Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out why I think prairie conservation is so important. I’m not questioning my conviction – I feel very strongly that prairies are worth my time and effort to conserve – but if I can figure out exactly what it is that makes me care so much, maybe I can be more effective at convincing others to feel the same way.
I can list off all kinds of logical and aesthetic reasons that prairies are important. Prairies build soil, capture carbon, trap sediment, grow livestock, and support pollinators. Depending upon our individual preferences, prairies also provide us with flowers to enjoy, birds and butterflies to watch, and/or wildlife to hunt.
The buckeye is one of the more striking-looking butterflies that can be found in prairies.
Those are all very practical reasons to think prairies are important, but I don’t care deeply about prairies because they make soil and grow pretty flowers. More importantly, those reasons are not enough to make someone stop and reconsider a decision to plow up a prairie to plant corn or broadcast spray 2,4-D just to reduce ragweed abundance. If prairie conservation is going to succeed, you and I both need to understand and articulate the deeper reasons that we feel prairies are worth saving.
Which brings me to Dr. Seuss.
As I was mulling over why I cared so much about prairies, the story of “Horton Hears a Who” popped into my head. In case you’re not familiar with the story, Horton the elephant accidentally discovers an entire community (Whoville) living on a speck of dust. After he finds and starts talking with the Whos, Horton agrees to help protect them from harm. The other characters in the book don’t believe Horton when he tries to tell them about the Whos, and actually go out of their way to steal and destroy the speck of dust he’s trying to protect. Only when the Whos are finally successful at making enough noise to be heard do those other characters recognize the existence of the Whos and agree to help protect them.
Dr. Seuss’s intended moral to the story (repeated many times) is “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” It’s a fine moral, but isn’t what drew me to the story as a metaphor of prairie conservation. Instead, I was thinking about WHY the other characters in the story finally changed their minds. The sour kangaroo and the Wickersham brothers didn’t give up their threats to boil the speck of dust in Beezelnut oil because Horton finally came up with the right logical argument to explain why the Whos were worth saving. They changed their minds because when they finally heard the Whos making noise they recognized and identified with the Whos as fellow living creatures.
Can you see where I’m going with this? I think the biggest thing that drives me to devote my career (and a fair amount of my free time) to prairie conservation is that I have developed a personal connection to the species that live in grasslands. Not only do I know those species exist, I can also identify with them and what they’re doing to survive. By becoming familiar with them, I became fond of them.
When I was in graduate school, I studied grassland nesting birds. I got to know those bird species well, including where they lived, how they survived there, and what motivated and threatened them. I saw prairies through their eyes, and that made me want to help make those prairies as hospitable to birds as I could. Eventually, I began learning about prairie plants and insects as well. I was fascinated to find that their stories were equally or more interesting than those of birds. Each species had their own unique set of life strategies that allowed them to survive and interact with the world around them. As a photographer, I usually learn about new species by taking a photograph of some interesting plant or insect, and then identifying it and researching its life later. I’ve yet to come upon a prairie species that doesn’t have an amazing life story, which means the process of discovery continues to be fulfilling for me.
Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) is one of my favorite flowers to photograph because of it's unique color and shape. It also seems to be a favorite haunt of many insect species, judging by the number that always seem to be crawling around on or near the flowers.
As the number of species I’ve gotten to know has increased, so has my commitment to prairie conservation. Maintaining the resilience and vigor of prairie communities has grown from something that seemed like a good idea into a personal mission. Now I’m working to protect things I love, not just species I’d read about or knew about only in the abstract.
Be honest, would you be more likely to send money to help people recovering from a natural disaster in a neighboring town or in a town on another continent? With rare exceptions, we’d all choose the nearby town. Why is that? I think it’s because we can more easily identify with the people who live there. We can imagine ourselves in their places. We can see the disaster and their plight through their eyes. It’s not that we don’t care about people on other continents, but they’re naturally a little less real to us.
By the way, forming sympathetic bonds with species can be dangerous when managing prairies. The more I know about the species living in my prairies, the more I understand the ways in which those species are affected (positively and negatively) by management activities. Any management treatment has negative impacts on some species, and impacts from activities such as prescribed fire can be quite dramatic. Caring about individual species to the point where I’m unwilling to do anything to hurt them would paralyze me. Management is all about tradeoffs, and while my management objectives are to sustain all the species I can, I have to be willing to knock populations of some species down periodically so that others can flourish. I think the key is to become attached to the species, but not the individuals. Tricky…
Why does all this matter? It matters because we need to recruit as many people to the cause of prairie conservation as we can. Excluding a tiny minority of prairie enthusiasts, when the general public thinks about nature and conservation they look right past prairies to the mountains, lakes, and forests beyond – even when prairies are in their own backyard. After all, what’s to care about in prairies? It’s just grass.
If we’re going to fix that, we’ll need to do more than describe how prairies can help sequester carbon, filter water run-off, or support pollinator populations. We’ll need to introduce people to the camouflaged looper inchworm that disguises itself with pieces of the flowers it eats – and to the regal fritillary caterpillar which, after hatching from its egg in the fall, sets out on a hike that will end by either finding a violet to feed on or starving to death. They’ll need to become acquainted with sensitive briar, the sprawling thorny plant with pink koosh ball flowers whose leaves fold up when you touch them. And who wouldn’t love to meet the bobolink – a little bird that looks like a blackbird after a lobotomy and flies in circles sounding like R2D2 from Star Wars?
The charming and vociferous bobolink.
Through this blog, as well as through numerous presentations, articles, and tours, I spend much of my time sharing what I’ve learned about prairie species with anyone who will listen – hoping that those stories will spur people to explore prairies on their own and start to form their own individual relationships with the species and communities they find. My photographs and narratives aren’t themselves sufficient to convert people to the cause, but maybe they can at least get some of them to put on their hiking boots and go for a walk.
What about you? Have you met the citizens of the prairie? If not, let me help introduce you. If you have met them, what stories can you tell? How will you spread your passion about prairies to others?
Here are some accounts I’ve written about prairie species I find fascinating. If you find them interesting too, please share these links with others!
Camouflaged Looper – An inchworm that disguises itself with bits of the flowers it eats.
Yucca Moth – A terrific relationship between a plant and the single species of moth that has the capability to pollinate it.
Submarine Sora – Ever wonder why soras and other rails are so hard to find?
Sensitive Briar – A plant with a koosh ball flower, thorny stems, and leaves that fold up.
Pussytoes – One of the first spring-blooming flowers, and a surprisingly important resource for early season pollinators.
Of Mice and Clover – A great example of the complexity of interactions in prairies.
Crab Spiders – One of the great ambush predators of the world.
Flies – An unbelievably diverse group of insects with a wide range of ecological roles.
Grasshoppers – From their cute little faces to their complex communication strategies, it’s hard to beat grasshoppers.