Field Notes 1
When you look at a natural landscape what do you see? Maybe you see an unadulterated expanse of wilderness ripe with life and teeming with wonder, free from tainted human meddling. Or maybe you see a dilapidated remnant of what once was a thriving ecosystem full of co-evolved interdependent life systems, now dying a slow, smothered death at the hands of small but malevolent invasive species. I think the truth lies somewhere in-between, but finding that balance of truth between the extremes of the overzealous tree-hugging optimists and underappreciative tunnel-vision pessimists is the mission of a spirited land steward. The journey to discovering the truth of any landscape is one filled with many hours of work, contemplation, tribulations, and strife. It is all in the name of getting closer to a state of understanding and deep appreciation for both the quality of the landscape, and the work required to ensure the health of that landscape for generations to come. One might call this a land ethic. Echoing Aldo Leopold’s process (observe, participate, reflect), the following writings are the musings, observations, and written biproducts of said process. It is my hope that in sharing this journey with all of you over the coming months, we can begin to take our steps toward becoming spirited land stewards and crafting a unique sense of our own personal land ethics, together.
July 4th 2023: Riverside on the Wisconsin River, beer in hand, belly full, Labi Siffre playing in the background. I sit in front of this fire, the kiss of heat off the flames excites a powerful sense of serene gratitude. With all my earthly desires satisfied simultaneously, I am content. My tent is pitched, food is cooked, and fire is ablaze; I settle into the land that will be my home for the night. The prehistoric croak of a Sandhill Crane sounds in the distance over the river as if to say, “good night to all those also spending the night alone on this riverbank.” With this chill of isolation, I feel more connected than I have in a while. I feel at home.
The fire’s light begins to lazily doze off as the embers hiss and my senses heighten in the cool night. Two big logs of driftwood are added haphazardly atop the hissing coals and I bellow a deep breath into the heart of the fire. The flame obliges, like a pedal to an engine, it roars back to life. I can sit back for just a while and enjoy the monochrome blanket that pulls over the night sky as the evening symphony of life begins to play: A splash from a fish, the scurry of a white-tailed deer in the brush, the strum of crickets harmonizing their songs. This concoction of natural beauty conjures ideas of a romantic sublime and lulls me into a false sense of security that everything on this land is fine as is, that this is nature at its finest and it need not be tampered with.
It all seems so natural, so wild, almost movie-esque.
But what’s that? A sudden unfamiliar explosion comes crashing over the chorus off in the distance. The anthropogenic thunder of the 4th-of-July fireworks. As it taints the serenity I had felt this noise feels like a testament to human’s narcissistic adamance to never be forgotten, lest there ever be a day, even a moment, when one can feel a sacred sense of oneness with the biotic community around oneself.
But then again, should I be overcome with anger at the traditions of the very country that harbors the same beauty that I just professed my love for? In fact, it seems this epitomizes the very duality that I defined as the crux of being a spirited land steward. It is the case that in this moment on the land I can experience both sides of the conservation conversation. It is easy, as a nature lover, to become infatuated with the beauty of the life around us. To think that all which is not human is blameless, and all that is, is wrong. Equally so, I often catch myself throughout the workday getting tired and falling too much into the mindset of an exhausted, overwhelmed panic. When you feel obliged to conserve lots of land with little time and even fewer people, it can be hard to see something like a forest thicket with caring contemplative eyes and instead see it as something that ought to be clear cut and started anew. When you fall into this state you fail to see the beauty right in front of you, like the Swamp White Oak sapling clinging to life amidst overpowering Black Locust. This state of mind tamps down nuance and appreciation when assessing a landscape struggling with threats to biodiversity and invasive species, thus leading to me mindlessly exterminating much of what lies in front of me. I can become what I fear most: an unworthy wielder of an axe, capable of destruction without purpose.
However, when I think more deeply about both positions (the optimistic and pessimistic land steward) I see that I must do as Leopold asks of us and think like a mountain, or in the case of southern Wisconsin, think like a prairie. When I do so I begin to see the world around me with more colors, with more depth and complexity, the type of complexity I can only recognize when I realize that “when we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” This means that my appreciation of nature around me must not be blissfully ignorant. For example, abundant deer, though cute and amusing to us city dwellers, can often be a harbinger of destruction to a landscape left with no natural predators of these hungry plant eaters; conversely, the killing of one plant or tree could mean the sprouting of 10 more. Learning this through the land helps me to remember that I ought not to be too quick to discount the presence of humans in a natural setting, because when one begins to forget that humans are members of this natural world is when one can begin to disassociate from the destruction, we reap onto it.
So, on this July fourth, as I sit here on the riverbank, surrounded by a nature comprised of human and non-human, I am left here thinking about what it means to be a spirited land steward. I guess duality is what makes this pursuit of land stewardship worth it, or life worth it for that matter. Stewardship, true land stewardship, might just be the ability to live and let live, to see the duality of it all, choose which action is the best for you and the land around you, do your best to steward that truth, and be okay knowing you did what you could to live fully and responsibly, as a member of the biotic community. Stewardship of life, of land, of liberty for all, both human and non-human.
This post is the first of four pieces by Bennett, who, as a core element of his Future Leaders independent project, will, over the coming months, continue this exploration of the landscape and stewardship of the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area, and his own land ethic. All photos by Bennett Artman.