“What new thing will I learn today?” is the phrase that often comes to mind as we head out on yet another adventure in the endless work that is land management. Every adventure heeds its own experiences. I am part of the stewardship crew at the Aldo Leopold Foundation, and as intense as the work is some days, the end result is always worth it.
Some of these adventures provide immediate gratification, such as pulling a patch of invasive spotted knapweed or white sweet clover. Others will require time before there are indicators of our persistence.
One of my favorite adventures was marking timber. Before commencing this task, we read the essay “Axe in Hand” from A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. In this essay, Leopold explores the biases that cause him to choose one tree over another while harvesting timber. These biases range from personal preference of a tree you planted, to the value of the tree to nature.
With the awareness of these biases in the forefront of my mind, I was prepared to start marking trees. My axe, however, was the can of green tree marking paint in my hand. With this tool I would mark the trees that would stay standing, forming the foundation of the oak savanna we were restoring on the site. The unmarked trees would have their fate determined at the mill.
As someone with no prior connection to this stand, my view was very objective (or so I thought). For each tree, I had to ask myself, “Is this tree required to perfect our vision for this oak savanna? Will this tree contribute positively to this ecosystem?” With these and many other questions answered, I then took the “axe” in my hand and either marked the tree to save or left it blank, signaling the real axe to take it.
For those who are not familiar with oak savanna, it is an ecosystem dominated with (you guessed it) oaks, and it has a grass dominated understory. This highly endangered ecosystem was very prominent in southern Wisconsin prior to European settlement, before we learned to prevent wildfires; this lead to the growth of forests. Fire was, and is, a tool used to reduce the encroachment of woody vegetation in prairies and oak savannas. Oaks persist in this landscape because they are adapted to withstand fire.
For this reason, we mainly selected for fire tolerant oak. To contribute to diversity and also make up for the relatively low numbers of oaks present on the site, we did save other species as well. I personally fell in love with one large pine tree that you can see from a mile away as it towers over those around it.
This pine, with its immaculate height, is impressive to view from outside the stand and even more striking when you are standing next to it. When I first saw this tree, I could picture a pair of eagles or hawks building their nest in the uppermost reaches of its branches, acting like they owned the world. I knew I had to save it. Pines are not the species one pictures being in an oak savanna, nor are they fire adapted; but a tree of this significant stature deserves to continue life as it has. This tree is just one example of how I am leaving my mark on the landscape; and gives me pride every time I see it towering above others.
When I reflect on all the adventures I’ve had as part of the stewardship crew, I am very fortunate to be a Land Stewardship Fellow. This experience provided me with the foundation to build my own personal land ethic on. This experience will stay with me forever as I continue to build my knowledge of conservation through my education and adventures yet to come.