What Guides You on Your Journey?

By Scott Fulton

For thousands of years, the people who lived here shared a common set of values across diverse cultures, languages, and lifeways: a deep sense of relationship with the land and its living things, respect for all the members of that community, a desire for reciprocity and balance, and responsibility to future generations. Their active care, through fire and other means, built and maintained over time a beautifully open and richly diverse landscape where everyone could thrive.

Those who colonized here from elsewhere in the world beginning in the 1600’s clearly did not share those same values, at least with respect to the land. They tended to view land and its many resources as property to be used as its owners saw fit. They worked hard to make the land productive, and we have all benefited in our current lifestyles from their centuries of labor.

However, by the mid-Twentieth Century, some visionaries began to see that there was something deeply wrong with this attitude about our relationship with the land. Aldo Leopold, in his Sand County Almanac, described the natural communities he loved beginning to disappear and laid out a set of values he called the “Land Ethic” as a way forward. John Curtis, in his Vegetation of Wisconsin, scientifically documented those communities down to their species composition, giving us important tools to identify and perhaps restore them. Rachel Carson, in her Silent Spring, made clear in a heart-rending way how our modern technologies could subtly but certainly destroy the animals and plants we most cherish.

Almost 50 years ago, inspired by those visionaries and others, a few small groups of young men and women began to seek out the last remnants of the prairies and oak savannas that had once dominated much of our upper Midwest landscape. Where they could, they began to cut away the encroaching brush and trees, plant rare seeds collected from other remnants, and, most importantly, rekindle the use of prescribed fire. No one paid them to do this – it was a labor of love to restore these tiny but exquisite islands of “biodiversity” (a term then recently coined).

Over time these local groups grew and had some success. Eventually, they came to understand it was not enough to just restore and manage these treasured remnants – they also had to be permanently protected and cared for by future generations. That required more financial, legal, and organizational resources than any one local group had. They also were learning fast, both from the infant science of restoration ecology and from their own hands-on experiences. They realized that by coming together regionally they could share both resources and knowledge to make what they were doing sustainable. However, they also knew that their dedicated communities of land stewards are intensely rooted in place. Thus, The Prairie Enthusiasts, with its structure of local volunteer chapters, was born.

Today that seed that was planted two generations ago has grown into an organization with 11 chapters in three states, almost 50 preserves protected through ownership or conservation easement, over $12 million in assets, and a volunteer membership of well over a thousand, served by a growing professional support staff. Many of our first generation of pioneering leaders have passed away or are retiring from the field, and even our second-generation leaders (myself included) are beginning to think about handing off the torch. Despite all this impressive history and growth, all of us in TPE believe that our work in the world is only just beginning and will become even more important as time goes on.

At this critical point in our history, as we consider once more how to sustain ourselves into the future, the Board of Directors, under the leadership of Executive Director Debra Behrens, undertook to develop a set of core values for TPE. The goal was to articulate what most essentially defines who we really are as an organization, what we cherish, how we behave, and how we make decisions together. Even though they have been mostly unstated, our core values have guided us on our journey so far. By making them clear to all, they can help inspire and guide those who will continue this journey after us.

As developed and approved by the Board, these are the core values of The Prairie Enthusiasts:

  • Rooted in reverence for the Land
    All that we are, and everything we do is deeply rooted in our love and respect for the Land – the communities of soils, water, plants, animals, and other living things of which we are a part.
  • Long view
    The origins of the land are ancient. We are stewards of the present – the legacy entrusted to our care. Our actions shape what is possible for future generations.
  • Working together
    We are responsible for caring for the land. Everyone has a unique ability to contribute. By working together, we form bonds that make our community stronger than ourselves.
  • Sharing knowledge
    We honor wisdom and experience, science and the arts. We are seekers and teachers, sharing what we have learned and encouraging others to build on it.

I for one am very proud to be part of an organization based on these core values. Let me know what you think at sfulton@theprairieenthusiasts.org.