It's tough for me to pinpoint the exact moment I found my soulmate, the tallgrass prairie. My mentor at Purdue University, where I studied wildlife science, would say it was when he caught me smelling grass and flower seed as I was sorting batches for a prairie reconstruction project. He said only ecologists stop to smell seed like that.
The love blossomed into deep commitment during my master's work at Purdue. While assessing wildlife use in a reconstructed prairie, I found a tiger salamander in my live trap. She looked smugly content—likely because of the peanut butter bait smeared across her lips. I caught her five more times before the end of the trapping cycle, and each time I wondered how far she had traveled, where she would go next, and if the restoration was diverse and connected enough to other prairies to sustain her. If only that salamander knew the impact she'd had on me—that I still ask these questions as I strive to build, maintain, and connect a landscape diverse enough to support her and all the other creatures that live in the prairie, including us.
Someone told me once that you have to sell the prairie to people because it isn't as romantic or glamorous as the woods and lakes of Minnesota. I wholeheartedly disagree. Prairies sell themselves. Maybe it's the magic in them that does it. Every time I step onto a site—whether for my job as a DNR ecologist or for fun—all I want to do is pause to take it all in. The waves of golden-tipped Indian grass. The deep blues and purples of bluestem intermingling with the bright green of dropseed. Wildflowers in a riot of shapes and colors. Symphonies of calling birds and buzzing insects. The rich, spicy smell of soil that took thousands of years to gain its unique aroma. The prairie is alive.
How many times have I been surprised by a vole scurrying through its secret tunnels in the grass, or startled by a garter snake basking in the sun? It doesn't take long to get lost in wonder. When asked why I've dedicated my life to this landscape, I could say I enjoy breathing clean air, drinking clean water, and having flood control and healthy soils. But as compelling and important as those functions are, I'm in it for the wonder.
One of my favorite photos is of my little cousin with a monarch perched on her nose. Her joyful expression captures what prairies are, and serves as a reminder that everything is connected in this world. Somewhere in those waves of swaying grasses and wildflowers, that joy is waiting for you, too. You just have to be willing to discover it.
Megan M. Benage is a regional DNR ecologist based in New Ulm.