Reflections of a Goose Pond Sanctuary Land Steward

I’ve had so many wonderful experiences as the Goose Pond Sanctuary Land Steward. Some memories stand out and seem to define my time here, while others lose all their sharpness and instead coalesce into something like background music, except that this background music is made up of whistling swans and rustling prairie grasses. I’ve attempted to share a bit of both of these types of memory here. I hope that these reflections will add something to your own savored memories of nature and conservation.

Wildlife

Goose Pond Sanctuary is first and foremost a sanctuary for plants and animals. The plants support the diverse wildlife that call this place home. The people do their best to support the whole system however they can. We are rewarded, in turn, with glimpses of our furred and feathered friends, and something more. A feeling of being part of all. I have enjoyed the wildlife of Goose Pond in all the seasons:

  Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

I love the birds of winter. The busyness at our feeders, the high-flying rough-legged hawks that silently cast shadows over the still, white landscape, and, if we’re lucky, the short-eared and snowy owls. I will never forget the night that Mark sent me and Caleb, a former intern, out to do one last owl scout at the end of a bitterly cold day in December. We drove around for the better part of an hour with no luck. Then, pausing up near the UW quarry, in one of those happy twists where the rock you thought you saw turns out to be an owl, Caleb spotted a short-eared owl hunkered down on a fencepost. A moment later we saw another short-ear glide silently over the same field.  This was enough to buoy us and as it was very nearly dark, we started to head back to the house. On our way we drove past the pond and the snags of cottonwoods that hug the east pond. It took us a moment to realize that we had driven right past a snowy owl sitting on the shorter snag.  We carefully backed up and observed it for a moment before it flushed, and flew over the west pond to land on the ice, alarming the few brave Canada geese that remained this late in the season. In a matter of minutes a seemingly fruitless owl prowl had turned into a threefold sighting. We were delighted and so was Mark!

As spring arrives, the pond floods with waterfowl and the birds begin to brush up on their dancing in preparation for mating season. It’s always a joy to see the sandhill cranes hopping, bowing, and sweeping their huge graceful wings for their mates. Likewise, the drama of the northern harrier skydance is hard to beat. All this bravado leads to the happy observations of early summer. I can recall one morning when, all alone and heading up the trail in the Kubota, I saw a hen turkey up ahead on the trail. I stopped the vehicle and sat still to watch 10, 11, 12, 13 or more turkey chicks stumble across the trail, the last one dawdling well behind the others, until it looked up and, seeing itself alone, took off like a shot into the tall grasses. Another unforgettable family moment was when, working with the interns, we flushed a female harrier. Approaching the area where she flew, we were treated to the sight of her nest, complete with two feisty chicks who glared up at us with open bills before dashing off the nest and into the prairie at surprising speed. We took off with speed ourselves so as not to disturb them further.

  Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

With the harrier we were lucky enough to get a strong clue that set us on the trail of the nest, but sometimes a wildlife sighting will take you (and perhaps the animal) utterly by surprise. My first badger sighting was like this. I was driving down a trail in Sue Ames Prairie with two of the interns. We were finishing up for the day and our minds were pleasantly elsewhere, thinking about summer evening plans. We rounded a deep bend in the trail to a part of the prairie where the trail slopes up steeply ahead. There, lumbering quickly up the trail was a badger! So large, so flat and bulky, they look like fat, muscular cats when trotting away. It was such an unexpected and delightful surprise to see the badger that we didn’t act quickly enough. Afraid that if I pulled out my phone to try to photograph it I’d spend the best viewing moments squinting at a little screen, I didn’t even try. I just soaked in the moment. Our friend jumped in a hole he had dug as soon as he noticed us, but being a curious weasel, the longer we silently sat there the more regularly he poked his head out of the hole. We got several good looks at him, and he at us, before we eased out of the prairie in the opposite direction.

In the heat of summer, the prairie wildflowers are the pleasantest way of marking the passing of the season. Unfortunately, the invasive weeds are just as regular a timepiece. Well past parsnip season and deep into the drudgery of sweet clover season, a late afternoon can drag on slower than your feet through the lush prairie as you fight your way out to an isolated clone. It’s there, digging and pulling and sweating and hoping you’ve found the last of it (and you never have), that the sweet call of the Eastern meadowlark might make you pause. You will look around for the bird, and maybe spot it, or maybe not. But either way, that momentary lapse in your single-minded pursuit has caused you to observe the beauty around you. The call of the meadowlark reminds you why you’re there in the sweetest way possible.

In fall the waterfowl return to the pond in full force. Every morning is a scavenger hunt, counting the birds on the pond, feeling that rush of adrenaline when you spot something new (a raft of redheads!), or in great quantities (100 snow geese!). Even better, long satisfying days collecting and sorting prairie seed blend into cool, dark nights where the last sounds you hear before falling asleep are the honking and splashing and whistling of the ducks, geese and swans. One fall night Aaron and I heard a great-horned owl hooting around dusk, a pack of coyotes yipping in the middle of the night, and a pheasant barking us awake in the morning; all this vying to be heard over the cacophony coming off the pond. Whoever said it was quiet living in the country?!

  Mark Martin, Susan Foote-Martin, and Maddie Dumas. MAS Photo

Mark Martin, Susan Foote-Martin, and Maddie Dumas. MAS Photo

People

One of the benefits of working for an environmental non-profit is that it attracts the kind of people who not only share your values, and passion for ecology (the “bird nerds”), but also some of the hardest working, most active, and cheerful people. I have been privileged to work with volunteers from all walks of life; everyone from experts in the field of restoration ecology, to skilled retirees who share their talents and professional expertise with us, to children with a young person’s delight in colorful flowers and fluttering wings, to eager students of all ages. The nature of the work we do is such that it tends to bring out the best in people; physical work makes our bodies feel alive, being in wide open spaces encourages social interaction while working, and doing something positive makes us feel good about ourselves and each other, so the already wonderful people who choose to work with us, are even more of a joy to work with. How many jobs have that benefit?

The more work you do for the sanctuary, the more you feel connected to the place. Though I may have had the official title of “land steward,” anyone who cares about Goose Pond and has given part of themselves to it is also a steward. I’ve experienced this protectiveness first-hand over the years. Once, when I was an intern, I forgot my lunch. Aaron kindly drove it up to Goose Pond for me. We were working in Hopkins Road Prairie and Mark told me to have him drive on in to where we were. Imagine the loudest, oldest Pontiac Grand Prix in Wisconsin appearing to float towards you on a raft of prairie grasses. It was a pretty funny sight. Before he had even reached us though, Mark got a call on his phone. A well-meaning “steward” had noticed the car driving into the prairie where it shouldn’t have been, and had called Mark to alert him. It had only been about a minute since Aaron turned into the prairie! But had it been someone else, a coyote hunter, a confused sight-seer, we could’ve prevented harm to people, prairie and wildlife much sooner thanks to our watchful steward.

  Maddie (upper left) with the 2015 Goose Pond/Prairie Partner summer interns. MAS Photo

Maddie (upper left) with the 2015 Goose Pond/Prairie Partner summer interns. MAS Photo

Working with the interns was another great part of this job. Since I began not so very long ago, as an intern myself, I was always happy to give whatever guidance I could, to clarify things that I remembered finding confusing when I was an intern, and, later, to write references and forward along job opportunities. Just starting out, many of them state their intentions to make a career in restoration ecology. After an intense summer doing restoration work, some of them might be galvanized in their desire to work in restoration, while some might redirect their career focus. No matter what, it’s gratifying to work with them and, hopefully, help them on their career path.

The overall memories of working with the interns are wonderful, but in any physical job there are days that sap your energy to the core. Of course this counts double on days of high heat and humidity. I have memories of one specific day that could have been any of a dozen other days: We were working in a newer prairie planting that had grown lush and tall, walking way out into the prairie where the humidity shoots up near sauna levels. I was going around with the power brush cutter taking down clones of reed canary grass while one of the interns followed behind me with a backpack sprayer to treat them. The others were digging massive musk thistles with shovels. In an adjacent field a farmer was driving around on the tractor kicking up dust that floated over us and settled on our sweaty skin. Even the wildlife was tired and there were no bird calls or fluttering butterflies in sight. I could sense the patience with this project was fraying all around me, and I considered changing activities for the last hour of the day, when suddenly I got the friendliest call. Our hero Mark Martin wanted to take us out for ice cream! The mood improved instantly when I made the announcement. A good leader knows that a well-earned ice cream cone is sometimes the most important tool.

Plants

  Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

Where to begin talking about the plants?! As a botanist at heart, it was always the prairie that drew me to restoration ecology more than anything else. On the individual scale, the delight I take from a blossom of cream wild indigo cascading down the hillside is nearly matched by my frustration at stumbling upon another clone of reed canary grass. But ultimately, the diverse blanket of the prairie is too dazzling to get bogged down by the invasives. After all, we work hard to keep the undesirable plants in check, and the rest of the prairie takes care of itself.

Just as a monarch butterfly prefers a showy goldenrod, and a song sparrow loves to rest on an old field thistle, I have plants that I am especially attracted to. I can categorize these by season: I’m biased to prefer the spring vegetation. We lack many of the earliest blooming species at Goose Pond -- no pasqueflower or prairie violets for us -- so some of the first flowers to color our fields are shooting stars. In a good year, particularly a burn year, the shooting stars can color a whole swath of prairie white and pink. Next up are the golden Alexanders. Far outnumbering the shooting stars, they turn our prairies yellow-green and signal the real start of the field season. Next to bloom are the lupines. They contrast nicely with the golden Alexanders in both color and shape; an upright spike rather than a flat-topped umbel.

  Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

In midsummer I’m partial to the pale purple coneflowers and compass plants. The little prairie coreopsis plants seem barely able to support large, colorful yellow flowers on their flattened stalks. And the rare shot of orange from the butterfly weed is always appreciated. Later the nodding onions flower. Though less showy than some forbs, their distinctive scent is a strange, but delightful contrast to all the sweet smells of the prairie at this time.

In August the liatris species come to life. And they aren’t the only purples competing for attention. Smooth blue aster and the deep amethyst New England aster along with the goldenrods round out the season much as it began; with a purple-yellow explosion.

When the flowers are done we’re far from done in the field. Some plants have wonderful, whimsical seed heads that I love as much as any flower. Rattlesnake master for example, looks like an eighth-grade diagram of a molecule. Thimbleweed is a delight to both see and collect; firm thimbles that crumble apart into soft cotton balls when touched. White wild indigo couldn’t make a better sound when their smooth black pods hit your bucket and fill it satisfyingly quickly.

Finally, when the snow hits the ground, sometimes the only plants that stand up to it are the grasses and the silphiums. I love to see the curled brown leaves of prairie dock in winter, distinctive even in senescence. They add a special sound to the landscape too, as the wind rattles through their scratchy, curled forms.

Pick a season and the prairie will always provide something of delight. I could never forget this fact both working and living on the prairie.

Machines

  Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

Never having grown up on a farm and coming from a staunchly “bring-it-to-the-shop” type family, I certainly didn’t have a machinist’s sensibilities coming into this job.  But the great thing about the land steward position is that there is often no one else around to ask when things stop working, so you just have to figure it out. I discovered that I may, at heart, be a tinkerer after all. Granted, a novice tinkerer, but one who could quickly fix a shired pin on the mower; disassemble, attach a new motor to, then reassemble the truck-mounted herbicide pumper unit; jump-start a lawn-mower; change the front-loader on the tractor out for the seed stripper; coax a reluctant power brush cutter into life, and many other useful things that may seem modest to anyone with mechanical sense, but felt like huge accomplishments to me then, and now.

With mechanical issues on the sanctuary, when it rains, it pours. I remember once when I was the Goose Pond intern and Tony the land steward. Mark and Sue were taking a well-earned vacation and Tony and I were determined to tackle the invasive work and impress them with our accomplishments upon their return. The machines, however, had other plans.

Right away in the morning I began mixing herbicide in the truck-mounted sprayer in quantities and concentrations appropriate for reed canary grass. Tony went out on the tractor to mow some trails until we were ready to go. It wasn’t very long before I got an SOS call from Tony. When I got out to where he was, I saw one of the front tractor tires looked like it had melted into the ground, a flat! Well later I learned that a flat tire on the front of the tractor is relatively easy to fix; you use the front-loader on the tractor as a jack to lift it up, then take the nuts off the tire and, in our case, pack it off to Weber Tire in East Bristol for a new tube. But this had never happened to either of us, and by the time Tony and I had this figured out, most of the morning had slipped by.

Frustrated, but determined to salvage the day, we finished mixing the herbicide and decided to do a quick test to make sure that the pumper, which had been working fine all summer, was ready to go. Surprise, surprise, the motor clicked on just fine, made lots of noise and did nothing at all except leak herbicide into the back of the truck at an alarming rate. Of course, a smarter procedure would have been to test the pumper unit before filling it with a hundred gallons of chemical, but zeal and an unusually calm summer for mechanical breakdowns had lulled us into a false sense of security. Now we had the unpleasant task of draining the tank so that we could disassemble the motor and find out what had gone wrong. Our first hurdle was moving an incredibly heavy and full pumper unit, now partially covered in slippery herbicide, off the back of the truck and onto a large cattle tub into which we could drain the herbicide. This was actually the easy task when compared with evacuating the liquid. The drain on the bottom of the tank had probably never been opened before, and our best efforts with a plumber’s wrench were thwarted. Eventually, we decided to cut the hose in two place; once to let the herbicide drain, and again to free the motor from the tank. Before you judge, come on out to Goose Pond and try to loosen that drain yourself! There was a cracked seal on the motor, and maybe something else wrong as well. Whatever the case, it wasn’t an immediately fixable problem.

At this point, we’d been fussing with equipment all day. We could still knock back some invasives before the end, and we figured a low-tech approach was the way to go. Enter the backpack sprayers. Nothing electric or gasoline powered there. Nothing but simple mechanics; you pump with your arms, pressure builds, you release with your finger on the trigger.  Anyway that’s how it’s supposed to work, and usually does, except on days like that day. The sprayer I was trying to use would build up the pressure and then never release it. Sometimes there are issues that I think must have been caused by ghosts. Everything seems to work fine one day, then the next an inexplicable mechanical failure. The backpack sprayer was definitely haunted. I believe we ended the day by digging parsnips with shovels.

Of course the frustrating breakdowns and mechanical failures will always stand out the strongest, but most of the time everything worked great. I was grateful that we had well-maintained equipment that helped us do our work so much more efficiently. I’m grateful still that I’ve learned something about machines, and simple fixes, and most importantly, problem-solving with one’s hands.

The Landscape

  Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

I’ve been working at Goose Pond in some capacity or another for four years. I started as a Prairie Partners intern. At that time we were out at Goose Pond every Friday, and then an extra Monday every other week, so we got to spend more time on the sanctuary. Even with the extra time, I remember feeling like Goose Pond was a vast maze and I never quite knew where we were. I loved this feeling! There were days, working in Sue Ames prairie, when you could lose yourself in the hills and imagine that you were still in the heart of the Empire Prairie, rather than deep in the heart of farm country.  Later, when I got to know the sanctuary inside and out, I didn’t lose that sense of mystery. There are certain places that I can go where I know I can lose myself in the wide open. It might be something as small as a patch of wood betony that opens up the big bluestem into a little grotto, or a twist in the trail that causes buildings and roads to be hidden from sight. 

Sometimes being on the sanctuary you can lose yourself in time, as well as place. Once, while scouting for garlic mustard on the big hill west of the pond, I was working in a tangle of sumac. A mature sumac clone can feel like walking through a mesozoic landscape. The compound leaves of sumac look fern-like, and they cast such dense shade, but have such spindly trunks that it is quite open under their canopy. Only the hardiest, shade-loving plants (garlic mustard unfortunately) can flourish underneath. Weaving through their trunks I wouldn’t have been shocked to stumble upon a clutch of dinosaur eggs. In fact, the pied-billed grebe calling nearby sounded how I imagine a dinosaur might have sounded. I paused and thought about a world before people.

This feeling of separation from the normal, human-centric world we move in, is what resonates most with me, when working on the sanctuary.  Paradoxically, it makes me feel more human when I feel less in charge. Though my job is to manipulate ecological systems, with the noble intention of restoring complexity and biodiversity, I don’t have the power to completely control these systems or individual organisms. As humans, it is our privilege to be able to reflect on our place in this world, to imagine what we can’t experience, and to do our best to respect the other living organisms with which we share our world. As a steward, I’m a part of the story -- a champion of it, and witness to it and a single, small character within it -- but not its author.  It’s a joy be actor and audience both.

Written by Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward (last day: March 21, 2018)