Hubbard Fellowship Post – Sarah Ponders Plants

This post was written by Hubbard Fellow Sarah Lueder. Sarah doesn’t give herself full credit for all that she’s learned during her five months in the prairie so far, but it’s also a nice reminder that learning the names of species isn’t the ultimate goal. As naturalists and ecologists, the stories of those species lives are much more interesting and important. All Photos are by Sarah.

It’s not every day I face the fact that I know very little about the world around me. It’s easy to put a label on something and move on, not considering that what I am interacting with is a part of a vastly complex system. As I sit and type on this computer, I am not thinking about all the hardware, software, data, and clouds it takes to make the words appear on my screen and eventually, yours. Well, I am now, but 99% of the time it’s simply “computer” to me.

This is certainly useful for efficiency: label and move on! I can focus my time and not spend too much of it reveling in my ignorance.

However, if I don’t look behind the veil occasionally, I forget what lies beyond my view of the curtain. Unbeknownst to me, I had been getting a little too familiar with the label of “prairie” in the early days of the fellowship. For example, looking out the windows at the Derr house (where I am staying on the Platte River Prairies preserve) I found myself thinking something along the lines of, “wow, how nice, a prairie!” with the unconscious sentiment of “and I am familiar with the prairie!”

Luckily for me there are activities like searching for prairie plants that remind me about how much there is to learn.

Recently this became obvious when Kate and I were out looking for common and showy milkweed plants for a research project Chris is implementing. From beginning to end, I was met with opportunities to confront my prairie novice status. To start off, when deciding where to begin our search, I made the bold claim that we should look in an area that had not been recently burned. I thought the milkweed plants might be too small to identify in the recently burned area. However, after finding around 20 milkweed plants, only 3 were discovered in the unburned area. 17 were found in the area I had written off as unsearchable. This led to me to questions like ‘where in the world did that notion come from? And why did I feel such confidence in it?’

A milkweed plant firmly rooted in the burned area… could have been anywhere though, right? Photo by Sarah Lueder

During the search, I was surrounded by plants I could not confidently name. They outnumbered milkweed 100:1, and more questions arose at every turn. ‘Do I know enough to say that these two individuals are the same species? This one has slightly more serrated edges, but is also larger, maybe the edges become more serrated as it grows? This kind of looks like a plant we learned a few weeks ago, but did the leaves really change that much already?’

This about sums up how the milkweed search went initially

I found this a little discouraging at first, feeling like I had not learned enough, but as I started to think about what else I did not know about the prairie, this feeling evolved. If I had known the names of the plants, I might have just used them as more labels (‘Upright cone flower… bang! Next one!’). Instead, I was left with a sense of bafflement. This brought me to a halt and made me question ‘who are you, and how did you get here?’ I was wordless, smiling and shaking my head, thinking about the myriad reasons behind why every plant ended up where it did. Site history, soil conditions, climate, and the influence of other species all surely played their role. The realization that there was so much to learn transformed my discouragement into joy, provoking respect, curiosity, humility.

I still consider plant ID a vital skill in prairie stewardship, and I can happily say I have continued to improve in this. But I realized if I see a species and only want to name it, I might unintentionally keep myself from learning more about its life. It will be something I practice, approaching prairies with a continuous questioning. I will try to do this, understanding it’s possible to remain a perpetual student of theirs.

And so far, when I am able to remember, I can’t help but feel I am a part of a great and thrilling mystery.

Prairie in all her mystery, featuring shell-leaf penstemon (Penstemon grandiflorus), Photo by Sarah Lueder

Photos of the Week – June 26, 2021

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks here. I’ve been putting in long hot days in the field collecting both data and seeds and haven’t had much time or energy to write. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a good two weeks – I’ve gotten a lot done and that’s been very satisfying.

Today’s photos are from a earlier in June when foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum) was in full bloom. Some of it still blooming now too, but the pastel color has left most of the heads as they’ve dried and the seeds are starting to leave the plants and enter my socks as I walk by.

Foxtail barley is a fascinating native grass. It’s a perennial, but acts like an annual in the way it quickly fills empty space created by standing water or other disturbances in wet(-ish) sites. The texture of its flowers, especially when there are a lot of them together, is pretty glorious, and always makes me want to pet them (which I often do).

These photos were taken on two successive mornings; focusing tightly on individual flowers the first day and a wider view on the second.

Foxtail barley in early morning light. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/11 and 1/500 sec.
Foxtail barley in early morning light. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/10 and 1/640 sec.
Foxtail barley at sunrise. Nikon 11-20mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/6.3 and 1/2000 sec.
Foxtail barley at sunrise. Nikon 11-20mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/22 and 1/400 sec.
Foxtail barley at sunrise. Nikon 11-20mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/22 and 1/125 sec.