A book review by Daniel Suarez
A Healthy Nature Handbook. Illustrated insights for Ecological Restoration from Volunteer Stewards of Chicago Wilderness. Edited by Justin Pepper and Don Parker. Available at Island Press https://islandpress.org/books/healthy-nature-handbook and here is a 20% coupon code HNH2021
Aldo Leopold once wrote that “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
Written nearly a century ago, Leopold’s words still ring true for many. In places like Chicago, where prairie was converted to farms and then homes, subdivisions, neighborhoods, and one of the largest metropolises in the United States over 100 years ago, we struggle to find the scars of past sins on the landscape. However, for nearly half a century, everyday people have taken up Leopold’s challenge and accepted that the consequences of science are their business, that there are marks of ecological decay all around us, that in fact communities can make a difference. These everyday people have congregated on weekends and weekdays, in the heat and mosquito-ridden humidity and in the piercing cold to begin putting small fragments of our ecological heritage back together. They’ve come from backgrounds as schoolteachers, pharmacists, lawyers, artists, and activists, learning from established professional experts but most importantly from each other. The result is a network of highly-motivated, generous individuals who are driven by the idea that to restore an ecological community, a human community must be formed around the cause.
For many, however, this network is inaccessible. Chicago, while highly manipulated and fragmented, does have an abundance of parks and preserves that set it apart from many large metro areas. In more rural areas, or areas lacking access to nature, finding like-minded individuals and progressive institutions that value the contributions volunteers can be exceedingly difficult.
That is why books like the A Healthy Nature Handbook: Illustrated Insights for Ecological Restoration from Volunteer Stewards of Chicago Wilderness, edited by Justin Pepper and Don Parker, are so needed. Breaking down the barriers for access to some of the most forward-thinking, hard-working volunteer stewards in the region, this volume will help connect isolated individuals with the thought processes, ingenuity, and innovation that are hallmarks of the volunteer stewardship community in the Chicago Wilderness region.
As a college graduate during the Great Recession of the late 2000s, I found myself in a difficult situation. Armed with a dual degree in Art History and Religion, I was unable to find work in galleries and museums, leading to a less-than-ideal job of bagging groceries at Whole Foods. I felt lost, stuck, and in need of a new direction. Someone turned me on to the idea of volunteering at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (now National Park), and I fell in love with the idea of becoming a National Park Ranger. Having grown up never camping, hiking, or even visiting a National Park, I didn’t have a grasp on what exactly I could accomplish or what I could learn. After making the long weekly trek to the Dunes on the South Shore Line for almost a year, I was tipped off that there were actually opportunities to volunteer doing habitat restoration closer to home. I attended one workday at Somme Prairie Grove with Stephen Packard, one of the volunteer stewards highlighted in A Healthy Nature Handbook, and my life was never the same.
Stephen and the Somme volunteers lit a fire under me. I had a radical awakening that challenged everything I thought I knew about nature, Chicago, and humans’ ability to restore what was lost. I immediately started spending my days off and time before or after work at Somme and other preserves, meeting stewards, asking questions, tagging along to mark areas for future workdays, collecting seeds of rare species, or hand-pollinating endangered orchids. It wasn’t easy or comfortable, and I was pushing myself outside of my comfort zone to spend time with unfamiliar people in unfamiliar places. However, before long I had established a strong network of teachers and mentors. This privilege afforded me the opportunity to eventually get an internship doing prairie restoration at the Chicago Botanic Garden, which developed into a temporary job with the Plants of Concern community science project, and eventually a career with Audubon Great Lakes, where I have worked for the past eight years.
What does my story have to do with A Healthy Nature Handbook? As I read through this impressive volume, I found myself with that familiar feeling I first felt at Somme. Hearing about innovations in restoration directly from the people that developed them, I felt that fire being lit under me again. And I know that others in the Chicago Wilderness region and beyond will feel the same.
The book focuses on particular restoration techniques, like the oft-duplicated Sedge Warrior process innovated by Tom Vanderpoel and Citizens for Conservation, or the backyard seed propagation efforts of Rob Sulski and the North Branch Restoration Project. Peppered throughout are nuggets of wisdom that are useful not only to those in the Chicago Wilderness region, but beyond. That’s because the conversational style of teaching that volunteer stewards excel at is faithfully reproduced throughout the book. Therefore, even if you’re restoring Longleaf Pine forests in Georgia, you can learn about the thought processes and can-do attitude that resulted in a regionally significant rare plant propagating effort and apply them to your own geography.
Similarly, one does not need to be able to identify Henslow’s Sparrows or Bobolinks to be able to understand Jenny Flexman’s ability to “see ecosystems in 3D” and thus change their observational skills to interpret restoration through the lens of savanna or woodland birds. The book provides specific information that some may benefit from, and general ways of viewing ecosystems and the challenges of restoration that everyone can apply to their local habitats. This, in turn, should spawn creativity and experimentation from a new generation of stewards, which are sorely needed in our age of rapidly-declining biodiversity.
The visual format of the book will appeal to everyone, especially younger stewards who are familiar with bite-sized pieces of information that are rich with graphics that mimic social media and blog posts. The authors imply that one of their goals was to build a Cook’s Illustrated for habitat restoration; the book acts not like a traditional recipe book that teaches you how to cook a specific dish, but rather teaches you how to build skills and techniques so that you can cook a great dish using the ingredients you happen to have on hand.
A Healthy Nature Handbook will surely influence a new generation of stewards. I know I’ll be sharing this volume with future Audubon interns and volunteer stewards – both in and outside of Chicago – for years to come. Tools like this help build more ecological literacy, which is essential if we are to combat the biodiversity and climate crisis at hand. One doesn’t become a steward overnight. It requires patience, curiosity, hard work, and access to innovative teaches and ideas. A Healthy Nature Handbook takes the onus off of the individual to make those connections and helps fast track the development of ecologically-literate communities that can help us reimagine a brighter future for nature and humans.