When I arrived here last June–to the Aldo Leopold Foundation, to my home state of Wisconsin, and to Baraboo–I was greeted by the low-lying, spiked inflorescences of wild lupine. Every upland sand ridge on this property, all running north-south and deposited thirteen-thousand years ago by receding glaciers, seemed to celebrate its own fortune in shimmering purple.
As my first month came to a close, the lupines began to sound their fall to senescence–slender seed pods, black with age, popped open and flung white seeds over palmate leaves and sandy soils. This gracious applause, heard only by those who stopped and were quiet, seemed to call the emerging neighbors to match the brilliance of the lupines. Each June, these “pops” also call the human stewards of this land to come quick and to collect these seeds, such that–into the future–every sloping sand ridge could be seated to its full with a crowd of enthusiastic violet.
This past year, I was lucky enough to be included in that crowd–both of lupine and of human stewards. Led by a few members of the stewardship team familiar with this annual event, I listened to the call of the lupine and collected its seed. In this act–this hearing–and in conversation with these mentors, I was introduced to the concept of conservation as conversation: the idea that each community, or ecological system, speaks and signals in ways that we may or may not hear or see. And, that we, too, are speaking with each action that we take on the land, influencing the direction of each exchange.
Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) is a leguminous plant found in these sand counties of Wisconsin. It has characteristic palmate leaves, extending alternately from the stem, and racemes of flowers, four to ten inches long, that push stripes of blue-violet towards the sky. And, the knobbly roots of this legume harbor soil bacteria called rhizobia, which return atmospheric nitrogen (N) to the soil and enhance its fertility. Through N-fixation, lupine and rhizobia share the gifts of their symbiotic relationship with their surroundings. They “fix” the soils, an especially important task on the “worn-out” sands to which Leopold and his family first arrived. In this sharing and this “fixation,” they made me consider my own: What could I share with this landscape and on what might I “fixate”?
This sharing from each lupine leads to a dilute dispersion of nutrient-richness throughout the restored prairies that we manage–one lupine on its own could not share much, but thousands create space for a wondrous diversity of forbs and grasses, each to come with their own unique gifts and methods of sharing. In this way, the non-targeted generosity of N-fixation invites diversity and abundance, both to fellow legumes and to the community as a whole. This wide-ranging openness and potential is something I hoped–and hope–to engage with while stewarding the land such that I might find ways to promote abundance and diversity, too. I want my offerings of knowledge, autonomy, and power to be woven throughout the ecological systems with which I converse. I want this power to be diffuse and right-sized, to avoid hasty simplifications and an unhealthy fixation on binaries of “good” or “bad,” “invasive” or “native.” In the communities where I live and work, I want to achieve the status of “plain member and citizen,” to walk quietly while letting others speak, and to practice non-fixation guided by the generous example of N-fixation.
For the past month, I have continually and repeatedly returned to three units of land on the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area that were exposed to prescribed burning this spring. By retracing the April steps of each member of the burn crew and by recalling the heat of the flames or the lively chatter over handheld radios, I extend an act of communal land management even further and gradually rework my own conception of the acts that I consider to be land stewardship. I walk and pay attention to the plants that grow in these places, and I practice the intentional deconstructive diffusion of my own hubris, assumptions, and knowledge. As I create small-scale botanical illustrations with ink made from prescribed burn charcoal, I sit with the complexities of plants and ask questions–first of what, where, and when–and then of how and why. In each return, my understanding deepens, though is not always clarified. Non-fixation, then, is inherent in these practices of walking, sitting, and drawing. In this quiet, categories cannot be fixed; communality, diversity, and openness thrive; hard-to-work-with complexity is celebrated rather than grumbled at; and gratitude flows cyclically through each interaction.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes: “This is our work, to discover what we can give.” Each member of a community, like the lupine and their soil bacteria, has a gift to offer. To engage fully with our own individual membership in the ecological communities which support all of life–human and more than–we must try to find what we can offer in return.
In each and all of these returns, in the lupine that bloomed its violet welcome, and in the lupine that did so again this June, I wonder if my work is to do just this: to advocate for care-ful reflection on our stewardship of this land that we share, to sit, to speak quietly with ink, and to share in the generosity of the plants that surround us, listening to a community I hope so dearly is glad of my presence too.
In this work, I find what I can give amongst all that I am given in return.
These returns—and all of Max Sorenson’s work as a Visiting Artist & Program Associate at the Aldo Leopold Foundation—are made possible by a Ruth Foundation for the Arts Trustee Discretionary Grant. We extend gratitude to the Ruth Foundation for the Arts and their work, as well.