The Fourth Wave: Conservation in the Time of the Great Remembering

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At the Openlands 2017 Annual Luncheon, Ed Collins, Director of Land Preservation and Natural Resources at the McHenry County Conservation District, delivered the keynote address on the challenges and opportunities facing conservation in the present day. The Fourth Wave of Conservation in the Time of the Great Remembering urges us to embrace our role as communal architects of the conservation movement and to “learn to speak the facts of science in the words of the poet. For what is spoken by the heart, is heard by the heart, and the heart drives the fourth wave.”

Founded in 1963, Openlands is one of the nation’s oldest and most successful metropolitan conservation organizations, having helped secure, protect, and provide public access to more than 55,000 acres of land for parks, forest preserves, wildlife refuges, land and water greenway corridors, and urban gardens in northeastern Illinois, northwestern Indiana, and southeastern Wisconsin. The Openlands Annual Luncheon is consistently the largest gathering of the Chicago conservation community, with nearly nine hundred volunteers, supporters, elected officials, and representatives of the area’s conservation organizations in attendance. Mr. Collins’s address is an insightful, powerful, and inspiring call to action in support of the places we love, the nature we cherish, and the planet we call home.

I have worked for the McHenry County Conservation District for nearly thirty-one years, which is quite a stretch of time at one spot. I have been there so long that many people assume I have always lived in McHenry County or at the very least that I grew up in a rural landscape. The truth is I am a city kid. I grew up in Humboldt Park. A Humboldt Park of mostly working class families and at the very end of an era when people still slept in the park at night during the summer because no one owned an air conditioner.

If you asked ten-year-old Ed Collins what he envisioned as his future, he would have answered unequivocally major league baseball player. Nature boiled down to two things: enough snow to close down school and enough rain to be stuck inside of the house all day. That all changed one summer when city forestry crews arrived on our block to cut down the enormous, dying elm trees that lined most of the streets in my neighborhood. Planted in the teens and twenties, they created a dense canopy over the street, the branches on one side of the avenue touching the branches on the other. The disease swept through the city with such speed that the chipping crews were weeks behind the cutting crews. The massive trunks and piles of branches sat for months on our street.

One morning I noticed the little brown birds that hung around the neighborhood sitting in the cut branches we had built into a stick fort. Armed with all the curiosity that ten-year-old boys possess I watched the birds fly in and out of that branch pile. What would they use after the branches were gone? If they would live in a stick fort, would they live in something built just for them?

I spent that Sunday morning dragging the branches one by one to our backyard, carefully arranging them in a manner I thought would be appealing to a bird. Then I waited all afternoon for the birds to find it. Nothing happened. I went to bed thinking the whole adventure had been a waste of valuable baseball time.

The next morning, I glanced out the back door and the brush pile was alive with birds. Not only the little brown ones, but also a red one and a blue one as well, birds I had never seen before or even knew existed.

In retrospect, I think something in my head clicked on that morning. I became aware that this thing called nature existed and you could make life better for the things that lived in nature. Whether dechannelizing Nippersink Creek, helping to create the area’s first national wildlife refuge or compiling the first comprehensive oak mapping in the region, I suppose I have been building brush piles of some sort or another ever since.

I share that story for a couple of reasons. The first is that the work of organizations like Openlands (openlands.org) and the Chicago Regional Trees Initiative (chicagorti.org) are critical. The opportunities they provide people to connect to local nature are catalysts for seeing the natural world in a different way and it only takes only one small experience to change the entire direction of a life, just as mine did that morning so long ago. The other reason is that taking a good hard look at where you have been can shape the planning for where you want to go and how you plan to get there.

So in our time together today, I would like to tell you a story about this idea called conservation and why I believe this moment in history is not the worst of times for conservation, but the best of times for those who care about a future lived in close communion with the natural world.


It is early August and a morning has arrived anticipated for since May. In what was once a litter filled lot life is growing in rambunctious riot. Here among the cucumbers and beans, the first tomato of the season has turned from green to red. The garden will produce bushels of tomatoes over the next few months but none will be as delicious as this first one.

Spring brings perfect conditions for a prescribed fire in a bur oak savanna. To the land manager fire is a cleansing agent burning away the accumulated tarnish of buckthorn and honeysuckle. Through the smoke, the land manager glimpses a different past hidden beneath the discoloration. She sees the ghost of an Illinois lost in the mists of time, and she is determined that her grandchildren and great grandchildren will see it too.

On a crisp autumn day, across the region, Chicagoans have turned out for Oaktober events in parks, neighborhoods and preserves throughout the six counties. Planting a young oak is the ultimate act of hope and belief in the future, and you are never too old to believe in the future. The planters come from all walks of life and all circumstances. In another time, in another place, they would have been the tree whisperers, the other-world walkers, the shamans, journeying through the sacred tree from root to crown across the other worlds. Today they are the promise planters.

On the surface, each of these activities seem like very different types of relationships between individuals and the land. In truth, each is joined by the common thread of an American Conservation legacy stretching backwards in time arriving in distinct waves over the decades, each building on the ones that have come before. Regardless of where you fall on the conservation continuum, you share this same history.

The First Wave

As the western line of settlement started to contract in the mid-nineteenth century, the nation’s view of wilderness and nature began to change. The first wave of modern conservation, The Transcendentalist Movement, appeared as the last great push westward began. The Transcendentalists believed Divinity existed in all things, but especially in nature. For them the natural world was the great cathedral in which to find one’s connection to a higher power and nature deserved protection simply as the handiwork of the creator. They are the great-great-great grandparents of modern conservation and are in one sense, the original founders of Openlands, the Morton Arboretum, and hundreds of other conservation organizations.

The Second Wave

The 1890 census was the first in history no longer using the word frontier as a place of residence. Americans came to a grim realization that moving west over the next hill when land wore out was no longer an option, for over the next hill lay the Pacific Ocean. The closing of the frontier transformed Transcendentalist thought to include new ideas that defined the word conservation for the first time. Gifford Pinchot established modern forestry and Theodore Roosevelt made conservation a priority creating five national parks eighteen national monuments, 150 national forests and establishing the national wildlife refuge system and he never once apologized for one of these actions.

The Third Wave

Modern Environmentalism was born in the great depression. The devastation of the Dust Bowl forced the country to confront the misuse of land and to realize that poor stewardship of natural resources inevitably brought catastrophic social and economic problems in its wake. From the formation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, to the birth of the duck stamp, to the endangered species act, environmentalism has built on the foundation laid down by earlier ideas of conservation.

It is during this wave that the Welfare Council of Metropolitan Chicago decided that an organization dedicated to furthering conservation in the region was needed. Openlands was born, taking on as one of its first projects the designation of the Indiana Dunes as a National Lakeshore.

And the first glimpse of a small blue planet from the surface of the moon solidified the fundamental truth that all of humanity shares one world and that world’s ecosystems and human cultures are inexorably intertwined with one another.

The Fourth Wave

We have come now to a rare and defining moment of grace in the first decades of the new century poised on a fourth wave of conservation. This fourth wave is as yet unnamed, but in the ensuing decades perhaps it may come to be called the time of the Great Remembering, for as a culture we are awakening from the Long Forgetting, learning again that we are part of and not apart from the natural world.

Like those before it, the fourth wave welds together the lessons a century and a half of conservation has taught. But it is driven by new technologies, powered by unlikely new alliances and rooted in transformative spiritual revelations about the evolution of life and self-reflective awareness on our home world of Earth.

Technology, the first of these drivers includes GIS and the coming of age of the science of ecological restoration. Together they have spawned a revolution in how we understand land.

We celebrate trees today. Consider the ability a single application of these new technologies to fundamentally and permanently, alter our understanding of oak dominated ecosystems in the Chicago Region.

It is 2003. Using new GIS programs, the McHenry County Conservation District decides to answer a long-nagging question—what is the state of remaining oak ecosystems in the County? Digitizing the information to answer those questions was labor intensive and untried. The resources available had never been used in the manner we were attempting to use them. Initially the 1837 public land survey notes needed to be correlated with the USDA soil layer to create an accurate picture of oak distribution prior to settlement. That in turn required overlaying digitized 1872 maps from the McHenry County Atlas to identify late nineteenth century timber boundaries. These layers required vetting with the 1939 and 2005 aerial photography for the entire county. Almost two years of labor went into the project. The results were stunning. Only 13 percent of the county’s original oak woodlands remained. Not only had the overall loss of oak systems been astonishing, but also what remained was highly fragmented. Of the three thousand oak groves mapped, only 157 were twenty-five acres or larger. Just eight topped one hundred 100 acres in size.

One county’s efforts led to the mapping of an additional eighteen northern Illinois counties and several in Wisconsin by multiple partners and spearheaded by the Morton Arboretum with similar results. The findings became the impetus for development of an oak ecosystem recovery plan for the entire region. Today by the Morton Arboretum and eleven partners seeks to continue the work in forty additional Illinois counties.

As the fourth wave expands, traditional conservation constituencies such as hunters and anglers, birders and hikers have been joined by agriculture, private landowners, green builders, organic farmers, alternative healers, health professionals, social justice advocates, and even a branch of psychologists who work with what has been defined as eco psychology. Our culture is coming to terms with the fact that conservation needs to be the guiding principle by which all future decisions are determined. We have begun to consider the impact of those decisions on not the next seven generations but on the next seventy.

Finally, the fourth wave asks us to accept that the preservation of ancient ecological systems is at its root not an engineering question that can be solved with permeable pavers and naturalized detention; it is an ethical question and a question of what is sacred and how far do the rights of rocks extend.

More profoundly, it is a question of accepting that land is a self-aware, sentient entity and the ground sings when it is healthy and it weeps when it is injured. To know land’s joy is to celebrate in the miracle of falling rain, and thrill to cranes as they pass overhead trekking northward in the bright March sunlight. To know land’s pain, and to overlook the atrocities inflicted upon it in the name of expediency is to ignore the very hemorrhaging of life itself.

The fourth wave calls on us to embrace that the reason we support the work of conservation goes far beyond science. In fact, we do this work because the entire cosmos is scripture, and the truly wise culture kneels at the feet of all creatures. It is as simple, as straightforward, and as elegant as that.

So what future does the fourth wave hold? I would ask you to acknowledge in your mind if any of the next few sentences identify you. Are you under fifty? Are you in a lifelong love affair with nature? Do you speak a second or third language? Are you a woman? Are you part of a group that has not traditionally been under the conservation tent? Do you see nature and society differently than most of your peers? Do you feel the land in your bones? Do you dream of a world not yet born?

If you answered yes to any of those questions then you are the fourth wave. You are called to embrace the role of architects for the bricks and mortar of a new conservation for the next half century.

In every generation of conservationists there comes a defining moment; a place of decision; as Robert Frost said, that spot where two roads diverge and you are asked to have the courage to take the one less travelled.

In doing so, I would pass on a single lesson that I have found useful: Learn to speak the facts of science in the words of the poet, for what is spoken by the heart is heard by the heart, and heart drives the fourth wave.

I would close by sharing two stories, separated by a century and a half.

In the summer of 1871 a government exploration party, entered a mysterious landscape of boiling mud pots, geysers and waterfalls. Returning east, they suggested that the region be set aside so that future generations of Americans might behold the same wonders, petitioning President Grant to consider the first ever “people’s park.” On March 1, 1872, Grant signed the historic bill creating Yellowstone, the world’s first national park. An editorial published just prior to the vote and reflecting the perspective of many at the time:

This preposterous idea of a “people’s Park” has been promulgated by short-sighted men who refuse to acknowledge that the strength of the nation is in the use of those natural riches bestowed upon it by a gentle and caring providence. Better to open the region of the Yellowstone to settlement by those industrious individuals who shall convert its timber, soil and mineral wealth into a prosperous and settled portion of the country.

Consider for a moment the outcome if a few committed individuals had not had the courage to see the people’s park through to completion. No Yellowstone, no Yosemite, no state park movement, no forest preserves or conservation districts. Perhaps not even a Burnham Plan.

In 2004, sharing a glass of what is known in the conservation business as “dream oil” with a friend in the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, I asked what it would take to bring a national wildlife refuge to McHenry County. He pulled no punches. A new refuge needs the biological rationale, but would also require an incredible and dedicated grassroots organization, and would take years for even consideration by the Department of the Interior.

A few months later, a small group of individuals formed the Friends of Hackmatack and set off on a journey that would last eight years. Literally, from the first month, Openlands was a steadfast companion on that journey providing staff support, grant writing capacity, political wherewithal and perhaps most importantly constant encouragement.

There were bumps in the road. At times, the entire idea seemed so implausible as to border on the ridiculous. But no one quit. No one quit because conservation is one of the most powerful and positive ideas we possess as a people.

In August of 2012 Senator Dick Durbin, one of conservation’s most genuine and consistent friends, and Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar journeyed to Glacial Park to officially authorize Hackmatack as the 561st National Wildlife Refuge. As with all things ever accomplished in conservation, Hackmatack passed through the same three stages: First, the idea was impossible, then it was too difficult, and finally it was done.

Today conservation is under attack, assailed at the local, state and federal level as a luxury that we can no longer afford. It is no wonder that many people with a deep and abiding connection to land tell me they are on news blackouts. I can certainly understand such a perspective. The times try our souls. . .and how could they not for the souls of many in this room live interwoven deeply with the land itself.

But remember that not only a new wave of conservation is being born, but an antiquated set of ideas is passing away at the same time. New research in neural science tells us that old ideas die hard and that the brain neurons controlling such perspectives are the most active, the most animated in the last moments before they collapse. They fire frantically in what is called an extinction burst trying to get the brain to re-engage with those ideas.

We are watching outdated ideas about our relationship to the land and to each other locked deep in an intense extinction burst.

Every individual action counts. Be it involvement as a volunteer, a donor or simply stepping up to speak your mind though your voice shakes, such actions push the extinction burst forward. Every inaction, every miasmic thought, every personal retreat reinforces these dying ideas to hold on just a little longer.

In the end, regardless of the power they seem to hold at the moment, these old ideas are simply on the wrong side of history. The world is changing and our species is growing out of our adolescence.

The commitment to individual action is the promise that conservation asks of us from the moment the natural world first allows us inside to see with deeper clarity. The first time we harvest a tomato from a city garden, the first time we plant a tree in what was once a vacant lot, the first time we build a brush pile and find it full of birds the next morning. Giving voice to the land is the trade we make for the days we spend in the embrace of the wild.

I have no doubt tough fights lie ahead. But we are the most blessed when faced with those seemingly impossible battles that so often mark the conservation movement. They are the gifts, possessing enormous power to change our relationship with land and with each other in a truly fundamental way. The intensity of those struggles erases old paradigms and replaces them with a new reality about what is possible.

Emerson once noted that what lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us. The Great Remembering asks every man to find the Roosevelt within and every woman the Rachel Carson.

May each of you find yours.

To watch a video of Ed Collins’ keynote address at the 2017 Openlands 2017 Annual Luncheon visit: openlands.org/support/the-openlands-annual-luncheon/the-openlands-2017-annual-luncheon/

  • Edward Collins

    Edward Collins is Director of Land Preservation and Natural Resources of the McHenry County Conservation District in Woodstock, IL. Ed’s career spans thirty-one years with the McHenry County Conservation District where he currently serves as the Director of Land Preservation and Natural Resources, administering restoration and land preservation efforts on 25,000 acres of open space.

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