By Jack Pritchard
The Nature Academy is focused on training a new generation of environmental leaders in sustainability, conservation, and ecological restoration. As part of the Nature Academy program, each intern writes a blog post and develops a project. The project provides an opportunity to take on responsibility in an area of interest, contribute to the goals of their team, and develop a skill or area of knowledge that can be added to the intern’s portfolio. The post may reflect the project or be a nature-related topic of personal interest to the intern.
“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.”
—Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac
Nature is inherently dynamic and always evolving. The ebb and flow of seasons fluctuates with the resounding consensus of change. One species’ death makes way for another’s life. Once we learn this, it appears to be the greatest challenge to overcome in working with the land. You must accept that the results of the work you’ve done are neither invariable nor fixed. But they can be enduring. When done correctly, changes to the land become a representation of a set of influences that puts a landscape on a trajectory toward the conditions which you desire.
This is something that I have always struggled with. The exact thing that I cherish about working with my hands, planting trees and watching them grow, is in direct opposition to this fact. Being able to visually see the hard work that has been accomplished at the end of a long day has always motivated me and fostered my interest in working with plants to restore native ecosystems. However, you quickly come to learn that once a tree is planted or an area “restored,” it is not the end of the story. It is merely the beginning. This teaches you to view the world around you in a different light—through the lens of changing systems and pulsing cycles. And when these cycles are broken they become as obvious as a clear-cut forest is to a layman.
This is the greatest lesson that the Arb has taught me. As an Arboretum caretaker, I am now going into my third year of living in the middle of the woods in the middle of a city. I have come to know this landscape intimately. I have seen the changes of the seasons, the pulse of spring ephemerals, peony blooms, and changing colors accompanying the return of students each fall. I have learned where to look for the first hint of prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum) coming up in April and the striking orange of Michigan lilies (Lilium michiganense) in mid-July.
Throughout this journey, I have concurrently been pursuing my graduate studies in landscape architecture and conservation ecology here at the University of Michigan. This simultaneous academic and field-based education has profoundly enriched my ecological knowledge and understanding of the world around us. Learning the principles of ecological restoration in the classroom and then being afforded the opportunity to apply them in the field is ineffable. This has also forced me to confront philosophical questions that I didn’t know needed to be asked. What role do humans have in altering natural systems? Are we a part of nature or inherently apart from it? Which led me to reflect on the more practical application of these questions carried out in my daily work: What are the goals of the work being done and how will they be measured? How can natural processes such as (prescribed) fire be utilized as a tool to these ends?
It can be discouraging to see a space invaded by a species that you’re working hard to eradicate (think invasive honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.)), but you cannot let that stop you. Even in spaces that I thought had been “restored” or high in ecological quality, I quickly learned to view through this lens of repair that Leopold describes. This care for the land is not a one-time fix, a single dose of environmental medicine, but rather the first step towards a regime of stewardship that the ecologist fosters.
At a time when we face unparalleled and unprecedented challenges—like the existential threat of a changing climate—we need to have a heightened awareness of these wounds and the dynamics that influence them. Botanic gardens and arboreta serve as a resource to develop and hone the skills necessary for this awareness. In many respects, this is one of the greatest qualities of public gardens, particularly those associated with academic institutions.
Jack Pritchard, left, poses with, left to right: former caretaker Eva Roos; caretaker Kirk Acharya; caretaker Sarah Peterson; former caretaker Lexi Brewer; Matthaei-Nichols Volunteer Coordinator Christine Chessler-Stull; Matthaei-Nichols Natural Areas Manager Steve Parrish.
Jack Pritchard is a graduate student in the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability studying conservation ecology and landscape architecture. Before joining the Matthaei-Nichols team as a caretaker and intern, he received his bachelor of science from Cornell University. As an undergraduate, he spent six months studying the sustainable redesign in Christchurch, New Zealand, in response to the 2010/2011 earthquakes. Following graduation, he worked on a trails stewardship crew with the National Parks Service at Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California.