A former fellow shares her inspiration
My arrival in Leopold Country that July morning was the perfect homecoming. Except for one tiny detail: I’d never lived there. I felt at home because I was within twenty miles of where my parents and grandparents grew up. The Wisconsin River was in my blood.
I hoped that conservation would also be in my blood after this seasonal land stewardship fellowship. I had never done field work before that summer of 2015. But as a senior majoring in natural resources, I felt sure I knew what “stewardship” meant. When I imagined my future career, I pictured a life of prescribed burns, chainsaw classes, and brush piles. My perspective was about to change over what would be the best six weeks of my life.
It was a slow time of year for the stewardship crew. They had wrapped up their intensive garlic mustard control season, and it would be months before fall burns began. We spent our days doing many small tasks instead of one big project. I tried everything from assembling water pumps to surveying vegetation, from marking trees for cutting to planting a native garden. When rain kept us in the office, I learned the finer points of writing management plans.
Of these dozens of tasks, there was one that I prized above all. At my other internship that summer, we had collected seed from several prairie plants. I’d so enjoyed getting up-close-and-personal with native species that I made it my personal fellowship project. I kept an eye on the plants around the Leopold Center so I could collect, dry, and clean their seed when it was ready. Species like spiderwort, wild columbine, and prairie cinquefoil became like friends to me. I loved that I could help ensure their future using only my hands.
I also enjoyed weeding in the gardens around the Center. Suddenly, I was the first person that visitors met when they arrived to visit the green building or tour the historic Shack property. Some of them asked me what I was pulling and why; others had questions about the property. I gladly answered, proud to be an ambassador of Aldo Leopold’s land.
These two tasks, seed collection and visitor interaction, felt right to me somehow. Yet I resisted the feeling at first. Some of our crew worked in remote parts of the property for ten hours at a time. Was I a real conservationist if all I did was touch plants and talk to people? But it was starting to dawn on me that the word “stewardship” has multiple meanings. The issues facing our planet are too big to be solved by land managers alone. Someone needs to engage and involve the public. Communication and hands-on tasks like seed collecting are tools for doing just that.
My time as a seasonal fellow and my experiences since have confirmed that my greatest passions lie in these two areas. I am determined to use my talents to care for the places I call home. As I wrote in my journal that summer, “I am really beginning to appreciate my role as seed collector… I value my tasks and the way they draw me closer to the heart of this place.”