Becoming a Conservationist (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Anthropocene and Love Meadowlarks)

Photo: Michael Forsberg (

Photo: Michael Forsberg (

This speech was given to the Chippewa Valley Sierra Club in Eau Claire, WI on April 9th, 2013.

When I was in the sixth grade, I hovered around the cafeteria at South Middle School in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, stalking my fellow students, begging them for their pocket change. I collected their loose coins in an ice cream bucket. This carried on for several weeks. I was raising money to purchase a piece of tropical rainforest and protect it from development. Soon, the adults in the school took notice of what I was doing and they cheered me on. They celebrated my efforts. What nobody told me, though, was that my interest in the environment would carry with it certain emotional costs, that there is great sorrow involved in caring for a dying patient. The adults slapped me on the back and told me to keep up the good work. Eventually, I raised enough quarters, dimes, and nickels to purchase one acre.

I’ve always considered myself a conservationist, an environmentalist, a tree-hugger, or whatever. I was lucky to have a dad who tossed me into a canoe at an early age. Together, we paddled the remote waters and hiked in the big woods of northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. It was on those trips that I got my first taste of wilderness. I saw an osprey gracefully pluck a fish from beneath the skin of a river. I braced myself in the canoe as we floated towards the drone of whitewater. At night, lying in the tent, I heard wolves.

From there, an environmental ethic gradually emerged. I rode my bike to school even when other kids were getting their driver’s license. I became the self-appointed recycling czar in my family’s household. When I saw photographs of rainforests cleared for beef cattle, I stopped eating meat. Upon graduating from high school, I headed to college to get a law degree and practice environmental law. I wanted to fight the polluters, the extractors, the spoilers.

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One hundred and twenty days

I’m taking a short break from blogging and writing. 

For those of you who don’t know me, I am in the midst of a career change. After eight years of working in natural resources, I’ve decided to shift my focus towards education. I am currently working towards a license to teach biology, environmental science, and earth science at the high school level. 

That said, this is my last semester of coursework before I begin student teaching. I’m making one last big push and I’m taking on more than a full load of classes including some challenging courses like calculus and molecular biology. So, needless to say, I’ll be in over my head for the next four months. 

To make sure I survive in one piece, I’m streamlining some of the distractions in my life. This blog is one of them. So, there will be a brief moment of silence. When I re-emerge, it will be spring again and things will be green and there will be much to share!

Until then, carry on!

New environmentalism?

Recently, a handful of environmental journalists and bloggers have been announcing the rise of a so-called “new environmentalism”, claiming that the time has come to swap out the traditional emphasis on “pristine nature” for a more hard-nosed focus on “eco-pragmatism”.  A healthy debate has ensued, provoking voices from all sides of the environmental movement to chime in, sometimes quite fiercely. In some cases, the debate has been confined to the blogosphere. In other cases, it has played out in public and involved high-profile icons of the environmental movement. For what it’s worth, I’ll throw in my two cents and add the perspective of someone who has been doing conservation at a local scale here in the upper Midwest.

At the heart of the “new environmentalism” is a recognition that human beings have had an all-encompassing impact on the planet. The new environmentalists are very keen to cite the entrance of the new geologic era known as the Anthropocene — literally, the age of humans. Human activity has achieved such a far-reaching scale, in the form of widespread species loss and dramatically increased atmospheric carbon, that it will be permanently etched in the geologic record. Look around, they say, the planet is totally humanized and the definition of nature has changed; concepts such as “wild” and “pristine” are no longer applicable in the Anthropocene.

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Brush Island

Black oak savanna on Brush Island. Dunn County, WI.

Every winter, I go through a spell of withdrawal. The soil freezes, the plants wither, birds fly south. I start to get antsy. So, in an effort to cope, I concoct plans for the places that I want to explore in the coming spring, summer, and fall months. Usually, they are little day trips to obscure local spots. I dig through maps and aerial photographs. I talk to locals. I do background research on species and habitats that I might encounter. It’s my attempt to cope with the winter doldrums by focusing on the next field season.

I’ve chosen to extend this tradition onto the pages of this blog: consider me your ecological travel agent for west central Wisconsin. Our first destination is Brush Island, a 300-acre island located in southern Dunn County, along a stretch of the lower Chippewa River between Caryville and Tyrone. This is a place that I think every local naturalist should visit.

It’s not an easy place to access. You’ll need a boat. Once you reach the island, finding a good place to land sometimes can be tricky depending on the depth of the river. There are no trails on the island, so once you are on the ground, you’ll have to do a little bushwhacking through some nettles and brambles. But, soon enough, you’ll reach the interior of the island and you’ll be surrounded by something very special.

Meridean Slough, separating Happy Island (on the left) and Brush Island (on the right).

If you depart from Holte’s Landing on County Highway H, on the other side of the river from Caryville, you’ll easily make it to Brush Island in an hour by canoe. Beyond Brush Island are three other islands: Happy Island, Pasture Island, and Chippewa Island. Each of these islands tells a different story. Both Happy and Pasture Islands both have histories of past settlement. Happy Island, for example, was home to the town of Meridean complete with a shingle mill, lumber mill, roads, farms, as well as ferry transportation to the mainland.

Brush Island is different. There is no known evidence of any human settlement on the island whatsoever. My speculation is that Brush Island sits a little lower in elevation than Happy and Pasture Islands, which makes Brush Island more susceptible to flooding and, therefore, less desirable as place to farm.

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The names of things….

“The average 6-year old in the United States is exposed to 30,000 advertisements per year. As a result, most children can recognize 1,000 corporate logos but cannot identify 10 plants or animals native to their own region.” 

—  Ezra Milchman and Maria Elena Campisteguy

“Establishing a relationship with nature — or anything else, for that matter — is not a matter of networking. It is not a hobby, like collecting a life list of birds, nor is it something one catches through casual contact, by camping out on vacation, for example. A healthy relationship is ongoing, persistent, and resilient despite boredom, disappointment, adversities, infidelities. It is defined by its dailiness…One way to understand our relationship with nature is to undertake the basic work of naming its constituents.

We are fond of saying that we live in an information explosion, but in some critical respects this statement is an absolute delusion…I am not convinced that we are experiencing an explosion of understanding. The general decline of intimate relationships with the natural world, and therefore knowledge of nature, has left us bereft of information that no marvel of biotechnological engineering, however sophisticated or clever, can possibly restore or replace…

A very old but not outmoded idea is that we will find our salvation in what we love. We have learned in recent times to fear for the earth, for its suddenly apparent fragility, and for all that we obviously do not know about it. But fear is no basis for an intelligent relationship; ignorance and indulgence preempt the love that is required of us. We will love the earth more competently, more effectively, by being able to name and know something about the life it sustains.

Can you imagine a satisfactory love relationship with someone whose name you do not know? I can’t. It is perhaps the quintessentially human characteristic that we cannot know or love what we have not named. Names are passwords to our hearts, and it is there, in the end, that we will find the room for a whole world.”

— Paul Gruchow, “Naming What We Love”