Jim Brandenburg is perhaps best known for his images of boreal scenes and creatures in northern Minnesota. But Brandenburg grew up in a farming family in the prairie country of southwestern Minnesota, where the expansive landscape seeped deep into his bones. "The prairie is where I learned to photograph," he says. "It's a very good place to learn photography because it really forces you to look."
Just a mile from the farm near Luverne where he was born, a ridge of prairie land rises in the west. Grazed by pasture animals for decades, it remained mostly unplowed due to a profusion of boulders, the same Sioux quartzite that just a few miles away rises into the "mounds" of Blue Mounds State Park. After Brandenburg grew up and became a world-famous nature photographer published in the pages of National Geographic, he came back and worked to preserve this notable patch of prairie. With the help of longtime local friends and supporters, the area Chamber of Commerce, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he succeeded, naming the parcel Touch the Sky and preserving it in 2001 as part of a mosaic of lands now known as the Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge.
Today Touch the Sky, having expanded to more than a thousand acres, every summer grows high with prairie plants. These natives came back after grazing ended, pasture fences came down, and intermittent prescribed burns began mimicking the natural disturbance that keeps prairie land prairie. The land also gives solace and reward to Brandenburg, who funnels proceeds from his gallery sales to the nonprofit Brandenburg Prairie Foundation.
"Instead of leaving photographs behind," he says, "I'd probably prefer to leave some high-quality tallgrass prairie."