We must understand and improve our relationship with the land.
Land provides the ideal vacation spot and wildlife habitat, and the beauty that inspires dreams. Each of us depends on plants that root into the soils, particularly where prairies and wetlands historically occurred, areas that now produce the deep black soils and lush crops of the midwestern breadbasket states. Dark green to the east of the Missouri River, the grayish green color of sage, bunch grasses, and cacti in the western grasslands and deserts, land gives us colors and vistas and adds untold richness to life. With no connection to soil and land, people have no heritage and become rootless wanderers in search of a place to call home. When we travel, we meet others and discuss the hometowns, regions, and districts that help make up our identity. Some cultures spend generations trying to reclaim their ancestral lands. Land is synonymous with life.
This book is about the midwestern land I know and love— what it is now, what it was like before corn and grazing cattle came to dominate it—and the human community that settled it. I worked the land because I needed to know and understand my lineage, to recognize, cultivate, and rekindle a historic connection to the earth.
Dirty hands and sweat welded my relationship with Stone Prairie Farm, an 80-acre expanse in Wisconsin where I have worked to give nature a second chance. My years of planting, of nurturing the resurgence of prairie, wetland, and forest cover where eroded farm fields once lay exposed, have created a deep, direct connection to nature. Because of the years of work that I, my partner, Susan, and countless friends and volunteers have put into the land, native plants, birds and butterflies, and other wildlife have all returned in abundance, and a diversity of life now exists far beyond what is commonly found in the region. The immediate delight of this is wonderful. Over time I began to understand that rare birds were returning, flying miles to find our farm. This realization turned my dreams into a broader vision for restoration and stewardship over a much larger landscape, local, regional, and national, that encompassed many ecosystems —deserts, mountain forests, eastern forests, and others.
I began wondering how I could inspire others to think about restoring their farms, or parts of them. I envisioned a network of restored lands that would reconnect dispersed and isolated habitats. This may be viewed as an ecological systems approach to rethinking the landscape or a community land ethic where the health of the land—not just of individually owned parcels—is a measure of land community vitality. I also began contemplating expansion of the restored prairies beyond my fence lines. These visions have taken hold with some neighbors, resulting in a series of reasoned changes on their land. Some have planted prairie on parts of their farms, contributing to the ecological fabric of the community with a great increase in the number of bluebirds and wildflowers.
Documenting personal experiences in my restoration of Stone Prairie Farm sparked the notion of this book. A similar experience could have resulted anywhere, in any ecosystem. Com, wheat, soybeans, and milk were produced here for over a hundred years, as they still are on neighboring farms. The difference on my land today is that a sweet corn patch is the only corn growing, and many dozens of species of wild birds and other wildlife have supplanted milk cows. This book is about the conversion—what's been required, the process, and the rewards. This book is not about homesteading, though many of our hobbies, like wine and furniture making, are activities commonly done by homesteaders, and they connected us to the land-change process during restoration. While we relish the homemade wild grape wine but more so, we've stayed focused on the changes that have attracted the birds and the seeds they distribute, including wild grape.
Beyond this farm, my livelihood is based upon restoring the land, using the same conversion process celebrated in this book. My ecological consulting firm, Applied Ecological Services, Inc. (AES), implements ecological restoration projects throughout North America and in many other parts of the world. Over the course of almost three decades, my design and implementation of these projects for many hundreds of clients has transformed and healed nature. I started AES in 1975 and, shortly thereafter, launched Taylor Creek Restoration Nurseries (TCRN), which grows seeds and plants of more than six hundred native prairie, wetland, and forest plant species used in AES's restorations. Today the firm—which is based in Brodhead, Wisconsin, but also has five remote offices around the United States—employs 140 growers, ecologists, restorationists, engineers, and designers. Multiple satellite nursery operations support regional plant production that meets the needs for those areas.
Through AES, I've worked on some of the most exciting and intriguing ecological restorations of recent years, affecting many millions of acres of land. These lands were monitored and visited frequently during, and sometimes decades after, the restoration work. They included reclaimed mined lands, where thousands of acres at a time were planted to prairie, forest, or wetland vegetation; landfills converted to parks through native plantings; and many tens of thousands of acres of converted agricultural lands, mostly with marginal crop-producing soils. The land was purchased by agencies, by nonprofit groups such as the Nature Conservancy, and by many private and corporate parties who saw value in restoration. AES was also instrumental in the restoration of Stone Prairie Farm, which began in 1980, shortly after I moved to southern Wisconsin. However, the relationship was informal and serendipitous. Sometimes I borrowed a tractor or seed drill on weekends and holidays at times when they were not in use. I also made arrangements for several years to have the waste seed and chaff from Taylor Creek Restoration Nurseries' seed-cleaning facility spread on sections of Stone Prairie Farm.
Over the course of the last twenty-eight years, my partner, Susan Marie Lehnhardt, her son, Noah Klinge, and our dog, Max, have all been involved in the restoration process on Stone Prairie Farm. It is with trepidation that I have used the word "I," when "we" would have been more appropriate to describe our shared experiences. My choice to write in the first person is not meant to belittle the importance of our shared experiences.
Susan and I have tried to understand this land we call home, a wonderful historic dairy farm of 80 acres, and its place on the broader landscape. My twenty-eight years and Susan's nineteen years working and watching this land, thinking and dreaming about it, have been life giving. Life has returned to previously degraded, badly eroded farm fields that produced only periodic crops of corn. Today, lively prairies, wetlands, forests, orchards, and gardens flourish. The 150-year-old farmhouse historically housed farmers, and kept the outside out. Now, nature resides inside and out. If the condition of the land is any reflection of dreams, ours are surely different from those of the prior tenants. We've celebrated the return of the corn snake and ambush bug, and the reintroduction and resurgence of hundreds of wild prairie plant species. The restoration and stabilization of the spring brook brought the return of native fishes. We found its revitalization to be symbolic of the larger restoration experience. It could not be stabilized, and the water did not begin to run clean and cold, until bordering uplands grew wild again. Then the furred, feathered, finned, and scaled inhabitants reinvaded.
Growing up five hundred miles apart—she in Walnut, Iowa, and I in Chicago—Susan and I began our parallel journeys in childhood, each groping for life in whatever wildness was available. We scratched the dirt, plucked seeds, and braided wild grasses, all the while looking out over the land like a raccoon feeling the submerged brook pebble while mindlessly looking elsewhere. Our dreamy stares focused on the land's myriad mysteries.
Since childhood, a passion for nature has impressed on me the importance of land, opening my eyes and heart. At this farm, Susan and I have been led beyond the fence lines, farther than the boundless rolling green surrounding us, to a better understanding of land, water, and wind, of politics, community, neighbors, and economics. The connections are unbreakable, ever growing and durable. We've found that sharing our experiences gives them a broader value. Every piece of land can provide a fellow human being with a rich, meaningful experience.
This book grew out ofjournaling keyed to cycles—daily, seasonal, and annual reactions, feelings, and awakening awareness. Wind, light, wild plants, and animal life captivated my primordial instincts. Observations gave pause for contemplation and reflection. Hard physical labor during restoration provided an enduring connection, augmented by blisters and words, photographs and questions. As a result of these connections, I've begun to learn and understand this place—and myself.
Somewhere in the early days of working on AES projects it became clear that working on someone else's project was not giving me a personal connection to the land. During the course of a normal AES project, I'd work on one piece of land for a few years, and then move on to the next project. I needed to work in an ongoing relationship with the land, not just that delimited, relatively short timeline. I yearned to cultivate a garden and prune an orchard. Since early 1981, my farm has been my home, my love, my passion, my peace.
This book is about the living land and my experiences at Stone Prairie Farm. It is organized around my getting to know the land, restoring it, and connecting with the community through the process, and will perhaps inspire others to do the same. I also contemplate what will become of this vigorous land, rich with life, that Susan and I have helped re-create.
The first section is a story of discovery that offers specifics about this patch of earth, its location and context. The second part describes the changes we wrought in order to restore the land and farm and to live more comfortably. Part III begins my contemplation of connections with the larger ecosystem and my community, setting the stage for a time when Susan, Noah, Max, and I are no longer here. The final section explores the future and speculates on ways to maintain the restoration Susan and I have cherished, and to expand this ethos using larger-scale land features and engaging others in developing a concern for the health of ecosystems. The Afterword provides a seasonal perspective on the dynamics of this place, from the cacophony of frogs in spring to the new wildlife and wildflowers that appear in summer to the bird migrations in fall and the vats of maple syrup in winter.
Steven I. Apfelbaum Stone Prairie Farm April 2008
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