Thighs throbbing from tearing through raspberry canes and the weight of a backpack sprayer, I inch up the wooded hillside coating garlic mustard and Japanese hedge parsley with blue-colored spray. Like many practitioners, I’m taking advantage of their tendency to stay green well into winter. I find a native wild columbine that is still green, and as I lean over to pull a nearby invasive plant, I unwittingly brush my hair across a sticktight weed. Wincing as I remove the little Velcro-like seeds from my bangs, I hear “what’s going on over there?” It’s the landowner, and I walk over to greet him.
As we discuss progress and to-do lists, I can’t help but be impressed with all the resources and persistence he has devoted to bring his land back from dominating invasive species to diverse native plant and animal communities. As our conversation ends with the next short-term plan, I watch his eyes scan the white oak woodland, drift through the bur oak savanna, sweep across the expansive tallgrass prairie, follow along the meandering trout stream corridor, before resting momentarily on the distant sedge meadow. Preparing to resume my spot-spraying duties, he returns from his panoramic vista of his property and says: “If we hadn’t started when we did, we would have nothing to look at today.”
His words reflect the stark contrast in diversity of life between his land, after 17 years of ecological restoration, and the neighboring lands. Sportsman, such as hunters and fishermen, crave access to his game-rich lands. Bird watchers visit in hopes of adding a rare bird species to their Life List. Natural foods enthusiasts come to seek out berries, nuts and mushrooms. Scientist come to study endangered plant and animal communities. Nature and open-space enthusiasts visit to escape the craziness of our modern world. Even those who view nature from afar seem to appreciate the uniqueness of his property.
Pumping gas at a nearby gas station, I hear a woman say: “That place up on the hill sure is striking. I love the way the colors change throughout the season. I wonder where all those plants are from?” I respond by saying those plant communities represent what all these lands looked like before major land alteration practices and the onslaught of invasive species. She breaks her stare away from his property and turns it on me. Disbelief shapes her facial expressions. She abruptly ends our short conversation with: “That place sure is beautiful.”
The landowner’s insightful words hang with me the rest of the day and dominate my thoughts. The words are simple enough, but the underlying emotions and feelings they evoke are not! Why is it that this man sees his land as an extension of his family, whereas another sees it only as property? How does one come to view land through an ecological lens rather than just an economic one? What motivates a person to invest resources into ecological restoration? Does ecological restoration provide value for all of us?
These are big questions with eluding answers. I suspect causes for how people develop a caring land ethic are experiential in nature and lead to an intimate and observational relationship with the land. It’s these observational powers that reveal the “health” of the land and perhaps the rationale in seeking more ecological knowledge. Reasons for restoring land tend to originate from core values deep within a person, and they often grow stronger over time. Articulating the "why restore" is difficult, but the following are a few reasons to consider:
The nostalgia created by reading descriptive accounts of the landscape from the first settlers of the region can create a sense of loss. Many want to see, and share, examples of this stunning history today.
A strong desire to return family lands back to what they were as "when I was a child."
Witnessing the continual ecological erosion of our landscapes over a lifetime, and the desire to preserve some "natural heritage" for future generations.
Recognizing the privilege of land ownership and the sense of responsibility of being a good land steward.
Does ecological restoration provide value to all of us? This an important question and our collective societal answer will impact forever what we view and experience as “nature.” We know ecological restoration management activities, such as control of invasive species, help protect our food supply chain and many other important natural resources industries. We know the enrichment of native habitat through ecological restoration provides outstanding recreational opportunities for all outdoor enthusiasts. We know ecological restoration is key to saving our most endangered ecosystems and critical in maintaining the earth’s biodiversity. While some may argue how to quantitatively measure the economic value of the above ecological restoration activities, few can argue they don’t matter.
But perhaps the real value of ecological restoration, one that escapes measurement, is how ecological restoration defines us as a people. It acknowledges that people and nature are one. Our connections with each other, our lands and our environment identify who we are, from where we have come, and where we hope to go. At some point, we realize, that connections and experiences with people and nature is all we really have in life that lasts. A connection with nature evokes feelings and emotions, and we learn more about ourselves. Tending and caring for the land allows us to connect to a world much bigger than our own. Giving back to the land that has provided everything for us satisfies a basic human need to be needed. We have needed, and still need, the land. But today, more than ever, the land needs us.
We restore to correct the ecological ignorance of our past. Not to place blame on our predecessors, but to embrace and celebrate what we have learned; to demonstrate our greatest human strengths of discovery, creativity and love.