Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Stewardship Positivity

The following post was written by Evan Barrientos, of our two Hubbard Fellows for this year.  Evan is a talented writer and photographer, and while you’ll get the chance to see some of his work here during the next year, I also encourage you to check out his personal blog.

Although I’ve been participating in land management since high school, I still find myself learning so much from it, although perhaps not in the way you’d expect. Yes, I’ve learned several management techniques and strategies since starting the fellowship, but the lessons I consider most valuable are the ones that teach me how to think about land stewardship. Let me explain.

If you were a Hubbard Fellow during the second week of June, you would probably find yourself riding an ATV back and forward across one of our restored prairies, searching for the fluffy purple flowers of Musk Thistle. Upon spotting a thistle, you would pluck off all the flowers, thrust your spade through the base of the thistle with a satisfying crunch, pull out the plant, and then knock the dirt off of any uprooted roots. Over the next three weeks you would repeat this process thousands of times until you had covered every inch of all 14 of our Platte River properties and their 4,000+ acres. Then you would check them all again.

We celebrated the end of thistle season by burning the flowerheads in a bonfire.
When we finally finished musk thistles we celebrated by burning the seed heads that we had collected in a bonfire.

This may sound like exhausting and repetitive work, and it can be, but that wasn’t the hard part for me. The hard part was staying positive when it felt like I wasn’t doing enough. I felt this way when I returned to a prairie for its second thistle check and found piles of thistle seed below “zombie thistles” (thistles that flowered and produced seed after I chopped them because I left too much dirt on the roots). Or when I walked through a prairie that I had already checked twice and still found thistle stalks that had already released their seed to the prairie. Most of all, deciding to spend July 2nd chopping thistles before they released more seed instead of spending time with my family forced me to think hard about my role as a land steward.

As a land steward you develop a strong connection to the land you are working on. Seeing a healthy community of native species flourish on your property is extremely gratifying, but it also pains you to see invasive species spreading. Land stewards almost always have more tasks than they can complete and it’s very easy to let this make them feel overwhelmed and stressed, but it doesn’t have to be this way. After reflecting upon the first month of my fellowship, here are three lessons I’ve learned so far about being a happy steward:

  1. I cannot control nature. I am a steward, not a god. Expecting myself to control exactly which species grow on a property will only bring me frustration. The role of a land steward is not to dominate the forces of nature, but to regulate its extremes. Translation: my job isn’t to exterminate musk thistles, but to prevent them from outcompeting other species and lowering overall biodiversity.
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A Regal Fritilary (Speyeria idalia) on Musk Thistle (Carduus nutans). Like it or not, Musk Thistles have become part of the local ecosystem. Being a steward doesn’t mean exterminating thistles, but keeping them under control.
  1. There is no endpoint. A land steward’s work is never “done.” My job isn’t to “fix” a property; it’s to guide the property toward a range of conditions that meet our management goals. Removing thistles from the same property year after year does not mean that we are failing at our job of “restoring” the prairie. On the contrary, it means we are doing our job of actively fostering biodiversity.
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Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is non-native, but also non-invasive. We don’t remove it because it doesn’t lower plant diversity.
  1. Stewardship should be viewed as a positive action, not negative. There are two very different ways to look at land management. From one angle, a day spent chopping thistles could be considered a violent battle against an evil enemy; a task to evict an unworthy invader. From another angle, it could be considered a process of creating beautiful and biodiverse prairies. In my experience, viewing invasives as enemies just leads to exhaustion and bitterness. Only by viewing stewardship as a process of care and creation, in my opinion, can one generate the tremendous amount of energy needed to take on its many tasks.
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Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in the Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Land stewardship is an essential component of conservation and it’s imperative that we do it well. Unfortunately, it also is a very demanding job that can burn you out if you’re not careful. I’m happy to say that the first month of this fellowship taught me some very important lessons about setting realistic expectations and viewing my work as a positive contribution to prairie biodiversity. It’s important to be a happy steward!

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Weed Whacking with Konstantin

Guest Post by Anne Stine, one of our 2013-14 Hubbard Fellows:

When one considers that the weed-whacker is the modern incarnation of the scythe, Konstantin Levin’s ecstatic enlightenment while cutting wheat with his peasant tenants in Anna Karenina comes across as a little ridiculous.  It is easy to imagine him, a ruddy-faced and awkward aristocrat, smiling beatifically in the center of a line of serious men going about the business of mowing.

Instead of a wheat field in Russia, this is my work site.
Instead of a wheat field in Russia, this is my work site.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Scythes and weed-whackers use the same efficient, swaying pivot through the body. Back and forth, back and forth, the returning stroke hitting the grass missed in the initial swing.  Such work does provide the opportunity for quiet thoughts.  Unlike Levin, however, I did not achieve enlightenment while weed whacking the grass beneath the 14-gauge wire of an electric fence.  Drifting into the repeating beat of the movement, my mind rippled towards the remarkably competent field technicians I have known.

I have been continuously impressed by the manual aptitude of the technicians I have worked with in my academic career.  If something broke, rather than sitting completely stumped, they had the know-how to wire it together and make it work. I hope to gain a measure of this generalized comfort with mechanical workings during my tenure as a Hubbard Fellow.  I’ve already learned to drive an ATV, a tractor, and a riding mower; and to operate weed-wackers and backpack sprayers.  I’ve set electric fence and helped cut free a calf tangled in wire.  I want to write all of my physically competent colleagues and say “See! I’m learning.”

Similar to on a farm, the summer season in our pastures is the busiest time of year.  We’ve spent most of our hours so far as plant executioners- mowing, spraying, and spading invasives, aggressive natives, and other plants growing where we don’t want them to.  The major difference is that our primary product is a restored and healthy prairie rather than cattle or corn.

Thistle chasing has been our primary objective.  The musk thistle is classified as a noxious weed—this means that we are legally obliged to assist in its eradication.  The musk thistle can grow to be well over a meter high, with multiple fuchsia flower heads.  Their leaves are edged in sharp thorns but no hair, and the undersides of their leaves are green rather than white like the native thistles.  Originating in Europe, it gets its name from the supposedly odiferous roots and vegetation.  We attack them with herbicides and spades.  They are prolific seeders.  Sometimes killing musk thistles can feel like a Quixotic quest, like we are fighting the tide with a bucket.

The enemy (with a grasshopper sparrow sitting on it).
The enemy (with a grasshopper sparrow sitting on it).

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My weapon of choice.
My weapon of choice.

Killing plants and fixing fences is a full time job in the summer growing season.   I have already gained an appreciation for the broad-based knowledge necessary to maintain a working pasture.  I hope to continue to develop my applied skill-set, and I will keep saying to the world: “See! I’m learning.”