Just to the north of my hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, is a patch of undisturbed tallgrass prairie, one of the largest of the few remaining remnants of an ecosystem that once covered the eastern reaches of the Platte River Basin. Since 1983 this 230-acre tract has been owned by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but university professors have been using it for research as far back as the 1930s.
I started going to the prairie shortly after the university acquired it. One of the first times the prairie was burnt to help control invasive plant species I was asked to help film the fire. Back then it actually was film–16mm motion picture film. Over the intervening years, Nine Mile Prairie became a place for me to go to make large format black and white still photographs and to wander in solitude.
When we began working on the Platte Basin Timelapse Project and gathering images of change using digital cameras, I decided to teach myself that more modern technology. In the late fall of 2012 I bought a brand new Nikon D800 camera and a couple of zoom lenses. The first place I went to try out my new gear was Nine Mile Prairie.
When we think of our original prairies we tend to imagine vast expanses of rolling grasslands. But where water ran there were usually draws, ravines or canyons, many filled with trees and other woody plants that, along with the open grasslands, formed a complex ecosystem that supported a wide range of creatures.
In my earliest explorations at Nine Mile I discovered one of the draws near the low end of the property is home to a grouping of large cottonwoods that indicate the presence of water in the ground nearby. One very large old tree right down at the bottom of the draw became a friend that I visited almost every time I went out there.
In my years of occasional visits to the prairie I walked the low lands frequently but I had never seen a running stream, only the occasional marshy areas of standing water where the runoff from rain and snowmelt pooled. On that late December day when I took my new camera to the prairie, the first place I went was to pay my respects to Grandmother Cottonwood and then to walk farther up the Big South Draw (as I like to call them).
As I worked my way up the draw I passed areas that sometimes were wetlands. I had seen these spots filled with marsh grasses, cattails and red-winged blackbirds. But this was a serious drought year in a string of dry ones in eastern Nebraska so these places weren’t wet and hadn’t been for a while.
I decided to walk all the way to the highest point up that draw just to see what it was like and in hopes of finding some moisture somewhere. The farther up I went, the more and more dense the bare winter vegetation became until I was fighting my way forward. But when I reached a little clearing I noticed the bottom of the draw was muddy. A little way from there, emerging from under the roots of a tree growing in the middle of the, by now very narrow draw, was something I’d never seen at Nine Mile or anywhere else around southeast Nebraska before – a puddle of water oozing from the ground – a seep!
As I looked around I saw signs that a variety of animals had been using this little wet spot. There were antlers, bones and skulls in the vicinity. Later I found that just above the draw, bordering the open prairie hillside, was a dense thicket of wild plum bushes.
I decided then and there that I would make a commitment to come back to the prairie over and over during the coming solar year to see how it changed over the course of the seasons. This would be a different and very personal time-lapse exploration of a small but significant place in our Platte Basin watershed. For the next thirteen months I went out to Nine Mile Prairie twice a week to wander and photograph.
Many times I checked out what was new at the seep. Although eastern Nebraska continued to be very dry all through 2013, that little wet spot was the only place I found that never completely dried out. It gave me a great sense of peace and comfort to go there, and still does.
More images at ninemileprairie.com