It’s difficult to miss something that you’ve never known. This was driven home to me recently when I met my great aunt Hulda.
I knew that I had a great aunt in Iowa, of course, and I’d heard that she, too, was interested in writing, puns, and literature, but I had no idea what sort of person she’d be as I hadn’t seen her since I was three years old. I was overwhelmed by her warmth and generosity when we arrived tired and cold on her doorstep. We were welcomed with open arms. And I do mean welcomed. It’s rare for me to feel so instantly comfortable in a new place. There was one bookshelf completely filled with dictionaries and one bookshelf completely filled with books on the prairie. It was divine.
But the whole visit was colored in many ways by what was missing. It was amazing to meet my great aunt, but what saddened me was not being able to meet my great uncle, Don, who passed away recently.
With an odd feeling of both joy and regret, I found out through Aunt Hulda that my Uncle Don was also a prairie enthusiast. He spent most of his life photographing wildflowers, many of which I had learned to love this past summer. He spent time in Hayden Prairie, the remnant in Iowa where I was lucky enough to work for two days. It was both strange and uplifting to discover this connection, and brought home to me once again the purpose of conservation:
To save that which we love so that in the future others won’t have to miss what they never knew. Preserving remnants and restoring ecosystems means giving more people the opportunity to love the land they live on, giving more people something to get excited about: the sweet yellow and white of the butter-and-eggs flower, the spiky dignity of the rattlesnake tamer, the simple joy of a black-eyed susan. Preserving the prairie means keeping those connections that sometimes unknowingly bind us across time and distance.
I was unable to meet my uncle, but his memory remains, witnessed by my family members who knew and loved him, eulogized in the beautiful photos he took throughout his lifetime. It is up to us to prevent the loss of the prairie and other natural landscapes so that this echoing feeling of missing something unknown does not continue into future generations but instead is replaced by feelings of connection and delight.