For nearly three decades at Stone Prairie Farm I have redefined my relationship not only to the land but to the land community. As global ecological systems deteriorate all of us need ways to understand the larger context of our relationship to the earth.
Most people, not just farmers and gardeners, feel they're part of the land community and already treat nature with honor. Our neighbors felt they celebrated being land community members by installing a bird feeder and keeping birds alive one cold Wisconsin winter. After their planted 80-acre prairie restoration matured, however, Dory and Larry's land became the bird feeder. They realized, as did we, that one's contribution and membership in the land community can change. What makes us members of the land community, or gives us a land ethic? Is it the number of acres dedicated to nature preserves or conservation easements, or the underlying motivation behind our actions, no matter how large or small? Or is it our visceral connection to nature, whether or not it is played out in specific commitments?
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Aldo Leopold might reply that "saving all the pieces"—the work of the intelligent tinkerer—is key to being part of the land community and having a land ethic. Since no one person can save all the pieces, saving and restoring some pieces becomes increasingly important. But as we increase the number of pieces we are saving, we must also expand our land ethic, moving forward from saving small pieces to reassembling even lands that are not so healthy and restoring them to healthy ecosystems.
Both its scale and its isolation limit the contribution that Stone Prairie Farm can make to the health of the global ecological system. And this is true of many places where pieces of the larger conservation-worthy landscape have been lost. Biodiversity is lost, soil is depleted, waterways are running turbid, and migratory birds pass over these black holes on the landscape. We need to reassemble the pieces so we can reach critical larger-sized scales, get beyond isolated efforts, and restore ecological systems across the landscape.
Perhaps a new land ethic could be focused on fostering intelligent tinkerers who save and restore the products, services, and functions of healthy ecosystems. Such a land ethic would entail more than simply protecting a collection of disparate and disconnected pieces. It would require an individual and collective commitment to restoring global ecosystem health—an investment in ourselves, yet one on which all life depends.
Since my first reading of A Sand County Almanac I have succeeded in giving nature an active role in my daily life. In the years since Leopold's visionary writing, biodiversity on this planet has plummeted and ecological functions of the biosphere are on the decline. The hope offered by projects such as the restoration at Stone Prairie Farm seems overshadowed—if not thwarted—by larger-scale trends. How are we to feel?
We can still be hopeful because we appear to be entering a different time. People seek healthy lives, with safe food and ex-
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ercise. Many are rejecting the status quo. Organic food production, one of the faster-growing movements right now, is one beneficiary of changing needs, tastes, and preferences. Fortunately, it is an industry that not only depends on a healthy ecosystem but also adds to it. The demand for conservation developments is high. Nature is rebounding on many fronts, although development, agricultural activities, and speculation still imperil our future.
The reintroduction of the California condor and the return of the peregrine falcon are just two of the signs that give me hope and contribute to my gratitude for what my colleagues and others are doing. More recently, indeed as this book was going to press, sandhill cranes flew in, landed, and were doing courtship displays on Stone Prairie Farm, set on taking up residency on this land for perhaps the first time in well over a hundred years. As individuals we can reignite life and support its needs. Working my farm has cultivated and invigorated my internal passion for life. Now I want so badly to get my hands on the neighboring farms, sowing seeds and reversing the existing land-use patterns. But I realize the immensity of this task, and the need for wider participation by my neighbors and the larger community.
I yearn for the day when, through a myriad of strategies and with the right combinations of human compassion and investment, restored, healthy ecological systems will grace North American landscapes.
For nearly thirty years I have carried out a personal exploration of Aldo Leopold's land ethic, played out on my farm and in my life and livelihood. The joy of the recovery of a small piece of the earth cannot be overstated. I long to see nature's second chance supported and encouraged elsewhere. There's enough room on every farm, in every development, and in every industrial project. It starts with finding room in our hearts to make a commitment. The commitment to restoration and land protection can provide as fulfilling an experience in every life as it has in my own.
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