Prairie

November 6, 2017, Platte River Valley, Nebraska. Photo by Kim Bontrager Helzer.

In the above photo—which documents the first bite of winter on the Great Plains in early November—I am with my husband, David Smith, on the left, and Chris Helzer, a colleague from my days with the Nature Conservancy in Nebraska in the 1990s. We are standing in a restored prairie along the Platte River in central Nebraska. Isn’t it beautiful? The coppery grasses, pewter sky, distant picket of trees along the Platte, the guileless horizon.

The place we are standing was a cornfield when the Nature Conservancy bought the property. On a spring day in 1995, David and I were part of a group of folks who marched across the field hand-casting the seeds of roughly 150 species of native prairie grass and flowers in the fallow furrows. The effort was orchestrated by Bill and Jan Whitney of Prairie Plains Resource Institute, who developed some of the first techniques for restoring prairies on the Platte and continue to partner with the Conservancy on such endeavors. I remember vividly—and with pride and happiness—that day of coaxing back a piece of prairie. It is even more joyous to stand on that land twenty-two years later and know that it is part of 1,500 acres of high-diversity prairie that Chris Helzer and his colleagues have restored along the Platte River.

It was unforgettably windy that day—a wind of the potency and roar that contributed to prairie madness among pioneers on the Great Plains. In a photo from that day, as we leaned into the wind, we looked like living multiples of the Sower, the monumental statue on top of the State Capitol in Lincoln depicting a farmer sowing grain. Only our little band of sowers was bringing back a fragment of what settlers across the Midwest had obliterated in less than a century. One account of that statue proclaims, “Agriculture is the foundation upon which Nebraskans have built a noble life.” It wears me down that our culture casts nobility in terms of landscapes conquered, not landscapes conserved.

JPGB & W, famous 1994 prairie planting lineup

The prairie sowers. Photo courtesy of Bill and Jan Whitney, Prairie Plains Resource Institute.

Chris has been on the Platte for 20 years. I hope he will stay another 20. He is now the director of science for the Nebraska Conservancy. He has intense focus, loves what he does, and has been able to grow and shape his career toward one purpose: bringing back prairie landscape health and diversity to benefit in subtle, often invisible ways the soil, its microbes and invertebrates, the flora, birds, insect pollinators, reptiles, amphibians, bison.

Chris and colleagues in Nebraska and other places across the Midwest are making swatches of the prairie fabric whole again.

He has written a book on the subject, The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States (2010, University of Iowa Press) and he writes and posts wonderful photographs on his blog, Prairie Ecologist, http://www.prairieecologist.com.

After we left Nebraska in 1999, I basically put my prairie life on a shelf. We inhabit different landscapes now with their own beauty and riches. But on the rare occasion when I am back on the prairie, milling about, I feel like the prairie is where I belong.

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