Green Thumb Activist
Excerpt from Prairie Roots
“Are you one of them green thumb activists?”
A diesel dually has just pulled up dwarfing my mid-sized Toyota in a cloud of dust.
Stay calm…I’m within park boundaries, I tell myself. I’m supposed to be here.
I roll down my window, turn off my spotlight and try to explain why I’m shining mule deer on a mid July evening to this cowboy hat-clad rancher whose skin shows years of Nebraska wind.
At that moment, I want to dissolve into the shortgrass prairie that surrounds me as far as the eye can see or morph my state-owned Wisconsin plates into local ones….and switch my economy truck for a dually.
I want this rancher to like me. I want to fit in.
“I’m doing a floral and faunal inventory of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument”, I yell over his idling engine. “It’s my graduate research work, so basically I need to document the life within the park boundaries”…….“For the National Park Service”, I add because I think this gives my work more credibility and because he is sitting so silent. I’m feeling judged.
Cowboy hat-clad rancher listens, but I can tell he is not impressed by my mission. Doug, my research assistant, sits quiet in the passenger seat.
“Do you eat meat?” he asks in a way that I know he expects me to say no.
“Oh sure”, I answer honestly. “I love meat”.
“Huh….”, he says, as he puts gas to the engine. “I thought you were one of those conservation types”. He rolls off, the crunch of gravel loud against the quiet, heavy air.
What if I said that I was a green thumb activist….or a conservation type? Or that I didn’t touch meat? How then would the conversation have evolved?
I never labeled myself as such, even though my history, if observed by that particular rancher, would have branded me loud and clear.
I was the one that tried to revive baby birds that fell from the nest….or swerved to miss snakes or turtles crossing the road…that signed up for every conservation-related class in college…that took 12 hour shifts watching eagles sit on a nest.
I guess I just don’t like labels. Never have. Seems they cast a negative light.
Although tonight, I’m glad I left out the part about studying the effects of cattle grazing on the flora and fauna of the prairie. I’m documenting what I already know based on a bunch of research completed on other prairie ecosystems. But it’s all part of graduate school…to get your feet wet with the process…not necessarily to document an earth-shattering event.
Yes, there are overgrazing issues out here and yes, the diversity of birds and other critters suffer when rangeland is grazed down to the nub. But, yes, I am a meat eater…so, it would be hypocritical of me to criticize this rancher for making a living off of a product that I currently consume. Even so, I am still judging him in my head.
Doug and I drive off thinking that we’ll pick up the mule deer shining survey tomorrow night. The incessant wind that trademarks every Nebraska afternoon, combined with our evening encounter with the local rancher has taken its toll. Not to mention the kangaroo rat that escaped before we could ear tag it.
As I tuck myself into the Meade ranch guest house flanked by gargantuan cottonwoods, I ask myself, “What am I really doing out here?” “Am I making a difference?” “Does this research really matter?”
“Did that rancher hate me?”
We’re all a work in progress. We’re all a product of our experiences.
The sandhill prairie of Western Nebraska shaped a critical piece of modern-day me.