Tribulations of a Prairie Evangelist

I’ve spent most of my career trying to convince people that prairies are interesting and important. Just for fun, here is an imagined conversation – inspired by many years of prairie evangelism efforts, some more successful than others:

Me: Hi friend, have you heard the good news about prairies?

Person: Huh?

Me: Prairies! 

Person: What’s a prairie?

Me: Oh, um, it’s like a forest without the trees!

Person: Nice sales pitch.

Me: Ok.  It doesn’t have trees – well, actually, some DO have trees and we’re trying to fix that – but it has lots of other things.  Lots of grass, of course, but tons of wildflowers, birds, insects, and other cool creatures!

Person: I think maybe I drove past some prairie on the way to the mountains.

Me: Yes!  There’s some amazing prairie in eastern Wyoming and eastern Colorado! 

Person: All I saw was brown grass.  It was hard to stay awake.

Me:  Well.  I mean, yes, from the highway, but if you’d gotten out to walk around, you would have seen lots of color and diversity of life.

Person: Why would I want to walk around in brown grass?

Me: Hm.  Ok, think of it like a coral reef; if you just look out from the shore, or from a boat, you just see water.  But if you dive into the water and start exploring, you find an astonishing array of life.

Person: Prairies are boring unless I crawl around in them?

Me: Yes!  Wait, no!  They’re not boring, they just have a subtle beauty.

Person: Subtle, huh?  Sounds like another word for boring.

Me: Ok, but when you’re driving through those prairies on the way to the mountains, isn’t it amazing how far you can see? 

Person: Yeah.  And eventually, I can see the mountains and then it takes me, like, three more hours before I finally get to them.

Me:  This isn’t going as I hoped.  Hm.  Oh – what about the sky!  You can see SO MUCH sky when you’re in the prairie!

Person: (looking up) I can see the sky right now.

Me: Yeah, but in the prairie, you can see so much MORE of it!

Person: So, your selling point for prairies is that they don’t get in the way of my view of the sky?

Me: Well, I mean, that’s just one selling point!

Person: Right, the other one is that if I crawl around in them, I might see something interesting.

Me: Ok, look, I feel like you’re being deliberately obtuse about this.

Person: Fine.  Let me ask you this – what can you do for fun in prairies?

Me: Oh boy, there’s so much.  I mean, you can look at birds, wildflowers, butterflies, bees, snakes…

Person: I don’t like snakes.

Me: Oh.  Well, there aren’t THAT man snakes.  Really, just a normal amount of snakes…

Person: Ok, sorry to interrupt you.  Keep telling me all the fun things I can do in prairies.

Me:  Let’s see…  you can look at lots of plants and animals.  Did I say butterflies?  Um…

Person: Yes.  Look, can I go backpacking or camping in prairies?

Me: Oh, absolutely!  They’re wonderful for camping.

Person: But there’s no trees?

Me: Well, sometimes along the edges you can find trees.

Person: So, if I want shade or firewood, I should just stay on the edge of prairies.  Or, say, go camping in a forest?

Me: I mean, I guess that’s true.  Prairies aren’t really known for their shade. 

Person: Right.  What are they known for again?

Me: Well, like I said, there’s a tremendous diversity… Oh, do you like bison?

Person: Wait, prairies have bison? I love bison!  Why didn’t you say that?  So, if I go to a prairie, I can see bison?

Me:  Sure!  Well, I mean, not in MOST prairies, but there are a few places that have them.  Sometimes it’s hard to see them, though, because they’re out roaming.  You know, like bison do.

Person: So if I go to a prairie, I probably won’t see bison?

Me: No, I guess not.  Not in most prairies, anyway.

Person: Question for you…  Earlier you said something about trees.  Why don’t you want trees in prairies?

Me: Because then they wouldn’t be prairies anymore.

Person: Right, they’d be a place I could go camping and find shade and firewood.

Me: I guess, yes, but they wouldn’t have most of the same birds, wildflowers, bees, butterflies or sn – – I mean, um, toads…

Person: That I have to crawl around to see…

Me: Sigh.

Person: But at least prairies don’t block your view of the sky.  Maybe you should just focus on that.

Me: Right.  Thanks for the advice.  Good talk…

Person: Thanks for telling me about prairies!

Me: Uh huh.



Maybe we need a new marketing strategy. How’s this?

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.

29 thoughts on “Tribulations of a Prairie Evangelist

  1. Tell people it’s the next exotic destination. Everybody’s done the mountains, the forests, the coasts… they can be the first in their group do something new!

  2. Why don’t you look at my 12 minutes of Video on Roeslein Alternative Energy. Why Prairie. It would help people understand the true Value.
    I love your post Chris.

    Sent from my iPhone

  3. Prairies are tops in Biodiversity, which means more flora and fauna, I mean plants and animals, making them great habitat for lots of those birds, mammals, insects, reptiles etc that need prairie to survive.
    Prairies capture carbon, you know that bad stuff in the air.
    Prairies absorb rain which fills the aquifers that feed into springs, creeks, lakes and rivers.
    Prairies slow floodwaters, they are like huge sponges.
    Prairies have lots and lots of plants that do this thing with sunlight called photosynthesis. Part of that process, you learned this in school, remember?, produces oxygen. You kinda need that to survive, right?
    So prairies are really very cool and we should make sure the ones we have keep doing what they do best, provide homes for all the creatures that depend on them, capture all that nasty carbon (um, they do it better than a forest), absorb water for our aquifers, slow floodwater, and all those plants produce some of the air we all breathe.
    Thank you prairies!!!

  4. May this brighten your day: I live in an upstate NY city. I started loving prairies when we lived a short while in StL. Another time I flew to KC to visit relatives in NW Arkansas; spent a third of the time with my relatives and two thirds of my time roaming around the Kansas and Missouri prairies. We’ve also been through Nebraska to Valentine. Finally, I grow a micro prairie in my back yard that’s much taller than me.

  5. Reminds me of an experience years ago when a close friend who had vacationed in the mountains one summer came back here to Texas by way of my home state, Kansas. She told me Kansas was the most boring place she’d ever seen. And I had been telling her for years how beautiful Kansas could be. I’m sticking to my opinion about Kansas but deeply appreciate your “difficulties” telling someone how beautiful prairies are. Especially in the summertime. (And recall that the first thing early settlers in central and western Kansas tried to do, after building a house, was to grow at least one tree.)

  6. Well, the unfortunate fact is actually that for the Prairie ecosystem itself, just like any other ecosystem, the less people in it the better. So, why would anyone want as many people there as possible? To make money in a failed capitalistic system?

    And do I want to see other people whenever I visit a grassland? Take a wild guess ;-)

    Besides, “protecting” nature is only decided, or not, by politicians and lawmakers etc. So, those are actually the (only) peoples you really need to influence.

  7. I think you need to get your shoes into the foreground of a wide angle shot, showing that the landscape of a prairie is usually between your feet. When I, a New Englander, was studying in Iowa, it was when I looked down that I learned the drama of the prairie landscape was there. A magnifying glass is better than binoculars, a macro lens will be the go to lens rather than the telephoto. And, of course, the wide angle because you don’t want to miss the peripheral perspective of such an expanse.

  8. Chris, have you ever had a chance to go north and explore a pothole prairie? I’m reading a children’s book, Incident at Hawk’s Hill, and it’s fascinating what the Winnipeg area prairie was like in pioneer times.

    • I’ve seen some in the Dakotas, but have only flown over them further north (SK). Pretty neat areas, and yes, seeing them several hundred years ago would have been pretty fascinating, for sure.

  9. I had a friend in grad school who took his fiancé, born and raised in south Manitoba (seriously flat), to the mountains. She remarked that she could not see anything – the mountains were in the way! Unless you are on I-80 or I-70 crossing Nebraska or Kansas, the landscape invites contemplation. Contemplate in the mountains and you’ll likely drive over a cliff.

  10. When I wanted to be sure of a clear view of the total solar eclipse in 2017, I decided the Great Plains would be the place to be — so I appreciate the final point as well as all of your other arguments.

    I had a great spot scoped out near Tryon, but then the final forecast I saw was for partly cloudy conditions for central Nebraska. I ended up watching the eclipse from the shoulder of a dirt road south of Van Tassel, Wyoming.

  11. At least in the western prairies, a great selling point is the lack of bugs that bite you and make you itch. Can’t say that for a lot of forests!

  12. I guess I would say prairies make the world a more interesting place. We value diversity in other ecosystems, our woods, mountains, rivers and lakes, so why should we not value and appreciate prairies for the diversity they have? The life that you see on prairies is simply at a different scale and scope. I love all of our country’s magnificent landscapes…at least the remnants that remain.

  13. Pingback: Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Sarah’s Advertisements of the Week | The Prairie Ecologist

  14. Pingback: Behold the prairie! – Semiosis


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