Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Kate Contemplates Cranes, Calendars and Home

This blog post is written by Kate Nootenboom, one of our 2021 Hubbard Fellows. Kate came to us from Portland, Oregon, by way of Carleton College in Minnesota. Kate, along with her fellow Fellow, Sarah, has been very busy learning about The Nature Conservancy and our work, picking up new land management skills, and preparing for a very busy field season coming up. This is her first stand-alone blog post for The Prairie Ecologist, but you’ll hear more from her in the coming months.

When I arrived in Wood River, Nebraska almost two months ago, I was greeted by a pandemic-appropriate welcome committee: not a single person, just a note from staff, a goodie bag, and a Nature Conservancy photo calendar. I flipped this last gift to February and hung it on the wall, and so for my first month of settling in I was greeted every day by a photo of sandhill cranes touching down on a Great Plains horizon.

(Editor’s note: Kate arrived the weekend before her job started. I want to be clear that there were actual people present when she officially started Monday morning…)

Sandhills cranes on Kate’s calendar.

For weeks, this photo served as a reminder of the new place where I, too, had just touched down: the Central Platte River Valley. The famed pinch-in-the-hourglass of the central migratory flyway, and springtime mothership of cranes and crane-watchers alike. As March drew closer and the skies grew ever louder with wings, the photo and I shared our final days of anticipation together.

When March came, I flipped to the next calendar page, and in doing so finally read the caption below the photo. Sandhill cranes, Oregon, USA. The birds that had welcomed me to Nebraska weren’t flying over the Great Plains at all, as I’d assumed, but over my own home state. I’m an Oregonian born and raised, but I had never seen nor heard of cranes in the place I thought I knew best. I texted my dad with the news.

“Of course there are sandhill cranes in Oregon,” he replied. “I hear them every spring over Sauvie Island.”

This double revelation, that cranes had flown through my childhood home and I’d never noticed, shook me (though in my defense, the Pacific flyway is nowhere near as well-trodden as Nebraska’s central flyway). It also offered a poignant reflection on this idea of home, and what it means to know or love a place well enough to call it that.

Migratory sandhill cranes on Nebraska’s Platte River. Photo by Kate Nootenboom.

Thanks to walks with Chris through the richly diverse prairies along the Platte River, I anticipate soon passing the milestone of being able to identify more native species in Nebraska than I can in Oregon. I remember passing this milestone in Minnesota as a student, and the complexity it added then to my conception of home. Just the other day, my UPS deliverer asked if I was from Minnesota (inferring from my license plates). I said yes, and we talked about his connection to the Twin Cities and some of my favorite places there. As he drove away, I realized my answer hadn’t been entirely truthful – I’m not from Minnesota. But it also hadn’t felt like a lie.

A license plate doesn’t make a place home, and neither does a mental index of plant names.  But at least knowing the plants means you’re paying attention, and paying attention means you’re beginning to care.

Maybe that’s all home needs to be: a place that you give your attention to, that you care for and feel cared for by. Under those standards it can easily be shifting and multiple. Why assume “home” must be static? Migration is a beautiful and powerful force for many species, including our own, and plenty of people know the truth in feeling at home in myriad places. After all, what is home to a sandhill crane? One may travel thousands of miles in a single season but returns dependably to the same ponds, sandbars, and corn fields along the way (I read recently that some cranes are seen in the same corners of corn fields year after year. Do they feel at home there?).

Sandhill cranes and a full moon. Photo by Kate Nootenboom.

I have more questions than answers on this, and I’m always interested in hearing what “home” means to other people. Is home a place to you? Or several places, or a type of place? Is it a building, or a landscape, or a migratory path? What threshold must you cross (license plates, plant names, or otherwise) before a place counts as home?

These are fun questions to think about, especially in this season of sharing our stretch of the Platte River with the sandhill cranes as they travel along the flyway. I look forward to finding more reasons to think of Nebraska as home, but for now I’ll look up into the springtime sky and listen to its most iconic sandhill soundtrack, and be reminded (just a little bit) of Oregon. These days, home is a bit of a unison call.

Cranes and sunset. Photo by Kate Nootenboom.
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.

7 thoughts on “Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Kate Contemplates Cranes, Calendars and Home

  1. Kate, I grew up in the Sandhills and now live in Portland. Hope you get to see the cranes fly in over the Platte River. It is unbelievable — and your Dad is right Sauvie Island has them too. Enjoy your stay in my homeland, it will grow on you at least the part that I didn’t bring with me.

  2. So fun to hear Kate philosophize about home and a sense of place. My own perception of those ideas evolved over many decades. She is wise beyond her years, and a good writer, too!

  3. Big kudos to previous fellow Ashley, who actually DID meet me in person (masked and all) on the day I arrived in Wood River. The welcome was felt and appreciated :)

  4. what a beautifully written piece! As a migratory biologist, I’d say the sense of home requires (for me) a connection to people. I’ve certainly lived in beautiful places that never felt like home.

  5. There have been accounts of first settler women going mad from the desolation and loneliness of the prairies. Of course, they were not able to texts their dads.

    Kate should seek out and read some good literature by Nebraskan authors to get a context of people and place.

  6. I very much look forward to more of Kate’s writing. And as for the question posed:
    Home starts with where you happen to be or have to be for the meanwhile. Then it grows with the people who accompany you, plus those you meet and befriend (or avoid), with the near and dear (and not-so-dear) places you come to know, and certainly for us naturalists the diversity of life we gradually and/or studiously come to know in the area. At least that’s how it’s gone for me over almost 7 decades of living … all across the USA and on a couple of other continents, as well.
    Keep us posted, Kate, as central Nebraska becomes your home for the meanwhile.


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