“And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”–Rainer Maria Rilke
Who is conservation for? I’m turning this question over in my mind as I paddle Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin this weekend, with its 33,000 acres of cattail marsh and prairies. It’s Jeff and my 36th anniversary celebration; spent in one of the ways we love the best—immersed in the natural world.
As I paddle, I think about an upcoming lunch and discussion this week, scheduled after our prairie workday. My prairie volunteers and I will consider the question: “Conservation: What Does it Mean Today—and In the Future?” It’s a complex question, this dive into nature-centered and people-centered ways of caring for the Earth. We’ve been reading different articles and books in preparations for our conversation (full list at the end). Perhaps getting outside and paddling for the morning is the best place to clear my head and help me think through the questions and prepare. Perhaps getting outside is the only place to “live the questions.”
And what a place Horicon Marsh is to “get outside!” Everywhere I look are unusual birds, familiar dragonflies; a muskrat here, a fish leaping out of the water over there.
The success of Horicon Marsh is evident in the diversity of its birds. A least bittern flies over our kayaks. Marsh wrens frantically type staccato memos from deep within the cattails. Great white pelicans soar on thermals. Sandhill cranes pick their way through the muck.
One question for our prairie volunteers’ conservation discussion is this: Is diversity important for its own sake? It’s difficult to believe otherwise when immersed in it at the marsh. I am steeped in Aldo Leopold’s ethics: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” But I’ve learned through my reading that not everyone agrees.
The wind gusts make paddling a challenge. But there are rewards in the stretch of muscle, the pull of the kayak through the water, the sense of accomplishment you feel as you battle a headwind and make slow progress. More rewards: Overhead, a bald eagle’s nest looms, loosely constructed and precarious—so it seems anyway, to me, paddling underneath it. A young eagle perches nearby.
A thriving heron rookery is visible in the distance. Listen! The sounds of blue heron chicks and their parents punctuate the quiet.
On one side of my kayak, a teneral—newly emerged—damselfly is struggling in the water, barely hanging on to a curl of aquatic vegetation. I carefully pluck the damselfly out of the water and place it on my knee. Insect blood—hemolymph— pumps into its wings, which harden and grow strong.
The life of a damselfly is one fraught with peril, especially in this vulnerable teneral stage. In my kayak, it’s sheltered from the strong winds which have blown all morning, It rests and dries out in the sunshine.
Tinkering with Mother Nature? Well, yes– I guess I am. The damselfly rides along with me for a few miles, cleaning its face with its bristly legs as its body straightens and some of its coloration comes into focus. After an hour or so, with a flutter of wings, the damselfly lifts off. My kayak feels emptier without it.
I think again about my conservation questions as it disappears into the cattails. Does this damselfly have intrinsic value? Or is its value the moment of beauty it offers people like myself? Can we put a price tag on it as ecosystem services; perhaps as a mosquito-eating machine? What about these grasses, these wildflowers? Is there a dollar value we can put on them?
Who is conservation for? People are a part of the marsh, just as the cattails and chorus frogs and damselflies are. Today, we’re kayaking as part of a planned paddling event. Along this stretch of the water, there are opportunities to hear from DNR staff stationed in different boats along the cattails about the history of the marsh and its wildlife. It’s a chance to ask questions. A helpful way to understand what conservation means at this place directly from those who love and care for it.
As we paddle the waterways, others occasionally pass us, canoeing and pleasure boating. Country music blares from one colorful motorboat painted in full camouflage. A family with a dog and young kids are enjoying the trip so much they’ve pulled their canoe over to extend their time on the river. This portion of the refuge is also managed for hunting and fishing; the revenue pours dollars into conservation efforts. People and nature. Both are considered here, when decisions are made. Both coexist at the marsh.
Later, we stop by the Visitor Center where I hope to think more deeply about my conservation questions as I continue to learn about the marsh. Outside the Visitor Center front doors, I admire the prairie plantings. Curtains of white wild indigo.
Spiderwort, with its leaf ribbons and alienesque buds.
Meadow anemone, cupped toward the sunshine.
As a prairie steward, I and others like me invest hundreds of hours ensuring these plant species and others like them continue to survive and thrive on Midwestern tallgrass prairie restorations and remnants. We like to tinker; adding a plant here, removing invasive plants in other areas. We ask a lot of questions to try to understand the genius of a place, and how to keep it healthy.
I admire the common milkweed, complete with red milkweed beetle.
With a bit of luck, the beetle will be joined by monarch caterpillars, munching and growing on milkweed leaves; their increased numbers a reflection of the recent conservation mandate: “Plant milkweed!”
Monarch butterflies have the best press agents in the insect world. Once, we destroyed milkweed because we saw it as…well…a “weed.” Now we plant acres of it for conservation. We tinker. And perhaps —just perhaps—we’re seeing more monarchs because of it.
But sometimes we tinker with good intentions that may not actually help the very species we try and save. I’ve hand-raised a few monarch caterpillars to release in the wild to the joy of my grandkids, and so have many of my conservation friends and students. This week, an article in the Atlantic tells me that raising and releasing monarchs may interfere with monarch’s migratory instincts. Perhaps my best intentions are sometimes harmful to the very species—and places–I love.
How do we make decisions about conservation, knowing we’ll make mistakes? Perhaps all we can do is keep asking the questions. Take our best shots at caring for the world we love. Making peace with our errors. Growing through them.
Here at the marsh, tinkering with Mother Nature is part of what keeps it healthy. A trip through the Visitor Center’s “Exploratorium” gives me a chance to see the way water levels are managed at the marsh: increased or lowered during different seasons.
The success of these water management efforts are reflected in the rich numbers of plants, birds, insects, mammals and other wildlife.
It’s important work, this “tinkering with nature.” It’s also an ongoing dilemma, and sometimes, problematic. But what would the cost to us be if there were no sandhill cranes in the world, no heron rookery with its young chicks, no eagles nesting along this stretch of the wetlands? How do we balance the needs of people and the wildlife communities that inhabit these places? When is what we do not enough? When is what we do for conservation too much?
Who is conservation for? I ask myself again. Something to think about as we read, listen to each other’s ideas, trying to understand. We know the answers are important. For the health of our little corner of the world. For our children, and their children. For wildlife. But the answers aren’t always easy.
Conservation is for places like Horicon Marsh. It’s for the eagles nesting, brought back to larger numbers because Rachel Carson asked some questions 50 years ago. It’s for the little damselfly emerging from the water. It’s for the marsh wren singing in the cattails.
It’s also for the families cruising in their canoe with their kids and dog. For the guy blaring country music; for those who pull a bluegill out of the water and fry it up at home. It’s for the prairies with their vulnerable plants. It’s for the nature in my backyard, and the nature in your yard. For the urban park. For the milkweed and prairie plantings along the interstates; or the birds nesting on skyscrapers on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago.
There’s a lot I don’t know about how to balance people and nature. There’s much I don’t understand about the future of conservation. But this much I do know: Learning how to manage and protect the natural world is an ongoing conversation, with plenty of room for joy and error along the way. Let’s keep talking to each other, even when we disagree about the way to care for this beautiful place we call home. Let’s immerse ourselves in the natural world and listen to what it has to tell us, as well as listening to scientists and decision makers. Let’s make a point to get outside and be there, experiencing what we love, as well as talking about it. To know first-hand why the questions matter. To give voice to a natural community that otherwise has no voice. Keeping the conversation alive.
Because these questions—and how we answer them—will make all the difference. Let’s live the questions.
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was a German poet who is probably best known for this quote that kicks off the blogpost. It’s been used on everything from mugs to t-shirts; and as epigrams to blogposts like this one. The work of conservation is always one part science, one part art, one part mystery. Haven’t read Rilke? Try Letters to a Young Poet.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Horicon Marsh in Horicon, Wisconsin, and the surrounding area unless otherwise noted: view of Horicon Marsh; 12-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella); sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis); Visitor Center dragonfly and mosquito blocks; bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and nest; unknown damselfly; foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), Horicon Marsh region; waterway at Horicon Marsh; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba); spiderwort (Transcendia ohiensis); meadow anemone (Anemone canadensis); red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); monarch butterfly caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccafolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Exploratorium at the Horicon Marsh Visitor Center, Taylor Studios; blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis); possibly a pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos) on white clover (Trifolium repens); June wildflowers and grasses at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; kayaking at Horicon Marsh. Special thanks to Mary, Jeff, Paul, and Rachel for their hospitality, and for making our Horican paddling adventure a delight.
Conservation articles and book readings for the Tuesdays in the Tallgrass prairie lunch referenced in the article include: Who is Conservation For? —Paul Voosen; The Idea of a Garden–Michael Pollan; Rambunctious Garden–Emma Marris; The New Conservation–Michael Soule; The Trouble with Wilderness–William Cronon; Sand County Almanac–Aldo Leopold.
Cindy’s Speaking and Classes
Wednesday, June 26 —Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online —offered through The Morton Arboretum. This class can be taken at home or anywhere! 60 days to complete from start date. Details and registeration here.
Thursday, June 27: 2-4 p.m.–Dragonfly and Damselfly ID at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (closed class for staff).
Friday, June 28: 8-11:30 a.m.–Dragonfly and Damselfly ID at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.
Special Note: August 19-22–Certified Interpretive Guide training. Earn your CIG certificate as a naturalist or cultural history interpreter through this class! Meet other professionals from around the country. Limit 15. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Registration and Details here.
Discover more at http://www.cindycrosby.com