Putting Nature Back Together Again

971 total words    

4 minutes of reading

Steve Apfelbaum. Nature’s Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm. Beacon Press, 2009, 242 pages. $25.95.

Headlines on the front page of a Wisconsin newspaper this week stated “Can nature be rebuilt?” It went on to say, once an area is no longer a pristine ecosystem, can you really put nature back together again? As I read this comment I was reminded of my brother, Carl Leopold, who was planning to restore a tropical rainforest in Costa Rica. A professor on the Madison campus said to Carl: “No way—you cannot restore a tropical rainforest!” Well, today, the birds are coming back, monkeys are returning to the restored tropical rainforest, and the professor, with a smile, is impressed.

“Can you really put nature back together again?” If anyone can restore a ruined landscape, it is someone with the brash charm and frenetic energy of Steve Apfelbaum! In his own community and in his academic life, he has revolutionized the art of rebuilding ecosystems.

What a pleasure it is to read Steve’s book and to learn how Steve and his partner, Susan, have found an exciting and spiritual connection through their love of the land. With restoration ecology as their tool, they are working to pull together the natural world and its human communities.

As I read Steve’s book, page by page and chapter by chapter, my thoughts kept returning to one of my favorite quotes from my father: he wrote, “There are two things that interest me—the relation of people to each other and the relation of people to land.” This book personifies these lovely and personal thoughts—Steve and Susan’s relation to each other and their relation to the land.

Survival of aboriginal people around the world has always depended on an intimate understanding of and respect for the land. Caring for the earth was caring for themselves.

Now, with the industrial revolution, our survival needs have been met in ways that do not require an intimate connection to the earth. We have become separated from nature, seasons, and the places we live, as our daily activities have moved indoors to schools, factories, offices, and television.

The physical world is no longer as real to us as the economic world—we succor the economy—our politicians gear every decision to speeding further growth. The earth has become abstract.

Wendell Berry writes that there is a real disconnection between economy and ecology, between human domesticity and the natural world. The two disciplines remain far apart and this lack of integration is a major factor in the downward spiral of global environmental health. As I read through Steve’s book, I realize that he is working in his own community and even around the world, to change this status quo. For Steve, restoration has become a science and a vehicle for understanding the inter-connectedness of the natural system.

One of the earliest attempts at land restoration was in 1934 at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. In Leopold’s dedication speech he presented the concept of an arboretum that would be a sample of original Wisconsin—what did Wisconsin look like before we took it away from the Indians? He envisioned the arboretum as “a starting point in the long and laborious job of building a permanent and mutually beneficial relationship between civilized men an civilized landscape.”

As the arboretum was being organized in the 1930s, the science of land health was yet to be born. There were no detailed plans, no experimental designs, or systematic treatments. What was accomplished rested upon first hand knowledge and insight and was marked by a personal and lifelong commitment to the task.

I have long wondered if my father’s involvement with land restoration at the arboretum did not instigate his buying land in the sand counties of central Wisconsin. The eighty acres he selected had been exploited in every way—the land had been planted to corn, then a little rye, and then came weeds and cockleburs.

He wrote, “On this sand farm in Wisconsin, first worn out and then abandoned by our bigger and better society, we try to re-build, with shovel and axe, what we are losing elsewhere.”

These acres and the old “shack” became a family enterprise, planting native species of prairie grasses and wildflowers, shrubs and trees. From April to October, year after year, scarcely a weekend went by that some one did not plant or transplant something. Since those years, the 1930s and 40s, land restoration has become a science. Steve and Susan have used this science to influence our society to understand and improve man’s relationship with the land. With their hands-on restoration over a period of years, they have transformed their eighty acres into a biologically diverse ecosystem of prairie, wetland, spring brook, and forest. But that was just the beginning.

In the flow of chapters in Steve’s book, the reader is caught up in a spirit of transformation—from worn out farmland to healthy, functioning ecosystems. Nature’s Second Chance offers unique insights into the biological world, into the process of ecological recovery, and how humans play a starring role in healing the planet by implementing Leopold’s land ethic one farm, one watershed, or one community at a time.

In his final chapter, Steve writes, “For nearly three decades at Stone Prairie Farm, I have redefined my relationship not only with the land, but to the land community. As global ecological systems deteriorate, all of us need ways to understand the larger context of our relationship to the earth.”

And so, Steve, in his book, offers a fresh, personal, and intimate perspective on the application of restoration science to human values, renewing a sustainable relation to place, community, and the natural world. He and Susan have reconstructed nature back into communities of life, forms that evolved together for thousands of years—and today have again achieved equilibrium.

  • Nina Leopold Bradley

    Nina Leopold Bradley was a researcher and naturalist. Among many significant accomplishments, her work was instrumental in the establishment of the internationally recognized Aldo Leopold Foundation, in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

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