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.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Changing Direction: A Post from Dat

Please take a few minutes to read this powerful essay by Dat Ha, one of our current Hubbard Fellows here in Nebraska. He writes about a recente incident that is representative of what too many people regularly deal with across this country, inside and outside of the field of conservation. I’m grateful that Dat was willing to share what happened, along with the emotional repercussions it triggered for him. He and I both hope that sharing his story and perspective will help amplify the ongoing national discourse on racism, diversity, and justice. 

Changing Direction

Running different routes allows me to explore new areas and see new life. Recently, I was fixated on one route for a long time because there was a kitten that would come out of hiding and cheer me on for a quarter mile stretch. The kitten eventually stopped coming out and it was finally time to return to exploring other parts of my rural neighborhood here in Nebraska.

My running on this particular day wasn’t so much running as much as it was run a few steps and stop to look at freshly blooming flowers. Within my first mile, I added two new flowers to my plant identification list – spiderwort and goatsbeard. At this point I was excited. I continued on my run to see what else I could find on the side of a gravel road.

Not after that, I noticed a sheriff’s department vehicle driving by me. I honestly didn’t think too much about it other than finding it peculiar that the cops were roaming the gravel roads of rural Nebraska. Everything made sense when I was making my way back home.

About mile away from finishing, I heard the sound of crushing rock getting gradually closer and I turned to see a car stop behind me. I recognized the vehicle – it was the same sheriff’s department vehicle from before. Was she checking in on me? Neighbors have stopped before to have friendly conversation. I was right – she was checking in on me, but for a different reason. Someone had called the cops on me. Why? What did I do wrong?

All I was doing was running. I was wearing my plain blue sweatshirt, solid black running pants, and a grey knit stocking cap. I want to give whomever called the benefit of the doubt and reason that it’s rare to see someone running on these country roads… but I’ve seen other people run this way before. The gravity of the situation didn’t really click with me at first, but I quickly realized what happened. Someone called the cops because they saw someone in front of their house that didn’t look like them.

Self portrait – Dat Ha

The interaction was quick. I explained to the officer that I was just out running. She described an unjustifiably grumpy caller and reassured me that I was doing absolutely nothing wrong. All she asked was for my name, phone number, and where I lived – then she vanished. I was free to go home, but I was petrified. I had to run past the house that belonged to the caller. I hadn’t met any of the neighbors on this road so I couldn’t narrow down which house to run past the fastest. There were only a handful of houses, hidden from the main road by a swath of trees. With a rush of unfamiliar emotion, I sprinted home. 

This incident has gotten me to think more about why diversity is so important, how my race and ethnicity has impacted my life, and what can be done. I never saw a Vietnamese scientist while growing up, and I couldn’t have named a Vietnamese scientist if you’d asked me to… I still can’t. I’m sure there are some out there, but the numbers are just so low. This has had a profound effect on me and I know the same for many other BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color).

We tell young children that they can do anything they want in life but it’s difficult to envision that when everyone they see in that field looks different from them. Seeing someone who looks like you and who has had a similar upbringing succeed in a predominately white field helps you believe that you can make it as well. I can’t stress how important it is have diversity, not only in science, but also in all fields. It shows that for anyone, no matter what race, ethnicity, gender, or background you are/have, anything is possible.

Despite the lack of diversity growing up, I still made it here. I’m a Hubbard Fellow with The Nature Conservancy, building a career in conservation. My journey was full of obstacles – I experienced prejudicial remarks, was often overlooked because of my name and appearance, and constantly felt like I didn’t belong. Additionally, as a first generation immigrant and college graduate, I felt like I had to navigate many processes and thoughts on my own – but it was the guidance, friendship, and opportunities from countless people that helped me get where I am today. I know I’m the master of my own fate, but I wouldn’t be here if people didn’t take a chance on me.

Working for an environmental non-profit, we often stress the importance of biological diversity in nature. We must also strive to increase racial and ethnic diversity in conservation and science. The studies are out there. We know the importance of diversity and the myriad benefits it provides – but we all need to honestly reflect and ask ourselves if we’re doing anything about it.

And even after everything, I know I’m privileged. I had a warm and nonviolent interaction with the officer – but many people haven’t had the same experience with the police. Immoral police have taken the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other innocent people. I was able to run home safe – but sadly, some people won’t be able to. All Ahmaud Arbery was doing – was running. #IRunWithMaud

Black, indigenous, and people of color are losing their lives from the evils of hate and racism. No one deserves to live his or her entire life in fear. We can’t run away from the issue anymore. Black Lives Matter.

I’m still trying to process what I felt that weekend. Scared to the point of shaking… but also mad. Mad that someone thought it was okay to call the police. Mad that racism and prejudices are still issues. Mad that people are losing their lives. But I’m also determined. Determined to mentor URM (underrepresented minorities). Determined to increase diversity in science and conservation. Determined to do my part to help dismantle racism and fight injustice.

For future Hubbard Fellows reading this – I want you to know that despite of everything I’ve written, I feel safe and welcomed here – thanks to everyone in The Nature Conservancy’s Nebraska chapter. Every conversation and interaction we have is open-minded, caring, and fun. There’s always someone willing to lend a hand or ear at a moment’s notice. Additionally, I’ve met kindhearted neighbors on my runs and we’ve chatted about Nebraska’s erratic weather and The Conservancy’s work in the area. There are good genuine people out here.

For the person who called the police on me – I’m still going to run by your house. You don’t and won’t intimidate me. If you ever want to talk, I’m happy to chat. For everyone reading this – please look out for one another. Do what you can to help but please don’t do nothing. Listen. Learn. Support. Act. We can’t afford to run the same way we’ve been running for many years now – it’s time for a change in direction.

Photos of the Week – June 19, 2020

Because a few people have asked about it recently, I wanted to remind everyone that the recording of the basic photography workshop I presented a few weeks ago is available at this link. Speaking of online presentations, there are a couple more upcoming talks you might be interested in. The first is on July 1 at 12:30pm Central Time. Jacob Fritton will be talking about The Nature Conservancy’s work with Nebraska farmers and others to find ways to irrigate crops as efficiently and sustainably as possible. This is obviously a key conservation topic as we try to increase food production in the face of shrinking freshwater resources. Using existing crop land efficiently also means less pressure to tear up more prairies to grow row crops. Learn more here.

A second presentation you might find interesting will be on August 5 at 12:30pm Central Time. It will feature a panel of Conservancy land managers talking about why land management is needed and answering questions about various stewardship topics. I’ll be part of the presentation too, and am looking forward to the discussion. If you’re interested, you can learn more about it here.

A backlit cup plant leaf (Silphium perfoliatum). 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/80 sec, f/25

Returning to photography techniques, one of the topics I stress most when helping people with photography is light intensity. Cameras have a really difficult time dealing with mid-day intense sunlight. In the middle of a bright blue-sky day, sunlight is so strong that it creates a much broader range of tones (from dark shadows to bright highlights) than can be captured by a camera’s sensor. As a result, it’s hard to make good photos because no matter how you set your exposure, you either end up with distractingly dark shadows or washed out highlights (or both). Early mornings and late evenings provide lower intensity (and more colorful) light because sunlight passes through more atmosphere before hitting the earth. That usually creates much better conditions for photography than an overhead sun on a clear day.

Sometimes, however, it’s necessary to take photos when the sun is high and bright. Or, sometimes, you might just feel like taking photos, even though the light conditions aren’t perfect. That’s the situation I found myself in last weekend. I really wanted to get outside, so despite the strong late morning sun, I took my camera for a walk across town at Lincoln Creek Prairie. I found lots of interesting subject matter for photography, but because of the intense sunlight, I spent a lot of time on a subject I often lean on in those conditions – backlit leaves. In today’s post, I’m sharing three of my favorite photos from that trip.

Spider exoskeleton on a backlit compass plant leaf (Silphium laciniatum). 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/320 sec, f/16

Close up photos of leaves that are illuminated from the opposite side provide a great view of the intricate vascular system of leaves. Even more importantly, those leaves glow beautifully as the light passes through them. If I can fill the frame with glowing leaf, I escape the negative issues associated with intense sunlight because the range of light intensity across the leaf is well within the camera’s ability to handle. If I can’t fill the frame with leaf, I often look for leaves with shadows in the background because those shadows will be so much darker than the leaf that they’ll just look completely black. Another trick is to just include another glowing leaf in the background.

If I’m really lucky, I’ll find leaves with an invertebrate sitting on the opposite side. If I can get all the angles to work out – and if the bug or spider doesn’t flee before I get my tripod set up – I can sometimes come home with beautiful silhouette images.

A silhouetted spider on a backlit leaf of showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/80 sec, f/25.

Here are a few specific tips for photographing backlit leaves on bright days. First, try to find leaves that are large and relatively flat. In addition to the species shown in the above photos, I often seek out leaves of stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) and wild grape (Vitis riparia) – but there are lots of other options too. Flat leaves tend to work best because you can set your camera up in a way that the entire leaf is perpendicular to your lens. That reduces the depth of field you need to get most of the leaf to be in focus. I also try to find leaves that are fully illuminated (not broken up by shadows from other leaves). Once you find your subject, use a shutter speed fast enough to counteract whatever breeze might be blowing – but use as much depth of field as you can (big f/stop number).