Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Sarah reflects on winter and pre-flects on spring

Today’s post is written by Sarah Lueder, one of our two 2021 Hubbard Fellows. Sarah hails from St. Louis and recently finished her undergraduate work at Tulane University in New Orleans. Along with her fellow Fellow, Kate, Sarah has been diving into many new experiences in Nebraska, including a lot of land stewardship work, but also outreach, research, and more. This post captures some of her reflections from her brief time with us so far. Stay tuned for much more from both Sarah and Kate in the coming months.

The weather in Nebraska this year has made it difficult to not pay attention to the seasons. Nothing will incline your mind towards climate like a low of -17 and a high of 88 within a two-month timeframe. However, after living in an area that never freezes for the past four years, I think any amount have winter would have seemed novel to me. Arriving in Nebraska in early February certainly led me to ruminate on the seasons more than I have previously.

I was initially struck by the stillness of the Platte River Prairies. Everything was white with winter — the ground covered in snow, the plants covered in hoarfrost, the sky overcast, the air foggy. The landscape’s sounds were dampened, and its details were shrouded, making me feel as if I was living in a snow globe someone was continually perturbing. In the preceding months I had been eagerly anticipating the prairie I would be working with for a year, and here it was, a complete mystery.

The Platte River Prairie snow globe. Photo by Sarah Lueder.

As the white fields melted into gold, rust, and sage with the coming of spring, I began to form a clearer picture of the life that a prairie holds — even though much of what was visible had not been alive since last fall. After picking up bits and pieces about how prairie species survive the winter, I soon could not look at prairie plant skeletons without thinking about the silent life that lay around them.

Some of the wintery colors that can be hidden by snow at the Platte River Prairies. Photo by Sarah Lueder.

For many species, a winter prairie does not suggest death but rather dormancy. Until longer days and warmer temperatures catalyze activity, they rest with stored energy. Some perennial plant species store this energy in their roots, where it all remains until some of it flows to the surface and promotes new shoot growth. Alongside them lay seeds, waiting for their chance to germinate; some of them assisted by the freezing & thawing cycles pushing them into the ground. Insects in various life stages (egg, larvae, adult) are scattered in hollow stems or within the ground, hunkered down for warmer days.

An animation depicting how I imagine energy may flow to the surface from perennial plant roots. Photo and illustration by Sarah Lueder.

As I tuned into this winter world, for the first time in my life I connected to a part of the landscape that I could not see or hear. Knowing I was in the presence of so much life potential enriched wintery walks and caused me to look forward to the spring with anticipation, and even, on occasion, nervousness. The land’s quiet torpor teetered on the edge, and with just a little push, the area would be reinvigorated into a landscape of immense complexity. I want to get to know it, to take it in… would the geyser of life bubbling beneath the surface be overwhelming?

The first spurts of life eased my worries. One of the first native plants to emerge was the purple poppy mallow. An earlier riser, this perennial plant has its growth supplied by a large, carrot-like root. One of the first identifiable insects I saw was a locust borer beetle that joined me outside for dinner one evening, it’s black and yellow coloring at first startled me into thinking it was a bee (Batesian mimicry be darned!). Apart from a minor startle, nothing but delight accompanied these first encounters.

A locust borer that was too speedy for a macro photo! It has places to be, like a locust. Photo by Sarah Lueder.

As mid-April drizzles in, there is no shortage of audible and visible signs of spring. A sea of green is slowly rising around the gold, rust, and sage. I can hear chorus frogs at almost any point of the day and have seen dandelions, mustard, and henbit in bloom. But even as spring becomes more obvious, I’m taking the wintry appreciation for the unseen with me. I look back with gratitude for a time of stillness that allowed me to think beyond my senses and look forward with excitement, to a waking up of life and to a continuation of a connection to the invisible physiological processes that flow through a landscape.  

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.

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