Prairie Hiking | Backpacker Magazine, Willa Cather, and Dan O’Brien

Last month, I visited Red Cloud, Nebraska, for the annual Willa Cather Spring Conference, where I met Dan O’Brien, author of Buffalo for the Broken Heart (which I highly recommend – the man sure can tell a story).  Dan was the keynote speaker at the conference and gave a great speech, as well as a sneak preview of his upcoming novel, which sounds fantastic!  It was nice to finally meet him and get to chat with him (about grass, of course), as well as obtain his autograph for my copy of his book.  Thanks, Dan!

I also visited the Cather Prairie, a 610 acre unplowed prairie.  While it is a highly scenic prairie, the unrelenting Smooth Brome (Bromus inermis) had invaded much of it.  Though to be fair, it was still late in the spring, and many of the warm season species were not yet highly visible.  The place still needs a good prescribed burn program, otherwise it will degrade from prairie to a Brome dominated grassland.  This shows why management, fire especially, is important in prairies; just because it is unplowed doesn’t mean it is management-free or perfect, it just means it wasn’t plowed.

Cather Memorial Prairie near Red Cloud, NE.
Cather Memorial Prairie near Red Cloud, NE.
The Nebraska State Historical Marker at the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie.
The Nebraska State Historical Marker at the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie.

Willa Cather wrote much of the prairie that surrounded her in the book, My Ántonia. While I’m not sure Ms. Cather ever had a scientific understanding of the prairies she wrote so much about, it is her prose and lyricism that still helps to draw people to prairies today; because not everyone can relate to such a complex ecosystem on a scientific level – and the prairies need all the supporters they can get!  With that said, I will leave below some of Cather’s famous prairie quotes:

“We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it
and understand it are the people who own it – for a little while.”

“This country was mostly wild pasture and as naked as the back of your hand. . .   so the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn, that shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and the curse of my life.”

Then there is hiking in prairies.  Not all prairies are flat and not all prairies are the same.  They may not be as rugged as the Rocky Mountains, but, as Michael Forsberg says, “it can be every bit as remarkable.”  The two photos below are from yesterday’s hike on a loess hills prairie.

Black Sampson (Echinacea angustifolia) at Griffith Prairie, NE.
Black Sampson (Echinacea angustifolia) at Griffith Prairie, NE.
Hoary Verbena (Verbena stricta) and Prairie Coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) are among the other forbs at Griffith enjoying their time in the early aestival spotlight. Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) is another showy forb this year, where it has formed many large colonies.

Enjoy the article, linked below, which sings a song for hiking in the prairies.

Prairie Hiking | Backpacker Magazine.


8 thoughts on “Prairie Hiking | Backpacker Magazine, Willa Cather, and Dan O’Brien

  1. My nephew, Jameson, makes me proud to be his Uncle. His personal growth as an adult speaks volumes for the parents who raised him and nurtured him through scouting adventures. Sul Ross University, nestled in the small town of Alpine, Texas from where Jameson graduated, is well represented, as it too had an obvious impact on Jameson’s life. Bravo, Jameson! ‘Nuff said!

  2. Thanks so much for coming! I’m glad you enjoyed yourself — Dan has always been a hero of mine, too! We do actually have a burn program in place. The top of the prairie (where you entered) was due to be burned this spring, but because of very low fuel and even less moisture, that burn did not take place–and you can see the result. With any luck, next year we’ll hit the brome hard (and have some rain, too)!

      1. We are on a 4 year rotation, but the Cather Foundation only took over management of the prairie in 2006. Prior to that, I’m not sure how much attention the property was receiving. One challenge for us in our burn program is staffing–many prairies have a volunteer crew that performs the burn, and though I’ve served on a number of those crews, I’m not a burn boss. Developing a burn crew and finding a burn boss to help us perform the burn would, I think, be a great benefit — I think we’d get better burns because we would be able to burn smaller areas at the exact right time to achieve our goals. Brome, of course, is our biggest issue, but there are others. We have removed literally THOUSANDS of cedar and scrub trees from the prairie and its borders; we’ve fenced off natural springs to allow them to flow again; we’re working hard on sumac management. We think we’ve finally turned the corner on getting rid of the musk thistles. But as the prairie evolves, so do our priorities 🙂 I hope you’ll come back regularly and watch the prairie change. It was beautiful this past weekend!

      2. Tracy,

        Thanks for sharing the details of the burn program. I do hope y’all are able to form a dedicated burn crew, and, if I am still in the area during the next scheduled burn, would be glad to help out how I can! And I plan to make another visit this summer.

  3. Jameson,
    Keep up the good work. Getting the word out about about the environment is the most important thing that we can do!
    Dan OB

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