What makes a person care for and be good steward of the land? Connections with special places are a result of frequent visits over a long period of time. Whether it is a farm, woodlot, backyard, or fishing hole, you really have to know and understand the land. This doesn’t happen after one visit. Often times it takes years, or even a lifetime, to fully understand the land around you. Familiarity with the land is the best way to develop stewardship.

For me, one special place is the woods across the street. I have lived in Hiram for 13 years and walk my dogs almost every day in these woods. There is nothing remarkably special about the woods, except that I know it well. It isn’t my property, but I care for this special place by picking up trash, clearing the trails and cursing the visitors who break branches and rut up the soil on 4-wheelers. Yet, I scare up wild turkeys and deer, find salamanders and call in Great Horned Owls regularly in this special place.

Another special place is the J.H. Barrow Field Station. Hiram College’s Field Station, located between the villages of Hiram and Garrettsville on Wheeler Rd, protects 550 acres of former farmland, pristine forest and clear-running creeks. As a student at Hiram College, it was in these woods and streams and fields that I learned to identify trees, net macroinvertebrates to determine water quality, and develop my understanding of ecology. It was here that I glimpsed my first spotted salamander during a severe thunderstorm and heard my first coyote and barred owl. Twenty years later I find myself working at Hiram College and spending more intimate time with this special place. I don’t carry a map when I lead school and camp groups, college students or adults throughout the Field Station. It isn’t necessary. I can take visitors to the small patch of Grape Ferns. I can easily find the dead Beech tree where I observed the two largest black rat snakes I have ever seen in the wild (6 ½ feet!) weave their way up the smooth bark. I don’t require a GPS to locate the complete deer skeleton that I discovered while walking or the largest oak tree in the forest. Why? Familiarity. Spend enough time around the same land and you can’t help but learn about it.

If you are familiar with the land, you can’t help but notice changes. Like the towering trees that blew down in a storm last August. Or the spread of Garlic Mustard. Or the erosion of stream banks from floodwaters over the past 6 years. Familiarity is important to notice these changes, and to intervene when necessary.

I just returned from one of my favorite places, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Six-hundred miles from the stoplight in Hiram, Hiram College owns a small parcel of land and a rustic camp amongst 100,000 acres of the Hiawatha National Forest. Northwoods, as it is called, is a place for experiential learning, reflection and relaxation. Although I don’t know Northwoods as well as the woods across the street or the Barrow Field Station, I have been changed by this land.

No electricity? No running water? No problem!

When you visit Northwoods, there is no need to pack your computer or hair dryer. Cell phone? Leave that in the car. There is no cell phone access.

The camp is a short drive to one of the most remarkable geologic features in the country: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, as well as Seney National Wildlife Refuge. You can see and hear Common Loons, Sandhill Cranes, Whip-poor-wills, Bald Eagles, and once in a while a bear or porcupine. These and many other spectacular sights and sounds await visitors to Northwoods, but it is far more than postcard vistas and photographic memories. Northwoods is a place to forget. Forget that we are controlled by electronics. Forget about email. Forget about the phone in your pocket that demands answering.

Respect Our Natural Resources

It is also a place to respect. At Northwoods, you quickly learn respect for the sun, water and wood. Aldo Leopold wrote in his famous book A Sand County Almanac: “There are two dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” To solve the first danger, Leopold says that one should plant and care for a garden. As for the second danger, he goes on to say that one should cut, split, haul and stack wood for a fire.

My class of Environmental Education students arrived at Northwoods May 2 in a cold, dreary rain and nearly got the van stuck in slushy snow pulling in to the driveway. After having the camp shut down for the winter, there were many chores to do. Water needed to be hand-pumped and wood hauled to the stoves in our sleeping cabins. My students soon realized that these tasks were essential to our enjoying our experience in the wilderness. They also learned that lives of excess don’t exist at a place like Northwoods. Water becomes valuable when you have to work to pump it out of the ground. Heat becomes a source of pride (and a requirement for a comfortable night sleep) when you set wood on the andirons and start a warming fire. Our camp harvests sunlight with solar panels to provide convenient lighting for kitchen work. You learn to work quickly on cloudy days knowing the light may run out soon.

Stewardship Starts at Home

Back home after a visit to a place like Northwoods, one quickly realizes a few things. First is the value of a warm shower. Second, you realize you have just lived, and lived well, without all the excess that typically clutters our lives. Third, you understand conserving doesn’t hurt. Imagine how little water would be wasted if you had to work to get it, rather than simply turning a handle. You would certainly think twice about washing the car or watering the lawn. Imagine how much electricity would be conserved if you had a limited amount to work with each day and had to prioritize where and when to use it in your home. Turning off lights and unplugging all those energy-draining electronic devices when not in use would be a no-brainer.

In this day and age of excess everything, sometimes a visit to a special place is necessary to put our lives, and the environment, into proper perspective. We can all be better stewards of the land. Start at home.


Other Nearby Nature…

Eagle Alley – Saturday, May 25 (9:00-11:00am)

Eagles can always to be seen from this deserted country lane in Trumbull County. Join naturalist Bob Faber on this dry flat road with an easy-to-see eagle nest, expansive open sky vistas, and an extensive variety of wetlands. On lucky days up to six bald eagles have be seen, sometimes all at once. This site is part of the Grand River-Mosquito Creek State Wildlife Area complex with a total of over 16,000 acres of protected wildlands. Other wildlife of this area include sandhill cranes, black bears, bobcats, harriers, river otters, ospreys and a host of other species. Fee: $6 for members of Friends of the Field Station, $8 for non-members. Limited enrollment. To register, call 330.569.6003 or email sorrickmw@hiram.edu.