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Our Backyard
by Brian Price
Editor's Note:
Although both of these books have been out for some time, we felt both the books and the review stand the test of time.
From time to time, friends of the Conservancy stop by our office bearing curiosities, suggestions, articles, or books to read. Through this route, we collect the odd swallowtail butterfly, occasional dead birds, the pharyngeal arch of a young carp with its curious "teeth" (thanks Roger and Moonyeen), and many fine books for our library shelf, two of which I would like to mention. John Rohe, a Petoskey attorney and principal author of our "plain English" conservation easement, drew our attention to Stephanie Mills' In Service of the Wild. Carolyn Russell donated two copies of Sara Stein's wonderful book Noah's Garden., so that we would always have one at the office and one at home. Both books are so well-conceived, timely, and important that we felt a review was warranted.

- Brian Price
Executive Director, Leelanau Conservancy

In Service of the Wild - Restoring and Reinhabiting Damaged Land"One of the penalties of an ecological education," wrote Aldo Leopold nearly 50 years ago, "is that one lives alone in a world of wounds." Leopold may have been one of the first writers to remark, and lament, the vast extent of the damage inflicted on the North American continent and its natural communities. The full impact of the changes brought about by European settlement- forests cut, wild rivers dammed, swamplands drained, prairies plowed- we are only now learning to assess. But assessing damage and laying blame is not what Stephanie Mills sets out to do in her fine book In Service of the Wild - Restoring and Reinhabiting Damaged Land. Her subject is ecological restoration, the developing science and art of healing the wounds of the land. To this task she brings her own personal gifts: a deep and abiding devotion to what has been called since the late 60's the "ecology movement," an intellectual depth which is coupled with self-effacing wit, an engaging prose style, and a commitment to the restoration of a derelict 35 acre farmstead, which happens to be located in Kasson Township, Leelanau County.

Mills' efforts to come to grips with the problem of restoring her admittedly "damaged land" provides the well-spring for her observations. "I am a landowner. although nor of the self-reliant homesteader variety. Even so, my possession of my land, and my developing intimacy with it. coincides with and has animated the making of this book... My purpose in telling the history of my home ground is to evoke for the reader a sense of how dramatic and profound the changes wrought in even pleasant rural landscapes are, how much biodiversity and lend health has been lost, and why the ecological dimension of restoration is so necessary. I would convey how inadvertent the degradation was: nobody consciously sets out to wreck a piece of land, but that is a common result of our accustomed habits of land use.

The first half of In Service of the Wild is a telling of the history of the damaged 35 acres and a cataloguing of its current condition. In telling this story, Mills allows herself to poke around in the dusty comers of the pre-history and early settlement of our county. She evokes an authenticity by examining modem day remaining scraps of old growth and virgin hardwood forest, at Colonial Point and in the Upper Peninsula. She tells the story of early Leelanau settlers with respect for the hardship and precariousness of life without safety nets.

In Mills' work, large concepts and questions of conservation and ecology are dealt with in terms of concrete choices which she and others must make in the management of their land. To plant or let succession take its course? What to plant? Is it realistic to strive for the restorationists ideal "greatest possible degree of historic authenticity?" How much effort is reasonable for me in this pursuit? And always, Stephanie Mills' lucid prose and observations about her home landscape, Leelanau County, will cause a satisfying spark of recognition in the reader who also knows this land well.

 By contrast, Sara Stein comes from the great tradition of gardening, that tradition of improvements on the land which are undertaken to delight the human senses, creating places of comfort and esthetic delight primarily for human benefit, not in service to a higher ideal of ecologic integrity.

Stein and her husband "began to tame our tangled piece of land," five acres of suburban Connecticut, armed with all the usual cultural assumptions of gardening tradition. Her early attempts at reasonably traditional landscape design, beddings and turf and all that were less than successful over the years, and required enormous continued investments in upkeep. She watched the majority of her plantings die, either through pests, disease, or simply being overcome by weeds. "It was the mocking health of what I didn't wish to grow in the graveyard of our garden that finally sent me to the books. If buttercups shone among withering irises and daisies bloomed among dusty miller corpses, then there must be some fundamental difference between wild plants and garden flowers." This observation sent her back to the books (botanical and horticultural) to learn more about "the baffling divergences among the ways of plants and the ways of gardeners."

The result is an adventure in accumulating knowledge of the natural world, in this case the northern hardwood forest biome, of which Leelanau County and Connecticut form roughly opposing geographic poles. Like Stephanie Mills, Sara Stein wants to know what the land was like before European settlement, what changes have been wrought in the more than 300 years since the opening of the New England wildemess, and what aspects of our cultural heritage may lead us back to a restoration of healthier ecosystems. The emphasis here is slightly different - restoration approached from the gardener's tradition of "improvement," and the scale is the suburban backyard, be that 1/4 acre or five acres.

Through it all, Ms. Stein's book is informed by fascinating discussions of familiar problems of suburban life. Chapters discuss the common problems of lawn care (turfgrass monoculturc is like a patient in intensive care, so cut off from normal life support systems that its survival necessitates constant maintenance), weed and pest control, and living with moles and other critters.

Bottom line: "America's clean, spare landscaping and gardening tradition has devastated rural ecology." On a larger scale, and closer to home, the conformance to a clean, spare, tidiness, is part of the esthetic drive that has caused well-intentioned landowners to continually beat back the brushy margins of their land, in extreme cases to reduce large parcels of rich diversity to a semi- parkland of white cedar and birch trees.

Says Stein: "When Marty and I bought our land, it was in just that stage of regrowth from pasture to forest that is among the most productive ecosystems on earth. It was covered with brambles. bushed, vines, and grasses that supported a large and varied animal population Our footsteps stirred up flights of grouse, grasshoppers that rose on rattling wings, and panicky rabbits. Frogs of assorted size and voice croaked loudly by the pond. A woodchuck family lived below a large boulder, a fox had its den nearby.

This was the sort of land that real estate agents, embarrassed by its unkempt appearance, describe as "having potential". Here, where the goldenrod smelled rank in late summer, could be lawn; there, beneath tangled vines, a rockery; the young and gawky woodland verge would be much improved by removing the undergrowth.

We did all this and more, We cleared brush and pulled vines and hauled rocks and broke ground and dug beds until, after years of high hopes and hard work, we had an expanse of landscaped grounds and gardens that seemed to us like Eden.

Then it hit. I realized the full extent of what we had done: we had banished the animals from this paradise of ours."

What does this all mean to us here in Leelanau County'? First, preservation of the best examples of our natural landscapes is a great start. The best functioning ecosyslcms can and should be preserved, and we have world-class examples of northern while cedar swamps, northern hardwood forest, mixed lowland Forest, and the wonderful, various, and absolutely unique dune communities of the Lake Michigan shoreline. Secondly, preservation must be informed by a deeper understanding of our goals and stewardship responsibilities. As both authors point out, we humans now control the keys to the ecosystem health, we must push the levers which nudge our landscape into a healthier state. Third, recognize the extent of damage to what looks, on the surface, to be the luscious pastoral landscape of northern Michigan. Witness the ubiquity of non-native invasive knapweed, which gives our fallow fields that intriguing lavender sheen in late summer. What has become of our native grasses, and our native wildflowers, which supported all manner of animal life adapted to this particular complex ecosystem? Finally, and most hopefully, we should be aware of the affirming nature of beginning restoration work locally. Restoration work involves all manner of satisfying work with the land, such as removing invasive or alien species, planting indigenous species, and restoring natural drainage and contours.

As Stein hopefully points out the "doing" can also change our "thinking" about land. "Let's imagine a goal: that at some time in the future, the value of property will be perceived in part according to its value to wildlife."

Copyright 1999 Manitou Publishing Co. & Brian Price / Leelanau Conservancy • All Rights Reserved.

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