Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Kate is Hooked on Clouds

This post is written by Kate Nootenboom, one of our 2021 Hubbard Fellows. She and Sarah Lueder have been working hard and learning fast since they joined us in February. Both are fantastic scientists and communicators, as is clear from Kate’s post today.

My brother has gotten me hooked on clouds.

He loves them – points them out on road trips, sends pictures of them to the family group text. A “how was your day” query is liable to be met, at least in part, with his description of that day’s formations. Growing up, we teased him about his low standards for the sky. “Not every cloud is an amazing cloud, Chris,” we’d say. “Some clouds are just puffy and boring.” (Note: the Chris here is my brother, confusingly not the Prairie Ecologist.)  

But though we teased, we were never able to shake him of his skyward habits – his earnest love for sky decor dispelled cynicism. Today, he is a dues-paying member of the Cloud Appreciation Society, and on a recent family zoom call led us in an asynchronous recitation of the Society’s manifesto. “We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned,” we chanted together through smiles, “and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.”

One slide in Chris’ cloud appreciation powerpoint, delivered over Zoom to our family a few weeks ago. Photo by Kate Nootenboom.

I’ve warmed up to this way of thinking in recent years. Not because I have a singular fascination with clouds and the science behind them, like Chris, but because I’m trying to embrace any practice that encourages finding simple joys in everyday things. Luckily, prairies are awash in small delights waiting to be noticed, and Sarah and I have discovered a shared joy in watching both the ground and sky while we work on stewardship projects. As spring continues to surface along the Platte, we’ve been applying the tenets of cloud appreciation to prairies, and the manifesto translates pretty well. I thought it would resonate with this audience, so here’s the second line:

We think that clouds are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.”

I’ll admit it, prairies can’t compete with clouds on ubiquity or universal distribution. But befriending prairie plants does provide a foundation to engage with nature everywhere, including closer to home. On a recent afternoon as Sarah and I waited for my car to be serviced in Hastings, we amused ourselves by picking through the lawn outside the Quick Lane and attempting to identify grasses. Although the species we found that day were largely invasive, we enjoyed giving attention to our surroundings and pushing back on the monolithic label of “a patch of grass”.

Encouragingly, I’m also seeing intentional pockets of native prairie popping up more and more in urban spaces, from road medians to empty lots to converted lawns and gardens. It’s pretty tough to transplant a mountain range or old-growth forest into an urban setting, but prairie plants can easily line a bike path or boulevard, and the benefit of fostering native greenspace in a city can be tremendous.   

We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.

Substitute ‘mountain bias’ for ‘blue-sky thinking’, and that’s a pledge I’ll gladly take. Life would be dull if we had to look up at a mountainous monotony day after day (fight me, Coloradans). Or maybe it’s better to say that it would be dull to reserve natural wonder only for the most topographically well-endowed places, when in reality wonder exists everywhere, underfoot.  

I’m from a state with mountains, so I get it. There is something spectacular about a horizon that rises, and it’s nice when a landscape tells you so obviously where to look. But nature has scales, and too often we focus on the big and impressive at the cost of the small and delightful. Prairies, with their sweeping expansiveness and hidden, blooming gems, are both.

Contrasting layers of clouds. Photo by Kate Nootenboom.

We believe clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save money on psychoanalysis bills.

A good point, quirkily put. Time spent in nature has a proven positive impact on mental health, and I can personally attest to the relief that comes from a walk out in the world. Of course, this isn’t specific to prairies; all ecosystems provide therapeutic ambience in their own way. I find prairies especially healing for the way they lay out under a big sky, inviting inhalation, and for those moments when the rippling grasses show you what the wind looks like. Next time your head is in a knot, try taking a spin on a prairie trail, and find what feels healing for you. (But also don’t stop going to therapy, if that helps you too).   

Clouds in a periwinkle sky. Photo by Sarah Lueder.

We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance.

Whether or not you would describe weather as “expressions of the atmosphere’s moods” depends on your comfort level with anthropomorphizing natural events. Mine is somewhat low, but even I think it’s tenable to say that prairies have a proverbial finger on the pulse of the planet, by playing host to so many migratory bird and insect species who travel to the tune of the seasons.  

Paying attention to the arrivals and departures of migratory species, from the thundering whooping crane down to the littlest looper moth, can provide crucial insight into global climate trends. Semantic people call this phenology, or the study of cyclical or seasonal natural phenomena, and it is an increasingly important field as we witness climate change unfold and shape our future.  

Some people might also call this expressions of the atmosphere’s moods. And maybe prairies are the countenance upon which they can be read.

Sandhill cranes flying against a sunset backdrop. Photo by Kate Nootenboom.

The Cloud Appreciation Society manifesto ends: “Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds!”.  And so I’ll say, to all who’ll listen, look down, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to sit back and watch the grass grow.

Bright clouds over a recently overseeded prairie. Photo by Sarah Lueder.

Relevant links:

The Cloud Appreciation Society’s website:

The Pop-Up Oasis in Omaha, a great example of a little prairie in a big city:

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.

10 thoughts on “Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Kate is Hooked on Clouds

  1. Oh Kate, that’s a beautiful photo essay. So important, but even more so, an absolute joy to read. Thank you for the highlight of this day (and it’s a pretty good day; the bar you leapt over is not low).

  2. What an enchanting post! Thank you! The Pop-Up Oasis seems worth a visit the next time I’m in Omaha. I noticed that Hubbard Fellow alum Eliza Perry is involved.

  3. Well what do you know. You have turned another page for me in my book of life by sharing the little Diddy on the magic of clouds. I shall be more aware of them now. Thank you.

  4. Kate – I couldn’t agree more. And especially your comment about mountain monotony. Living in Greeley Colorado, we “don’t get no respect” from the masses who only look at the mountains as being “Colorado” and the vast prairies of Weld County and eastern Colorado are vastly underappreciated. I spent many days in my childhood at my grandparents homestead not far from the Pawnee National Grasslands and grew to love the prairie. I remember my ornithology professor at the beginning of the course asked us what our favorite bird was. I promptly said meadowlark to which he quipped, “You must be a prairie girl”. And I proudly said, “You bet!” And I love the skies, too!

  5. What a wonderful read! I think this one has a good chance of giving us another prairie voice! Has she picked out what day of the week will she use for her prairie musings? I would love to sign up! Thanks so much for voicing our shared thoughts of the healing nature of prairies!
    —-JoAnn Collins, Fort Worth, TX Fort Worth chapter of the Native Prairies Association of Texas.

  6. I like the edges, where mountains and plains meet, like near Choteau, Montana. I feel claustrophobic in the mountains, yet also they are a refuge for the same reason. I love the expanse of the open plains and prairies… I like the edges, the ecotones where the differences meet.
    To me, the sky is like the open prairie-plains, the clouds like the mountains and bluffs… the sky like the ocean and the clouds like islands or currents. You need both.

  7. Hi Chris, I’m not sure if I can share attachments through this comment/email reply, but I’ll give it a go.

    I’ve been reading your blog since 2013 or 2014 around the time I worked on a project called Rediscover the Prairie. Anyway, that was a lifetime ago but now I work for the NRCS as a rangeland management specialist in California and I was excited to see that your baby (dare I even say favorite child?) Patch Burn Grazing has recently been recognized by the agency! Did you have something to do with that?! I’d bet your advocacy for the practice helped, even if indirectly. Just wanted to make sure you’re aware of the assistance now available through our Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to land managers. It’s listed as “enhancement” practice, E338A.

    Always enjoy reading your posts and seeing your photos.

    -Sebastian Tsocanos

    On Mon, Jun 21, 2021 at 12:26 PM The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: ” This post is written by Kate Nootenboom, one of our > 2021 Hubbard Fellows. She and Sarah Lueder have been working hard and > learning fast since they joined us in February. Both are fantastic > scientists and communicators, as is clear from Kate’s post toda” >


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