Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Dat

Dat Ha and Ashley Oblander are in the last month of their Hubbard Fellowship. In this post, Dat reflects on his last year and a song that was with him through everything. I’m really excited to see where Dat goes in his career after he finishes graduate school (which starts next month!). He’s got a tremendous set of skills that are going to contribute mightily to conservation in whatever way he chooses to employ them. Perhaps most importantly, he approaches his work with a humility and thoughtfulness that is going to help make him even more successful – and popular with those around him. Don’t forget his name (pronunciation guide: it rhymes with ‘cat paw’). You’ll probably hear it again.

Dat holds a garter snake in the Platte River Prairies. Photo by Chris Helzer

By Dat Ha:

Certain songs have the power to transport us back to specific moments in time. The moment may not be grandiose or significantly memorable, but when tied to the right song at the right time, it can become something special. And when that song is played again, it triggers this memory and brings you back to the emotions and nostalgia of that time.

“Forever Young” by Alphaville teleports me back over a decade ago to the intersection of Staples Mill and Glenside Drive when my dad, who I didn’t know listened to American music at all, recognized it and started singing along. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by Elton John and Kiki Dee brings me back to Drew’s 21st birthday party when my duet partner, Fun Joe, and I utterly butchered it during karaoke. A little over a year ago, an unfamiliar tune on my Pandora radio caught my attention as I was counting zooplankton in lab – “Wildflowers” by Tom Petty.

My introduction to “Wildflowers” occurred during the same time I was applying for the Hubbard fellowship. The simple acoustic guitar folk rhythm paired with nostalgic and bittersweet lyrics always kept me coming back for more. I listened during the entire application process, when I first visited Nebraska, when I returned to Nebraska as a Fellow, and continuously throughout the year – I never got tired of listening. “Wildflowers” became the unofficial anthem of my fellowship.

Corn – stuffed toy corn from the Omaha airport when I first came to visit.
Cheesing with a chicken. Photo by Tehan Dassanyaka.

Go away, somewhere all bright and new. In case you couldn’t tell by the worn down V hat I always wear – I love Virginia. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would live in Nebraska working for The Nature Conservancy. In my short time here, I found myself in awe at the beauty of the prairies and the Great Plains. I’ll never forget the trumpet calls of the thousands of sandhill cranes migrating south, my first trip to the Niobrara Valley Preserve when I saw the sandhills and my first bison, or the liberating feeling of driving a tractor. How many people can say they’ve walked on remnant prairies before? I have seen no other that compares with Nebraska and the Great Plains.

First encounter with a bison! Niobrara Valley Preserve
Cranes – got a little too close!
Whooper – We Spotted Bob! (Editor’s note: ‘Bob’ is the local name given to a whooping crane that hangs around with sandhills cranes during spring migration on the Platte.)

I hate to admit this, but before this fellowship I never fully appreciated what was around me when I was walking or hiking. Before, I would always look down to make sure I wouldn’t trip. I was so focused on where I was going that I was missing out on the journey and the beautiful life right in front of me – the plants, insects, and what’s belowground. On our walks in the prairies, I learned just how diverse the plant community could be. When referring to any plant in the field, Chris performed his signature “soft pinch of the plant and shake lightly” and then talked about all of its interesting characteristics and interactions. (Editor’s note: He’s just describing the charming – and apparently memorable way – I indicated which plant I was talking about.)

Additionally, I never realized how much you could learn from just 10 grams of soil until I worked with Dr. Greg Pec for my independent project. His expertise made me appreciate the literal ground I walk on and all the mysteries that lies within the soil. These seemingly minor experiences have made me more eager to take time to inspect the minor details around me. I no longer take for granted the plants, insects, and soils that I walk upon.

Chris is usually the one behind the camera, but this is what he does when the roles are reversed. (Editor’s note: this is an accurate depiction of what I feel like most of the time.)
Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. “That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” – Willa Cather

Far away from your troubles and worries. It is an understatement to say that 2020 was a brutally exhausting year – for everyone. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I accepted Chris’s offer. I was leaving all of my friends and family on the East Coast and entering uncharted territory alone. I am privileged and grateful for the tremendous support from the TNC staff in Nebraska and my family and friends back home. Everyone enthusiastically answered all of my questions and repeated them when I forgot, guided me back on course when I was lost, and laughed at my jokes. I know genuine and good people when they respond kindly to my jokes (even the ones that aren’t funny, which are most of them).

You belong somewhere you feel free – I feel free when I’m outside exploring nature. From running the gravel roads and trails of the Platte River Prairies, driving across the rolling hills of the Sandhills and the Niobrara Valley Preserve, backpacking in the Panhandle, biking to the Kansas-Nebraska border, hiking parts of South Dakota and Wyoming with my best friends, and begrudgingly crawling to the top of the breath-taking mountains of Colorado – I tried to take advantage of every opportunity.

I’m beyond grateful to have friends who would drive across the country (from both coasts!) to share some of these experiences with me.
Just seconds after Kevin accidentally spat into the communal jet boil.
Longs Peak – The wind gusts were terrifyingly strong on this day and you had to be absolutely crazy to continue past the Keyhole. Many people turned around and I would’ve as well if I hadn’t met Danny and Will. Thanks for being fearless (maybe reckless?) and guiding me to the summit. Also shout out to Matt for hiking down Bross with me.  

My time working for The Nature Conservancy will always be stored in “Wildflowers.” Over a year of cherished memories of Nebraska, the prairies, and the Hubbard Fellowship – all in a 3 minute and 10 seconds song. It will always be one of my favorites because of what it represents. I’m grateful to have had this opportunity and for the people who took a chance on me. As for now, I’m heading back to UVA to pursue my Master’s in Environmental Sciences and to work in a boat out at sea on a lake – but I’ll never forget my time among the wildflowers as a Hubbard Fellow.

Here’s a link to the song

Cheesing in the Badlands. Photo by Becca Hostetter

Nature As A Refuge

Thank you to everyone who voted on photos over the last month or so. This post includes the project that resulted from your votes. I hope you enjoy it and will pass it along to others who might get some pleasure from it as well.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how important nature is to me as a refuge from the noise and stress of the world. Fresh air, flowers, animals (especially invertebrates!), and open space can all help me relax and temporarily forget about politics, disease, work tasks, and other stressors. For me, of course, there’s something particularly special about visiting prairies, where I can wander around and sink into the interconnected lives of all the various species living there. But even just walking into the yard and appreciating the wildflowers and the various insects visiting them is terrific. During the last year, my access to places where I can get those experiences has helped me tremendously.

Whether in huge prairie landscapes or a tiny prairie close to home -where this photo was taken – exploring and appreciating nature is really important to me. Even simple things, like a leaf beetle feeding on grass pollen, help me focus on something other than the stresses of life.

At the same time, I recognize that nature is not nearly as accessible to most people as it is to me. Some of that is related to physical geography. A huge proportion of the public doesn’t live where nature – or even trees or garden space – is easy to find or get to. Unfortunately, that level of access is also tied to income levels, race, and other factors that reflect injustices in our society.

The other aspect of access to nature, though, has to do with familiarity and comfort level. Regardless of whether or not people live close to gardens, parks, prairies, or other natural settings, a lot of people simply don’t see those places as attractive, interesting, or valuable. That’s a huge problem in a couple ways.

First, of course, people are missing out on the benefits and joys that I, and most of you, receive from spending time in nature. They don’t gain the same stress relief, sense of wonder, or exhilaration of exploration we get from stalking a butterfly on a flower, listening to early morning bird song, or wandering freely through immense open spaces.

The second problem is that the future of conservation relies on the support of the public. Without votes, funding, or simply supportive voices, those of us working to preserve natural areas are fighting a losing battle. That battle, of course, is about more than just protecting pretty places. It also involves sustaining life on this planet, including our own, by protecting the systems that provide fresh air, clean water, food production, and nearly everything else we all rely on. While those benefits are not evenly spread among the people on this planet (see above about racial, income, and other inequities) we all rely on healthy natural systems for survival.

In the coming months, you’ll hear more from me on this theme. I’ve got a couple projects in the works that will share some ideas about how we can all help increase people’s access to, and interest in nature. I care about the topic selfishly – I don’t want my career to be meaningless – but also because I really do think it’s a matter of both human rights and human survival.

HOWEVER, let’s get back to the topic of nature as a respite and refuge. If that’s true for you, I hope the five and half minute video below will give you both peace and pleasure. Please share it with others who might enjoy it. It is intended both as an immediate balm and as a reminder of the resilience and beauty that’s always out there; in prairies, especially, but also more broadly.

Last thing – for those of you reading this during the holidays, I just happened to notice yesterday that my book about my square meter photography project is deeply discounted right now through the University of Iowa Press. If you had been considering buying it but didn’t want to spend $39.99, it is now on sale for only $15! As a reminder, I wrote the book for work, so I don’t get any financial gain from sales. I am, however, very proud of the book and want it to be seen! If you’re interested, click here to link to the order form.

Ok, enough of all that. I hope you enjoy this video, which includes the photos you told me were your favorites from among my 2020 images. Special thanks to my 16-year-old son Daniel for composing and recording the music.

Here’s hoping for a safe, peaceful, and happy new year.