Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Kate’s Rocky Path to Prairie Ecology

This post is by Hubbard Fellow Kate Nootenboom. Applications are open right now for the Hubbard Fellowship, so please forward this link to any recent college grads who might be interested. In the meantime, please enjoy this really nice post by Kate. (Oh, and PLEASE fill out the brief survey of blog readers here. Thanks!)

My biggest secret as a Hubbard Fellow is that I’ve never taken an ecology class.

I barely took biology in college; one intro course as a freshman where we studied, you know, mitosis. Not exactly the hard-hitting plant community stuff. So now I nod politely when ecologists around me drop phrases like “trophic cascade” or “secondary successional community” and try to remember to google it later.

Imposter syndrome aside, I don’t regret my academic path here. On the contrary, I love what I studied, and can draw countless links between the forces that drew me to geology and the forces that drew me here, to Nebraska, guest-writing on a blog with ecology in the title.

For one thing, geology allowed me to learn and work outside more than any other major. The ethos of the geo department hinges on getting students out, on teaching us to recognize a sandstone by the way it rolls in our fingers, or to understand a fault by tracing its signature, with boots or with eyes, across a landscape. I get the same sense of immersive wonder in the prairie, where Chris teaches us to recognize a forb by the way the stem rolls in our fingers, or to understand the impact of a controlled burn by tracing the signature of its perimeter.

Intrepid young geologists learn the feel of a sandstone on a Minnesota November day. Photo by Kate Nootenboom.

To be sure, there are some obvious overlaps between geology and prairie ecology. The Prairie Ecologist himself has documented how ancient branches of the Platte express themselves now as braided prairie, popping out during drought when alluvial soils dictate vegetation response. There is even a unique ecosystem that is named solely for the type of soil in which it grows: serpentine grassland, brought to you exclusively by soils derived from metamorphic serpentinite.

(Before I go any further, let me acknowledge that there are many more overlaps! A brief shoutout to the wetland restoration specialists who hunt for iron-stained clues in the soil beneath corn fields, and the good people at Konza Prairie in Kansas who delineate their management units along watershed lines. What an earthly idea!)

Glacial erratics, or dropstones, are another fascinating link between geology and prairies. These giant boulders were carried great distances by ice sheets until they were, quite literally, dropped where they now stand. This particular boulder has the distinction of being a ‘bison rubbing rock’ in addition to a dropstone: the ground surrounding the rock is noticeably depressed from centuries of bison getting their itches out. (Editor’s note: Two Hubbard Fellows are pictured here – Jasmine Cutter, far left (2014) and Kate Nootenboom, second from left, (2021).)

But the most meaningful connection between geology and prairies, to me at least, are the (ironically) fleeting glimpses that both provide into the fathoms of deep time.  As a geology student, I straddled uncomformities in the rock record, where up to one billion years could pass between adjacent layers and yet, somehow, I could still place a foot on either side. I used to think rocks were unique in their timeful profundity until a walk with Chris this summer through a remnant prairie tract spared, by its hilly nature, from the plow of European colonization. We were waist-high in a patch of switchgrass when Chris remarked, rather casually, “And this clone could be several thousand years old.”

That perennial prairie plants could be recycling genetic material to the tune of thousands of years had not yet occurred to me. Sure, it’s no one billion years, but it still amazes me to stand in a patch of switchgrass in 2021 and know that, sometime in the last ten thousand years, as the last of the ice sheets retreated northward and the Platte River tumbled out of the Rocky Mountains and ribboned its way through shifting dunes of windblown sand and silt, someone else could have stood on this very spot – and been standing in switchgrass, too.  

Switchgrass at Platte River Prairies preserve. Photo by Kate Nootenboom.

All this is to say, it makes sense, at least to me, that an interest in geology would complement an interest in prairies; in their history, presence, and continued wellbeing. Even so, applying for the fellowship a year ago required a measure of courage to convince myself that my academic background qualified under the umbrella: “Or Related Fields”.

Applications for the upcoming Hubbard Fellowship close on Friday this week, and I’m excited to hear stories of the many different paths that carry people to prairies. This program thrives because it brings new eyes to Nebraska’s landscapes every year. Maybe those eyes are well-accustomed to grasslands, or more familiar with skyscrapers.  Maybe they are eyes that have read countless ecology papers, or ones that have read none at all.

This last part goes out to any potential applicants who may be procrastinating on cover letters out of an uncertainty over their qualifications. Apply anyway. Ecologist clothing may fit better than you think.

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’s Rocky Path to Prairie Ecology

  1. Kate,
    I am delighted that you are finding the connection between geology and ecology. Geologists have made some wonderful contributions to our understanding of this current environment. Hopefully you will read the Atlas of the Sandhills. As a rancher, I have been to several sessions where a key speaker was a geologist who helped us understand the fragility of the grass stabilization of the dunes and how long droughts can last. Geologists are helping us understand that we can no longer willy-nilly lose the prairies to cropland and houses.

  2. Bliss – right here – to read this! Thanks so much! I will go learn more about serpentine grasslands! Best wishes to Kate in whatever’s next and to Chris, as a new set of Hubbard Fellows are found for the coming year.

  3. Very well written and thought provoking. I grew up along the Ohio River and have been fascinated by the stories of flat boat settlers finding sycamores 17 feet in diameter. Your insight, and Chris’s, into the deep time of the prairie makes the “sea of grass” an interesting place to this son of the deciduous forest.

  4. When I read this without the pictures, I was imagining a ‘rubbing rock’ like I’ve seen on North Dakota prairies: One that would fit in the back of a pickup truck. Now THIS rock, is in a truly different category! Great story Kate.

  5. I imagine a background in geology is of great help with any habitat ecology – for the soil and rock sublayers determine what can grow there…and thus what can live there. I have never had a head for geology – just can’t retain the info – and I find my handle on ecology is not as top notch as it could be as a result! Well done!


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