Our work helping to restore Moely Prairie, a 23.5-acre remnant sand prairie on the outskirts of Prairie du Sac, has been one big exercise in repaying some of the attention I owe to wild places and beings. Here is my story of paying down the staggering debt.
It was a sun-splashed July day. As my wife Amy and I wandered around the prairie, I scanned the ground for the new and the novel. Even when I was forced to stop and really pay attention, as when Amy settled into a patch of blooming wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) to photograph butterflies and bees, I looked more than I saw. I worked the ground over. Although it was a pleasant enough visit, I left feeling a little disappointed that we did not find any undocumented plant species that afternoon, as we had on so many other days.
I’m one of those list people; I’d be lost without my daily and weekly to-do lists. I particularly love the plant list, or inventory, that we inherited from former Site Steward Sue Kenney, and I’ve often rhapsodized in my journal about the species we have been fortunate to add to it. Here’s how bad it is: I even keep a list of rare plants that I someday hope to find on this prairie, like prairie fame-flower (Phemeranthus rugospermus) and wooly milkweed (Asclepias lanuginosa), however unlikely it may be that they ever grew here.
But the words the universe threw in front of me later that July day were these: “We speak of ‘paying attention’ because of a correct perception that attention is owed — that without our attention and attending, our subjects, including ourselves, are endangered.” Wendell Berry’s insights have given me great solace through the years, but this time I felt more convicted than comforted. Far too often, I have become a slave to my lists and failed to savor the species we identify and document, or appreciate their importance to each other and the prairie as a whole.
By and large, however, our work helping to restore Moely Prairie, a 23.5-acre remnant sand prairie on the outskirts of Prairie du Sac, has been one big exercise in repaying some of the attention I owe to wild places and beings. Fortunately, the amount of restoration work yet to be done on Moely will give me years to pay down my staggering debt.
Fits and starts
I first stepped onto Moely Prairie in 2010, when it looked very little like a prairie. About the only thing visible besides red cedar, cherry, black oak and honeysuckle was the ginormous stars & stripes fluttering over Mueller Sports Medicine across Highway PF. I was there to listen to a presentation sponsored by the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance (SPCA), which, along with the Aldo Leopold Foundation, was helping to manage the property for landowner Barbara Moely. Barbara wished to see the property that her family has owned since the 1800s, and its unique natural plant communities, protected in perpetuity, so she placed a conservation easement on the parcel.
A few months later, in subzero temps, I helped SPCA volunteers pile and burn cut cedar and honeysuckle at Moely. Although I would go on to help clear invasive species at Hillside Prairie—another, smaller, remnant of the original 14,000-acre Sauk Prairie located in what is now the Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area—I would not work on Moely again until 2016.
By then I’d met and fallen in love with Amy, who after about a year, and without too much coercion on my part, consented to marry me. Amy’s parents later moved to Prairie du Sac, too, and as it happened, the house they bought bordered Moely Prairie. Amy’s dad, Paul Anderson, grew up on a farm in Iowa. Now retired, he was eager to see what he could do to help restore the prairie in his backyard. “For years,” he likes to tell visitors now, “I plowed prairie; now I get to restore it.”
Restoration efforts at Moely had stalled by 2016, but I was able to put Paul in touch with Charlie Luthin, SPCA’s director. The Prairie Enthusiasts had recently assumed management responsibility for Moely, we learned, but Charlie made introductions for us. Soon Paul, Amy and I were cutting and spraying invasives under the experienced eye of Denny Connor, TPE’s new site steward for Moely, and Walking Iron, Prairies. By last fall, we had cleared enough trees and shrubs off the east end of Moely to conduct our first prescribed burn.
When Amy retired from the Madison Police Department early this year, she began devoting dozens of hours per week to Moely. Her enthusiasm and organizational savvy, in particular, helped build up a small but dedicated cadre of other volunteers. Soon Moely had its own Facebook page, Instagram account, eye-catching brochure, and twice-weekly as well as monthly weekend work parties. This past summer, Paul convinced a friend of his to bring his drone out to Moely to capture some aerial stills and video of the prairie, which will help us document and prioritize restoration efforts. As if we doubted it, the photos reinforced the enormity of our task. It is hard to imagine a day when we will not refer to the southwestern third of Moely as “The Jungle” (although a Landowner Incentive Program grant Denny won for us this fall will help us make a substantial dent in it).
Education and resurrection
As almost anyone who does ecological restoration knows, it’s as rewarding as it is exhausting. And habit forming. Like many novices, I marveled at Moely’s botanical riches, especially the showier examples: eastern prickly-pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa), prairie-smoke (Geum triflorem), and lead-plant (Amorpha canescens). Marvel quickly morphed into a yearning to learn (and yes, find and document) more. When one day I spotted a few tiny, delicate, blue-blossomed plants ringed by honeysuckle, I did a quick Internet search. It wasn’t long before I’d confirmed that what I’d found was prairie blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium campestre), a native plant not on the official inventory.
Thrilled by this apparent resurrection, and Paul’s subsequent discovery of a few American pasque-flowers (Anemone, patens) plants on Moely in March of 2017, I became obsessed with finding more. With the help of a wonderful citizen science app Amy discovered called iNaturalist, and books like Wildflowers of Wisconsin and the Great Lakes Region, we have identified dozens more native plant species never before documented on Moely, including slender nut sedge (Cyperus lupulinus), Cleland’s evening-primrose (Oenothera clelandii), purple prairie clover (Dalea pupurea), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve). [Some of these discoveries await confirmation by TPE’s own team of experts before being added to the official plant inventory.]
When she wasn’t organizing work parties, or broadcasting the wonders of Moely Prairie on social media, Amy was immersing herself in the diverse insect life of Moely. She attended a workshop at the UW Arboretum on how to identify and photograph bees, and signed us up for training to become monarch butterfly monitors with Monarch Joint Venture (MJV). Now official citizen scientists, we monitor a hectare-sized plot on Moely, counting milkweed (Moely has 3 species) and other flowering plants useful to monarchs, and then upload our findings to MJV’s central database. With the help of experts at wisconsinbutterflies.org, Amy also added several new butterfly species to Moely’s Lepidoptera inventory, including “summer” spring azure (Celastrina ladon neglecta) and juniper hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus), the only green butterfly in Wisconsin.
Although the buzzing song of the clay-colored sparrow (Spizella pallida) had already returned to Moely before we picked up the loppers from our restoration predecessors, it was a joy for us to hear it there for the first time last spring. And it heralded the potential for more, winged resurrections. Eastern and western meadowlarks might also return to Moely someday, as forbs and grasses regain their rightful place on this unique prairie remnant that has never felt the cut of a plow.
What gives us the most hope, though, is the return of adolescent Homo sapiens to Moely Prairie.
Since Paul reached out to science teacher Patrick Leigh at Sauk Prairie High School and Patrick invited us to present to several of his classes in October, almost all of those students have toured Moely. A few have joined us for work days. One enthusiastic young man is even making Moely central to his National Honor Society project.
The overriding management goal for Moely is “to recover as much of the site’s original prairie, as is feasible, for the benefit of current and future generations so they may experience, enjoy and learn from such natural areas and the plants and animals found there.” We won’t do that by simply lengthening our lists, or crossing things off them. No, we and future generations will need to continue to give to places like Moely, and its diverse flora and fauna, our concentrated “attention and attending.” Otherwise, as Wendell Berry cautions, not only will they be endangered, we will be, too.