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Giving Thanks

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

Ecological restoration is an act of reciprocity, and the Earth asks us to turn our gifts to healing the damage we have done.”

-Robin Wall Kimmerer

The month of November is one of gratitude, culminating in the great giving of thanks wherein we will gather round the table with family and friends, enjoying the bounty provided by the growing season. We give thanks for the gifts bestowed upon us by the miracle that is photosynthesis – whether it grew the grain that fed our turkey, or fattened the candied yams that get passed around the table several times without anyone taking a spoonful because, ew, yams.

But gratitude, when practiced right, implies a certain reciprocity. We receive gifts with gratitude, and the implicit understanding that we will also give something in return. We might actually exchange gifts, or perhaps something less tangible like respect or social capital. But how do we repay the gifts provided to us by the natural world itself?

November offers just such an opportunity for gratitude and reciprocity to the natural areas that give us so much and ask so little. That’s precisely how we spent our month in the forest, on the prairie, and in the water.

First on the list, a major overhaul of the fish habitat at Joy Springs wrapped up construction at the beginning of the month. The installations included bank hides and “root wads,” two kinds of in-bank structures that provide cover for stealthy trout.

Root wads in place at Joy Springs

The project, funded in part by the Iowa DNR Fish Habitat Grants Program which uses funds from fishing license sales - a gift of reciprocity from the fishing public to the fish themselves – also included two cross vanes, V-shaped structures which creature scour pools. These deep holes provide respite from summer heat and overhead predators.

Cross vane

To cap off the project, we decided to try something a little different. CCCB staff cut and transplanted 300 “stakes” of dogwood to revegetate the disturbed area where shady conditions would preclude the establishment of grasses. Several woody species are well-suited to live staking, the simple act of taking a small cutting from the parent plant and sticking it in the ground to grow a new one.

Species like dogwood (and many others that love wet conditions like willows or cottonwood) have the ability to develop “adventitious roots,” or roots developing from non-root tissues when some traumatic event causes the non-root portion to touch the ground. A falling tree pushing over a young willow, or a flood pressing down the thin branches of an elderberry might stimulate this response; so too does the act of live staking, a practice in reciprocity where we can give new life to an old plant in return for the valuable ecosystem services it provides.

More conventionally, we had the chance this month to seed an old brome field at Osborne back to native prairie. The DNR’s wildlife diversity grant program funded this project; those grants seek specifically to provide habitat for non-game species. It is a recognition that while we may not harvest those animals the way we would a deer or squirrel, they have their own gifts to offer us and, in gratitude, we should offer something in return.

The site was prepared with an intensive effort to stress and terminate the existing brome – great pasture grass but highly suppressive to overall diversity and habitat – with burning, mowing, and targeted chemical applications.

Fungi assisting with the site preparation at Osborne

15 acres of land underwent this conversion. The original plan called for 20 acres, but early on in the project the land itself expressed a different desire. Following the first burn – to remove the thatch and start exhausting the perennial brome’s root reserves – five acres returned with a healthy community of native species that had lain in wait. Indiangrass, big and little bluestem, butterfly milkweed, and white wild indigo appeared just a month later, on a spot that for years had been a virtual monoculture of non-native grass.

Gazing upon the prairie plants poking up above the fray, it was hard not to feel the gratitude. The flower stalks of wild indigo reminded me of a free diver taking their first relieved gasp at the surface after an extended spell under water. The beautiful colors felt like a gift, offered as thanks for our efforts to steward the site back to functional diversity.

Unexpected but welcome indiangrass flowering after a burn

But it also offered a real, tangible gift. With five of the twenty acres seemingly needing little more preparation, we found ourselves with a little extra money on the project. After talking with the grant committee, we were able to use the remaining funds for a high-diversity savanna seed mix, applied to the Grau Savanna at Motor Mill on bare spots where we’d removed non-desirable species. We look forward to a little reciprocity in both spots in the form of more beautiful summer wildflowers, the hum of pollinators receiving their own gifts from the fragrant blooms, and birds singing happily from the dancing stems.

Bare spots at Grau Savanna ready for new growth

In mid-November, crews from the conservation corps of Minnesota & Iowa practiced reciprocity with the beautiful, ancient oaks of the Becker West wildlife area. Stately, massive red, white, black, and bur oaks tower over a sunlight-stealing understory of invasive multiflora rose and weedy ironwood and locust trees. The oaks provide the gift of acorns, a keystone crop for all manner of wildlife, and while oaks live long lives, they cannot provide in perpetuity.

CCI "Timbers" crew living up to their name

They ask, in return, for the gift of sunlight so that just a few from the thousands of fallen acorns can escape the maw of squirrels, birds, and deer and establish a new generation to carry on the legacy stretching back through 10,000 years of oak colonization here on the Paleozoic plateau. Oaks hold a special place in the hearts of Iowans, from their state-tree status to the provision of reliable hunting grounds.

Plus they look mighty fine dancing over a savanna

So it only makes sense that, at least sometimes, we give something back to them without the expectation that they should give even more. Timber stand improvement projects, like those carried out at Becker, do not explicitly seek to extract resources from the woods, though the it sometimes looks like it – a post-TSI woodland is strewn with cut stumps and woody slash, a right mess to the human eye.

But rather than taking the wood, this action provides a gift to the oaks as the downed wood provides shelter for vulnerable seedlings. It provides a veritable cornucopia to the bugs and mushrooms who feast on downed wood. Their decaying action builds new soil into which future forests can take root. The bugs, in turn, become their own cornucopia to the insectivorous birds and mammals who make their home among the old oaks.

The project at Becker involves physically demanding work, in adverse weather, up and down steep hillsides covered in thorny vegetation, to establish trees that will mature long after those who’ve done the work are gone. It takes time, energy, equipment, and know-how. For that, we’re particularly thankful for the conservation corps and its cadre of enthusiastic young sawyers and swampers who chose to join the corps and engage with restoration for restoration’s sake.

Slowly battling back a multiflora rose infestation

Which brings us to the member of the ecological community for which we’re most thankful – our fellow humans with whom we spin on this blue marble. Within this one species we have quite the diverse taxonomy.

The corps members who did the hard labor at Becker. The hunters and fishers who bought licenses to fund these projects. The heavy equipment operators who tenderly placed massive boulders in a tiny stream to help the trout.

The landowners like Oakland and Irene Becker who donated their land to the CCCB, who have entrusted us with the stewardship of properties they had in their family for generations. Their descendants who provide valuable site histories and stories and, in the case of the Kies family (daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren of the Beckers) even volunteer their time on the site to keep firebreaks an old tractor road open for hunters and hikers.

The seed harvesters who thoughtfully collected native plant seeds for no other reason than to ensure the plants will have a fighting chance at a new generation. The plant nurseries who turned these seeds into colonies, maintaining and extending the genetic lineage of Iowa’s remnant prairies so that we can restore the prairie at Osborne and the savannas at Motor.

The students who delighted in classroom visits from CCCB naturalists, and the teachers who gave their students that opportunity. Our classroom naturalist programs kicked off this month with 44 programs given throughout the county, a gift we hope to see reciprocated as a future generation of caring, conservation-minded citizens.

Ed, the ambassador box turtle, at his most inspirational

The runners and walkers who came out to support us at the Pony Hollow 15K. The O.W.L.S. who came out for this month's trip to our neighbors to the north, the Driftless Area Visitor Education Center in Lansing, dedicating themselves to a lifelong pursuit of learning for learning’s sake. The visitors who came down to Motor Mill for the annual bridge lighting event, and the volunteers who put in the work on the back end.

Pony Hollow 15K runners, grateful to be nearing the finish line

The folks who stopped by Osborne, camped, hiked, biked, hunted, or fished on one of our properties. All of you reading this blog. We’re thankful for each and every one of you.

Because without you, we would not have the opportunity to do what we love. No one gets into conservation for the money. We do it because the act of giving back brings us joy. It gives us meaning, an outlet for the belief that we can do right for the world if we just had the chance. We plant trees in whose shade we’ll never sit, install fish habitat for trout we’ll never catch (especially if I’m casting the line), grow prairies to rebuild soil we’ll never farm.

We can’t do it without you. You practice gratitude and reciprocity every time you engage with one of our parks, publications, or programs and for us, that is truly a gift for which we are eternally thankful.

Looking Forward Come on out next Thursday, December 2nd, and enjoy a little evening stroll at our annual Holiday Walk! This year's walkers will follow a few birds around as they explore the intricacies of bird migration. Afterwards, the Elkader Central Madrigal Choir will provide some additional seasonal cheer. The event is free, but the birds asked that attendees bring a donation of bird seed for their fellow feathered friends who'll stick around Osborne this winter. Call Osborne to reserve a spot at 563-245-1516!

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