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.

Exploring and Speculating in the Snow

Snow is a great boon to anyone trying to figure out what’s happening in the prairie during the winter. I’m just a casual observer, not a researcher of winter activity, but it’s definitely a topic of interest. A fresh snow fall provides a chance to look at tracks and try to interpret what’s happening.

Last week, I saw a couple interesting things in nearby snow-covered prairies. The first is something I’ve seen often before, which is evidence of the importance of western ragweed as a winter food. Ragweed plants sticking up above the snow are very commonly surrounded by bird tracks, and I saw lots of that at our family prairie last week.

Western ragweed (Ambrosia psilostachya) sticking out above the snow last week, showing the large nutritious seeds just sitting there ready to eat!
Bird tracks around western ragweed plants.

I know people tend to scoff at, or actively dislike ragweed, but it’s hard to dispute its value to wildlife. I understand those of you with severe allergies to ragweed pollen not being fans. Beyond that, though, it tends to get an undeserved bad rap from farmers/ranchers who mistakenly think it is aggressive and outcompetes grasses. The reverse is true – its populations expand when the grasses are weakened and shrink when grasses are strong.

Others dismiss it because it is a ‘weed’ and/or doesn’t have showy flowers to attract pollinators. Sure, it’s very common, and perpetual high abundance can be a sign of poor prairie management, but it’s also a native plant that plays an important role in grasslands. In addition to its ability to fill and temporarily hold space when the surrounding plant community is stressed, it’s impossible to dismiss the attractiveness of its seeds to wildlife. If you have any doubt, look for ragweed plants the next time you’re in a snowy prairie. Most likely, you’ll be able to follow tracks right to them!

Here, you can see both bird tracks and a few dropped seeds below the plants, where birds were pulling other seeds off to eat.

The second interesting thing I saw last week connects to another observation earlier this year. Back in April, I was walking through a recently burned area at Prairie Plains Resource Institute’s Gjerloff Prairie and found a pile of seeds I’m pretty sure were from marbleseed, aka false gromwell (Onosmodium molle). They might also have been from fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum) – the seeds of those two species are awfully similar.

Seeds at Gjerloff Prairie after a spring prescribed fire. I think these are from marbleseed, based on their size, though they might have been puccoon seeds too.

The way the seeds were gathered together made me think it was a seed cache, created by some kind of mouse the previous year. The fact that it was still there after the winter made me wonder if the mouse didn’t survive (or just didn’t find its cache). Either way, it was neat to see and fun to speculate about.

Last week, at our family’s prairie, after perusing the bird tracks around ragweed plants, I came across a mouse trail that led to a small area where it looked like the mouse had dug down to the ground. The tracks led pretty directly to the excavation site, making me think the mouse probably knew where it was going (as opposed to just wandering/foraging randomly).

Mouse tracks and an excavation.

Looking closely in the hole, I saw some seeds that looked just like the ones I discovered at Gjerloff Prairie back in April. Aha! More evidence. I know mice create seed caches, but I don’t know much about what kinds of seeds they might store, where they store them, or how good they are at finding them later. If anyone can enlighten me on this subject, I’d love to hear from you.

Here’s another photo from a little closer to the hole. I used Photoshop to open up the shadows and show the details inside the hole, and you can just barely see a few remaining seeds at the bottom. (Click on the image to see a closer view).

Just based on observation and speculation, it looks to me like some small mammal harvested and piled some marbleseed/puccoon seeds up – presumably in the early to mid summer when those seeds were ripe. (Based on a lot of years of seed harvesting, those seeds disappear from plants pretty quickly after they’re ripe – probably because of mice!) Then, on a sunny day after a snow, that same mammal (?) appears to have trekked across the snow and dug up the cache. Did it know exactly where it was? Based on the tracks, it sure looked that way to me – either that or it somehow smelled the seeds beneath the snow. One way or the other, I’m impressed.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I’m no expert on winter survival, especially by birds and small mammals. I do, though, enjoy trying to figure out what I can learn through observation, and snow is really helpful in that venture. Last week’s snow is melting fast now, but I’m hoping for a few more chances to explore later this winter. If anyone can help me interpret what I saw in these photos, I’d sure appreciate it!