Aldo Leopold at Severson Dells

“When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

— Aldo Leopold


Today is the 132nd birthday of the great conservationist, writer, and nature philosopher Aldo Leopold.

A Sense of Place in the Midwest

Aldo Leopold spent a good deal of his life in the Midwest and was deeply connected to this region’s landscape. He was born in Burlington, Iowa, on January 11, 1887, and returned to the Midwest after attending Yale Forest School and pursuing a career in wildlife management in Arizona and New Mexico. His philosophy of wildlife management was radically changed when he was working out West and witnessed the “fierce green fire” die in they eyes of a wolf he had shot. He then settled in Madison, Wisconsin, to pursue his explorations into ecology and philosophy. In 1935, his family purchased a worn-out farm on the Wisconsin River in Baraboo and worked to plant pines and restore the prairies at “the shack.”

Aldo Leopold and his family at “the shack” in Baraboo, WI.

Aldo Leopold and his family at “the shack” in Baraboo, WI.

Leopold’s Travels at Severson Dells

Landscapes and the wildlife helped define Leopold’s philosophy and his “land ethic” that he eloquently illuminated in his perennial book A Sand County Almanac. As part of his travels, Leopold even explored what is now Severson Dells Forest Preserve and Howard D. Colman Dells Nature Preserve as one of the first studies of deer-forest management in the United States. Leopold conducted this survey between 1936 and 1937 with Paul B. Riis, former Rockford Park District Superintendent. I like to hike the Severson trails imagining Leopold wandering through the woods, sitting at the base of one of the great old oaks with his journal open, divining inspiration from this land.

Leopold’s Land Ethic

While we don’t know if the land that is now Severson Dells directly inspired Leopold or his philosophy, we do know that his relationship with the land deeply affected his life and work. His land ethic approached ethics in broader terms of community; not just people, but all aspects of what he termed “the land” - plants, wildlife, soil, water. His ethic defined a set of values in our relationship to the land, one that was continually formed by his explorations into the natural world. This set of values is why Leopold’s land ethic never gets outdated - it is just as true today as it was when it was published in 1949. He believed that direct experiences in nature help us to see beyond human self-interest. His essays have inspired many others to connect to nature and explore the world around them, developing a sense of place and stewardship for the land. Essentially, the land ethic is about nurturing the relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world and instilling a sense of care and stewardship for all members of the community.

We invite you to come out and spend some time at Severson Dells and walk in Leopold’s footsteps. The winter can be such a wonderful time to connect with the land when the crowds have quieted and you can find yourself more easily in conversation with the world around you.

January Prairie

January Prairie

Learn More About Leopold

To learn more about Aldo Leopold, visit The Aldo Leopold Foundation. You can even plan a trip up to Baraboo, WI, to visit Leopold’s shack and the beautiful Aldo Leopold Center. There is also a wonderful documentary on Aldo Leopold called Green Fire if you want to learn more about the man who helped shape modern conservation.

Mysteries Abound

Studying nature, the answers we find lead often to more questions. Mysteries abound, such that naturalists and ecologists frequently act as sleuths in pursuit of clues. Observations feed our curiosity, leading to speculation, reflection, and inquiry.

So I was naturally curious when one of our canoe-program volunteers mentioned that he had seen some unusual markings along the bank of the Kishwaukee River in the Deer Run Forest Preserve. He said it looked like someone had dragged something out of the brush and into the river. When he told me about it, he was helping out with our youth canoe camp, Blazing Paddles. We were going to be paddling that very section of the river and he wanted to know if I could help interpret what had made the marks.

As good fortune would have it, he was able to point out the place along the bank shortly before we directed our pod of teenaged paddlers to pull ashore for a lunch break.

striations, etched like scratch marks into the sloping riverbank

striations, etched like scratch marks into the sloping riverbank

With a small band of curious campers in tow, I hiked back along the shore to investigate. The markings fanned out from a small opening in the vegetation, as if someone had combed or raked the surface. But this was no Zen garden and there were no trails near this section of shoreline. I ducked into the willows to investigate further.

There, behind the edge of the brush line, the answer was apparent. Sharp stumps of willow, a couple of inches in diameter, bore the grooved channels formed by sharp rodent teeth. Beavers apparently had been taking down willows and dragging them toward the water, stump-first with the upper leaves and branches trailing, raking the surface of the soil.

The adolescent paddlers in my company were impressed, never before having seen for themselves that sort of evidence of beaver activity—and they also were impressed with the beavers’ famed industriousness. We knew that the work must have been recent, as we found additional evidence farther along the bank:  A length of willow trunk, gnawed at the base and bearing the tell-tale tooth marks, still had a few green leaves at the tip. Those leaves would have wilted within days of the stem having been severed.

evidence of beaver activity; adolescent human for scale

evidence of beaver activity; adolescent human for scale

Beavers (Castor canadensis) are the largest rodents in North America, with bodies reaching 30 inches or more in length. A typical adult beaver may weigh between 35 and 65 pounds, although specimens weighing up to 85 pounds have been reported. Beaver teeth are formidable: the front incisors are oversized and appear orange in color, as iron replaces calcium in the enamel, making the incisors exceptionally strong—capable of gnawing through hardwood trees.

a stump exhibiting the grooved marks left by a beaver’s tough incisors

a stump exhibiting the grooved marks left by a beaver’s tough incisors

Further adaptations of these aquatic mammals include webbing between the toes of the hind feet and the distinctive paddle-like tails. When startled, a beaver may slap its flat tail in warning as it disappears beneath the water’s surface. Beaver fur was prized by the trappers who were among the first Europeans to explore this area. The outer guard hairs are long and glossy while the underfur is very fine and dense, protecting and insulating beavers’ skin from the water. Oils secreted through glands are distributed and combed through the fur while grooming to enhance the waterproof qualities of the fur. Such musky oils are also used to mark territorial boundaries.

Physiological adaptations like webbed feet and a flat tail enable beavers to thrive in aquatic environments.

Physiological adaptations like webbed feet and a flat tail enable beavers to thrive in aquatic environments.

Beavers are monogamous and live in extended family units, typically spanning three generations. Their preferred diet consists of herbaceous vegetation, although they will browse on woody stems when necessary.

Of course, we seldom see beavers. Not only are they generally restricted to riparian and pond-side habitats, they also are generally nocturnal, spending the daylight hours in lodges built of branches and accessible through underwater entrances. So, like much of the wildlife with whom we share this little corner of the planet, they may remain unseen, but can be known by their effects.

And beavers can have amazing effects on the environment. They are nature’s environmental engineers; their dams and lodges my redirect the flow of streams and rivers, flooding vast areas and influencing plant communities and habitats over long periods of time.

Nature is endlessly fascinating; collecting evidence, we are drawn deeper into explorations of interrelated phenomenon. Threads lead to nodes that branch off to other threads. One of the things that I find satisfying about studying nature is that we can devote a lifetime of study there and never get to the end of it all. Mysteries abound and there is always more to explore.

Home Sweet Home

Home. Such a simple, yet evocative word. So essential to our sense of security and wellbeing. Most of us rely pretty heavily on the comforts of home to help us endure the vicissitudes of life out there in the wide world. Faced with daunting challenges and fearful prospects, dangers, difficulties and dilemmas, the child within cries, “I wanna go home!”

We are not alone in finding safety and comfort in the nest, in the den, in the burrow. Our animal compatriots in the wild need their space also. Educators here at Severson Dells explain to school groups that organisms “Have to Have a Habitat” and we explore the many ways in which they find their respective niches in nature. Every organism needs shelter, nourishment (food and water), and space. If any of those needs is withheld, the organism cannot thrive and may not survive—at least not for long.

I was reminded of these essential truths recently when setting up a photographic plot to record progress in restoration here at The Dells. Along the crest of a low ridge, I came across a spoil pile:  light-brown glacial till unearthed from below the surface by an animal digging a burrow or den. Evidently, the animal had taken up residence there some time ago:  the soil was worn and lightly weathered; new plants had taken root there.

Outside this burrow, the spoil pile has been colonized by new plants.

Outside this burrow, the spoil pile has been colonized by new plants.

Just a few feet away, however, was a second excavation, one that apparently was quite fresh, looking as if it had never seen rain. What impressed me about it was the size of the stones that had been dragged or pushed out of the hole. Some were rough-hewn, several inches in diameter, and must have weighed a few pounds.

a new spoil pile of glacial till featuring large stones unearthed from below

a new spoil pile of glacial till featuring large stones unearthed from below

It can be difficult to tell with certainty which local mammal would have dug a given burrow. For denning season, coyotes may dig holes to occupy while giving birth and caring for their young pups, although such dens are generally abandoned by early July. Opportunistic as they are, coyotes are more likely to use a den that was excavated, and subsequently abandoned, by another animal. Red foxes typically leave scraps of bone and hide around a den entrance. Woodchucks (groundhogs) are well known for their excavation expertise and their dens often feature a “dirt porch.” A woodchuck would be capable of pushing a fairly large stone up and out of its burrow.

Curiously, a number of local animals may occupy a single burrow, either consecutively or—reportedly—even at once. Skunks, opossums, badgers, coyotes, raccoons, and groundhogs are said to be among those known to cohabitate from time to time.

Hollow trees, of course, offer another familiar form of shelter for wildlife. A large oak near the underground burrows presented an ample opening into an interior chamber; a walnut husk on the lip of the opening hinted at the chamber’s occupancy.

another residential address for local wildlife

another residential address for local wildlife

In addition to the many bird species known to be cavity nesters, the following mammal species also are known to occupy hollow trees:  raccoons, opossums, fox squirrels, gray squirrels, flying squirrels, bats, white-footed mice, bobcats, and gray foxes. (Yes, gray foxes do climb trees!) Given the walnut husk, it seems likely that one of the squirrels calls this place home.

Home. It means much more than the house (or den or burrow or nest) that we live in. Home embraces the wider environment. Our community. And when we care deeply about the natural environment, we come to realize and respect the fact that our home includes at least a portion of the natural world. And we associate our sense of comfort and wellbeing with that local environment. This is what it means to have developed a sense of place. And this is what it means to come home to nature.

Juneberries!

 Every year in June I enter into a fresh round of negotiations. No, it’s not an annual contract; I am just trying to come to terms with some of my avian colleagues. You see, it is in June that the ripening fruits of serviceberry shrubs turn dusky purple and invite us to partake of the berries, luscious and delicious.

In fact, Juneberry is another common name for serviceberry, as is shadblow.

Robins are among the first birds called to raid my trees; Cedar Waxwings follow soon after. I have two serviceberry trees (shrubs) at my house and in most years they offer up an ample harvest; there’s plenty to share with my avian neighbors. The trouble is that the trees have grown tall enough that I can only reach the lower tiers of fruit, so only a portion of the produce can be harvested by me while the Robins and Waxwings have access to all.

Ripening Juneberries attract birds (and people).

Ripening Juneberries attract birds (and people).

Serviceberries (Juneberries, shadblow) are woody shrubs or small trees in the genus Amelanchier. There are about 20 species that occur in North America. Authors Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha describe eight species and one hybrid in their 2017 tome, Flora of the Chicago Region. Of the eight species listed, six are presumed to be native to the region. (Neither the nonnative species nor the hybrid cultivar are considered to be invasive here.)

Four serviceberry species have been recorded from Forest Preserves of Winnebago County:  eastern Juneberry (Amelanchier arborea) is listed from Rockford Rotary Forest Preserve; low Juneberry (A. humilis) can be found at Blackhawk Springs and Seward Bluffs; inland serviceberry (A. interior) has been reported from Colored Sands, Sugar River, and Sugar River Alder; Allegheny serviceberry (A. laevis) is at Blackhawk Springs, Kishwaukee Gorge, Severson Dells, and Seward Bluffs.

For a variety of good reasons, serviceberries have become popular landscape plants in both commercial and residential settings. Their bark, smooth and gray, with spiraling dark streaks, offers distinctive winter interest. The leaves are small, oval, and with lightly toothed margins. In April and May, these members of the rose family (Rosaceae) are bedecked in flowers, each bearing five white, strap-like petals, longer than they are wide. The flowers yield abundant fruits, edible berries (actually pomes, fleshy fruits that form from an inferior ovary, i.e., below the other flower parts) that ripen in June. The fall foliage turns richly to tones of apricot and orange with hints of red. Some serviceberries tend toward a tree-like growth form, but attaining a height of only about 25 feet; others, especially those sold in the landscape or nursery trade, are predisposed toward expression as multi-trunked shrubs. Serviceberries are the larval host of Red-spotted Purple butterflies.

Amelanchier  in autumn splendor

Amelanchier in autumn splendor

The common name of shadblow (or shadbush) comes from the eastern region of the country, where the blooming of shadblow was said to coincide with the running of the shad to spawn in New England rivers. The name serviceberry is said to have derived from the resumption of certain “services” in the spring, whether the performance of marriage ceremonies (wedding services) or the ability to dig graves in newly thawed ground (burial services). Juneberry, of course, refers to the ripening fruit, the cause of my conversing with birds.

My negotiations with the foraging birds goes something like this. I’ll go out to my serviceberries with a small basket to collect the fruit, flushing a few birds out of the trees. The Cedar Waxwings may quickly disperse to regroup out of sight; the Robins squawk in protest as they fly off to the nearby crabapples or perch on the edge of the gutter and eye me with suspicion.

If I approach slowly and quietly, the Waxwings may linger so that I might reason with them. I explain that they are welcome to all the berries at the top of shrubs, while those situated within my reach are reserved for me. The Waxwings are generally agreeable to these terms and seem to show admirable restraint.

The Robins, however, laugh at me. They dismiss me with derision, as if to say, “Hah! What are you going to do about it?” Once I am back inside the house, the Robins are back in the lower branches.

I suppose there’s nothing for it but to plant more serviceberries.

Glow

Of all the eagerly anticipated phenomena that mark the spiraling dance of the seasons, few are as sweet, or received with such delight, as the appearance of lightning bugs in June.

Perhaps you call them fireflies. I grew up calling them lightning bugs. In fact, they are neither flies nor bugs. They are winged beetles, in the order Coleoptera. And for many of us who grew up the Midwest, these seemingly magical insects provided an early-childhood introduction to the joyful exploration of the natural world. Many of us have fond memories of dashing across the lawn, big glass jar in hand, chasing flickering points of light and squealing with anticipation of the capture. And we always knew that we could catch these harmless little insects in our bare hands, examine them closely—in rapt fascination of their eerie rhythmic glow—keep them for a time in our clear glass jars (breathing holes punched in the metal lids), and release them once more into their habitat before we were tucked into bed.

Random Factoid:  A Jamaican term for lightning bug is, “blinkie.”

Random Factoid:  A Jamaican term for lightning bug is, “blinkie.”

Adaptation in nature is nothing less than amazing. Why would a little insect evolve in such a way as to regularly emit such a bright, distinctive glow? The short answer is that they use the light to communicate. And most of that communication is about finding a suitable mate.

There are thousands of species of lightning bugs (or fireflies—I’ll use the terms interchangeably) spread across temperate and tropical areas of the globe, classified within five subfamilies. While there are more than 200 species in North America, curiously enough there are few species that occur west of Kansas. (If you really want to impress your friends visiting here from out west, take them to a firefly show.)

Firefly behavior, color, and habitat preferences vary by species, but in general their bioluminescence is caused by enzyme-induced chemical reactions within specialized cells called photocytes. Reflector cells may intensify and direct the light emitted by the photocytes. Light cast by a firefly is extraordinarily efficient; it is what we call a “cold light” because, unlike most sources of illumination, there is no energy lost as heat.

While some fireflies may emit light to defend their territory or deter predators, what we typically see is a courtship display. Each species presents a distinctive blinking pattern that is unique to that species (although there are a few species that mimic one another as a means of interspecies trickery). Males flash their rhythmic signals in flight while females perch in low vegetation; a female may reflect the male’s flash pattern or she may, at a precise time interval, blink back to the male, signaling her whereabouts; the flashing and blinking typically continue until mating is complete.

The female lays her eggs under the surface of the soil. After about three weeks, the eggs hatch, revealing larvae that are fascinating in appearance:  segmented and armored, looking perhaps like a trilobite or some kind of spiny pillbug. The larvae persist in that form for a year or two before spending about three weeks as pupae, emerging as adults who then live for only 3 or 4 weeks—just long enough to reproduce.

A lightning bug larva is a fearsome sight—at least to its prey.

A lightning bug larva is a fearsome sight—at least to its prey.

It is pleasing to find a field or woodland edge filled with the silent twilight courtship display of fireflies. Even as adults we can be mesmerized by the flashing, dancing patterns of green or yellow points of light, swimming in the mild evening air. And yet, some neighborhoods—even some natural areas—seem to host fewer lightning bugs today than in years past. I haven’t found any published studies that compare population trends over time, but there are anecdotal reports of diminishing numbers.

Most of a firefly’s life is spent in larval form, on or below the surface of the soil where they are susceptible to environmental dangers such as drought, flood, contaminants, and predation. Some of the threats to lightning bugs are decidedly human in origin. Lawn chemicals are especially troublesome:  some can kill firefly larvae outright, and they might also kill the organisms that the larvae need to eat. Artificial lighting can reduce the ability of adult males and females to find each other, so we are encouraged to shut off our lights whenever they are not needed.

Those of us who grew up in suburban neighborhoods here in the Midwest may associate lightning bugs with lawns and the residential landscape, but of course those little beetles were here long before modern humans changed the environment, so what natural habitats would have been their haunts? Reportedly, they prefer moist environments that support low-stature vegetation. I would suppose that sedge meadows, mesic savannas, and the margins of wet prairies would have been their preferred habitats.

The ideal time to witness the firefly display is right around dusk, a little after sunset, at the onset of darkness. Firefly activity diminishes considerably about an hour or two after sunset.

Take my advice. Find a moist prairie, sedge meadow edge, or untreated old field. (If you live in a neighborhood that still has abundant lightning bugs, you can do this at home, although ambient light from the neighbors can interfere with the experience.) Perch yourself comfortably at sundown, and take in the show. Allow a soft focus to guide your steady gaze across the gloaming space in front of you. Turn off your thoughts for a few moments, quieting the internal dialog; with silent mind and open eyes, witness the play at hand… and smile like a child enchanted.

Hairy Rope...

Our school season has started back up, and between that and our recent volunteer trainings, a couple ID questions have come to the fore.  Perhaps the most important one has been "is that vine poison ivy or Virginia creeper?"  

Now, once upon a time, I wouldn't have batted an eye looking at a vine.  I stuck by my tried and true rhyme:  "Leaflets three, let it be; hairy rope, don't be a dope."  How could anyone mistake poison ivy ever again?  But a few years ago a fellow naturalist pointed out that Virginia creeper can also have a hairy vine.  What?!?  Say it's not so!  But, alas, it is.

What is a naturalist to do?

Knowing that all things can be identified if one just knows the key thing to look for (although, admittedly, it won't always be something one can see in the field), I have set out on a mission to learn how to tell these two plants apart...in the winter...when there are no leaves.  

I share with you here and now the fruits of my labor, namely, a close examination of the rootlets that give the vines their hairy appearance.

Virginia creeper rootlets (photo credit:  Jim Mason, Great Plains Nature Center)

Virginia creeper rootlets (photo credit:  Jim Mason, Great Plains Nature Center)

Poison ivy rootlets (photo credit:  Jim Mason, Great Plains Nature Center)

Poison ivy rootlets (photo credit:  Jim Mason, Great Plains Nature Center)

So, here we have two photos of hairy vines.  According to my research, two of the key things to look for are the color and thickness of the "hairy" parts.  Poison ivy vines are covered with very thin, "dark" rootlets, which help it grasp the bark of the tree to which it clings.  Virginia creeper has thicker, "lighter" tendrils (not rootlets, apparently), which also cling to the tree.

Now, I know what you are thinking.  This is easy when they are side-by-side, like telling a downy from a hairy woodpecker is easy when the birds are side-by-side.  Until one has developed a trained eye that automatically knows what it is seeing, these differences aren't always so obvious.  What if the tendrils are young and thin?  What if it is a really old poison ivy vine - do the rootlets thicken with age?  And, as we all know, color is not always the best diagnostic tool ("poison ivy has red leaves" - um, yes, except when they are not red at all).

There's one trait, however, that should be the clincher, and that is the little grippy pads on the terminal ends of the VC tendrils:

Virginia creeper tendrils with pads (photo credit:  John Cardin, OSU, bugwood.org)

Virginia creeper tendrils with pads (photo credit:  John Cardin, OSU, bugwood.org)

Close-up of Virginia creeper tendril with pads (photo credit: Dale Hoyt, Nature Rambling blog).

Close-up of Virginia creeper tendril with pads (photo credit: Dale Hoyt, Nature Rambling blog).

Ah-ha!  That must be it!  Those pads certainly seem obvious in these photos, but are they as apparent when one is facing a vine, in the woods, in winter?  Fortunately, this afternoon I had an opportunity to check. 

I'm sorry to say, the pad prognosis was not promising.

Vine #1:  Thick and light-colored - must be Virginia creeper.  No pads evident, however.

Vine #1:  Thick and light-colored - must be Virginia creeper.  No pads evident, however.

DSC_0999.JPG

Vine #2:  Those hairs are pretty fine, and certainly darker than those on #1.  I'm going with PI on this one.

Vine #3:  My hand is in there to show just how robust this vine is - nearly 3" diameter.  It is densely hairy, but those hairs, well, some are rather thick and light-colored, while others are thin and dark.  ACK!  I was afraid this would happen.  Looking up the vine, I could see there are actual branches coming out of it, which, I have been told, is an indication that it is PI:  older vines are known to have branches from several inches to multiple feet in length, and VC won't have branches much longer than 4".  Therefore, this must be PI.

Vine #3:  My hand is in there to show just how robust this vine is - nearly 3" diameter.  It is densely hairy, but those hairs, well, some are rather thick and light-colored, while others are thin and dark.  ACK!  I was afraid this would happen.  Looking up the vine, I could see there are actual branches coming out of it, which, I have been told, is an indication that it is PI:  older vines are known to have branches from several inches to multiple feet in length, and VC won't have branches much longer than 4".  Therefore, this must be PI.

Vine #4:  Densely covered with thin, dark rootlets - no doubt in my mind this is PI.

Vine #4:  Densely covered with thin, dark rootlets - no doubt in my mind this is PI.

Conclusions:  Pads on Virginia creeper tendrils are not apparent in winter.  I suspect that perhaps they are mostly visible on young/new growth.  Additionally, old, robust PI can have thick rootlets, some of which are light-colored.  

I will be continuing my investigation on the differences between PI and VC vines as the seasons progress, but until further notice, I will stick to the rhyme and avoid touching any hairy vines, regardless of how thick or light the rootlets/tendrils are.

Planet of Fire

Prescribed fire is one of the most important tools available to land managers today. Although much of the 20th century was a period of fire suppression, the deliberate ignition of dry vegetation has been taking place across our local landscapes for thousands of years. Long before there were ecologists to carry the flame, indigenous people lit the landscape on a regular basis. Ever since the last glaciers retreated from the area, our plant communities evolved in the presence of periodic fire. Most of the plant communities that occur in our region are considered to be fire-dependent communities, that is, they replicate themselves and exhibit stability over time as long as landscape fire is part of the ecological equation; in the absence of fire, these communities change into something else—usually they degrade.

Prescribed fire rejuvenates a prairie.

Prescribed fire rejuvenates a prairie.

So, among the techniques employed in ecological restoration, the application of prescribed fire restores a natural process previously withheld from the land. Stephen J. Pyne of Arizona State University has written widely on the subject of fire (relative to ecology), and while ecologists often characterize fire as a disturbance (like an ice storm or a bison wallow), Pyne asserts, “It makes more sense to imagine fire as a catalyst.”

Pyne sees fire as a contextual reaction, taking its character from its fuel and environment. Fine-textured fuels—like dry grasses—flash and burn fast, while coarse fuels—like fallen trees—require higher levels of heat for ignition and burn more slowly. A wind-driven prairie fire will race up a dry hill, while a slow, low woodland fire will creep through leaf litter, leaving unburned fuel in its wake. In any case, landscape fire feeds upon (consumes) plant matter. And fires have burned across the earth ever since there have been plants that dry out to serve as a flammable fuel source. Pyne has referred to the earth as a planet of fire.

Prescribed fire in a woodland is characterized by low flames and leaves a patchy mosaic of burned areas.

Prescribed fire in a woodland is characterized by low flames and leaves a patchy mosaic of burned areas.

Fire is one of the elements responsible for humans’ rise to keystone species status. No species other than humans wields fire; no other ecological force shapes the landscape the way fire can. To quote a recent report from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS):  “There is no ecological equivalent to fire. No other type of natural or man-made action yields the same benefits.”

The benefits of fire, naturally, vary according to the ecosystem or ecoregion affected. Locally, fire removes dead plant material (duff) and supports the rapid growth of plants in spring, the bare soil blackened by fire readily accepting the warming rays of the sun. The fresh green shoots may attract grazers, which may attract predators, thus fueling the nutrient cycle across trophic levels in the ecosystem. Fire hastens the recycling of nutrients back into the soil. Fire kills or injures individual woody plants, with seedlings and saplings among the most susceptible (mature trees, especially our fire-adapted species such as oaks being far less likely to be harmed). Although there are exceptions, and depending upon the timing of the burn, prescribed fire tends to favor the establishment of native plants, selectively deterring invasive species. Burning reduces the buildup of fuels and lessens the likelihood and severity of wildfire.

Since 2003, USFWS has been employing prescribed fire in the management of their lands. At Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin, habitat improvements ascribed to prescribed fire have resulted in dramatic increases in the local population of Red-headed Woodpeckers, a signature species of Midwestern oak savannas. According to USFWS, “Oak savannas survive and flourish only with the help of occasional grass fires.” Such fires throughout the Midwest favor native warm-season grasses at the expense of nonnative cool-season grasses.

So in the early spring—and again in the fall—you may see smoke on the horizon, lifting toward the heavens; you may visit your favorite natural areas to find them briefly blackened below your feet. Know that it is a good thing. After all, it’s only natural: we live on a planet of fire.