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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.
The Cloud Appreciation Society’s website: https://cloudappreciationsociety.org/
The Pop-Up Oasis in Omaha, a great example of a little prairie in a big city: https://popupoasis.org/