Restoring the Land - Restoring Ourselves
If you read the natural history writing about this area, or if you are have learned from others about the ecosystems that graced the bedrock here or if you can read the history of the land through the clues around you today- like noticing the prairie grass poking her head out on a steep slope or old oak trees with dead lower limbs along a fencerow- then you will have learned that this land was part of oak savanna, mature forest and many wetlands marbled in.
Today, in Michigan, a fraction of 1% of what was oak savanna still remains. Restoration works to change that.
We are attempting to flip the script of colonial ideals of seeing the earth as a place that is subservient to us, that she exists for us to use as we see fit- be that fencing domesticated animals to eat down all that is green, logging elder trees for profit, or tilling up the topsoil with all the diversity of seeds and habitats to make fields that we cultivate to produce our preferred diet. The work that the crew does here is an attempt to re-engage in a healthy relationship with the earth that is mutually beneficial.
The restoration began on this piece of land with a memory by some of the older people here. They remembered a landscape that had been open in their youth, when significant trees could be spotted on the horizon from a great distance. With the general philosophy of leaving the land to its own course post heavy grazing and agricultural use, the family that is still resident here first installed large plantings of red and white pine and spruce, then watched over decades as the land filled in with trees and shrubs.
At some point in the early 2000's the idea of taking a more active role in the healing of the land took root. Several fallow fields were planted with native warm season grasses and members of the family began to identify and remove the invasive shrubs that had since become the dominant species. The goals of clearing may have begun with making an enjoyable visual connection and being able to simply walk across the land, but soon it was learned that this work could also be in service of the land for the sake of the non-human neighbors that also called it home.
Work of investigating the natural cycles of ecosystems that were in place prior to the abrupt appropriation of this land from the Potawatomi began to create a picture of the oak savannas that had been in this area.
Prescribed fire was re-introduced to a landscape that had not experienced it since the early 1800's. Oak savanna is a fire dependent ecosystem that relies on flames to reduce numbers of fast growing clumps of trees to leave light and space for a plethora of wild flowers, fruits, berries and nuts.
A member of the family knew this history and had been prescribing fire to the grasslands to keep them open since the mid 1980's. This knowledge made its way into the understanding of the others working on restoration and has been an essential tool in our process.
People outside of the family heard of the land and came to do the work clearing invasives, burning, collecting native seeds to sow them in more damaged places and cutting trees to give light to oaks- we call this opening oaks.
The land is home to several species that are threatened to become rare or extinct. An essential role that the work crew sees themselves in is as protectors and nurturers of these places and species.
The work continues today and has no plans to cease- there is much work to do to heal the scars and restore a healthy and diverse ecosystem that can be home to creatures whose homes have been polluted and swallowed by sprawl.
At Open Grown school we want to share the skills and knowledge we have gained over our years restoring this land. We will offer workshops and classes seasonally to show the hands on techniques. Here is a rough description of the types of actions that we take on the job:
We change what restoration actions we take based on need and season. Spring time we do prescribed burns, pull invasive plants like garlic mustard and hedge parsley and have goats come to browse down the invasive shrubs. During summer the goats are still at work eating away, and we also control the growth of invasives with mowing and spraying. Fall comes and we get to the cutting of autumn-olive, honey suckle, asian bittersweet and other woody invasives. We also collect native flower and grass seed from the area and sow them on the land.
In winter we cut trees to open the canopy and give space to oak trees so that light may shine on all their branches and they can become or maintain being an open grown tree with a strong and healthy form.
When we talk about restoration we also mean restoring a healthy human presence on the land. We are attempting to give due respect to our non-human neighbors by getting to know them, and this starts with simply naming and observing them. The work crew keeps a species account of every bird, butterfly, mammal, forb, tree, shrub, vine, amphibian, fern, grass, sedge or rush that we can identify and when it is first sighted in the new year. This species account has been going and growing since 2012. Noticing is the first step but for many plants and creatures our relationship is further along. We eat many wild plants from the land, and are learning the different songs that a single bird makes, and we craft using materials from the land. All these actions deepen the connection of a person to a place and we want to share this way with others.
We are thankful to this land for hosting us and hope that we can learn to become valuable members of this wide community.
Written by Colleen Perria
photos on this page by Sarah Felder and Colleen Perria