Hubbard Fellowship Blog – A Watershed Reflection by Dillon

This post is by Dillon Blankenship, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  

Though I came into the Hubbard Fellowship to learn about restoration and conservation of prairies, I have had the good fortune to spend a fair amount of time in, associated with, or, at least, thinking about stream and river systems too. Most of these experiences have been of the Platte River – from surveying for mussels in a southern braid to visiting the various dams, diversions and other irrigation structures that utilize its mighty flow. Oh, and of course, how about the bazillion hours shared with roosting sandhill cranes and awestruck visitors in riverside blinds this spring!

The Central Platte River near Wood River, Nebraska.

The Central Platte River near Wood River, Nebraska.

Even when my work does not lead me there, the Platte is inescapable – I drive across it to go just about anywhere and often parallel it for miles on end (who is following who?) as I journey across the state. It is also a persisting reference point and a comforting explanation for some of the tree lines I see from Interstate 80. Its associated groundwater makes possible our impressively realized agricultural potential and supports a great diversity of plants and wildlife. Here is a good map of the extent of the Platte Watershed – – which I see in the embodiment of the Platte River itself, but is much more expansive than a single waterway.

Hubbard Fellows Dillon Blankenship (left) and Jasmine Cutter stand near an irrigation ditch during a tour of Platte River irrigation activities.

Hubbard Fellows Dillon Blankenship (left) and Jasmine Cutter stand near an irrigation ditch while on a tour to learn about irrigated agriculture and the Platte River.

I mention this on The Prairie Ecologist blog now because I am feeling particularly inspired to appreciate my watershed today. I’ve been doing an online course concerning water issues in the western United States that has had me thinking a lot about where my water comes from – which, thankfully, is plentiful enough from its origins in the Rockies to me and on to the Missouri that I don’t have to borrow from watersheds beyond my own. It has also illuminated the complexity of how we allocate water resources to satisfy interests across state boundaries (Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska for the Platte) and has altogether inspired a deeper appreciation for this vital fluid’s movement across the landscape.

Of course, The Prairie Ecologist blog community is a diverse crowd when it comes to geography, so I expect many of you to be intrinsically tied to rivers and watersheds beyond the Platte and that is great!

Some of your attachments must be physical – you live on them and in them and they, quite literally, are a part of you. However, I also suspect you have been affected by water systems in nonmaterial ways– the memory of a family canoeing trip (or “tanking” excursion if you are Nebraskan), the viewing of an inspiring water-related natural spectacle, or the comfort of a secret fishing spot for contemplation and big catfish.

Many people's strongest experience on the Platte River comes while watching sandhill cranes in the spring.

Many people’s strongest personal connection with the Platte River comes from watching migratory sandhill cranes in the spring.

Despite being a Platte River patron – and to some extent a lover of the Loup and a Niobrara nut – I also feel the pull of waters from previous, far-off stations (Oregon’s Willamette River, the Buffalo River of Arkansas…) and am excited to be shaped by whichever watersheds I call home in the future.

For the sake of this watershed reflection, I want YOU to get involved in these musings…

In a book*I have been reading I found this gem of a question, which is particularly relevant here:

After the author reminds us that the human body is nearly 2/3 composed of water, he asks, “What body of water makes up 2/3 of you?”

Well? [This would be a good time for you to utilize that comments section at the bottom of the page…]

And if, by chance, the Platte IS your river, I hope you will check out what our friends at the Platte Basin Timelapse project have been up to as they document and share “a watershed in motion.”


*Urrea, Luis Alberto. Wandering Time. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999. Print.



Hubbard Fellowship Post – Dillon the Prairie Doctor

This post is written by Dillon Blankenship, one of our Hubbard Fellows.

Becoming a Prairie Doctor (or Living in a World of Wounds)

Last weekend I drove back to Arkansas to attend a wedding. It is a sizable drive (approximately nine hours from Wood River), but is manageable with a sufficient supply of snacks and music. The trip went smoothly enough and, with the recent honing of my plant identification skills, I was more aware than ever before of the interesting flora to be seen from the interstate. Of course, much of the scenery included corn and soybeans, but there were also many “wild” plants along the way – goldenrod, sunflowers, hoary vervain. Missouri’s I-29 was lined with Illinois bundleflower.

Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) is a native wildflower commonly seen in roadsides this time of year.

Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) is a native wildflower commonly seen in roadsides this time of year.

Unfortunately, there were a lot of sinister plants to be seen too. Musk thistle, drying up now, sloughed its last seeds into the wind. Old stalks of teasel formed highway-side monocultures. Sericea lespedeza engulfed the road edges and outcroppings as I entered the Ozarks and I was welcomed home by a new patch of Queen Anne’s lace beginning its invasion of the field by my house.

I acknowledge that there are some differences of opinion on exactly how invasive or detrimental some of these exotics are, but given the large amounts of time I have devoted to invasive species control thus far in the fellowship, this sea of weeds was a depressing thing to behold.

It made me think of the oft-quoted line from Aldo Leopold’s Round River essay that, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

These plants were not new to my journey. They were likely there when I first drove to Wood River to interview for the Hubbard Fellowship in February, and they were certainly there when I drove back to Arkansas in June. The difference is that now I can spot these wounds a mile away (I literally see them in my sleep). When I passed them just a few months ago, I had not yet been educated by my mentors at the Platte River Prairies, nor had I invested so many intimate hours into working with these plants (as I spaded and sprayed their cohorts into oblivion).

I am furthering my ecological education on our prairie in many ways – through mastering species identifications, studying the interactions of fire and grazing, working in restorations, conducting wildlife research, and so much more – yet the ever-present threat of invasives continues to have the most pervasive impact on me. I showed some of my friends around the central Platte recently and found myself saying things like, “…and this,” (with a graceful Vanna White arm swing)  “is all Reed canary grass” or “this pretty flower covering the sandbars to the horizon is the nefarious Purple loosestrife.” (editor’s note – we also have many areas that are not completely overrun with invasives…)

Purple loosestrife and reed canarygrass on the bank of the Platte River.

Purple loosestrife and reed canarygrass on the bank of the Platte River.

Even so, now that I am aware of the damages, I do not think I should shirk away in depression or ignore the problem to save my sanity – this assertion goes beyond the scourge of invasive species to encompass all the other wounds out there.  As Leopold continues, you have to know to see, and then you have to study so you can formulate the best prescriptions possible for healing the natural world.

Wish me luck.