As a professional ecologist and educator, I often think about the resurgence of nature in our local landscapes. Spending time in nature with the many mentors who have inspired and encouraged my involvement has always been the best learning experience in the world. Many patient hours have been spent in the field, developing detailed observation skills over many seasons. I’ve gained an invaluable education from knowledgeable ecologists such as June Keibler, Brad Semel, Bill Kleiman, and Stephen Packard who each have years of innovative field experience in ecological restoration. They have learned by trial and error to develop effective techniques for vegetation management that benefit wildlife habitat and promote whole ecosystem recovery, which is the lofty goal of ecological restoration. Other mentors in botany have taught me the local flora through many hours in the field comparing habitat and species composition in the various plant communities.
Other ways to learn might be a college degree, an internship, or simply volunteering in the nearby nature preserve… I have done all of the above and am still learning, that’s what makes science great fun! By applying science to restoration practices we can improve the adaptive management principles which are being developed in the region. These field applications are crucial to the steward looking for insights into the how’s, what’s, and when’s—and also the dos and don’ts of ecological restoration.
Why not blend as many of these ways of learning into one multimedia package to help reach local conservationists? The Morton Arboretum is doing just this by creating several newly developed classes that combine online, learn-at-your-own-pace digital modules and also the indispensable expert-in-the-field instructors who can identify plants and wildlife and lead discovery hikes combined with traditional classroom activities. This dynamic style of teaching allows widespread audiences to access interactive course materials from home computers or mobile devices.
A series of field study classes, honors program social media support, and year round, non-wage intern positions in several disciplines resulted when Pat Hayes, site steward from Orland Grassland, reached out to Dr. Sylvia Jenkins, President of Moraine Valley Community College and member of the Conservation and Policy Committee of the Next Century Conservation Plan Commission. The question raised was, “Is there a college partnership opportunity at Orland Grassland for students to participate in broad restoration activity for their learning enrichment and Orland Grassland’s restoration benefit?” After a series of meetings with school staff and other key stakeholders, the answer was a resounding, enthusiastic, “Yes!”
I used to be a happy camper when I was painting a Shooting Star in spring, but soon I realized that I could paint only one plant during that time, missing all others, because I only had limited time. After agonizing over the issue, I came up with a solution: just drawing and keeping color notes in blooming seasons, and finishing up the paintings in winter. How perfect with Chicago’s long winter! At this point, more than 70 finished and unfinished drawings are waiting for their turn. New ones are added whenever opportunities arise. Even exotic plants like Ginseng and Titan Arum have found their place in my flat file. Of course, I should paint Ginseng, an Asian cure-all, to honor my father who was an herbal medicine practitioner.
Nachusa Grasslands in Ogle County, Illinois is a sample of how extraordinary leadership by both volunteers and staff, restored a quality habitat unprecedented in ambition, scope, and diversity. Preserve Manager Bill Kleiman recalls, “When Nachusa first started out, the prairie remnants were dingy, brush filled, bisected by fences and fence row trees. Some of the prairies were so heavily grazed they looked like lawns with thorn bushes for cattle shade.” In 1986 the Nature Conservancy acquired 400 acres of small prairie remnants scattered among cornfields. In 2014, 25 years and 3,000 acres later, it is home to 700 native plant species, 180 species of birds — and now wild bison:
Wild Things 2015 Keynote: 0.01 Pat Hayes, introduction; 6:45 cook county board president Toni Preckwinkle, welcome; 16:45 Bill Kleiman, keynote speaker
Both volunteers and professionals remain crucial to this important and unpredictable drama.