BIG NEWS! This project has been turned in a book, entitled Hidden Prairie: Photographing Life in One Square Meter. The 128 page book will be released in May 2020 but can be pre-ordered through the University of Iowa Press website.
In January, 2018, I began a year-long project to photograph all the beauty and diversity I could find within a single square meter of prairie. That tiny plot is located in a narrow strip of restored grassland at Lincoln Creek Prairie in Aurora, Nebraska. The prairie was restored by Prairie Plains Resource Institute in the early 1980’s and contains a nice diversity of prairie plants.
My initial motivation for this project was to draw awareness and appreciation to prairie communities. Prairies suffer from a massive lack of attention and respect from the general public, and that provides a major handicap to those of us advocating for their conservation. That disinterest is true even in a state like Nebraska, where about half of the state is still grassland – including the spectacular Nebraska Sandhills – and where almost no one lives more than an hour’s drive from a prairie.
While I primarily started the project as a way to help others discover prairies and their beauty, the journey has also affected me personally, in ways I hadn’t fully anticipated. I have always been drawn to photograph flowers, bugs, and other tiny creatures, but I usually do so while wandering broadly through prairies, looking for subjects that draw my attention. Despite more than 25 years of studying and exploring prairies, forcing myself to sit down and really focus my eyes and camera within a tiny square space has been truly inspirational.
When I first came up with this project idea, I figured I would get frustrated by sitting in one place for long periods of time and missing out on potential photo opportunities elsewhere. After all, beautiful photography light is fleeting and precious. In actuality, the opposite happened. I found myself wandering with my camera through gorgeous landscapes of prairies, feeling distracted and unsettled, wondering what was happening back in my little plot. The only frustration I felt while at my plot came whenever a butterfly or other small creature left the square before I could photograph it.
I honestly don’t think I ever visited my plot without seeing something I hadn’t seen there before. The number of species I found was astounding, even as someone who studies and touts the diversity of prairies. I could put together an impressive photo portfolio consisting only of the various fly species of flies I photographed. I also became engrossed by the growth and survival of individual plants, and felt emotionally affected when all four stiff sunflower blossoms in my plot were attacked by swarms of tiny beetles as soon as they opened. Most of all, the rhythms and patterns of prairie life became more apparent to me than they ever had been before. I became intently aware of what was blooming, what was about to bloom, which tiny creatures had newly emerged on the scene, and who was eating whom as a result.
Apart from the impressive biological diversity I observed, I was also stirred by how much beauty I discovered within the confines of a square meter of prairie. I photographed a lot of flowers from a lot of angles, but I also found myself admiring the graceful downward curve of Maximilian sunflower leaves, the colorful feathery anthers of grasses, and the glowing backlit patterns of leaf veination. The realm of what deserved my attention as a photographer got much bigger, despite working within a tiny area.
I was already knowledgeable and passionate about prairies before starting this project, but I was still deeply moved and inspired by what I found within a single square meter. Far from the drab patches of grass many people imagine them to be, prairies are vibrant and dynamic ecological communities, consisting of complex webs of interacting organisms. There is abundant beauty in prairies, and while you might have to look closely to see some aspects of it, you also don’t have to go far to find it. I hope this project helps inspire people to explore prairies near them, and to help ensure that prairie ecosystems remain diverse and healthy well into the future.
By the end of the year-long project, I photographed 113 different species of plants and animals within my little square meter plot. That includes 15 plant species, 22 different flies, 18 beetles, and 14 bees.
Here is a video that includes about 150 of my favorite photos from the project, set to music. The music starts right after the introduction.
Here are a few selected images from the hundreds of photos taken during the project:
Here are some summary images of the 113 species I’ve photographed within the plot so far in 2018.