Ordinary Land

Natural Land Is Ordinary land

Staying Up Past Bedtime to Watch Thunderstorms

I watched this storm approach for half an hour before it finally arrived.

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Sea Shanties, Nature Preserves, and the Difficulties of Getting Outside

I signed up for the Nature Conservancy’s April 9th geology hike at the contiguous Sally Brown, Crutcher, and Earl Wallace preserves led by University of Kentucky professor Marty Parrish a month ahead of time. I’d been looking for ways to get out of the city but I knew intuitively this commitment was the kind I needed to make well ahead of time. When it really came down to it would never want to get off the night shift at 6:00, go home to change clothes, and instead of going to bed get back in the car to drive two hours for a hike. And indeed, the closer the date came the less an afternoon hike seemed like an inviting opportunity to get out of Louisville for the first time in months and the more like a mission to be accomplished and filed away.

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Reading Jim Harrison on My 3rd Weekend in New York City

When I was 23, almost on a whim and after years of dreaming of working on a wilderness preserve, I accepted a teaching job in New York City. I packed up all my things from the small Minnesota town where I was still living after college and drove halfway across the country to a Brooklyn apartment I had never seen in a neighborhood I had never visited to live with two roommates I had never met. A few weeks after I got there, finding myself alone in the apartment one night with nothing to do I cracked open a book I’d picked up on a sale rack right before leaving Minnesota: The Beast God Forgot to Invent by Jim Harrison. The back cover had said it was a story about the “Michigan woods.” The front cover was a blurry drawing of an amorphous, furry, big animal. I was sold.

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Don’t Plant “A Tree.” Plant The Right Tree.

When I was in the third grade my class planted a tree on our school grounds for Arbor Day. Someone gave a speech about planting trees for future generations, we all threw some ceremonial dirt on the root ball, and I walked home from school naively convinced the world shared my desires to spread trees and the natural areas they represented far and wide. Suffice to say that vision hasn’t quite come to pass.

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Native Species Advocates Are Not Xenophobes: Comparing ecosystems to languages

Last year I read Where Do Camels Belong by Ken Thompson. It was an excellent book that caused me to reevaluate some of my assumptions about nature and the concept of “native” species. One suggestion in the book, however, did not sit well with me, that the elevation of native plants over nonnative ones is an expression of xenophobia. Recently the New York Times published the article “Invasive Species Aren’t Always Unwanted,” referencing Where Do Camels Belong and again suggesting the native plant movement is rooted in xenophobia.

It is true, natural areas can become politicized and the desire to conserve natural areas can fall prey to idealized frozen-in-time, good-old-days delusions that mimic the rhetoric of anti-immigrant racism. But instead of envisioning them as ethnicities, a better way to think about ecosystems and the species in them are as different languages and dialects. Like ecosystems, languages are in constant flux. They undergo change just by being spoken, they change organically as the people who speak them change, and they incorporate bits of other languages they overlap with. And languages, like unique ecosystems, are disappearing.

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A Dead Opossum and the Responsibility of Tending to Land

Land management can be messy work. My introduction to real land restoration was with Carleton College’s ongoing prairie and woodland restoration projects at its arboretum in southern Minnesota. My first day working at the arboretum my crew cut and cleared invasive buckthorn that had completely smothered the bottom story of a wooded area. We started in the morning with a nearly impenetrable wall of interlocking prickly branches and glossy green leaves. You could hardly see 10 feet let alone walk into the wooded area. The thick buckthorn canopy, thirty feet above, blocked off almost all light from reaching the bare woodland floor. A basic understanding of woodland ecology was enough to see this was not a high-functioning tree stand.

Carleton Arboretum buckthorn.

Buckthorn dominated forest understory. Picture by Myles Bakke. From the Carleton College Cowling Arboretum website.

To thoroughly remove the buckthorn we cut down the 30-foot buckthorn “bushes,” stacked their pieces into piles, and then ripped up their roots with a bobcat. At the end of the day with the chainsaws and the bobcat turned off we stood back to admire our hard day’s work: giant mounds of mangled, twisting branches, trees not yet chopped up listing on their sides, deep gouges ripped into the ground, half-submerged roots protruding from the dirt at crazy angles. Everywhere soil that hadn’t seen direct summer sun for perhaps decades was baking under piercing sunlight. As we all stood with our satisfied hands on our hips I thought of a certain angry kid from my high school who wore the same silly shirt every day; across the front it read: “chaos, panic, disorder: my work is done here.”

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Snowy Day Cardinal

If you live in the eastern United States cardinals are an everyday species. They are common, colorful in an easy to spot but not shocking kind of way, and aggressive enough to stand up to urban life without being a nuisance. They are to the back yard what fire hydrants are to neighborhood streets. It’s easy for them to become invisible. They had certainly become invisible for me until last year when I saw one in an entirely fresh light with the help of my very not-outdoors-oriented wife.

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Nature: A Dubious Concept I Use All the Time

Nature is a devil of a word. I’ve used the word for years but never found a definition that feels acceptable. Of course it does have a dictionary definition. According to Merriam Webster nature is, “the physical world and everything in it (such as plants, animals, mountains, oceans, stars, etc.) that is not made by people.” I hate this definition.

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Natural Land is Ordinary Land

In a story, to describe something as ordinary is to label it a thing of great potential. A seemingly ordinary thing that turns out to be more than meets the eye is often where journeys of personal growth and discovery begin. When we’re told a story we know that the old book isn’t really ordinary, nor the quiet woods, or the bored child. The undiscovered knowledge in these things will become gateways into new ways of seeing.

This is going to be a blog about natural land or, as I see it, ordinary land. Ordinary isn’t always a word I’d have used to describe nature. I’ve never been to an open expanse of natural land that I didn’t find wonderful. I’ve always felt most alive in the outdoors, and as a kid I saw wilderness as something truly sacred. It was hard to understand that others could treat it with anything but reverence.

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