By Rich Winter
On Friday, March 31, Cherry County Estates resident Clarence Nollett shared with others a life-long passion of the plants and grasses of the sand hills during a book signing in Valentine.
A lifetime of carrying a camera with a passion of his mothers love of wildflowers and a thirst to catalog everything plant related paid dividends as the 88-year-old author sat down with the Tribune for a few moments Thursday.
Twenty four minutes into that visit, Nollett shared a couple sayings, one that is in his book, that he says explains who he is and his love of grasses and plants.
“Two men look through the same bars...One saw the mud, the other saw the stars...I thought that was a pretty good saying,” Nollett said.
Trembling with emotion, Nollett recalled a phrase, that obviously means a great deal to him.
“Rose Kennedy said, ‘God wants us to be happy, he don’t want us to be sad. Birds sing after a rain shouldn’t we,” Nollett said. “Rose Kennedy wrote that, and with all of the problems she had in her life, I thought that was worth repeating.”
Nollett said he’s been studying plants since the age of eight on the family ranch about eight miles south-east of St. Francis. Some of his inspiration came from his mother.
“She always talked about her grandfather having all the pretty flowers around and how she used to go with him and pick wildflowers,” Nollett said. “My great-grandfather, he always planted flowers and we found and old notebook of his that said the two thing he purchased were flower seeds and coals for his wife’s foot warmers.”
Nollett spent his early years on the family ranch before attending Kilgore high school.
After serving in the Army as a helicopter pilot, he returned to the Sandhills only to see his love of all things growing, fostered by a local conservationist.
“We had a local conservationist, and he talked to us and raised grass samples,” Nollett said. “His name was Don Sylvester and I always wanted to give him credit for sparking my interest in this.”
What started as a hobby, turned into a passion and in the 1980’s when the now defunct Bootstraps Program was in full swing, Nollett decided it was his responsibility to catalog every plant and flower and cactus that was growing in the immediate vicinity.
After years of work and timeless hours figuring out what something was, without the help of the internet, Nollett’s book eventually blossomed with hundreds and hundreds of recorded entries, some not seen but once every few decades.
“Right around 1992 we had two real wet years. I always kept track of the precipitation and one year we had 26 inches, the next, 29 inches,” Nollet said. “That’s Iowa precipitation and we saw wild flowers those years that we’ve never seen before.”
While Nollett usually had a camera with him, except when he really needed it, he joked, he’d take pictures and start asking questions about a specimen he was unfamiliar with.
“You get a little information here and there but the first thing you look for is where its growing,” Nollett said.
The author explains that he once came across this plant on a side of a hill that was growing in rocky ground. Nollett said the plants surrounding this plant looked like they’d been frosted or sprayed with 2-4D with a yellowish tinge.
Nollett eventually found the plant to be from the Paintbrush family and he was able to determine this was a parasite plant.
Of course living on a family ranch, some of Nollett’s best outings came when he was out checking cattle.
“A few years ago we put cattle in a pasture and I came across this plant that looks like the stem is coming up through the middle of the leaf. It had heart shaped leaves on it and I think it had a purple flower on it,” Nollett said.
Initially, Nollett was perplexed when he found two similar plants with the only difference being the types of leaves each showed.
After some extensive research, Nollett unlocked the mystery.
“One was Meanest Looking Grass, the other Western Meanest Looking Grass,” he said.
Nollett is quick to explain the types of cactuses in the Sandhills and while he’s studied all the plants and grasses, he has quite an interest in Persimmons.
“I took quite a few pictures of that and that’s one of the prettiest,” he said.
Nollett was quick to pay tribute to the many people who helped get the book published.
While Nollett turned into a rock star Friday, with over 50 people attending his book signing at Cherry he longs to be back out in his realm.
“If I can get to where I can live out there again, I’d like that,” Nollett said. “I’m going to get an ATV, I would still like to keep doing that. I probably won’t be able to do that but you never know.”