How A Wyoming-Born Author Learned To Love The Underappreciated Parts Of Nature

Jul 17, 2020

Ken Keffer grew up exploring the outdoors around his childhood home in Buffalo. The Wyomingite eventually turned his passion for nature into a career as an educator and author. Wyoming Public Radio's Megan Feighery spoke to him about his new book, Earth Almanac, birding, and his fondness for a unique creature.

Ken Keffer: Horny toads are special to me. They remind me of my grandfather who you know, grew up, was a rancher and talks about as a kid, he'd always pick up a little pet horny toad for the day, put a little shirt pocket on his pearly snap shirt and riding the range. You know, I'd be out there in college poking around on the prairie dog town, you'd find little horny toads and you're like ah, you know, it's so great that we have all of this nature intact.

Megan Feighery: A horny toad is probably not the kind of wildlife most people think of when they think of Wyoming.

Credit Jeremy Collins/Mountaineers Books

KK: I've always sort of tried to be a champion for the underappreciated bits of nature. And so I remember hiking in the Tetons and stopped for a rest and sitting on a rock. It was like my first wild shrew encounter where the little thing came scurrying up and must have sat on the end of the rock that I was sitting on. And his little beady eyes and little thin, pointy nose sort of looked at me directly and then scurried off and I was like, holy cow, saw a shrew! They're just so spastic and they've got the metabolisms, they always got to feed and eat and they're kind of constantly on the go and I can relate to that.

MF: You seem to have an appreciation for animals and places that may get overlooked by most people. Like I understand you have a special fondness for Wyoming's prairies.

KK: You got to learn the character of the prairie, I think is sort of maybe a way to look at it. It keeps its secrets a little more hidden and it just doesn't flaunt as much. But the prairie is a really special place. For outsiders, sometimes they think of the big iconic Yellowstone and the Tetons. But for locals, it's also important that you know, sort of be familiar with their own part of the state and their own backyard. I think part of the other appeal to Wyoming is the accessibility of nature and wildlife especially, you know, it doesn't take much to get up there and find some really phenomenal critters. And we can almost take pronghorn for granted, but for so many people that's such a unique species and they've traveled all over the country and the world to find these animals that we see everyday in our life.

MF: And I know you're an avid birder as well, how did you get into that?

Credit Jeremy Collins/Mountaineers Books

KK: I did my first Christmas bird count. So here I am, I'm a high school kid. I don't want to wake up early, it's a Saturday morning and I roll out of bed and we go down to meet up with the rest of the crew and, and it's just some of my best memories just poking around. We had Wyoming Public Radio on, so my first exposure to public radio and birds kind of happened at the same time. So I'm driving around, it's miserable, cold days, and the wind's blowing and we're out to find all of the birds we can possibly find. Actually going out and being a part of the community science project, like the Christmas bird count is important. Birds are such a great gateway. They're everywhere. And that's one of the beauties of birds for me.

MF: You've had a lot of different jobs over the years but what led you to becoming a writer?

KK: I started writing for magazines and stuff. I do a number of stories for Birds and Blooms, written for Wyoming Wildlife. And then the books just sort of grew out of that. I got to do the Hiking the Big Horns, which is kind of a personal project of mine. My grandpa was like, you could've wrote that off the top of your head and I was like, well I could have grandpa but I also could come back out to the Big Horns and hang out with you for a couple of summers and found the dirt again.

MF: And tell me about your new book, Earth Almanac.

KK: I call it like the greatest hits of nature. So with Earth Almanac, I took a daily entry and it's got bird stuff, and mammal stuff. It's got plants, it's got astronomy things, we've got geology. And so just one daily nugget of nature to highlight something cool that happened.

Credit Jeremy Collins/Mountaineers Books

MF:You've also written a number of kids books. Why do you think it's so important to expose children to nature at a young age?

KK: People always think like, oh yeah, like, you know, you grew up loving nature. And that's not the case for everyone anymore. And it's not even the case for everyone's parents anymore. You know, it really is important to be a champion of nature and passing that on. And the thing about writing for kids is people talk about like sort of the doom and gloom of it. And the statistics back it up some, you know, kids are not spending as much time outside but it's just a little bit of encouragement and a little bit of enthusiasm, kids still know how to be kids. And they know how to love and appreciate nature. Part of my job is to just give them that a little initial encouragement, that initial boost.

MF: So you're kind of like a nature mentor. Did you have anyone like that for you growing up?

KK: Yes, my grandfather was a cattle rancher and a taxidermist in the family. You know, my dad, my uncle, a bunch of other folks just really spent a lot of time out there. The classic nature childhood. There's a stretch of bike path outside of Buffalo that I swear there's still a rut in that from where I rode my bike back and forth. And my mom actually taught me how to fish. My dad taught me how to hunt and so we always had great, just encouragement. And so people let me get out there, explore and I'd like to pass that on.  

MF: I know you were born in Wyoming, but you're not currently living here. Do you ever see yourself moving back?

Credit Jeremy Collins/Mountaineers Books

KK: Oh, man, I would love to get back to Wyoming. It's always gonna be my home. I'm a Wyoming kid. I will always be Wyoming.

MF: Ken Keffer, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

KK: Yeah, thank you so much for tracking me down.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Megan Feighery, at mfeigher@uwyo.edu.