Friday, October 31, 2014

Fundamentals of Conservation, Part 2 Serving with Creation – Article #2: Knowing the Land

Regardless of the acreage, land conservation or stewardship assumes new meaning when a person is reconciled to God from the curse of the fall through faith in Christ.  Then, as a redeemed child of God, he or she finds true identity as a steward, serving at the behest of the Creator and Owner of creation (Part I, Article #1 April).  As growth in grace establishes an intimate walk with the Creator, the steward acquires a disposition of reverence toward God not unlike that of a child full of awe and wonder at creation.  He or she is motivated to learn more about the workings of creation, and is more receptive to the notion of conservation (from con-service = “serving with”) (See Part I, Article #2 May).  The quality of stewardship is further enhanced as one learns what is pleasing to his or her Creator (2 Corinthians 5: 9) and thus fulfills the role as God’s representatives (vice-regents) on Earth (See Part I, Article #3 June).   In summary, reconciliation and an intimate relationship with God leads to right values which in turn stirs a joyful passion that motivates a conservationist to “serve creation” by serving with God.  

In Part 2, entitled “Serving With Creation,” I emphasized that intimacy with God gives us a disposition that submits to both God’s natural revelation (in creation) and to His special revelation (in Scripture) so that we can learn from creation and conserve it for God’s glory.  I call this “serving with creation.”  

Part 2 begins (See Article #1 September) with an emphasis on knowing the history of the place we wish to conserve.  Just as acquaintance with a person must include a knowledge of his or her origin, family history, and future plans, so conservation of a particular place on planet Earth must consider the geologic and climatic history of the place in question, the present dynamics at work within it, and the most probable future trajectory for this particular place.  Allow me to apply this principle in a more practical way in the following paragraphs where I will share from my personal experience.  In Part II, Article #3, I plan to describe my recent land stewardship efforts.

With Jesse and my parents, Bert and Esther Silvius
Background: Dad's grafted apple trees & grandpa's bee hives
Having grown up on a farm, I learned how to care for livestock, operate farm implements, and grow crops.  My Grandpa, Jesse Silvius, and my father, Bert Silvius, were both men who recognized the importance of caring for the land.  Working alongside my grandpa as he ordered tree seedlings of Black Locust and Catalpa, and then planted them on strip mine spoil was a practical lesson in the importance of land restoration (or reclamation as we called it).   My grandpa along with my father and my two uncles were instrumental in implementing a contour farming approach to promote soil and water conservation on our hilly SE Ohio farm.   As I grew to appreciate the importance of these techniques, I also began to understand the importance of developing a sense of place and to use that concept to pursue the right management strategy to fit each place.

When I moved from the farm, married, began classroom teaching, and started raising a family, my farming interests shifted into gardening.  Maintaining a large garden became a useful a useful means to instill a work ethic into their lives.  It was a blessing for our family to share the satisfaction of fresh vegetables for our table in the summer, a store of food for the winter months, and the opportunity to share of our bounty with others.

Since the 1990, my love of gardening has taken a turn to what some call the “wild side of gardening.”  Now that our children have their own homes, instead of mulching and cultivating garden plots, I’ve found joy and satisfaction in exploring and managing “wild places”—also called “natural areas.”  During my tenure as professor of biology at Cedarville University, I was privileged to introduce my botany and ecology students to remnant prairie communities that survived along the railway leading from Columbus through Cedarville to Cincinnati.  I had first become aware of these prairie remnants in the late 1960's when Dr. Charles C. King, my Malone College biology professor at the time, spoke of them.  [More about "Charlie King" in a future article.]

Remnant prairie communities are just that—“remnants” of an extensive mosaic of prairie grassland communities surrounded by a matrix of forest communities throughout what is now central and SW Ohio (See Part II, Article #1 September).  As Ohio forests were cleared for agriculture and urban development in the 18th and 19th centuries, wet and dry prairie communities were converted into cropland.  By the 20th century, the last refuges of prairie in Ohio were cemeteries and railways which had escaped the plow and bulldozer.

As we have noted, the settlement of the landscape of W-SW Ohio within the past two centuries has greatly altered it in all but isolated areas, mostly along railways, now bikeways.  Agricultural cropping would have eliminated its uniqueness as had been accomplished in the thousands of acres of surrounding farmland.  While the railroad right-of-way was still busy carrying trains, these prairie wildflowers were seldom even seen by humans unless they were visible from a railroad crossing or visible to those who hiked or farmed along the tracks.

"Sabbath Rest" between active railway era & Prairie Grass Trail
With the departure of the railroad era in the 1980’s, several decades of “Sabbath rest” began along the abandoned rails and the crushed limestone that supported the road bed.  During the railroad era, sparks and hot ash would frequently ignite dry, dead wildflower stems and oil-containing grasses causing a flaming furry that would often kill shrubs and trees by boiling their sap and killing cells.  Fire damage and the occasional clearing of woody plants by railroaders served to maintain an open treeless community where prairie wildflowers and grasses could thrive.  The shallow soil and stony railroad grade added to the environmental rigor that tended to exclude all but the hardiest plant species—those which had invaded what is now Ohio from the Great Plains during a hypothetical dry period after the Ice Age.

That such a narrow slice of landscape could have provided such a suitable refuge for prairie plant species that are used to populating the expanse of the Great Plains is a humbling fact to land stewards who now wonder how to manage these prairie remnants.  That’s right.  We now know that, in the absence of an active railway, conditions that had suppressed woody plants but had enhanced the prairie wildflowers were no longer operating.  Unless someone takes the responsibility to sustain these remnant communities they will gradually lose their unique species.  This notion brings us to our second lesson from the slender slice of the Ohio landscape.

If it is true that the beauty and botanical uniqueness of the Prairie Grass Path came about without the deliberate planning of land stewards, then sustaining its current existence will require that we humbly learn the “secrets” of a once active railroad right-of-way. “Secrets” of a railroad that was just “being a railroad” while it was being managed by railroaders “just being railroaders” and not promoters of prairie plants. Herein lies what I believe is a core principle for the management of remnant communities; namely, one must understand the environmental and biotic factors that shape a biotic community, and then go to the drawing board to decide how best to promote these conditions.  In Article #3 of Part II, “Serving with Creation,” I will more explain more specifically some of the progress we are making in remnant prairie management along the Prairie Grass Trail.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Fundamentals of Conservation, Part 2 "Serving with" Creation – Article #1: History is Important

As we walk the path of life, we each discern meaning, purpose, and priorities from an understanding of our origin, family history, and eternal destination.  Within this broader framework, those of us who want to practice conservation within our particular place on planet Earth should consider the geologic and climatic history of the place in question, the present dynamics at work within it, and the most probable trajectory for the place in the the future. 

In three previous Oikonomia articles on “Fundamentals of Conservation” in April, May, and June, respectively, under Part 1 “
Serving With
Our Creator,”  I emphasized the principle that intimacy with God gives a conservationist the basis for rightly valuing God’s creation.  Right values in turn stir a joyful passion that motivates a conservationist to “serve creation” by serving with God.   Now, in Part 2, entitled “Serving With Creation” I want to emphasize that intimacy with God gives us a disposition that submits to God’s natural revelation (as perceived in creation) and to His special revelation (as perceived in Scripture) so that we can learn from creation and conserve it for God’s glory.  I call this "serving with" creation.   It begins with an emphasis on learning the history of the place we wish to conserve.

The man in tattered clothes trudged tiredly over the crushed limestone that stretched out before him along the railway as far as he could see.  While making his way from Xenia eastward to Columbus that afternoon, he had napped in the shade of an old depot bearing the name “Cedarville.”  Now at dusk, the homeless man wearily followed the rails onward past the South Charleston station.  For miles, the railway had run alongside U.S. Highway 42.  Now, in the quiet darkness, he trudged with laboring steps as the railway bordered fields of corn, soybeans, and an occasional pasture.   As weariness began to overtake our wanderer, he aimed his steps from the sharp limestone to a nearby Bur Oak tree.  After pressing a worn, cloth bag containing his only possessions against the base of the oak to pillow his head, he reclined wearily and fell into a deep sleep.

The morning awakened the man with a gentle, periodic whirring sound.  He opened his eyes to see two Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds hovering near a cluster of beautiful red flowers. Unbeknown to our homeless friend, Royal Catchfly is only one of several unique wildflower species once common in large treeless areas of western and southwest Ohio.   As the sun rose higher in the sky, he made his way toward London, OH, at the time a bustling center of livestock auctions.  Along the way, he observed other colorful wildflowers with now-familiar names such as Ohio Spiderwort, Culver’s Root, Prairie Coneflower, and Prairie Dock; and grasses now known as Big Bluestem, Switchgrass, and Indian Grass.

The "Prairie Peninsula" resulting from the Post-Glacial
dry period which caused eastward migration of prairie.
That our homeless wanderer should happen to walk through these historic prairie communities was about as unplanned as the amazing events that produced them in the first place.  Instead of being the result of a deliberate, horticultural or landscaping plan, the historic prairie areas in the Midwest owe their existence to unplanned climatic and economic factors.  These factors are traced back to a post-glacial dry period during which the Great Plains prairie had extended eastward into the Midwest.  As the prairie marched eastward, it occupied landscapes too dry or too wet for forest communities.  Meanwhile, the deciduous forest retreated even further eastward into the Allegheny Plateau.

As centuries passed, the dry post-glacial climate gradually changed to one that provided adequate rainfall to support the westward return of forests to the Midwest.  However, the forest was unable to completely colonize some of the unsuitable sites.  Many of these sites retained the Great Plains plant community and were sometimes interspersed with woody species like Bur Oak, Hazelnut, and Sumac in drier sites; and, with sedges and rushes in wetter sites.  Early settlers of SW Ohio referred to these grassy, treeless areas with names like the Madison Plains, Darby Plains, and Selma Plains.

With the colonization and westward movement of American settlement, the second unplanned cause of the historic prairie remnants commenced.  The 19th century saw the construction of railroads across the Midwest, and the grassy areas were handily traversed without the extra labor of felling trees.  However, grassy areas of the “wet prairie” type often presented the construction crews with the challenge of providing extra “fill dirt” and proper drainage.    Farmers were able to cut the thick, prairie sod using the moldboard plow newly invented by John Deere.  As a result, they converted most of the remnant prairies of the Midwest into crop fields.  Sadly, the diverse prairie flora was eliminated from all but the unplowed areas, mainly railroad right-of-ways and cemeteries.
Aside from our homeless, railway wanderer, adventurous boys, and the railroad workers, few people over many years would have observed the unique, historic, prairie wildflowers and grasses along this lonely stretch of railway.  Yet surprisingly, it was the railroad workers who unintentionally participated in sustaining the historic prairie remnants along the railways of western and SW Ohio.  During hot summer days, passing railroad workers or passengers would commonly toss cigarettes and cigars into the dry rail-side vegetation.  Often the dry vegetation and organic litter would burst into flames resulting in extensive wildfires along the railroad.  Periodic fires over the years favored the prairie herbs and grasses at the expense of most woody plants, except for species like Bur Oak with its thick, fire-resistant bark.

Approximate locations of historic prairie (colored) each
surrounded almost entirely by forest.
Today, remnant prairie wildflowers add glorious color to the Prairie Grass Trail bikeway that now occupies the old Columbus-Cincinnati railway along which our homeless man once trudged.  The Rails to Trails Program provides hundreds of miles of bike trails, many of which bring bicyclists and hikers into contact with the rich flora of prairie remnants once viewed by only a few people.  However, we should note that the attractive prairie wildflowers along the trail will not survive without deliberate attempts to manage these plant communities.  How can these prairie wildflowers be preserved?  The answer rests on two important considerations.

The first consideration can be understood if you enjoy the thrill of visiting and revisiting a favorite “natural area?” Although we love them, we must realize that these areas are not “natural.”  And, we ought not to view them as a prehistoric Garden of Eden existing in a static condition for eons of time until humans arrived and caused the landscape around them to be “unnatural.”  To illustrate, remember that the historic prairie remnants of west-SW Ohio owe their existence to “climate change”—changes in climate across North America that occurred long before humans had arrived in significant numbers.  Therefore, we must use the term “natural” guardedly and with an understanding that every landscape and its resident biotic community is in the midst of a dynamic relationship in the midst of a changing climate, soil, and surrounding land use.

Aldo Leopold challenged us to reappraise “things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free?” But again we must realize that the terms “natural, wild, and free” imply a definable, static, pre-historic state, untainted until humans arrived.  To further illustrate, fire has likely been a “natural part” of prairie and savanna communities long before significant human intervention.  After all lightning, volcanic activity, and spontaneous combustion can start fires.  Consequently, the historic prairie remnants are an unintended consequence of “natural” forces in nature but they do not exist in a static, “natural” state. 

Prairie remnant community in Madison Co., Ohio with a
Royal Catchfly population. Note Bur Oak (rear center).
Prairie Grass Trail is visible on left.
Our first consideration leads us to the second point which is related to managing historic plant communities.  If “natural areas” are neither natural nor static, but rather moving targets then in fact, they are not something we can preserve.  Instead of preservation, our effort as land stewards must be aimed at conservation. That is, to con-serve, or “serve with” this particular place in God’s creation in light of an understanding of the dynamic relationships at work in creation.  Instead of land stewards devising plans to preserve plant communities based upon some preconceived notion of what is (or was) natural, we must “go there and learn” the dynamics that have operated and are now operating within these communities.  The understanding gained from this approach can help us predict the trajectory of change being driven by changes in climate, soil, and related landscape dynamics.

We must not fault our homeless friend who wandered along the railway observing prairie wildflowers and grasses with no idea of their history or current requirements for survival.  However, those of us who hope to manage the historic remnant prairie communities must avoid being found at fault ourselves for not realizing that they have been forged by a history of dynamic changes and are even now in the midst of dynamic change.  Remnant management that respects these factors will be the subject of my second article of Part 2, “Serving With Creation.”

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Human Creativity As a Reflection of the Creator

Many of us remember occasions when we’ve been enthralled by the beauty of forest, meadow, seaside, or desert.  For me, it’s the more “natural” or “wild places” of God’s creation that thrill the most; and generally not the urban environment.  However, this past weekend, I was enveloped in a literal sea of human creativity in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, Ann Arbor, MI
The 2014 Ann Arbor Street Art Fair occupied numerous streets in downtown Ann Arbor and extended onto the beautiful campus of the University of Michigan.   What a feast for the eyes as my wife Abby and I, and our son Brad and his wife Raquel walked the tree-shaded streets, each lined on both sides with the booths for artists from all around the country to display their creativity.  Paintings and photographs framed in all sizes and shapes; and in all manner of style and coloration.  Wood, delicate plant stems, and metal of all kinds were carved, shaved, pressed, twisted or imprinted into lifelike forms or intriguing abstractions.  Clay pottery was displayed in a rich variety of shapes and sizes, frequently glazed to produce inviting colors and patterns.  A memorable booth looked like a garden of colorful flowers and foliage fashioned in the finest detail-- out of clay!

Landscape necklace pendant, L & M Arts
Leather products and different fabrics were fashioned into garments, shoes, and hats.  I was intrigued by what appeared to be oil paintings on canvas that were actually collages of carefully chosen, dyed fabrics pieced together to represent portraits and beautiful landscapes.  Dean Myton’s booth from his Ironwood & Vine Studio in Akron, OH displayed lamps and other “functional art from found objects, unique recycled materials, and fabricated steel.”  Dean’s aim is to apply his creativity to give new beauty and functionality to materials otherwise destined to the scrap heap.  His slogan:  “Recycle, Rethink, Reuse, Rejoice.”

Many booths featured fine jewelry fashioned from metal and/or mineral components.  Abby and I were particularly drawn to a booth provided by Laurel and Michael Davern, owners of L & M Arts, in Lancaster, NY.  Abby chose a landscape necklace of Argentium sterling silver, hand-pierced to form wind-swept trees with a bird in flight, accented with copper and brass plating.  Of course, with such subject matter, friendly artisans, and the sweet smile of my lovely wife, how could I resist buying the necklace for her?

Larry and Elaine Schneider, Naturewood Art
Larry Schneider from Pittsburgh, and his wife Elaine, greeted us with warm enthusiasm as we admired their Naturewood Art featuring “paintings of nature on nature’s canvases.”   Larry paints birds and other wildlife on tree trunk cross sections.  Then, he produces a 3-D effect by adding appropriate objects from the landscape—driftwood, barbed wire, dried bones, etc.  My favorite was his Meadowlark painted as if singing while perched on a weathered fence post.

As we walked from booth to booth along the shady streets filled with art admirers, three things stirred my heart in praise to God, the Eternal Artist.  First, I began to realize that the amazing creativity on display here was an expression of the image of God Who created and endowed humankind with many of His personal traits.  These God-given traits include our creativity—and to our ability to admire the creativity of others.  Our admiration of the creative arts reaches deep within us.  Much deeper than the cognitive level, artistic expression can reach into our wellspring of joy and satisfaction, or it may stir up sadness or compassion.  I wonder if any other creatures can “enjoy” the wonders of creation like we can; I doubt it.

Meadowlark, by Naturewood Art
Second, I was reminded of the lavishness God has displayed in His creation.  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).  Both God and humankind in His image are “creators” but only God created matter ex nihilo, “out of nothing.”  And, from that original formless and void state of creation (Genesis 1: 2), the Master Artisan and Engineer shaped the landscape of Earth and populated it biologically.  Every element of creation is designed like a deep treasure chest from which humans as stewards can draw out a seemingly endless variety of forms.  Among animals, God created basic kinds (canine, feline, bovine, etc.), each rich in genetic potential from which both natural selection and human artificial selection have produced widely divergent forms.   Likewise, humans have developed plant varieties through horticultural and genetic procedures.  The rich variety of biological, mineral, and metallic resources of God’s creation provides a marvelous “palette” to supply both the substance and the inspiration for the artisan.

Finally, I was most inspired by a sort of “one-act drama” performed at each booth we visited along the streets of Ann Arbor.  Each artisan that participates at the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair first displays his or her creative work within their booth—work that represents tireless hours of creative effort.  Then, the artisan sits and waits for people to come by the booth, admire their work, and perhaps purchase a piece or two as we did. 

As visitors to many booths at the fair, we were participants in the “drama” with the artisans, and we observed how they responded to our appreciation of their work.  They know that most visitors will stop to admire but few will buy.  Yet beyond the monetary gain, they surely must enjoy the satisfaction of seeing many admiring faces and hearing words of praise for work well done.   I realized two things:  that, the artisans are creative and industrious like their Creator God Whose image they bear; and, like their Creator God, artisans gain a sense of joy when they receive praise for the work of their hands.

And so, our visit to the art fair with our son and daughter-in-law was both very enjoyable and inspiring to me.  I left with great respect for the creative ability and skills of the artisans, and also a great appreciation of God our Creator for providing the richness of the material world as a “palette” for His creative image-bearers. 

The psalmist in Psalm 104 recognizes the awesomeness of God and the grandeur of His creation. Then, he marvels that his God Who lacks nothing should find joy and gladness when He looks upon His creation—just as an artisan finds joy in looking over his own finished work:

O LORD, how many are Thy works!
In wisdom Thou hast made them all;
The earth is full of Thy possessions.

Let the glory of the LORD endure forever;
Let the LORD be glad in His works;
He looks at the earth, and it trembles;
He touches the mountains, and they smoke.
- Psalm 104: 24, 31-32

A few verses later in Psalm 104, the psalmist displays the kind of awe and praise that comes spontaneously from one who bears God’s image and can appreciate the beauty and wonder of creation in some imperfect way like our Creator.  But, the psalmist also understands that his heart of praise is both a fitting response to God’s greatness and a “pleasing gift” to his Creator and the Redeemer of his soul as compared to the response of those who deny God and abuse His creation for selfish gain. 

I will sing to the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.
Let my meditation be pleasing to Him;
As for me, I shall be glad in the LORD.
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
And let the wicked be no more.
Bless the LORD, O my soul. Praise the LORD!
- Psalm 104: 33-35