Spring Creek Prairie

An 800-acre classroom



Fall is a natural garden party at the Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center.

Alan J. Bartels

CUT INTO the slope of a tall hill are wounds from Nebraska’s pioneer past.

The cargo-laden wagon trains sliced those ruts through virgin grasslands a century and a half ago. They still remain visible south of Denton at Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center. The grass-healed scars blend into this 808-acre grassland oasis.

On a late October day, the autumn sun illuminates this prairie quilt in subtly brilliant shades of reds, golds and bronze.

Like bedsheets drying on a backyard clothesline, the wind keeps the fabric of the prairie in constant motion. Spring Creek’s swaying grasses have a soulful sound of their own. It is a calming, timeless song, interrupted only by the joyous calls of meadowlarks and other grassland birds, and by the laughing of happy children.

Perhaps the only things shining brighter than that prairie star are the smiling faces of fourth-grade students from Lincoln’s Roper Elementary exploring this living time capsule. The students are here through a partnership between Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center and Pioneers Park Nature Center.

The collaboration enables all Lincoln Public School fourth-graders to learn from the prairie each autumn. For many, it is the first such adventure of their young lives.

The most recent sea change on this land came with the retreat of glaciers. It left behind a sculpture of steeply rolling hills and scattered boulders, which spared this enduring prairie. Those glacial boundaries protected it from the plowshares that overturned much of the Great Plains into a massive agricultural sea, where waves of dominant crops like corn and wheat roll over a once-diverse prairie ecosystem.

During the five years of the program, staff and volunteers have helped thousands of students to experience the prairie by immersing them within it. The children learn about the prairie’s complex of hundreds of plant species, how insects and birds help to pollinate them, and how many life forms could not exist without the others.

As they looked and listened, children and teachers alike pulled apart milkweed pods and assisted Mother Nature by setting the seeds aloft on the prairie breeze. They laughed as their seed storm drifted toward the state Capitol. It’s less than 20 miles from Denton and visible on the eastern horizon.

It caused Deb Hauswald, Spring Creek’s education coordinator, to reflect on the moment.

“Children of Nebraska learn about endangered rainforest ecosystems in Central and South America, and ice caps melting in the Arctic; and yet most are unaware that one of North America’s most endangered ecosystems is right in their own backyard,” she said. “With less than 2 percent of North America’s original tallgrass prairie ecosystem left, the children of Nebraska need to experience it firsthand. Being given the opportunity to explore and learn from this incredibly beautiful and diverse landscape will help every individual realize that not only is this an important ecosystem that deserves every conservation effort possible, but it is also part of the natural and cultural heritage of every Nebraskan.”

The children are told of those wagon-train ruts that live on from Nebraska City to the Fort Kearny cutoff, but today they watched the travels of turtles in a wetland south of those tracks. While the turtles swam for deeper water, children pulled nets through the muck in search of aquatic insects to be studied later. Frogs were captured along the shore, garter snakes and green racers slinked into the undergrowth, and plant species were identified. The children found a natural hiding spot as they bounded through grass twice as tall as themselves. Besides their playful shrieks, they were only revealed by butterfly nets poking up through the big bluestem and a flock of startled greater prairie chickens flushing skyward.

Students were reluctant to leave their prairie classroom when it was time to eat at the visitor center built from 600 native straw bales. Afterward, they examined their aquatic finds with microscopes and created colorful artwork from natural juices squeezed from the berries of prairie plants. More than 370 species of plants have been found here, as have 218 species of birds. Butterflies, mammals, reptiles and amphibians are also part of the diverse ecosystem at Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center.

It seems like saying goodbye to a close friend when the class walks back outside for a few more precious minutes on the prairie before climbing almost mournfully onto buses headed back toward Lincoln. For these students, a single day spent in nature’s classroom is a lesson that will stay with them for a lifetime.

“Going to Spring Creek Prairie is like going back in time,” said Roper Elementary fourth-grade teacher Beverly Cram. “Seeing the tall prairie grasses blowing in the Nebraska wind, the wagon ruts and the wild plants and the birds, insects and other animals helps the students to imagine that they are pioneers. Facing some of the hardships ... it gives them an appreciation for their lives today.”

These children have also learned to grow up with the responsibility of preserving rare places like the endangered habitats within Spring Creek Prairie. Like the Sandhills, Missouri River, Wildcat Hills, Rainwater Basin, Loess Hills, Platte River and other stressed habitats, these natural settings connect us to our heritage and provide opportunities for learning not taught in textbooks.

The bus rumbles back down the road, and as towering stands of big bluestem and Indian grass sway like waves across that shimmering tapestry that is the prairie, one student, Nathan, is already writing a letter about the field trip. “Today I had the best experience of my life,” he writes. “My favorite part was that huge spider! I wanted to stay there forever.”

Another student pulls seeds from his socks, imagines one taking root as he drops it out the window, and thinks of his pioneer ancestors setting down their own roots in the same life-giving prairie sod.

As Nebraskans, we all come from the same place. We come from the prairie.

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