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2023 Fellows: Reflections at the Halfway Point

The 2023 Leopold Fellows

In June, the foundation welcomed five new Leopold Fellows to the Future Leaders Program, joining the ranks of over 100 alumni since its inception in 1978. In the order they are pictured above, the 2023-24 cohort consists of Bennett Artman, Blossom Ramos, Kysh Lindell, Brianna Elizondo, and Maia Buschman. Now, halfway through the fellowship year, they reflect on their experiences so far:

Fellows and Marketing & Communications Manager Andy Radtke returning from a hike at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, an 8,569-acre tract of land located between the villages of La Farge and Ontario in southwestern Wisconsin. Photo by Maia Buschman.

Brianna (Land Stewardship): Before starting the Land Stewardship Fellowship, I expected to dedicate most of my time towards collecting native seeds to plant prairies. I had no idea how much work was required prior to restoring a prairie. The beginning of the fellowship consisted of spraying herbicide to remove invasive species, such as spotted knapweed and black locust. We utilized brush saws and chainsaws to remove unwanted vegetation and undesirable trees. We were taught how to operate tractors and other heavy machinery that would assist in clearing the landscape to provide a clean slate for seeding. At first, I was very opposed to cutting down trees, but then I learned that prairies and grasslands are some of the most endangered ecosystems on Earth. Their soils act as carbon sinks and are more reliable at sequestering carbon than forests. Six months into the job I’m better at reading the landscape and selecting which species will improve the habitat. I’ve become more confident and proficient with a chainsaw while learning how to maintain the machine. My favorite part of the fellowship has been connecting with the land that Leopold once stewarded by walking around the property and camping along the Wisconsin River. I’ve been fortunate to meet community members and conservationists through visits to Badger Army Ammunition Plant, Little Eagle Arts Foundation, International Crane Foundation, Orange Cat Community Farm, Wormfarm Institute, etc.

Maia (Education & Communications): People are always befuddled when they find out I’m from New Mexico. The confusion is warranted, I suppose – the Southwest and the Midwest couldn’t be more different. Trading the arid desert landscapes scattered with cacti and caged by mountains for marshes, oak trees, rolling hills of farmland, and deer galore has been an adjustment. Aldo Leopold himself made a similar trade after his stint with the forest service – though he, of course, was homebound, bringing his family along as he returned to his midwestern roots. I am out of my element. Learning this landscape has been like learning a foreign language. Some parts I’ve absorbed readily: naming birds by their songs or their distinct plumage. Others continue to elude me – I may never be able to distinguish an ash from an elm, or tease apart different prairie grasses. But that perpetual sense of newness keeps me eager and observant, forever in a state of childlike wonder at what this corner of the world – and this job opportunity – has to offer. When else would I have the chance to dive down a rabbit hole of historical photos, or disappear into the library archives and uncover books that pique the most niche of my curiosities, all while building job skills and networking with likeminded folks working in conservation? I may indeed be out of my element, but only in the sense that so much remains uncharted, that there is still so much knowledge and wisdom to accumulate – that even at the midway point, I’m merely at the beginning of my journey.

Maia and Kysh canoe down the Kickapoo River. Photo by Brianna Elizondo

Kysh (Education & Communications): One of our first days here my fellow Education and Communication Fellow Maia described this experience as a bit of exposure therapy for her— a position that challenged those of us quieter, introverted types to not only live and work with a group of 7 strangers, but handle equipment we’d never used before, lead tours for groups of impressive conservation professionals, figure out how to safely navigate a hillside where our stewardship team was dropping trees left and right (seriously, have you ever walked through a downed tree with all its leaves still on?), and, perhaps most dauntingly, speak with any person who walked through the doors of the Visitor Center. It could make any shy person nervous, and it did for quite a while. But what they don’t tell you when you’re applying for the fellowship is that there’s this community of people who, even before they meet you, would do anything to hold you up. Amy spent months helping me learn how to balance the register because I am the worst at math. Leah took me to the grocery store when I arrived to the fellowship car-less and bike-less, brand new to the realities of living in farm country. Curt introduced me to maybe a hundred different impressive people in one day, telling each of them about my interests and making sure I left with a pocket full of business cards and wisdom to incorporate into my independent project. Every single person we’ve met on a professional development field trip, from USFWS biologists and artists to community organizers and organic farmers, has made a point to say “you can do this job too.”  These days I find myself talking to people from across the world or walking through swaths of wild land no longer scared, but giddy for the connection. This position is one of exposure, and I am severely grateful for it.

Kysh posing with a stump that the Fellows practiced plunge cutting as part of their chainsaw safety training.    

Blossom (Land Stewardship):

Blossom with Diego the cat while on an FLP at the Wormfarm Institute. Photo by Rowan Cattell

Like most fellows, I was a little nervous as I was moving into the FLC the first week of June. I’d be living in a house of 8 people and would have to work with them too. But it’s been a pleasure getting to know them all as our paths intertwine for a moment in our lives. The Future Leaders Program and the fellowship has given me the opportunity to test myself through hands-on applications. I had a hard time thinking I’d be able to use chainsaws all day and never would have imagined myself operating skid steers, tracked units, and tractors. I’ve been able to learn so much during my time here and I know I’ll still be learning even more as the seasons and the work continue to change. On top of the operational side of things, there are also other aspects and lessons to be learned such as there not being a single correct way to do conservation, or the way community members are able to create big change through their passions. I know I’ll be taking so much from my time at the foundation and will surely miss it.

Bennett: When asked to reflect on my experiences here at the Aldo Leopold Foundation as I approach my halfway point, I initially find it hard to believe that time has gone by so swiftly; And yet, when I let all the memories I have made here come rushing back I remember how densely packed each day has been with new experiences, lessons, and memories. I think back to the first week, how I must have seemed so naïve and full of unwarranted confidence to the older and more experienced land stewardship staff. I remember seeing Leopold’s shack for the first time, the cocoon from which the modern environmental movement blossomed, and being so full of awe and excitement to continue to write Leopold’s legacy through land stewardship. I remember the moral and physical strife I had early on spending days at a time spraying herbicide in fields to get rid of spotted knapweed. But then I remember conversations with Carl, Arik, Mitchell, and other wise stewardship practitioners about the importance of seeing your place in the biotic community not as a leader of what the land will become, but rather an active follower of the larger movement towards healing that the land inherently has and will always move towards. But most importantly I remember the many moments of pure bliss and unfettered connection to the land and biotic community that this sacred place has offered me, thus allowing me to create my own idea of a land ethic. My time here, though sometimes challenging, confusing, or demanding, has played an invaluable role in teaching me about how to be a good and responsible member of this earth and helped me to understand how to do as Leopold said and “see land as a community to which we belong, [so that] we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Bennett sits atop Pasque Flower Ridge overlooking the Long Marsh after a 190-acre prescribed burn.