that the local nature near where one lives is the most important and where one can actually make a (small) difference; even if that isn’t in a prairie.
    Like, if I should see some flowers that are drowning in high grasses or shrubs; then why not give a helping hand with a few minutes of careful manual weeding :-)

  33. My story is very much like yours, Chris. I am a product of South Dakota and was surrounded by prairie but I was not surrounded by people who appreciated prairie or taught me to appreciate it. I didn’t really notice prairie until I was in college at South Dakota State University. A field trip to the Samuel Ordway Prairie north of Aberdeen really opened my eyes. It’s now my life’s work to try to open the eyes of others – especially those of children, to the wonders of the prairie. My platform has always been: the prairie is always changing! From day to day, even hour to hour. It’s never the same. I never find the same things in the same place. It’s constantly changing but it takes a very observant person to notice those changes.

  34. Monarchs! I was a classroom teacher who missed teaching science so I started volunteering at a Dodge Nature Center in West St. Paul, MN in the early 1990s. One of the programs I helped with and then took the lead on was monarch tagging. The best place to find the monarchs was out on the prairie. So much fun chasing through the grasses and flowers! Eventually I left classroom teaching and joined the staff at the nature center. One of my teaching responsibilities was working with 7th Graders at a nearby middle school. We chose the prairie as the focal point of our ecology studies. Prairies are a fabulous example for exploring predator-prey relationships, energy flow, carrying capacity, invasive species – the list goes on and on. Every time we had a new concept we wanted to teach, we could figure out a way to use the prairie to show it. One of my favorite uses of the prairie is in teaching the science standard about how humans impact the land. I love being able to get kids to think beyond “We lost most of the prairie in Minnesota when it was turned into farmland.” and see how humans can have a positive impact on the land. These 7th Graders have helped with prairie restoration during the past ten years. They collect seed in the fall, they winterize/scarify the seed, they plant the seeds, and on their last field trip of the year, they plant the seedlings in the prairie and remove invasives like buckthorn. I still tag monarchs in the prairie, but I know there is so much more going on.

  35. I’ve had a burning desire to learn my Tribe’s Indigenous culture since I was a little kid. I was drawn to bison through tanning their hides, etc. It is impossible to go very far down the road of learning traditional culture without also learning about landscape ecology. I have always thought the tallgrass prairie is the most beautiful of the ecosystems both where I grew up (NW Missouri), and in my Tribe’s homeland in Mississippi. When I was a teenager, my parents gave me a bison management handbook and a tallgrass prairie restoration handbook. I dreamed of one day raising bison and restoring tallgrass prairie, but when I realized my basketball skills wouldn’t take me to the NBA, I figured I’d never have the resources to do it. A few years after marriage, my wife and I were able to buy a house that came with a few acres and a couple cows. We had to replace the fences anyway because the cows kept getting out, so why not just replace the fences and cows with bison? With that experience under our belt, we were soon able to buy a real farm, increase our herd a bit, and start doing prairie restoration in our pastures. 20 years after my parents gave me those books, a dream is fulfilled every time I go out our front door.

  36. I’m going to go about answering this question backwards: Instead of first recounting how I myself came to love prairies here where French missionary explorers first used the term, in Illinois, I’ll offer my hunch as to why so many people may find them to be “flat, boring places full of grass.”

    My hunch is, because right now, that’s what they are. The problem is one of scale, diversity, and abundance. The ‘prairie’, as the earliest travelers first described it, was notable for resembling the ocean, stretching from horizon to horizon, and lying beneath an equally broad sky. It was full of stunningly beautiful and often bizarre flowers which bloomed at all times of the season, but it was also swarming with organisms large and small – countless bees and butterflies and enormous flocks of birds, but also herds of deer, elk, thousands of bison, and unhurried wolves and panthers. This is the vision that greeted Lewis and Clark, Audubon, and the expeditions of European princes and common settlers who left record of their impressions as they moved west of the Appalachians and then the Mississippi and in the nineteenth century.

    So to see a real prairie today, a place where you can find those strange and beautiful flowers you had no idea existed, in many cases consists of a few acres of forgotten land wedged in between land devoted to other uses – like a railroad right of way, an old pioneer cemetery, speculative real estate bought before the Crash of 1929 that was saved from development when its owner went bankrupt, or a spit of land between a canal and an interstate (I’m thinking of the prairie remnants within a 50 mile radius of Chicago) – simply does not convey the same impression of majestic, enveloping sweep. As beautiful as they are, they are remnants. Like an Edward Curtis photograph of Native Americans after the frontier was officially declared closed: Beautiful, sad, something that has been confined to reservations. It does not have bison.

    But…I grew up among corn fields. The broad sky hasn’t changed. The swell of the land hasn’t changed. The big storms and lazy rivers and open oak groves and gentle glacial moraines are all still here, as is the occasional arrowhead found down by a creek, and other reminders of the people who lived here for tens of thousands of years before the land was first plowed. The abundance hasn’t changed, just the form it takes. The stark beauty in winter, the obvious luxuriance of summer growth, it’s still here, haunted by what it used to be. If any piece of that is then converted back to what it was, especially a big piece, then it’s like a revelation.

    One such piece is down the road from my home town. It was an old WWII era Army arsenal and testing range, scooped up by the Federal Government after the Depression. For decades I drove right past it. Then, at the end of the Cold War, it was decommissioned, transferred to the Forest Service, and is now one of the largest prairie restorations in the United States, I believe, if not the world. And it has bison.

    You can’t get too close to them, and there aren’t too many of them (yet), but there they are, and you know they are meant to be here, they always have been here, and now they are back. You don’t have to go to Yellowstone, They are right here in Illinois. You show them to your children. And this sets your imagination – and hopefully theirs – on fire.

    • Some hope there then, which is good, but what about prairie dogs?
      And predators like wolves?
      Complete ecosystems should be the goal, and not commercially controlled parks mainly for humans.

  37. I live in Omaha and it wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that I became aware of prairies, even though I grew up in Nebraska very close to where Chris lives. I think it happened when Dr. Tom Bragg was looking for the Audubon Society of Omaha to share rental payments on a 24 acre parcel known as Stolley Prairie so the owners would be able to keep it intact and not sell it. This, of course, got me interested so I went out to take a look at in the spring. This prairie had a really good population of prairie phlox and it so happened that the day I first visited a portion of it was blanketed with pink flowers. I was hooked!! And I’ve never looked back! Many subsequent visits through the seasons followed as I, camera in hand, photographed and tried to identify all the diverse species present in that small piece of prairie on Omaha’s western edge. I’m now well into my 80’s and that sense of wonder and interest in prairies has never left me.
    Just a bit of follow-up on Stolley Prairie – in the late 1990’s the City of Omaha purchased the prairie with money from a grant from the Peter Kiewit Foundation. My understanding is that it will eventually become part of a park that includes undeveloped land to the south of it and a prairie restoration adjacent to it on the north. It is no longer on the western outskirts of Omaha, now surrounded by residential development.

  38. My love for prairies, as it looks like some other people have in common, came through my education. I spent two years (2018-2020) at Fort Hays State University in northwest Kansas studying natural resource biology. My studies were concentrated in the areas of zoology, range science, and natural resource management; and many classes focused on Kansas/grassland biota. While I had spent the summers of 2016 and 2017 working at a state park that consisted nearly entirely of restored prairie habitat, I failed to notice the smaller details of the ecosystem I spent nearly 40 hours of my week working in (I blame lack of knowledge for this oversight). Through my education, however, I spent months studying the details, learning about interactions between different forces, and learning how to better enjoy prairie ecosystems. I would say the main class that pushed me off the cliff into falling in love with prairies was titled “Range Plants,” in which I learned over 200 species of plants present in different regions of western North America. The confidence that this class gave me to identify many native (and a few invasive) plants of the tall-, mixed-, and shortgrass prairies really led me to enjoy these ecosystems in more depth. It has also allowed me to become the “plant expert” (which I am far from) for many of the groups I’ve worked with on various projects since then. I love the potential I now have to be able to encourage others into enjoying grasslands (almost) as much as I do, and with it, I hope to promote prairie restoration/conservation as I become a professional in the field. So, that’s the story of how I fell in love with prairies, and I don’t think I’ll stop falling any time soon.

  39. Those college days were fun Chris! We were such idealists, weren’t we?

    For me, what first got me interested in prairies was being raised on an acreage outside of Lincoln, an acreage that had 6 acres of remnant prairie. When I was a kid I didn’t know that’s what the hay and horse pasture were, and I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t either. But my siblings and friends and I had fun throwing “spear grass” at each other because it would stick in our shirts and pants. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that was porcupine grass.

    I don’t remember how or why, but in my early college years I acquired a copy of Jon Farrar’s Field Guide to Wildflowers of Nebraska and the Great Plains and discovered that a lot of the interesting native plants in that book were in the hay and horse pastures on our property. I remember volunteering at a deer check station with Jim Bruner, District Wildlife Biologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and telling him about some of the plants I was finding there. He suggested those pastures might be remnant tallgrass prairie and that was the first time I conceptualized them in such a manner. From there… unabated obsession, fascination, and love.

    You probably helped me with the first burn I did on that prairie in 1993. And I remember helping you with the burn at the Cornhusker Boy Scout Camp, probably in the same year or the next. Good memories….

  40. Dr. Clenton Owensby, Principles of Range Management, Kansas State University, Spring, 1974 was the spark. Then following doing research at Welder Wildlife Foundation, Sinton, TX while pursuing M.S. at Texas A&M in range science.

  41. My interest in prairies was fostered at a young age growing up next to a nature center where the folks there involved school kids in prairie reconstruction and management. It continued to be kindled by prairie restoration “workdays” held at TNC preserves in Michigan and Maryland/Pennsylvania, and later here near Omaha. These experiences impacted me so much that it led me to undertake restoration of a native prairie remnant of my own. I recent chronicled my experiences and reflections if folks are looking for some prairie reading.

  42. Pingback: Photos of the Week – February 18, 2021 | The Prairie Ecologist

  43. I’m ashamed to say that I did not come to appreciate prairies at all until graduate school! I grew up in upstate NY and went to college in the mountains of Western Montana. Driving through the prairies on my way out to college had NO impact on me whatsoever. I enjoyed the mountains and worked for the US Forest Service after getting a zoology degree. For grad school, again in Montana mountains, I had the opportunity to take on a prairie birds and prescribed fire ecology project – which was well-funded and cool, BUT – I had to go the prairies of North Dakota! I was quite skeptical and not entirely happy. Luckily, I had two prairie mentors at my field site, Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge – manager Karen Smith and biologist Bob Murphy. They took me out in the early mornings to learn the bird songs and identify all the grasses and forbs. Their passion and knowledge was infectious and I was smitten. Having to be out every day in the prairies for two field seasons allowed me to experience the richness of it all. I began to explain to people who didn’t appreciate the prairies that it is really a scale issue – you have to scale down and appreciate minuscule and hidden organisms and processes, and heighten your awareness to them – and then the prairies open up to you. I give programs on prairies quite a bit and I start out also as David Hoyt comments here, by detailing how rich the prairie ecosystem was here pre-European settlement, and how bland and monotonous it is now that we have transformed it into agriculture fields – it is no wonder people don’t feel a connection anymore.

  44. As a youngster we visited our family farm where my mom was raised. Located in the Arkansas Valley south of Fort Smith I remember walking through the fields and being amazed at the diversity of plants and insects. Fast forward to a few years ago after my parents had passed away it fell to me to do something about the family farm (62 acres). I had just joined the Central Arkansas Master Naturalists and came upon a booklet, Acres for Wildlife (targeting quail), by Ark Game and Fish. A light bulb that had been flickering suddenly shown bright and instantly knew that this was the answer for the farm. That was about three years ago so we are well on the way for restoration to prairie habitat. Since we started, posts from you as well as Southeastern grassland Initiative have been inspirational and educational. I have renamed our farm to Gann Prairie (mom’s maiden name) and named myself as ecologist and land manager. Of course we have a great land biologist through Ark Game and Fish for technical support.

  45. I first got into prairies when I was the Sr. Superintendent of Horticulture for the Houston Parks and Recreation Department working with our Natural Resource Manager. We had some pocket prairies in some of our parks and planted lot of wildflower areas to offset mowing and increase diversity.

    Now, as the Horticulture Manager of the 132 acre Houston Botanic Garden, I had the opportunity to attend the North American Prairie Conference in 2019 (held in Clear Lake, TX) and go view some nearby prairies firsthand. The vast plant and animal diversity of this habitat and the critical need to protect them (some estimates say only about 1% of the Houston-area’s former tallgrass prairie still remains) calls to me. We have a 2.5 acre coastal prairie at HBG that we are managing and hope to add to the diversity of.

  46. My passion for prairies is a sure result of the domino effect. The first domino of my journey was frequent exposure to the outdoors as a child (aka my backyard, the nearby creek bed, and my grandparent’s farmstead). The strong interest I had in the natural world led me to major in Environmental Science as an undergraduate student. Though I was certain on this major, I was very unsure what my career would look like until the opportunity for undergraduate research came about. Undergraduate research, focused on oviposition preference of monarch butterflies for regional milkweed species, was “the domino” which resulted in a career in tallgrass prairie conservation. This experience along with the many which followed, rooted my interest in native plants, their ecosystems, and the Midwest spirit of place. I have to thank the enthusiastic, dedicated, and patient individuals I have had the privilege to learn from, particularly Dr. Hochwender at the University of Evansville. I hope my work inspires others just as I have been.

  47. I love your blog, Chris. And I’ve loved reading people’s replies to this question. Here’s mine. Growing up I knew nothing about prairies – I was an Army brat and we moved every 2-3 years, and we lived overseas for many of those years. After we returned to the US when I was a high school junior, I spent 3 summers at the Virginia Federation of Garden Club’s Nature Camp in Vesuvius VA – first as a camper, than as a counselor. Here I was surrounded by young people who enjoyed being in the great outdoors, and loved learning about it – we took classes (and had tests, even!) during those 2 week camp sessions in the mountains of Virginia. Nature Camp fed my love of nature and love of the study of the natural world.

    College in Minnesota introduced me to prairies, starting with the campus summer job I had sophomore year at the college’s Arboretum. Plenty of that job was trail maintenance (power tools are a girl’s best friend, you know…), but some of it also involved collecting seed from an early prairie restoration in the Arb, and from railroad remnants nearby. I was hooked – holding handfuls of prairie seed was like holding handfuls of gold. As a college student, I also got to help with a prescribed burn on a nearby prairie remnant the college has managed to rescue – an island of stunning diversity surrounded by cornfields. Learning how little prairie habitat remained opened the door to learning the history of the US and of environmental change, and of the urgency of prairie conservation and restoration.

    As a young adult, when I would read about having a “sense of place” and I wondered how that could happen for someone like me – who’d never lived in one place for very long. Now, I’ve lived in the Twin Cities area for the last 30+ years, and for nearly 20 years I’ve helped lead a group of volunteers to care for a small remnant prairie and adjoining natural areas along the Mississippi River Gorge, a few blocks from my Minneapolis home, right in the heart of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. We’ve converted our urban yard to native plantings, including prairie species, and I’ve worked with some of my city neighbors to do the same – sure appreciate the work of Wild Ones to champion these kinds of efforts. Nearly 20 years ago my husband and I bought land in WI and we’ve put nearly 20 acres of former ag land into prairie plantings through the Conservation Reserve Program, and we are helping our dear friend/next-door neighbor there to restore a spectacular remnant savanna and bluff prairie on her land. In WI, we’ve connected with great folks in our local chapter of The Prairie Enthusiasts – the Chippewa Savanna chapter. So, I didn’t grow up with prairies, but our 16-yr-old daughter now has – she’s witnessed a few prescribed burns, helped remove invasive species, and collected and spread prairie seed with us for many years now.

    Thanks for asking us to share about this.

  48. I was in Madison WI, looking out the front window with my then 3 year old great nephew. I said,”You have a nice garden.” He replied matter-of-factly, “That is a prairie, not a garden. The garden is in the backyard.” That prompted me to further my understanding of what a prairie is versus what a garden is. That prompt came from a small prairie and a then small boy.

  49. Raised in SE Iowa timber land. Dad a strong conservationist. after Nam went to CSU fort Collins worked in NE Colorado with Warren Snyder helped with prairie burn. Came back to Iowa become Conservationist with SCS now NRCS. worked in NW Iowa Bob Moat DNR officer loved prairie and had a recreated postage stamp prairie. CRP became a thing and I knew native vegetation was so much better wildlife habitat than brome. Hard sell but I was passionate about switchgrass. learned prairie was much more than one or 3 grasses had to have some forbs. So I just kept evolving in promoting better cover with 5 then 10 then 25 species. Went to meeting with Dr. Daryl Smith at UNI and learned about roadside management.

    Visited all the prairies in NW Iowa. Moved to SW Iowa realized that native vegetation was all over the places that had never been plowed. Worked at restoring wetlands and promoting native vegetation as the best cover types to all my landowners. Watched as Neal Smith wildlife refuge was purchased and seeded very slowly with Native species. Saw that good strong mixes of natives with stood the effects of encroachment with management. Retired took on job as care take of Wapsipinicon Nature center and managed their about 60 acre of restored prairies and got every tree out.

    Presently live near a prairie path and volunteer working to keep it pure has over 450 species Identified. Species diversity is the main reason I love them can never get see too many prairies all over this great country. the more diverse the more species of critters that occupy them. Keep up the great work. Love your blog would love to wonder with you some day!

  50. My dad’s best friend converted 15 acres to tall-grass prairie and built a few sod houses from virgin sod as tourist attractions. This happened sometime around when I was a preteen. That was enough to get me interested in them, although not enough to study them. Just out of high school, I took a job at a local university field station, and learned to identify my first three species of grasses. What has me more interested in prairies now is my evolution as a gardener. Mom insisted on hardy perennials when I was a kid, and as an adult I have slowly transitioned from “hardy perennial” to “native plant” gardener following the ruckus about lack of habitat for our native butterflies and bees. I’d plant prairie except I have all shade, so I’ve had to learn the understory natives. I’d plant a prairie-like ecosystem if I could.

  51. From the time I was 6 or 7 I would go out into the home pasture to bring home the cows for milking. Every April my brothers and I would bring home pasqueflowers for my mother. Every June we would for dig a couple prairie turnips to eat. My Polish grandmother’s parents had homesteaded about the time she was born, and had traded flour and sugar for native plant foods, and she taught me about wild onions, buffalo beans and prairie tea, which was her name for leadplant. So by the time I was in high school I was reading whatever I could find on prairies, which wasn’t much before the internet. Now, in retirement I have been working on a couple hundred acres I have been restoring to prairie, and having tremendous fun gathering seed and learning on my remnant prairies and several others in the neighborhood. A significant side benefit has been working with sharp young people from South Dakota State University,Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and even a nice young woman doing a research project for TNC. So, indirectly, it has come four generations from my grandmother through me, to my daughters and now to young professionals almost young enough to be my grandkids. My own grandkids are not quite old enough to learn yet, but soon we can close that circle, God willing.

  52. For me it was growing up in Wisconsin, learning that prairie used to cover much of the state, and that only about 1% was left. The underdog factor was important. Then in high school my environmental science teacher had our class tear out sod to plant a prairie garden on the school property. The idea that I could restore prairie in my backyard was incredibly empowering, and I did so.

    Also, my elementary school had a small prairie garden that teachers occasionally used for lessons about prairie plants. That incorporated prairies into my nostalgic memories of elementary school.

  53. In the city, I was an urban arborist, of sorts, rescuing & helping control invasives along the river branches & county forest preserves that flowed through Chicago. Now, a retired librarian, it was quite natural to look to my beloved forest preserves and trails in northern Illinois. Love the fact that I can help environmentally and all this beauty is out my backdoor. I learn something new each & every day I volunteer. Keeps me young! Thank you

  54. I “discovered” wildflowers about 15 years ago, which led me to frequent a local prairie/savanna restoration, which led to becoming involved in our local volunteer restoration community. Now I’m a volunteer steward at 2 sites (one a woodland and the other a prairie). At the prairie site they just removed about 20 acres of mature trees/buckthorn (trees that had been part of a “reforestation” about 70 years ago!)…and we’re going to try to bring that new area back to some sort of prairie. Yikes! In the meantime, the beauty and magic of our midwestern prairies, savannas and woodlands will keep me going!

  55. Pingback: Be The Spark Plug | The Prairie Ecologist

  56. I started college in the Boreal Forest of NE Minnesota (VCC), transferred to the Red River Valley part of MN to attend UMC and opened vistas. It was Prairie Ecology with Ross Heir that did it for me. His power point presentation and talk about settlers hitting the tall grass prairie with reactions of running back for the trees or continuing west made me want to see large landscape of grasses. In the winter I would imagine the ag fields as snow covered prairies. I did my grad work at Glacial Ridge NWR listening to prairie chickens while looking for frogs, that was the done deal. I now live in the PPR region of Montana, and couldn’t imagine not being able to see a sunrise or sunset ever again come across the tops of grasses and forbs. I don’t remember who said it: ‘If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.’


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