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Wielding All Tools: Connecting to the Land through Plans and Passion

As part of the stewardship crew at the Aldo Leopold Foundation we constantly find ourselves out on the landscape, often with a variety of tools in hand. These tools help us to make management decisions based on our goals and plans, but as you probably know, things rarely go exactly according to plan in any circumstances. This is especially true in field-based work. That is why we look to Aldo Leopold to serve as a guide to help shape our choices when plans and tools fall short. These are the times when knowing your local ecosystem front and back becomes vitally important. What I have begun to learn through the process of studying the Leopold lands is that change is ongoing; taking a few days to survey a piece of land for plant or animal diversity is a start, but we will always want and need deeper knowledge and connection to be able to truly make the best choices for our land.

Stewardship crew in field

The 2014 Aldo Leopold Foundation Stewardship Crew and some of their management tools.

The Aldo Leopold Foundation property has gone through many changes in a short period of time. The Shack property was purchased 80 years ago as a barren, used and abused piece of land, and has since blossomed to become part of the Leopold Pine Island Important Bird Area. The property is abound with wildlife. There are of course are many reasons for this. One very important reason that doesn’t often show up through traditional data gathering is the enthusiasm that has this land has seen. One quality that all of the iconic environmental pioneers shared (Thoreau, Muir, Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt, Leopold and others) is an enthusiasm for venturing out into any “natural” place they could find. All did so with tremendous frequency. We try to keep that legacy strong at the foundation by continuing the Leopold tradition of tracking phenological records.

Field ID

One of the many identification books used to help assess the plant and animal life of the reserve. (Wildflowers of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest by Black and Judziewicz)

Phenology is the practice of tracking and studying cyclical and seasonal natural events, specifically related to climate, plant and animal life, and it is one of the easiest ways to begin a closer relationship with land. All you need is note-taking equipment and good observational skills. Of course you can be more invested and utilize some of the abundant technology that sits at our disposal: binoculars, ID books or field guides, magnifying lenses, call recordings, and phone apps (check out this list of apps to help you in the field). We are now beginning an age where a plethora of information and data is coming in from everyday citizens. With so much information at our fingertips we have been able to map migration routes of many bird species. Entering data on sites like eBird can be done by most any person with a phone and knowledge of what a particular bird looks like or sounds like. But I believe we must find a balance between our essential wildness as a species of this earth and our new found technological prowess. Many in the younger generations have never known a world without these technologies, so a wireless connection is often more common than a connection to a place or piece of land. Phenology may be a way to help merge scientific, technology based data gathering to the basic enjoyment of time spent searching for order and meaning in our natural world.

Red Wing Blackbird

Red winged blackbirds returning to the Great Marsh are one of the first signs of spring’s arrival on the Leopold Memorial Reserve.

Trained as a wildlife biologist, I was always taught to use the scientific method and use all my due diligence when collecting information or conducting experiments, but if I spend all of my time behind a desk, don’t I miss out on what is really happening out on the landscape? While I see a role for tools, management plans and data for shaping our actions on the landscape, I also suspect that a deep personal connection to the land, driven by passion and sustained over a very long period of time can be just as, if not more valuable. I don’t believe our society can have one without the other, but I do believe we desperately need more people to connect with their natural world for any of the scientific information that guides land management to be worthwhile.

Conservation, viewed in its entirety, is the slow and laborious unfolding of a new relationship between people and the land.”

There is a lot of work to be done in the world of conservation, but we mustn’t rush. Conservation work is of marathon variety; not merely a sprint to some “finish line” or end point. As Aldo Leopold stated, “conservation… is the slow and laborious unfolding of a new relationship between people and the land.”  So venture out with or without tool, to connect and renew your relationship with land.