Two Weeks Until SER MWGL 10th Annual Meeting–April 20-22

Continuing Education Credits, Discounted Registration Deadline, and Call for Student Volunteers


Poster session at the SER MWGL 2017 annual meeting in Grand Rapids, Michigan 

The Midwest-Great Lakes Chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) is excited to announce that its upcoming meeting in Stevens Point, WI has been pre-approved for Continuing Education Credits (CECs) from the following organizations:

Society for Ecological Restoration (SER): 6 CECs
International Society of Arboriculture (ISA): 6 CEUs
Society of American Foresters (SAF): 22.5 CFEs

At the meeting, a ” continuing education credit passport” will be provided that you can use for tracking your attendance and independently seeking professional development hours from other organizations. Please email us ( if you are interested in obtaining continuing education credits, so we may properly sign you in to get full credit. Additional directions and the meeting passport will be available onsite at the registration table.

About the Midwest Great Lakes Chapter of SER

The Midwest-Great Lakes Chapter of SER was established in March 2008 and serves Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.  The chapter’s mission is to promote the science and practice of ecological restoration to assist with the recovery and management of degraded ecosystems throughout the Midwestern and Great Lakes region of the USA.  Click here for more information about SER MWGL

Discounted Registration Rate Still Available

We are two weeks away from the 10th Annual Meeting and there is still plenty of time to register online and obtain discounted registration rates. If you have not yet registered, then we encourage you do so before April 15, 2018 to get the discounted registration rates.  Click here for registration information.


Student Volunteers Needed

Annual meeting organizers are still seeking student volunteers to assist with onsite registration at the upcoming 2018 Midwest-Great Lakes SER Chapter Meeting in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.  Assistance is needed on Friday April 20 and Saturday April 21, 2018. Depending on the availability of funding, there may be up to 8 volunteer opportunities. Student volunteers will receive a free meeting registration in return for their help. Students will be selected on a first-come-first served basis and their availability to work one of four time blocks listed below:

Friday 7:00 am -11:00 am
Friday 11:00 am – 3:00 pm
Friday 3:00 pm – 6:30 pm
Saturday 7:00 am -11:00 am

Those interested in volunteering need to email the chapter at as soon as possible expressing your willingness to volunteer and provide information on blocks you would be available and prefer to work.

Meeting Program

We have a fantastic meeting lined up, featuring a keynote presentation by Stephen Carpenter of the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Friday and a plenary presentation by Tracy Hames of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association on Saturday.  Click here for more information about the meeting program.

Meeting Host and Sponsors

We are grateful for the generous support of this year’s meeting hosts (University of Wionsin-Stevens Point’s Lakes Extension and College of Natural Resources) and our meeting sponsors (Applied Ecological Services, Atwell, Cardno, Cindy Crosby-Northwestern University Press, Eco Logic LLC, Eco-Resource Consulting, Environmental Consulting & Technology, Ernst Seeds, Genesis Nursery, Grand Valley State University, Landscapes of Place, Metro Consulting Associates, Partnership for River Restoration and Science in the Upper Midwest, Stantec, The Nature Conservancy, University of Northern Iowa Tallgrass Prairie Center, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Wisconsin Wetlands Association).

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Monarchs Are in Trouble and They Need Everyone’s Help

Ecological restoration, civic engagement, and people working for the common good will be components of a successful monarch recovery strategy

The annual monarch migration is one of the most magnificent and intriguing of all natural phenomena but this natural spectacle is at risk, risk of vanishing as monarch populations continue to decline. This is because the monarch population of the central U.S. flyway is in decline.



Monarch butterfly on Showy Blazizingstar

Monarch butterfly on Showy Blazizingstar, a good nectar plant that is suitable for the home garden.

We know from on-site monitoring that monarch numbers on their overwintering sites are decreasing. For the third year in a row the forest areas occupied by the overwintering adult monarch butterfly population in Mexico has declined, according to a report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which conducts the monitoring.

In December of 2017, 9 colonies in Mexico covered a forest area of 2.48 hectares,   “an area that represents a decrease of 14.77 percent with respect to the previous season (2.91 ha).”, according to the report released on March 5, 2018. By comparison the forest area occupied by adult monarchs in 2015-16 was 4.01 hectares.

Habitat Loss in the Eastern United States

In the Midswest, research and monitoring of monarchs has provided strong evidence that the primary threat to monarchs in the eastern U.S. is due to loss of breeding habitat (Pleasants and Oberhauser 2012, Pleasants 2015, Monarch Joint Venture). Breeding habitat includes milkweed (Asclepias species) host plants for monarch eggs and caterpillars, and nectar plants for the adult butterflies.


Upon release, a netted and tagged monarch kisses a visitor before heading south on its flight to Mexico.

The Biology and Migration of the Monarch Butterfly

Monarch Joint Venture provides a description of the monarch life cycle and a video of a monarch emerging from its chrysalis here.   An overview of monarch migration from Monarch Joint Venture is found here.

There is Urgency.

What can you do? Plant milkweed species, lots of them, and then add nectar plants.

Experts estimate that an additional 1.8 billion milkweed stems are needed in the central U.S. monarch flyway (Billions more milkweeds needed to restore monarch) to support monarch reproduction and migration. This many milkweed stems (Asclepias species) are required for the caterpillars (monarch caterpillars can eat only milkweed leaves), as well as plentiful nectar plants like asters, goldenrods, and blazingstars, for the adults butterflies.

The 2018 Monarch Conservation Implementation Plan calls for: “an approach that engages “all hands” and “all regions” to most effectively support the eastern population. The South Central region plays a significant role in supporting both the spring and fall migrations.”

Beautiful butterfly weed on the Odana Rd. Prairie.

A neighborhood organized and managed native prairie planting project along the SW Bike Path in Madison.  Photo by Stephen B. Glass.


It will take a big, united effort to accomplish this feat. Everyone needs to get involved in the effort to save the monarch. Every nook and cranny of unused land; every plot of waste space, every backyard garden, every restoration project needs to be devoted to plants that support the monarchs.

Vacant lots, bike path rights-of-way, and community gardens are ideal spaces in which to create butterfly gardens—with both milkweed stems for the caterpillars, and nectar sources for the adults.

Every interested person has to help.  If you have not yet ordered your milkweed plants or seeds, do so soon to have them ready for planting in just a few weeks.  Look to native plant sales, or native plant nurseries as reliable sources of plants, seeds, and information and tips about growing butterfly gardens.



Pleasants, J.M., and Oberhauser, K.S.. 2012. Milkweed loss in agricultural fields because of herbicide use: effect on the monarch butterfly population. Insect Conservation and Diversity. 6:135–144

Pleasants, J.M. 2015. Monarch butterflies and agriculture in Monarchs in a changing world: biology and conservation of an iconic butterfly. Ed: KS Oberhauser, Kelly R Nail, Sonia Alitzer. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Posted in Monarch butterfly, Monarch migration, Restoration ecology | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Faith In A Seed: Prairie Restorationists at Work Collecting Seed

Seed-based restoration is one of several methods used to establish or enhance restorations.  This method is widely used in prairie restorations in the midwestern United States, and in grasslands world wide.  Seed-based restoration is especially popular with organizations that place an emphasis on local ecotype origin, and diversity.  Seed-based restoration also requires good organization and large numbers of volunteers to collect, clean, and sow the seeds.


Seed collecting at The Prairie Enthusiasts Mounds View Grassland.  Recruiting volunteers for fall seed collecting is easy, especially on glorious, crisp fall days like the ones pictured here from a couple of years ago.  Photo by Steve Glass.

“Collecting seed from remnants near the restoration site has several advantages, the most significant one being that the origin of the seeds is known.  Given the proximity to the restoration site, the plants and their seeds are likely to be of a local ecotype that is adapted to the site conditions.” (Howell, Harrington, and Glass. 2012).    The use of seed  does have drawbacks, including the time required for germination and establishment, as well as often high rates of loss due to predation.


Tall grass prairie. Photo by Steve Glass

Other disadvantages of the seed-based approach include scarcity of high quality remnant sites from which to collect all of the target species.  Seed availability may also be low due to weather conditions that impact flowering and seed production.  For example, either drought or wet years can influence seed production of different species in different ways.


Showy goldenrod, one of the collecting target species and ready for the picking.  Photo by Steve Glass.

There are other disadvantages to collecting seed from remnants.  It may be difficult to collect any (or enough) seed because: 1)the species of interest may be widely scattered across a large landscape; 2) of a low or hidden stature; or 3) have explosive seeds that disperse before the collector arrives.  These facts of prairie life may sometimes make collection of adequate quantities difficult or impossible.


Multi-tasking.  Photo by Steve Glass.

To overcome these constraints some organizations that plant hundreds of acres at a time supplement wild collected seed with that collected from plants grown under controlled and tended conditions in nursery settings.  This approach gives them a fighting chance to produce adequate quantities of seed to meet their restoration targets.



Collecting still gentian.  Photo by Steve Glass.

Although collecting native seed from remnants is enjoyable and easy to learn, it does require guidance and knowledgeable help from local experts (above) who can identify the species, know the location of local ecotypes, determine if the seeds are ripe enough to collect, and ensure that the local population are not over-collected.


Harvesting in bulk for prairie restoration projects; good work for one season.  But next comes the cleaning, sorting, and weighing.  Photo by Steve Glass.



Black, M.R., E.J. Judziewicz,  2009.  Wildflowers of Wisconsin and The Great Lakes Region.  University of Wisconsin Press.  Madison, WI

Howell, E.A., J.A. Harrington, and S.B. Glass.  2012. Introduction to Restoration Ecology. Island Press. Washington, D.C.

Rock, H.W. 1974. Prairie Propagation Handbook.  Boerner Botanical Gardens, Whitnall Park.  Milwaukee County Park System.



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Images of Winter on the Prairie

Snow-covered Curtis Prairie

The prairie continually renews itself by adapting to, and changing with the conditions.  I like to think that visitors to the prairie absorb some of the optimism, sturdiness, and flexibility inherent in the prairie ecosystem.

Curtis Prairie under a late winter snow cover. 2014-01-29DSCN0303March 09, 2009

This image from 2009, is one of my favorite photos of Curtis Prairie, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  I like the cheerful, promising early morning light.

At least once a week I walk over to the Madison Arboretum to visit Curtis Prairie.  I’m fortunate that it is a short distance away.  I enjoy the prairie in the winter because of the peace, quiet, and solitude.  And I take delight in  the wildlife I can see if I look closely.

Curtis Prairie is striking at all times, but especially in the winter when covered by snow.  I always take along my camera and try to capture a few good images.  These are some of my favorites from over the years.


The Jackson Oak

The famed Jackson Oak, named after Joseph Jackson, one of the Arboretum’s founding elders.  Damage to the trunk and limbs from an ice storm in the winter of 1976-77 led to its gradual decline.   Even in death the old oak is majestic.

The beauty of the winter prairie is in the details of stem and leaf; twig and trunk.  In part, the prairie’s beauty is also in its many subtle shades and hues of brown, red, orange, and black.

Bird's next with eggs 612014-01-28DSCN9578January 28, 2008

The winter landscape also signals the coming renewal of spring.

Curtis Prairie is more than just a prairie.  It is a mosaic of different plant community types: prairie, wetland, sedge meadow, springs, storm water ponds, and shrub thickets, among others.  This diverse landscape explains some of its flexibility and why it is such great habitat for birds, insects, amphibians, mammals and, of course, the humans who enjoy visiting.

Curtis Prairie under a late winter snow cover. 32014-01-29DSCN0304March 09, 2009

Looking west out onto Curtis Prairie, a  March sunrise highlights the red osier dogwood . 

In early March, the winter stems of  red osier dogwood (Cornus sanguina) in this natural wetland area in Curtis Prairie, have already turned red, anticipating the arrival of spring.

The promise of spring and better things ahead are how I want to think about 2018, especially after all we have been through in 2017.   Let’s bid 2017 a farewell, take what lessons we can,  and look forward to 2018 with optimism, and the recognition that lots of hard work lies ahead if we are to shake off the effects of 2017 and get back on track.


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Water Is Life

Water is life. Without water, we die. Access to clean, plentiful water is a human necessity and right.   But human activities are abusing this vital force and future public access to water is now in doubt. We are the abusers and the abused. We are being systematically dispossessed of this essential component of human life.

Drip by drop, we misuse, abuse, pollute, and waste water.

DSC_0207 2

Arboretum Big Spring provides about 350 gallons per minute of pure spring water to Lake Wingra.

Recent Legislative Actions

The U.S. Congressional Republicans in February, 2017 rolled back an Obama era regulation called the Stream Protection Rule. The regulation was designed to prevent coal mining companies from dumping mining waste into streams. Repeal of the rule will now give mining companies free rein to pollute waters nationwide.

Implicit Permission

At best, society overlooks its water resources; at worst humans abuse water resources in countless ways, either through ignorance, carelessness, or greed. The misuse of water is so ubiquitous and such a part of day-to-day life that we don’t even notice what is going on. We have been conditioned by society to ignore the harm we cause.

So let’s remind ourselves of the ways in which society abuses water resources.   And, by society, I mean our culture in general and each of us in particular.

Our infrastructure (highways, streets, roofs and parking lots) is designed to transform basic rainfall into a toxic substance.   We tragically and automatically turn rain it into storm water, send it down the drain, add soil and contaminants on the way, and then send it into the local lake ( from which we often draw our drinking water.)  And for snow, we do the same plus we add sand and road salt for good measure and plow the disgusting mess out of our way.


Leaves headed for the storm drain at Wingra Park.

Rainfall flows into:

  • Storm drains
  • Culverts
  • Underground pipes
  • Erosion channels
  • Storm water channels, and ditches
  • Storm water ponds
  • Ground water in our basements is pumped into the street and down the storm drain.
  • Divert storm water into streams, lakes, and wetlands.

These abusive habits have become so ingrained, and such an automatic way of daily life and doing business that we rarely notice or stop to think about what we are doing, let alone the implications of our actions.


City of Madison Storm water detention Pond #5 in the UW-Madison Arboretum.

As long as society gives its implicit permission to government and managers to continue these practices, we are complicit in the abuse of water, and by definition, abuse of life.


Eliminating Wetland Protections in Wisconsin

More recently, in September 2017 the Republicans who control both branches of the Wisconsin State Legislature, proposed legislation that would strip protections from Wisconsin’s non-federal wetlands so that developers could more easily drain and/or fill them. More than 1 million acres, or about 20% of the State’s wetlands, would be left unprotected from developers, who can do such things as:

  • Construct pipelines and transmission lines through wetlands and other water bodies.
  • Celebrate the Fourth of July by discharging fireworks (and their pollutants) over lakes and wetlands.
  • Use herbicides in streams and wetland edges
  • Let pollutants and chemicals run off of driveways, parking lots, and roads into waterways.
  • Let sewage overflow and spill into waterways.
  • Let manure run into streams, creeks, rivers, and wetlands.

Other Fundamental Abuses of Water

We use and abuse water when we alter a region’s hydrological regime (the timing, duration, and extent of water flow). Or when we contaminate water with chemicals and other pollutants (rendering it unsafe to drink, swim in, or use for bathing.  Or when we exhaust ground water resources.  Or when we disturb or destroy water bodies such as streams, river, lakes, and wetlands.

For example, society allows government and commercial exploiters of the environments (often incorrectly called “developers”) to:

  • Cause chemical spills into water bodies, ground water and surface water.
  • Let cows graze in sedge meadows.
  • Destroy springs by over-pumping ground water or building on top of springs.
  • Throw litter into water bodies.
  • Fill in and build on top of wetlands.

In summer 2017 a City of Madison Streets Division reconstruction project in the Dudgeon-Monroe Neighborhood hit a vein of ground water (in an area known to contain many springs).  The project temporarily shut down until workers could pump all the water out and down the nearby storm drain, where it headed to Lake Wingra.

Gold and Silver Mining

On Monday December 11, 2017 Gov. Scott Walker, Republican of Wisconsin signed legislation revoking a 20 year moratorium on gold and silver mining in northern Wisconsin.   Gov. Walker scoffed at the concerns of conservationists that resuming mining will lead to massive and devastating pollution from sulfide drainage.

Gold, silver, copper, zinc and other metals are typically bonded to sulfur. Such compounds produce sulfuric acid when exposed to oxygen and water, creating the potential for polluted runoff nto wetlands and other water bodies.

In 1998, lawmakers from both parties (including Scott Walker himself) put the sulfide mining ban in place to prevent the kind of environmental damage that can result from sulfide mining.

Water is misused, abused, polluted, and wasted when we:

  • Drain wetlands.
  • Dam up streams, creeks, and rivers.
  • Channelize streams, creeks, and rivers.
  • Dump coal mining waste into streams.
  • Dump sulfuric mine waste into streams, and wetlands.
  • Use lead water pipes to transfer drinking water.
Cherokee Drive storm water channel from the SW Bike Path to Nakoma Park.

A storm water channel in Nakoma Park, Madison, WI.  This is not a natural stream but one created by rushing storm water.  Note the unfortunate oaks whose roots have been exposed as the soil has washed away (“downstream” to the Arboretum and Lake Wingra.)

The legislature’s opening of northern Wisconsin to sulfide mining is ill-informed, short-sighted, misguided, and a needless assault on the environment and common-sense environmental precautions and protections.

Society has (or had) laws and regulations to protect ourselves from soiling our own nest, and from degrading and exploiting the natural resources upon which we depend. But, these environmental regulations are being weakened, and in some cases, eliminated.

We may think we don’t have to power to stop the legislative assault or to halt the diminishment of the Earth.  And, as long as we give our implicit consent to these practices we continue to abdicate our moral responsibility to the Earth, to our fellow citizens, and future generations.


A storm water detention pond in Curtis Prairie, UW-Madison Arboretum.  Native soil eroded over the past 20 years has created a small wetland delta on the southern edge of the prairie.

Once we regain consciousness and begin to resist then we can start to regain our power to protect and heal the Earth.


Posted in Abuse of water, diminishment of the Earth, Restoration ecology, Water is life | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Yahara Watershed Academy Accepting Applications


From the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, comes this announcement of the second Yahara Watershed Academy. Because the WingraSprings blog serves the Lake Wingra Watershed, a sub-watershed of the Yahara River Watershed, in this blog post we are reprinting the announcement in its entirety

Madison’s second Yahara Watershed Academy is now accepting applications to fill limited spots in the 2018 class. We would like to inform you of this opportunity and ask you to share it with your networks. Applications are due January 5th.



A private trout stream and tributary to Token Creek in Dane County, Wisconsin near the headwaters of the Yahara River.

What is the Academy?

This program brings together current and aspiring community leaders to tackle today’s land and water resources challenges. Participants will learn from experts, participate in hands-on activities, and develop projects to better our Yahara Watershed communities. Ultimately, the Academy will cultivate a cohort of leaders and change-makers for local land and water.

The Academy is founded by Clean Lakes Alliance, Aldo Leopold Nature Center and Sustain Dane, and merges the educational leadership of the University of Wisconsin’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, Edgewood College’s Social Innovation & Sustainability Leadership Graduate Program, and Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District.

How will I benefit?

  • Official recognition from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Edgewood College through continuing education and/or course completion credits.
  • Fun and engaging experiences that will leave you with a deeper awareness of the science, policies, and behaviors affecting watershed health and sustainability.
  • Exposure to decision-making frameworks and other resources that support the implementation of chosen project initiatives.
  • Access to an active network of fellow students, instructors, and experts who can serve as ongoing resources and collaborators.
  • Invitations to all future alumni events to share case study successes and explore ideas for future collaborations.


What can I expect?

Five full-day courses are held the second Tuesday of the month at various indoor and outdoor Madison-area venues (February through June 2018). Classroom exercises and field trips will cover the following topics: lake and watershed science, climate impacts, the “land ethic,” economic and health connections, and systems-thinking approaches to problem solving.

The standard course fee is $600, but discounted rates and scholarships are available. There are no prerequisites other than a desire to learn and apply new understandings and skills to better our community.

Please visit to learn more and complete an online application. Questions? Contact Issis Macias,

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Fall is The Time to Sow Milkweed Seeds


Whorled milkweed, (Asclepius verticillata).  Photo by Steve Glass.


More Milkweed Plants

If you, like me, want more milkweed plants in your butterfly or pollinator garden next summer, now is the time to get started. You can sow seeds outdoors this fall either in pots, in flats, or directly in the ground.  After a period of cold stratification, seeds will germinate next spring and blooming plants will be ready in 2-3 years.

Species of milkweed, and many other native plants that attract beneficial insects, germinate easily from seed after period of winter cold outdoors. Spring seedlings can be transplanted to larger containers the first or second growing season or when the second set of true leaves appears. They will usually bloom the second or third growing season.

The three species of milkweed most commonly cultivated in Wisconsin—common, marsh, and butterfly milkweed—can all be grown from seed by this method.


Seeds of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) ready to be sown. Photo by Steve Glass.

Strive for Diversity

Each year I add a few native plants to my prairie garden, using this method, in hopes of increasing the number and kind of species that are attractive to native bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects. I look for plants that provide habitat, or serve as pollen, nectar, or food sources for as many of our native insects as possible.

“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee

One clover and a bee

And reverie

The reverie alone will do

If bees are few”


           —Emily Dickinson

By growing from seed you can save some money over the cost of mature plants. In addition—if seeds are obtained from known and trusted sources—you can be assured that the seed is from a local source and appropriate for your region. But more importantly, from an ecological perspective, by growing from seed (rather than purchasing identical cloned plants) you can boost the genetic diversity of local plant populations.

To obtain seeds, do not collect from nature preserves or other wild places without permission. In fact, check first with local conservation organizations or native plant societies as they may make milkweed seeds available to you either free or at a nominal cost as part of their education programs.

Butterflies and Milkweed

My experience last summer tells me my garden needs more—lots more—milkweed plants; perhaps several dozen more.

Although this past summer I reared and released 22 monarch butterflies from eggs and caterpillars found on more than two dozen milkweed plants in my prairie garden, there could have been more butterflies headed to Mexico late last summer if my gardens grew more milkweed.

Milkweeds are essential because monarch butterflies (Danaus plexipus) lay their eggs only on milkweed leaves and the caterpillars eat only milkweed leaves.   This is an obligatory relationship: no milkweeds means no monarchs.

Simply put, there were not nearly enough milkweed plants in my gardens to host and provide food for as many of the monarch butterfly caterpillars that I had hoped would temporarily call my Monarch Way Station home.

My resolution is that next summer there will be more milkweeds in the garden so I am starting production now.   This fall I will be sowing seeds of common, marsh, and butterfly milkweed in flats and letting them overwinter outdoors.

I’ll also plant several varieties of blazing stars and gay feathers (liatris), asters, and goldenrods to provide nectar for the adult butterflies.

Getting Started


Milkweed seeds sown 3 to a cell in a seedling tray.

It’s easy, fun, and satisfying to grow plants from seed.  Follow these steps:

  1. Use individual pots or a seedling tray with individual planting cells at least 3” deep and fill with a good quality commercial grade potting soil.
  2. Sow 2-3 seeds per pot or seedling tray cell and cover with a layer of soil about as thick as the seeds (about 1/8” to ¼”).
  3. Cover the soil surface with a thin layer of coarse sand to prevent the seeds from washing away in a rain.
  4. Label each pot or seedling tray with the species name and date planted.
  5. Water thoroughly and cover with hardware cloth or other wire mesh to prevent rodents from getting at the seeds.
  6. Keep moist until the soil freezes
  7. Keep outside or in an un-heated garage where the pots/seedling flats will stay frozen until spring.
  8. Resume watering in the spring and look for tiny seedlings to appear.
  9. Thin the seedlings to one per cell.
  10. Transplant individual plants to larger containers after the second set of true leaves appears.


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Emily Dickinson Offers Advice on Prairie Restoration

Rock outcrops on Picnic Hill, Swamplovers Foundation

Rock outcrops on Picnic Hill, a prairie restoration at The Swamplovers Foundation.

Those of us who restore prairies—or plant new ones from scratch—continue to debate, research, and discuss the proper way to go about it. What are our goals? Should we strive for complete restoration that matches, species-by-species, our image of virgin prairie or should we be content with a much simpler version that provides wildlife habitat and urban beautification? We wonder about the appropriate species mix, the best time to plant, and the preferred methods, tools and techniques that yield the desired outcomes.

Whether we are working on restoring prairie—or any other kind of ecosystem—our answers have as much to do with science and the history and circumstances of the restoration site as it does with our visions and dreams, art and desire.

As it turns out, Emily Dickinson, the American poet (1830-1886) addressed the subject of making a prairie more than 130 years ago.   In a short, and surprisingly prescient poem that anticipated the practice of ecological restoration she boiled down the process to its fundamental essence and described the basic ingredients that go into making a prairie.

What is Ecological Restoration?

According to the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) “Ecological Restoration is he process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.” In my view, this includes an attempt to provide the conditions under which the products of history—plants, animals, communities, and ecosystems—can continue to thrive.

The Poem

Emily Dickinson wrote nearly 1800 poems, most of them hidden away, unpublished, and little known (except to close family) until after her death. Because Dickinson did not date her poems, it is not known in what year Dickinson wrote To Make A Prairie.   In lieu of a date written, Dickinson’s poems are assigned numbers, in alphabetical order of the first line.   “To Make a Prairie” is # 1755

 “To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,

One clover, and a bee.

And revery.

The revery alone will do,

If bees are few.”

What is she saying here? Her recipe sounds too simple to be true. Is she confused about what it takes to restore, or make a prairie from scratch? Those of us, who toil in this field, know that restoration requires much effort over many years. The job includes lots of hard work that is both tedious and backbreaking: collecting seeds, eradicating weeds, preparing the soil, and working under the hot prairie sun.

No, she was not confused about what might go into such an effort.

Dickinson did not, as far as we know, visit a prairie but as a life-long gardener and a student of botany, she was quite familiar with the effort required to create and tend a garden—which utilizes some of the same methods and tools that a prairie restoration does. In her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts—which she rarely traveled beyond—she was famed both for her beautiful garden that she tended with dedication and for the lavish bouquets she shared with friends. Her poems that accompanied the bouquets received less attention at the time.


Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea)

I believe she was speaking of ecological restoration (or other restorative acts such as native plant gardening) as distinguished from traditional perennial gardening.   In traditional perennial gardening the focus is on the individual plant and does not require, or necessarily encourage, ecological relationships of the type that exist between a clover and a bee in a prairie.   In a traditional perennial garden, one can have a clover without a bee.

In this poem she captures the mechanics and magic of ecological restoration and evokes the imagery and imagination that inspires and energizes those of us who work to repair the damaged earth. Although Dickinson wrote about making prairies long ago, I think her words speak to restoration ecologists today, everywhere, no matter whether their work is in tall grass prairies, the boreal forest, or coral reefs.

But Dickinson was onto something else in this poem. In addition to science, ecological restoration requires art, imagination, and desire. Dickinson could see this. Thus, the key to understanding “To Make a Prairie” is “reverie.”   But first, let’s go through the poem line-by-line.

A Closer Look

“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee” Dickinson is referring both to the species and the species relationships that comprise an existing prairie, and of course suggests that if a human wanted to make a prairie, these co-dependent species must be included in the mix.

“It takes a clover and one bee” To emphasize the point, Dickinson repeats herself.

The clover and the bee are important parts of the prairie and the two go together: the clover needs the bee for pollination and the bee needs the clover’s pollen. She was saying that the prairie is an ecosystem—decades before scientists in the early 1900’s even developed the concept of ecology, let alone what we have come to understand as its underlying principles.

In these two lines Dickinson demonstrates first a sophisticated understanding of ecological relationships and ecosystem functioning (mutualistic relationships between species, critical ecosystem functions like wildlife habitat, and ecological services such as pollination and provisioning of food.) Insights she probably gained from working in and observing her garden. As I said, it is not known if she ever visited an eastern prairie but because scattered prairie remnants occur throughout the east it is possible that she did.  Certainly Dickinson could have received first-hand accounts of the prairie from friends and discussed them with explorers who had seen the prairie.

Secondly, she is suggesting that the prairie needs both the clover and the bee to make it a prairie.

And thirdly, by repeating the first line she indicates that to make a prairie the step must be repeated over and over and also with other species pairs as well.

These are ecological concepts that represent current thinking but were visions, only in the minds of poets, when Dickinson was working.

“And revery” The modern spelling of the work is “reverie”.   Reverie unlocks the poem and is the key to my understanding what Dickinson was talking about and provides to modern readers a new insight into the fantastic—perhaps delusional—notion of ecological restoration.

Reverie has several meanings.  In one sense it means   “A state of being pleasantly lost in one’s thoughts; a daydream.” In the Oxford American Dictionary Reverie: n. 1 A fit of abstracted musing (was lost in a reverie), 2. Archaic: a fantastic notion or theory; a delusion. 3. Music, an instrumental piece suggesting a dreamy or musing state. But it is the second meaning, the archaic one, “a fantastic notion or theory; a delusion” I think, that Dickinson intended in this poem.


This is a poem, according to the musician Elizabeth Alexander, “about dreams and creation.”

By extension, the poem suggests that without dreams, fantastic notions or theories, and personal delusions we would never get started on a crazy project. This applies especially to the job of ecological restoration.

Emily Dickinson understood all this.

A Harbinger

The poem, I think, anticipates the field of endeavor that has become ecological restoration.  Ecological restoration is a task that is hard and time-consuming work filled with practical tasks: pulling weeds, working and preparing the soil, gathering and sowing seeds, battling pest plants, conducting prescribed management fires and then doing it all over again, year after year with very little chance of achieving your desired outcomes.  But there is another side to ecological restoration.

To make a prairie”, refers on the one hand to the hard to practical work done by earnest, well-meaning people. But, with the introduction of “Reverie” Dickinson alludes to the other side of making a prairie—the likelihood that few people in their right minds would undertake to restore a prairie without reverie.  Such an undertaking, laced as it is with uncertainties and unknowns,  amounts to a “fanciful or impractical idea or theory”; a “fantastic notion or theory; a delusion.

“And revery alone will do

if bees are few”

Perhaps what Dickinson is hinting at is that is that “reverie”, the delusion or fanciful thinking is required to get the restoration project started in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that the project may be futile and ill advised.

Reverie sustains many an ecological restorationist through tough times of uncertainty and scarcity.   Emily Dickinson understood this.   It is about the vision and dream; about getting started, about art and desire.   As Cynthia Malone says,

“Maybe the poem is suggesting that we begin making something long before we know enough, and long before we pick up our tools.”

This is how many a restoration begins: without having all the parts or even knowing what all of the missing pieces are. But we begin with a dream and a vision—as unrealistic as it may be—and a desire to learn how to get the job done.

“The Only Teller of News”

Dickinson anticipated, and wrote about what we know today as ecological restoration, at least 50 years before Leopold’s work at The Shack and in the UW-Madison Arboretum.   “To Make a Prairie” was written at least 100 years before ecological restoration became a widespread practice in the mid-1980’s.  But how did a person who probably never visited a prairie have these insights? How could Dickinson have anticipated and written about ecological restoration over 130 years ago?

Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson gives an answer in his essay “The Poet”

“The poet is “The only one capable of articulating the transcendent nature of things, the poet is the one who can identify “symbols” and “emblems” of the world.”

“The sign and credentials of the poet are, that he announces that which no man foretold. He is the true and only doctor; he knows and tells; he is the only teller of news,”




Posted in Art and ecological restoration, Ecological restoration, Poetry about ecological restoration, Prairie restoration, Restoration ecology | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments