What is Land Stewardship?

The other day, I was reading an interesting article about modeling sustainability in our landscapes.  This particular article focused on botanical gardens and their importance as models for sustainable practices and stewardship of the land.  Obviously, it made me think about our own landscapes here at the Arboretum, how we manage and maintain them and how we can help encourage conservation and stewardship of our lands, waters and wildlife. It also made me keenly aware of my own feelings toward stewardship. How do I share my empathy for the land or my belief that the land is worth saving?

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills. Photo by Brad Guhr.

What’s your personal land ethic?

Certainly, a land ethic is a very personal thing. Stewardship is about a person’s relationship to the land. It’s about what you believe on the inside.  What I am willing and able to do right now regarding stewardship of the land in my little corner of the world, is quite different from what my neighbor is able to do, or even what you, the reader, are able to do.  We may feel driven to make drastic changes right now, but others may see those changes as excessive and unimportant in light of other issues they are currently dealing with. 

I am reminded of a quote from Aldo Leopold from A Sand County Almanac:

“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Each of us has some sort of land ethic. Whether or not we can articulate it to someone else is another thing. 

Kansas Wildflower Exhibit
Arboretum tallgrass prairie garden in the Kansas Wildflower Exhibit

The stewardship spectrum

I like to think of stewardship on a horizontal plane.  On the one end of the spectrum are those who hold a deep reverence for the land.  They are compelled to actively incorporate practices into their lives, such as using native plants, harvesting rainwater, reducing/eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicides, mulching, creating habitat for wildlife, and other sustainable actions. They are caretakers of the land. 

On the other end of the horizontal plane are the novices.  These are the folks who want to do the right thing, but they don’t know how to get started.  This end also includes someone with a pristine lawn and tidy flower beds.  There is nothing wrong with this type of landscaping — remember that a land ethic is a very personal thing.  This landscape reflects their beliefs about how a landscape should look.

Those of us who see the value and beauty of a native landscape have the opportunity to model a paradigm shift in landscape practices and show a different land ethic that can be beautiful in its own way.    

Developing a connection to the land

So how do we move people along this horizontal plane from novice steward to sustainable steward of the land?  Whether here at the Arboretum or in your own back yard, the more people who see and experience nature up close, and connect with the land, the more progress will be made. 

This connection with the land is important. A deeper connection results in a deeper empathy for the world around us. Change starts at home in your own landscapes by modeling your convictions. 

“Conservation can accomplish its objectives only when it springs from an impelling conviction on the part of private landowners.” 

– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
A small garden of native plants

People will want to change when they see change is possible.  If they see stewardship modeled for them, they will begin to embrace this change in their own feeling about the land. To care for the land, people must see that the land is worth saving. 

Those of us who see that stewardship is possible need to: model it for others, share it with others, help others, and support others as they gain understanding and confidence on their own stewardship journey.

“ A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”

– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

A Land Pilgrimage to the Home of Aldo Leopold

Canopy with pines planted by the Leopold family near the Shack

A pilgrimage is defined as a journey to a shrine of importance to a person’s beliefs and faith. A recent late-June trip to the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, WI and the UW-Madison Campus and Arboretum in Madison, WI, was a land pilgrimage for me indeed.

The trip was spurred by the opportunity to give a couple of presentations at the Building A Land Ethic Conference at the Leopold Foundation. Aldo Leopold’s famous “land ethic” concept basically stated that people and land are of similar importance in a vibrant community.  The conference carried this theme consistently throughout its programming and especially focused on how we should seek to build bonds that heal our current urban-rural divide.

Leopold Foundation education buildings and reconstructed prairie

LEED certified buildings with solar panels and rain water collection aquaducts moving water to a rain garden

Meaningful symbolic artwork for the conference was a patchwork quilt, where seemingly useless fragments and pieces are bound together to form a rich, vibrant and very useful network.

2017 Building A Land Ethic Conference theme artwork

Stimulating lectures on land, water, art, and food, mini workshops about land ethic leadership, field trips to the Shack, and networking opportunities with people from around the world were all important parts of the conference.

“The Shack”, a dilapidated chicken coop turned into a weekend and summer getaway along the Wisconsin River in the 1930s and 40s is a centerpiece of the Leopold Foundation grounds.

The Leopold Shack: Except for some chimney repair, the Shack exists nearly as it did when Aldo Leopold died in 1948.

Aldo Leopold and his family camped, hunted, fished, played, cut wood, grew food, planted trees, and restored prairie at the Shack for more than a decade.

One of two saws likely used to cut “The Good Oak” (a chapter in A Sand County Almanac)

Aldo’s observations and writings were compiled into the book A Sand County Almanac and published in 1949, a year after Aldo died of a heart attack fighting a wildfire near the Shack. The Shack and grounds are now a National Historic Landmark and the eloquently written book featuring the Land Ethic has become one of the most famous pieces of literature in the conservation movement.

Memorial site where Aldo Leopold died fighting a wild fire

Family experiences at the Shack must have been foundational for Aldo’s five kids, because they all went on to earn advanced degrees and pursue careers related to ecology and conservation. Estella Leopold, now 90 years old and the only living Leopold child, recently wrote Stories from the Shack, a delightfully detailed set of memories from her childhood days along the Wisconsin River.

Estella Leopold recounts in her book many childhood memories around the construction and enjoyment of this fire place in the Shack.

For most of the people attending this 2017 conference (the majority were from outside of WI), the teachings of Leopold and the lessons from A Sand County Almanac have been profound. I studied botany and ecological restoration at UW-Madison 20 years ago and Aldo’s words were important in the development of my ideals, vocational directions, and views of how humans should care for the land. After reading A Sand County Almanac again this spring and just finishing Estella’s new book, I was eager to return to and soak up the stories and landmarks of the Shack again a couple of decades later.

The world’s second oldest reconstructed prairie – one of many Leopold Family labors of love undertaken while at the Shack

Aldo Leopold taught wildlife management in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UW-Madison, the same college where I did my graduate work a half century later. A significant part of my botany, ecology, and plant propagation studies as well as work internships happened at the UW-Madison Arboretum where Leopold was the first research director. After the conference, I rounded out my Wisconsin pilgrimage with a quick trip to Madison to walk through campus, hike the prairies, savannas and woodlands at the UW-Arb, and spend a bit of time visiting old friends.

Curtis Prairie, the world’s oldest reconstructed prairie, at UW-Madison Arboretum

White wild indigo in Greene Prairie at UW-Madison Arboretum

Marsh milkweed and Ohio spiderwort in Greene Prairie at UW-Madison Arboretum

Eagle Heights Gardens near UW-Madison Campus – where Sara and I tended our first vegetable gardens

The iconic UW-Madison Terrace along Lake Mendota, one of the best places to enjoy Wisconsin’s finest food and drink offerings

To finish this story, I got back to Kansas just in time to join our Dyck Arboretum staff in hosting Aldo Leopold Biographer, Curt Meine, as our Summer Soirée speaker. Curt’s message about how Leopold’s land ethic ideals are fitting in Kansas today more than ever was a nice wrap-up to our year of events celebrating our 35th anniversary. He finished his talk with the following quote:

“I have purposely presented the land ethic as a product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written’… It evolves in the minds of a thinking community.” The Land Ethic, A Sand County Almanac.

After this pilgrimage journey, now more than ever I look forward to carrying on this land ethic conversation with our local and wider thinking community.

Double rainbow in Madison. What I have found at the base of this rainbow is way more valuable than a pot of gold.






A Land Ethic is Alive and Well in Kansas

On Saturday, March 18, we held our 11th annual spring education symposium entitled Living the Land Ethic in Kansas, and learned how much we have to celebrate in Kansas. This symposium was many months in the making and it went smoothly thanks to our four staff, help from a number of board members, the assistance of many volunteers, and underwriting support from Kansas Humanities Council.

The speakers were top-notch and their messages were filled with immense knowledge and passion. Those among the 85 registered attendees were literate, engaged, and full of great questions. The homemade baked goods for breakfast, Lorna Harder’s venison stew for lunch, and nice day outside to enjoy during breaks all helped round out a perfect day.

Rolfe Mandel

Craig Freeman

Michael Pearce

Jason Schmidt

Pete Ferrell

Brian Obermeyer

Erin Dowell

Wes Jackson

I gave a brief introduction of how this symposium developed as part of our year-long Dyck Arboretum 35th anniversary celebration with a focus on Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic chapter in his famous book A Sand County Almanac. We then heard presentations about the essential Kansas natural elements of “The Land” from educators and writers, Rolfe Mandel (soils), Craig Freeman (vegetation), and Michael Pearce (wildlife) and how these elements are foundational to our Kansas natural history, agriculture/ranching-based economy, food systems, and land-based enjoyment and recreation. Land stewards Jason Schmidt, Pete Ferrell, and Brian Obermeyer told their stories of how being a land caretaker is not only a way to make a living but that it is part of a cherished way of life through which one strives to sustainably pass along stewardship responsibilities to future generations. Elementary school teacher, Erin Dowell explained how critical it is to instill a land ethic in our children that will be our future land stewards. And visionary, Wes Jackson, rounded out the day with a presentation about how we as agricultural agents must steward the land as part of a living ecosphere.

The day was filled with dialog and rich with a variety of science as well as humanities topics about the important interplay between the land and people. Thank you to all participants!






Planting Trees: When Visions Become Legacies

“Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” – Greek Proverb

A group gathered at the Dyck Arboretum this past Monday evening to remember all that has been accomplished on this plot of land since 1981 – the plant and wildlife communities that have been established, the beauty that has been added to the community of Hesston, the lives that have been impacted, and the lessons learned.  All of these fruits came from a vision, a dream, a notion of what was possible – AND a lot of hard work and determination.

And though a 35th anniversary may not seem as notable or momentous as a 25th or a 50th anniversary, this celebration is particularly special to us. It is the first significant celebration we’ve had without both Harold and Evie Dyck, our founders. In the past, we’ve had their words and ideas and presence here to help guide us. Now we, the Dyck Arboretum staff and board, volunteers, as well as the Dyck family members, continue to realize their vision through our work.

35th anniversary tree planting

On Monday, October 10, 2016, Arboretum staff and board members planted a black oak sapling in commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the first tree planting at the Dyck Arboretum. That first tree, a bur oak, is shown in the background of this photo.

Aldo Leopold: Visionary and Legacy Maker

On Monday we learned about the life and work of another visionary. Aldo Leopold, a towering figure in the world of land conservation, devoted his adult life to studying nature, being in wilderness, and documenting what he heard and saw. (You may recognize Leopold’s name from several of the sculptures along our walking path.) Most notably, Leopold tended a piece of land with his wife and his five children and restored it to its most natural, most wild, most harmonious state.

I was particularly amazed to learn that, over the course of several decades, Leopold’s family planted nearly 50,000 trees on their land, restoring a small farm, with deteriorating sandy soil and a scarcity of wildlife, back to wilderness. When they first acquired the land, one of the Leopold children shared, it wasn’t much to look at. But as they all began to pitch in and work hard, their father’s vision took hold in each of them. Can you imagine – over a period of sixteen years, they planted 3,000 trees EACH YEAR? They had a vision and dream of what that land could be, but it required commitment and lots of hard work to realize that dream.

Leopold quote

Visions and Legacies

As a part of the celebration this week, we also planted a tree, a tiny black oak sapling, grown from an acorn that was collected from Leopold’s land in Wisconsin.  As we planted this tree not fifty yards away from the first bur oak that was planted here in 1981, it got me thinking about the difference between “vision” and “legacy”.

At what point does someone’s vision or dream for the future become their legacy? Is it when that person is no longer living? Is it when certain milestones or goals are reached? Does it happen slowly, over time, with each acorn or seed that is planted or sown, or with each visitor or student who learns something new? Is it when the vision is passed on, capturing the imagination of a new generation?

To play on a metaphor we use frequently here at the Arboretum, if planting an acorn represents a vision, what part of a tree’s life cycle represents legacy? Could it be when the tree that grows from the acorn drops seeds of its own?

The Dyck Arboretum pond in 1984

The Dyck Arboretum pond in 1984

Leaving our Own Legacy

When the Dycks first shared their vision with their family, friends and community members, they didn’t have much to show others to illustrate what they were dreaming of.  They only had an empty piece of land, once a couple of fields where wheat and alfalfa grew. But they planted that first bur oak tree, and the vision began to spread.

That tree is now on the eastern edge of our parking lot. It is easy to miss, but for the many acorns it drops on the pavement in autumn. Many who visit here will not notice it, nor the small plaque at its base that reads “Bur oak, Quercus macrocarpa. The first tree planted in the Arboretum, October 10, 1981.” It is only one of many trees, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses that have since been planted here, all playing a part in creating a living, breathing, dynamic landscape.

Meanwhile, in the median of the parking lot, there now also grows a small “Leopold” black oak sapling, the shade under which our children and grandchildren may take refuge. It is a piece of Leopold’s legacy and a reminder that our work isn’t done yet. It begins a new legacy for us here at Dyck Arboretum.

 

“We mourned the loss of the old tree, but knew that a dozen of its progeny standing straight and stalwart on the sands had already taken over its job of wood-making.”  – Aldo Leopold, “Good Oak” from A Sand County Almanac






Get Rich and Happy with Phenology

Phenology will make you rich and happy. Ask any person who likes to watch/study plants, animals, and/or climate if their life is richer and happier because of their observance of phenology, and they will unanimously agree.

I’m not talking about monetary riches. The study of phenology has made very few people rich in dollars. In fact, many people I know spend a fair bit of money in their pursuit of phenology studies (i.e., birders). I am referring to the put-a-smile-on-your-face, educational, blood pressure-lowering, life enriching observance of the natural world around you. 

Phenology is the observance of cyclical and seasonal natural events. These phenomena occur all around us in nature: plants blooming or setting seed, migrating animals arriving or leaving, the first or last killing frost of the year. For millennia, these kinds of observations have been not only interesting and enriching to our human ancestors, but they have been critical to health and survival. Being successful with agriculture, hunting and gathering required an intimate connection to the natural world through careful observations and record-keeping.

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Gray hairstreak on Leavenworth eryngo.

Why phenology?

The USA National Phenology Network provides great insights and resources related to the study of phenology. They highlight some good reasons for observing phenology. I’ve added to their list and included my perspectives as well.

1) Detecting Climate Change Impacts – Quantitative documentation of the natural world through scientific data collection is critical to understanding the effects of a warming planet. From professional scientists to common folks practicing hobbies of citizen science, phenologists help us better understand what is happening in the natural world around us. If we didn’t have scientific observations to help us learn about changing trends, we might never recognize the changes until they become glaringly obvious and have negative, irreversible impacts. Think of the boiling frog metaphor here. Collecting data on annual trends in weather, the timing of life cycles of plants, and the migration patterns of animals all give us sound evidence to monitor changes in our planet.

2) Ritual Celebrations – We are social creatures that enjoy regular celebrations, and it is easy to connect them to phenology. There are the obvious examples of fall color festivals and cherry blossom festivals. For me, even religious and cultural celebrations have a relationship to phenology. Christmas has a deep meaningful connection to the long, cold nights and dormant prairie of the winter solstice. A favorite September music festival always happens around the peak of the fall monarch butterfly migration and the flowering of Maximillian sunflowers. Butterfly milkweed in bloom tells me it is time for our early June Earth Partnership for Schools (EPS) summer institute.

3) Enjoying A Connection to Nature – Connections to the natural world make us happy and feed our souls. Even if folks from Psychology Today, BBC, and The Nature Conservancy didn’t vouch for it, I’d say this is true from my own experience. Experiences in nature enhance our connections to friends and family and solidify memories for a lifetime. At our EPS summer institutes we examine children’s increasing disconnectedness to nature and how we can reverse those trends. Teachers regularly recall how important outdoor events in their own childhood left lifelong positive impressions and important connections with people. The thrill of catching blinking fireflies with neighborhood kids, the sounds of buzzing cicadas around shortest nights of the year, witnessing a toddler son’s first taste of a tomato in the garden, watching the arrival of bald eagles fishing over big rivers in the heart of winter, observing sunsets with grandparents, and so many other examples have been shared. These sorts of positive experiences inspire many to want to share a love of nature with succeeding generations.

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Iralee Barnard and Susan Reimer find happiness in spending a day on the prairie counting butterflies.

Personally, I am drawn to the phenology-loaded pursuits of native plant conservation, and butterfly and bird watching. I spend time at Kansas Native Plant Society board meetings focusing on ways to best educate Kansans about the fascinating flora across our state. Annual butterfly counts in Harvey County and at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve document summer butterfly populations and contribute citizen science to the North American Butterfly Association that monitor continental trends. Kansas bird watchers organize under the Kansas Ornithological Society and passionately spend weekends and holidays throughout the calendar year in all weather conditions across the state to document in detail the presence of bird species.

Collectively, the folks I have met at these events are smart and endearing, generous with their time in teaching others, fun to be around, and happy doing what they are doing. I am proud to call them my tribe.

If I had more time, I would extend my interests to hunting and fishing as well. I eat meat and I can’t think of a better and more meaningful and enriching way to live and eat than to be a hunter and gatherer. Most hunters I know are very biology-literate and are also good stewards of the land.

Inspiring the next generation

The efforts of these groups help us better understand the biology and ecology of Kansas. In subtle and inspirational ways, they inspire others to follow their lead, and it is my hope that this infectiousness will extend to the next generations as well. After all, they are the future caretakers and stewards of natural Kansas.

One of the most famous phenologists was Aldo Leopold. In the early 1900s he studied phenology through spending weekends at “The Shack” with his family along the Wisconsin River. His observations, land stewardship practices, hunting outings, and scientific studies as a professor were all synthesized into the poetic writings of the book A Sand County Almanac. Leopold’s thoughts on land conservation and specifically his chapter entitled “The Land Ethic” will guide many of our Dyck Arboretum activities and events in our coming 35th anniversary starting this fall.

We think they will make you rich and happy.

Leopold_deshadowed

Aldo Leopold (Aldo Leopold Foundation)






Sandhill Crane Migration – A Kansas Spectacle

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Quivira Birds at Sunset – November 2008

“High horns, low horns, silence, and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks , and cries that almost shakes the bog with its nearness, but without yet disclosing whence it comes. At last a glint of sun reveals the approach of a great echelon of birds. On motionless wing they emerge from the lifting mists, sweep a final arc of sky, and settle in clangorous descending spirals to their feeding grounds. A new day has begun on the crane marsh.”

~Aldo Leopold (from his Marshland Elegy essay in A Sand County Almanac)

Experiencing the sounds of sandhill cranes is almost more distinctive and memorable to me than witnessing them visually. This Cornell Lab of Ornithology LINK of recordings both of individuals and flocks, as well as this private individual’s video recording, will introduce you to this unique sound if you are not familiar with it. I fondly remember the time and place that I first heard this call. It was a  summer evening near dusk while standing in a Wisconsin marsh. The sandhill crane call is prehistoric-sounding to me, which is fitting since this species has been around for 10 million years.

Kansans are lucky to be able to experience migration of the sandhill crane in spring and fall every year. We have large marshes in Kansas that offer food, shelter, and a place to rest during their long spring and fall journeys. While Kansans are not the only Great Plains residents with a front row seat to the bird migration route known as the Central Flyway, we are certainly among the fortunate to so easily be able to witness this migration spectacle.

central_flyway

Central Flyway – (from Project Beak)

I am really looking forward to an upcoming trip that Dyck Arboretum will be hosting in early November to nearby Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. We will likely observe sandhill cranes by the hundreds and many different species of geese, ducks, plovers, and other waterfowl by the thousands. If we are lucky enough, we will even be able to spot the federally endangered whooping crane, of which fewer than 300 individuals exist today.

After watching this display of birds coming in to roost at Big Salt Marsh in front of a sunset, we’ll enjoy a hearty soup by twilight and then look skyward to see what constellations are visible without the hassle of light pollution.

One of my favorite writers, conservationist Aldo Leopold, marveled at and wrote stories about the fascinating observations he made while enjoying nature. I look forward to soon re-reading his famous book, A Sand County Almanac, which is one of the most influential nature books ever written. Through the Dyck Arboretum’s year-long 35th anniversary celebration, we will be publicizing Leopold’s “land ethic” principles, which are so congruent with our own mission and ideals of prairie conservation.

I’ll leave you with one more quote from Leopold’s Marsh Elegy:

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.”

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Quivira Sunset – November 2008