Inspired by Skies

I woke up this morning at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. It was still dark when I woke, so I spent some time catching up on emails, planning to wander outside around sunrise with my camera. Some time later, I happened to glance out the window and immediately stopped what I was doing to run outside to admire the sky. It was one of those magical pre-sunrise color events that I’m terrible at predicting, and thus am always surprised by.

After soaking in the color and majesty for a few moments, I ran back inside to grab my drone because I knew I wouldn’t have time to get myself into position to capture the color and the landscape any other way. The drone, though, could quickly fly up and gain the perspective I wanted, showing the sky in the context of the magnificent landscape beneath it.

Pre-sunrise color at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve this morning.

As I admired (and photographed) the sky, I thought about my friend Ernie Ochsner, who died last week. A few of you may remember a post from 2018 in which I talked about him, not long after he began dealing with the illness that finally ended his life. I’d already been planning to post some cloud photos and talk about Ernie this week, and had even found several potential photos to illustrate that post. Before I had the chance to decide which ones to use, this morning’s sunrise appeared and took all the decision-making away for me.

Everyone I know who knew Ernie liked him. He was a curious, thoughtful, and optimistic person who seemed to approach life as an explorer, trying to learn and appreciate everything he could. I had some very long and memorable talks with him on a number of subjects, but the commonality in all of them was his approach to conversation. Ernie would express an idea or ask a question and then tilt his head and look intently at me, waiting to hear my perspective. That wasn’t because I knew more about that topic than he did (that was rarely the case). Instead, but I think it was because he was truly interested in what I thought and wanted to incorporate that into his broad worldview.

Ernie was a very talented artist. He could draw, paint and photograph extraordinarily well, but expressed himself artistically in many other ways – as does his talented wife Lynda. While he was broadly talented, my favorite works of his included Great Plains landscapes and featured spectacular skies. He could capture and translate the color, texture, and feel of clouds with both his camera and his paintbrush in ways that were truly inspiring. Most of his paintings didn’t feature towering, dramatic storm clouds or saturated sunrises like the one I saw this morning, even though he certainly enjoyed those. Most often, he painted skies that were just incredible interpretations of the kind of beauty that is often above us if we take the time to look up and notice it. You can see a few of those paintings here.

As long as I’ve known Ernie and Lynda, they’ve lived in downtown Aurora apartments high enough above the downtown square to provide terrific views of the sky over town and the surrounding landscape. Ernie frequently shared photos he took out those windows whenever a sky caught his attention, which was very often. I know he enjoyed the process of creating the images he shared, and even his out-the-window-snapshots were often tremendous. As much as I was in awe of his creative talent, though, I was always more inspired by the way he paid attention to and appreciated what was around him.

Here are some clouds I photographed last January over the pond at our family prairie, just south of Aurora. These kinds of skies always make me think of Ernie.

As a photographer, I’ve always been drawn to little details near the ground – bugs, flowers, and such. Sometimes, though, the sky and landscape around me grabs my attention and forces me to look up instead of down. Whenever that happens, I think about Ernie. In fact, quite often, I’ve returned from photographing the sky somewhere near Aurora just in time to see a social media post by Ernie featuring that same sky, photographed from wherever he was that day.

I’m really going to miss Ernie, but I’m a better person for having known him, as are his many friends. He’s always inspired me, not just as an artist, but even more in the way he interacted with and appreciated the universe and all the people living in it. Ernie showed me great kindness and always made me feel hope, even after a conversation about the world’s flaws. I’ll remember that kindness and hope whenever I think of him – and I’ll think of him often because the sky will keep giving me reasons to look up and remember.

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.

9 thoughts on “Inspired by Skies

  1. Would love to see how the prairie and canyons have changed since the fire.

    W. Dan Tarpley
    HRR Enterprises, Inc.


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