My mom was serious about weed pulling. Especially after she retired, one could often find her out in her yard pulling weeds for hours at a time. Since I didn’t consider myself much of a gardener at the time, I didn’t really understand why she would spend so much time on what seemed, to me, to be a very mundane and laborious task.
It wasn’t until she entered the later stages of a terminal illness that I understood what a solace it was for her, a way to feel a sense of control over something, however small or futile it may have seemed to others.
Now that I have begun to develop a meaningful relationship with my yard, I find myself starting to “channel my inner Mom”. I have a semi-regular routine of going out to my front lawn to pull weeds from an ever-expanding patch of buffalo grass. In this practice, I have learned that weeding is an act of focused intention. And though it is also an act of exerting control over the land, if paired with an intention to learn from and respond to the plants themselves, this control can be moderated by care.
This weeding routine began two years ago, when I noticed a few buffalograss seedheads poking up through our polyculture lawn. Five or six years prior, we had felled an aged maple tree. Since then, the area in front of our house has formed a natural matrix of dandelions, clover, bermudagrass, foxtail and bindweed. But apparently, at some point there had been some buffalo grass, which was now emerging again. I wanted more of it and less of those other things.
I felt overwhelmed by the idea of using chemicals to kill the existing vegetation in order to have a clean slate for seeding. Instead, inspired by long-time Arboretum volunteer and mentor Lorna Harder, I began mimicking her strategy of pulling the undesired plants to give the buffalo grass a chance to propagate.
July 2023 – north side of front yard. The spring and summer brought sporadic, but well-timed rain events.September 2023 – north side of front yard. Following a long period of high temperatures with no rain, the buffalo grass has stood up nicely.July 2023 – south side of front yardSeptember 2023 – south side of front yard. There are now lots of stolons spreading out over the edge of the sidewalk. I intend to snip them and root them down in other places.
Most people probably wouldn’t choose this strategy for establishing a lawn. Whether it’s because of other demands on their time or a personal preference, most will opt for a more straight-forward approach with a predictable timeline, as recommended by my colleague Scott, or the Kansas State University Turf Management folks. I have decided that for me, it’s more about the process than the product. I consider weeding a part of my self-care routine, one that also benefits the ecosystem of my yard. Each year, as I take stock of how much ground was covered (pun intended), I am motivated to choose which area I’d like to work on next.
If this type of approach to gardening appeals to you as well, but feels too daunting, I would like to offer some encouragement that I recently received from one of our members. Try not to focus on all there is still left to do. Remember to look at all the progress you have already made.
Something to ponder while I continue my daily weeding.
My spouse Jon clears bermudagrass and other vegetation from the perimeter of a seeded patch of buffalo grass in our back yard.As with the front, this area had been heavily shaded by a large tree and needed a cover crop.
I am going to pull back the curtain for you regarding the potential development of some programming here at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains. This fall we have begun considering an initiative called Caring for Common Ground. Although we already promote in general the concept of “Caring for Common Ground” through much of our programming at Dyck Arboretum, we want to make the process with our membership more intentional.
Oak savanna seed collecting at Holy Wisdom Monastery. Collecting seed is an important and meaningful ritual in ecological restoration
Formalizing a Concept
The thoughts of the land conservationist, Aldo Leopold, have long been very influential to me and my work. In answering the question “What is a Land Ethic?” the Aldo Leopold Foundation offers the following:
“Ethics direct all members of a community to treat one another with respect for the mutual benefit of all. A land ethic expands the definition of “community” to include not only humans, but all of the other parts of the Earth, as well: soils, waters, plants, and animals, or what Leopold called “the land.” In Leopold’s vision of a land ethic, the relationships between people and land are intertwined: care for people cannot be separated from care for the land. A land ethic is a moral code of conduct that grows out of these interconnected caring relationships.”
Three years ago, we formalized a new mission statement: Dyck Arboretum of the Plains cultivates transformative relationships between people and the land. The concept of and language surrounding Leopold’s Land Ethic was foundational to the development of this new mission statement.
Growing the Land Ethic plaque on the grounds at The Aldo Leopold Foundation
Retreat to Wisconsin
Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong helped conceive and for 30 years has run the Earth Partnership Program at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Subsequently, the Earth Partnership for Schools Program that Lorna Harder and I co-facilitate in Kansas comes from Cheryl and the Earth Partnership Program. So, when the revered Earth Partnership team of Cheryl, Claire Bjork, and Greg Armstrong, plus Amy Alstad at Holy Wisdom Monastery, invited us to a conference called Caring for Common Ground (CCG) that had been years in the making, we couldn’t resist attending.
Our Kansas team started by making a pilgrimage to The Shack, featured in the landmark book, A Sand County Almanac. This is the place where Aldo Leopold developed some of his thinking about The Land Ethic. We enjoyed visiting the place where many of his stories in the book took place. Walking prairie restored by the Leopold family and that is maintained today by staff at The Aldo Leopold Foundation. It felt like hallowed ground.
Our group (Kendra Flory, Lorna Harder, Karen McCabe-Juhnke, and John McCabe-Juhnke) taking in The Shack and Aldo Leopold’s restored prairieJohn and Lorna birding along the Wisconsin River near The ShackKendra, Lorna, Karen, and Leopold Foundation Education Coordinator, McCale Carter (our tour guide for the day) taking turns reading the “The Good Oak” on the spot where that tree once existed
Conference at Holy Wisdom Monastery
We then drove 45 minutes south of The Shack to the Holy Wisdom Monastery where our conference would take place. The Benedictine sisters there are undertaking serious land stewardship on their grounds. Under the guidance of Greg Armstrong in past years and Amy Alstad in the present, volunteers are restoring many acres of tallgrass prairie and oak savanna. These restoration project areas were our learning grounds for the CCG conference.
Conference days started with gratitude, calm reflection, and hilltop views overlooking restored prairie and Lake MendotaKaren and John McCabe-Juhnke collecting seed of bottlebrush grassPlanting seed in a degraded oak savannaCheryl Bauer-Armstrong (center) leads a post-planting sharing circle. The other CCG Conference leaders are from far left, Amy Alstad, Greg Armstrong, and Claire Bjork
Our conference activities involved observation and assessment of the present conditions related to soils, vegetation and wildlife. We acknowledged the past removal of Indigenous Peoples from these ancestral lands. A local Ho-Chunk tribal member served as an advisor for CCG and joined us for a session. There was discussion about the processes of land degradation that have been part of the site’s history. We reviewed ecological restoration techniques, conducted planning charrettes, and participated in seed collection and planting exercises.
Friends from Kansas and Wisconsin came together to practice ecological restoration techniques and develop a resolve for doing more land stewardship rituals going forward
Spirituality of Stewardship
Spirituality is an individual’s search for sacred meaning in life and recognition of a sense that there is something greater than oneself. Being a land steward restores ecosystem functions for the greater good through meaningful rituals. As a result, it can add value to one’s life, build a sense of place, and be a spiritual process.
Land restoration is inherently filled with ethical and spiritual dimensions. People from all religious and faith traditions certainly can bring value to this CCG process.
The writings of Leopold and Braiding Sweetgrass author, Robin Wall Kimmerer are influential to CCG. Kimmerer challenges us with the following question in our relationship to the earth. Should we be living in deep communion with the land, or looking to subdue and dominate it? Above all, this is an important question for land stewards to ask ourselves.
Pilot Study in 2022
We at Dyck Arboretum want to to do a pilot study of Kansas Caring for Common Ground (KCCG) in 2022. The first test cohort will be our small group that went to Madison. Arboretum staff, board members, and anybody that would like to help us Beta test this new program are welcome.
We envision that this will be a year-long study from January through December with one meeting per month. Homework could include individual reading, research, study and preparation for the next session. Monthly gatherings might include sharing, dialogue, and an interactive seasonal land stewardship practice. Such practices might include seed collection, prescribed burning, seed propagation, plant identification, chain saw work, planting, etc. An alternative to the monthly format for a larger group might include a one-time, whole-weekend KCCG retreat.
Regardless of format, a consistent framework for KCCG would include 1) A review of the site’s history (soils, hydrology, vegetation, wildlife, presence of Indigenous People, etc.), 2) An assessment of how conditions have changed over the last century or more, and 3) A land restoration plan for the future. Oh, and good food/drink would also be an important part of every gathering!
Going Forward with Intention
Finally, I’ll leave you with an image of the table that I sat around with friends after every evening of the conference. One adorned the table with interesting wood pieces collected from Wisconsin and Kansas that had been hand-cut, polished, stained and artistically crafted as candle holders. Another supplied delicious, slow food that came with thoughtful planning, preparation and cooking. Another provided spirited drinks with hand-harvested ingredients. It was a space filled with intention, meaning, adoration, and gratitude. May the coming year in study, conversation, and practice with Caring for Common Ground in Kansas be filled with similar such things for each other and with the land.