Story and photos by Crystal Dolis
In such an expansive landscape, it isn’t surprising that most people imagine the large and charismatic features of the prairie. The bison, pronghorn, coyotes, raptors; the golden colors of fall and the wind rustling through seas of grass; the clusters of human inhabitants that call this place home.
But when you look closer, paying attention to more than what's immediately in front of you, a whole world of details emerges from a view that can often look uniform and unchanging.
In some of the places I have walked alone, I've learned to look and listen for the small and forgotten wonders we tread over daily. Beyond the prickly pear cacti and the sagebrush that demand to be noticed, there is a diversity of plants underneath our feet. From flowering purple vetch flowers, to the scents of sweet clover, or the delicate dew drops on a dandelion seed head in the light of the early morning, each provides in its own way.
Many of these plants are not attention-seekers. They don’t bellow like elk or scurry away like rabbits, or even hurt us like stinging nettles. However, these plants are just as important as any of the larger animals that catch our attention—without providing nutrition and shelter for many animals, and sustaining and medicinal properties for humans, the prairie would not exist in the ways we often take for granted.
As soon as my attention settles on one thing, camera poised for a picture, another new detail emerges. The invertebrates are yet another overlooked wonder. The colors in the grasshoppers, the proliferation of crickets poised on a bush, the spiraling complexity of a spider’s funnel-like web, all flit into your consciousness briefly but poignantly. They too have a role to play, and never have I been more aware of the complexity of an ecosystem.
Look deeper, and you start to notice the rocks. How did some get so smooth? How did one get a rippled pattern like waves on the sea? The things found here have history.
There is also a human history that is recorded alongside nature’s story, a history of humans and animals and plants and rocks, living together and thriving. A trip to Medicine Rock, just beyond the end of one of our transects, reminds us of the Native Americans who lived and survived on the bison herds here.
Beyond the beauty of the flora and fauna, sometimes you just have to stop and listen to the sounds around you. Sometimes it is silence, complete and all-encompassing, like a blanket. Many times, it strikes me how loud the wind is in the grass, how much noise I make breathing, how the sun shines down on this seemingly untouched landscape in some areas.
We collect all kinds of treasures when we go hiking—pieces of rocks, flowers, bison fur, sometimes a handful of feathers from an unfortunate bird that was taken as prey. It feels like they belong to us, as parts of us seem to belong to the landscape.
The prairie has not only caused me to notice more around me, but notice more about myself and the people that surround me. I have thought about how peaceful and calm I often feel being able to see the horizon, greeted in the morning with gorgeous sunrises.
I've noticed how each person on the crew brings out different parts of me. Jason brings out my inner botanist, and a yearning to know more about plants (especially the yummy edible ones!) With Laura, I want to identify all the birds I see, and never go anywhere without a pair of binoculars. Riki reminds me of my European adventures, and I’m often asking her about Germany and her travels. With Kim, I am an avid agate seeker, searching the ground for the beautifully banded rocks I barely noticed before. Allie brings out my inner fire, both with witty words and her actual fire-building skills with our newly built outdoor fire pit.
Here my free time is not filled with hours of surfing the web or feeling like I’m wasting the day away. I am reading, I am writing, I am learning. I am exploring a new part of the country I’ve lived in for almost my whole life, searching for new experiences and memories and at the same time, finding myself.
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