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The Little Moments of Land Stewardship

Bennett Artman standing in a river.

Fall is the season of change, and for a new land steward this change is multifaceted. Between the tides of exuberant summer growth and static winter dormancy winter lies this liminal fall season that bodes many things to a land steward: reflection, adaptation, evolution, recovery, growth in body and mind. In my time since last reflecting on what it means to be a land steward I have learned so many things, seen so many scenes of natural beauty, and overcome so many challenges. This, I think, is similar to what a plant must also think as it changes colors and heads from summer into winter during these fleeting fall months.

One of the foremost things I have learned is how to deal with the inevitable spells of existential dread that come with being a protector of the natural world amidst a society that has decided it is better off pillaging for the benefit of the present instead of stewarding for the betterment of the future. It is indeed natural to occasionally be overcome with a crippling sense of anxiety, fear, and confusion when you put into perspective the scale of problems we must address in regard to the environment, biodiversity, human-nature relationships, and everything else. This anxiety means you are human, you are aware, and you care, and those are three good things. Often in the past I have been stopped in my tracks when I begin to feel this anxiety and the sense of helplessness stunts any action for some time until I briefly ignore these problems and allow myself to feel a blissful reprieve.  However, Since I have begun practicing land stewardship I have learned that there is no shame in feeling small against the massive forces at play around you. In fact, it can actually be comforting to know that I am one small piece in this beautiful mosaic of life.  

I learned to find this comfort and motivation to persevere through my time in the field and through conversations with other land stewards around me who have been doing this for much longer. I hope that through sharing some of the notes I have taken down in the field I can begin to help share this path to perseverance with you.  

During much of late summer and early fall I spent my days in prairies of varying biodiversity quality. Some, overflowing with the deep purples of bee balm, radiant oranges of butterfly milkweed, and florescent flowering yellows of Canadian golden rod. A testament to the potential beauty of Wisconsin country side, actualized. Other prairies, however, are nothing more than meager patches of grass, saturated with wicked invasives like crowned vetch, birds foot trefoil, and worst of all, the dreaded Spotted Knapweed. I spent my summer in a brutal fisticuffs with knapweed trying my darndest, in vain, to keep it at bay on the roadsides.  

It is always easier to be happy and satisfied with the tedious work of a land steward when it is in the formerly described prairie, full of colors and life, because it is easier to see that which you are working to preserve and steward. Yet, as unfortunate as it might be, it is often better to direct the land steward’s time and effort toward that of the latter described prairie; such is the nature of being a land steward. I guess if I was after superficial beauty I should have gone into horticulture, or landscaping.

In the end, I thought, I can at least rest assured knowing that my work was spent well, outside, in the effort of helping make this land a better place. But what if I don’t spend my time working outside… because I can’t!? What if I am forced to bunker down and seek refuge inside, behind air-conditioned walls, looking through a window at the prairie that ought to be my office, as it begs for help lying there squelched, smothered, and charred by drought and smoke.

For about a month during late summer my fellow land stewards and I were rendered useless as we were forced to stay inside and wait for environmental catastrophe to pass as we witnessed the hottest summer ever on record combined with unprecedented wild fire smoke inundating our atmosphere. This made it hard for us to work and even harder for the wildlife around us to survive. This left me asking, what am I to do? I am a mere land steward, new to the world of conservation and much smaller in my scope of influence than these massive natural phenomena. How am I supposed to stop the destruction, change the world, and leave it better off than I found it? This resounding question, though not a novel one, does seem more pertinent than ever given the increased frequency and severity of extreme climactic events. This question is easily asked by many but never easily answered. After a week or two of feeling defeated, unmotivated, and pessimistic about both my own future and the world’s future I was offered an answer in the form of a revelation during an evening walk home after work. I’d had a long day and I was mulling this question over as I had been for the previous few weeks. The sun was setting over a prairie in peak late summer color and It occurred to me:

To be a land steward is to be the conduit through which the big and the small of the world interact. Through your careful and thoughtful observations of the world around you, you begin to relate the large-scale state of things to the small-scale innerworkings of all life forces. By taking account of such relationships you begin to understand how best you steward a healthy landscape and allow nature to restore itself. To be a land steward is to be one who can bask in the purely aesthetic awe and beauty of a prairie painted golden by rays of sun passing through a low-hung dew on a cold august morning. A land steward then takes the next step of relating this aesthetic beauty to the practical beauty of all the individual life systems functioning in harmony to create such an incredible scene. A land steward does not see this as separate but instead understands these are two sides of the same leaf. To be able to merge your intrinsic love of nature with your extrinsic motivation to make the world a better place is a prerequisite to instilling a land steward’s work ethic. This ethic, a land ethic, will propel you through difficult times of labor, diminished hope, or lethargy on a cold hard day, and it will carry you to the light of living life for more than just yourself.    

Knowing one’s place in the perpetual evolution of the world is a difficult step in the trajectory of becoming a land steward. No matter one’s experience and background as a land steward, one is destined to experience a similar development process of rationalization to their work in the field. I learned this during a day with two older and much more experienced land stewards who carved the path that lies before me. These two men were Mike Mossman and Carl Cotter. I had found myself playing third fiddle to these two stewardship experts while pursuing my independent project as the wetland restoration assistant for the wetland project occurring on the north side of the 4,000-acre Leopold-Pines Conservation Area (LPCA) . Carl Cotter, a charismatic thoroughbred Wisconsinite with red hair and striking eyebrows, is a former Leopold Foundation Future Leaders Fellow and is currently the land manager of the Pines Family River Side Farm, a large chunk of the LPCA. Carl had decided to undertake an ambitious wetland restoration project which will convert 400 aces of former farmland to forested wetland and nonforested sedge marsh.  

One of the many difficult parts of this project is procuring the funds to be able to pull something like this off, and to do so we applied for a North American Wetland Conservation Act Grant (NAWCA). In the process of applying for this grant we encountered multiple roadblocks that required us to reach out to the network of skilled individuals associated with the Aldo Leopold Foundation to help us successfully finish this grant in time at the highest quality possible. Being able to identify which birds currently reside in the project area and which species of birds and other animals might be able to benefit from this project is a challenging task, but one that is required by the NAWCA grant. So, Carl and I called upon one of Wisconsin’s best birders and naturalists, the formerly mentioned Mike Mossman. Mossman is a scruffy, jovial man whose silver curls lie haphazardly on his head, his beard strong, his smile full, and his worn-out Carhartt overalls tattered, stained, and sun-bleached from countless days in the field.

Mike, Carl, and I met up near the wetland project site and were greeted by a good omen of the day to come when we saw two Whooping Cranes strolling across the wetland, scavenging food, and making use of this wetland remnant adjacent to the Wisconsin River. This filled each of us with a new-found sense of excitement and purpose for the work we were doing and catapulted us into a day of species monitoring and habitat assessment. As the day came to a close, Carl departed and I gave Mike a final thank you for his help. As we said our goodbyes Mike and I took a moment to appreciate the nature around us. The autumn sun began to set as it painted the field of Big Bluestem with a warm golden amber glow. Mike smiled, his eyes wrinkled from countless hours of looking through binoculars and his mouth bearing the marks of smiling at all those birds. I was happy with the work we had done that day but still stressed out by all the work we still had yet to do. I asked him how a young land steward like me should think about my place within the world of conservation.

He told me that being an active participant in the world around you as a means to conserving the beauty, integrity, and function of the natural world helps you to see your place in time and lets you see that you are a mere snapshot in an everchanging continuum of life. When working to restore and preserve you have to remember that baselines change and are informed by what we had and didn’t have when we were younger. This is important to know when assessing what you value on the landscape so that you can work for the healthiest and most balanced biotic community. You will not change the world alone, but the world will not change without you. This place, the Aldo Leopold Foundation, Sauk County, Wisconsin, and the world of conservation at large, is a special place and keeps you going because once you find your community and you find out how to piece together your different motivations, things can come together in incredible ways and real change can be made by working together.  

I thought a lot about this on my drive home down Levee road and began to understand that anxiety, stress, and superficiality are means through which one can become distracted and dissociated from their connection to the land and life around them. For the death of a land steward is when one forgets they are a part of the land and instead begins to think they are separate from it and in control of it. To avoid such a catastrophe, it is important to find the small moments in life that remind you why you became a land steward in the first place. It is in those little moments of presence, when the eternal beauty and energy of the land is revealed, where you can find the deepest sense of connection and meaning to the yourself, and the world. Whether it be a simple walk home that reveals the complexity teeming around you at all times, or a short conversation with someone who has been on this path before you, the life of a land steward is full of these moments that remind us life is worth living and worth conserving for all living things. So, if you’re ever beginning to feel overwhelmed or slowed down by the anxiety of stewardship just remember to take a moment and frolic in fields, smell some cedar, eat an apple, and be grateful for the world around you.