A version of this article appeared in the September 2020 edition (Vol. 9, #9) of Ripples, our internal newsletter.
“It’s not ours, it’s just our turn.” –Doug Duren
Years before “Marshall County” was established, in the year the white man marked as “A.D. 1830”, a surveyor pounded a metal marker in the ground at what is now a 4-way stop at the intersection of Union & 9th Roads. He took his 66’ length of chains and headed due east, past white & black oaks, hickories, hazelnuts, turtles, wildflowers and grasses of all sorts – a bounty stewarded by the Potawatomi peoples.
After 27 such lengths (1/3 mile), he came down into a “marsh, rolling and springy.” At 40 lengths, a white oak 17” in diameter, “No other tree” around. At 43 chains, “spring brooks.”
190 years later, those brooks still flow. At the corner of Tulip & 9th Roads lies a large fen, a special wetland that is fed year-round by groundwater, not rainfall. This means the ground is squishy even in the midst of summer drought. The earth imparts a particular chemistry, leading to unique plant communities found nowhere else. During our 2019 biodiversity, botanists found 250 species here, indicating a very high quality habitat.
An ecologist friend once told me, “Consultants don’t make fens, only ice ages make fens.” We simply don’t know how to truly replicate this complex hydrology. Once it is destroyed, it is gone forever.
Since that original survey, the fen community has been modified. Gone are the large grazers: bison & elk. Fire largely ceased. Wetlands were mowed for “marsh hay.” Settlers dug a ditch down the center of this fen to drain the land for European-style agriculture; today it is a “legal drain” that taxpayers excavate periodically. Fences & cattle followed as well, but the squishy organic soils made for many a stuck cow. Then also came the drainage tile & plow, to raise row crops. But the dark, water-logged soils are too persistently damp for the demands of heavy equipment & commodities markets.
And so, despite this barrage, most of the fen has remained relatively intact. It was decided that the most heavily-degraded portion could be restored (to a degree) by redirecting the drainage tiles and creating a shallow pool for frogs, turtles, and migratory waterfowl. This work is being funded through a partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
We just finished the earthwork recently. When I went to visit the following day, I already spotted the giant footprints of the Sandhill Cranes. Dragonflies dipped their abdomens on the surface of the growing pool, planting hopeful eggs. Killdeer gathered in a flock of more than a hundred, drawn by bare earth. Over the next couple years, we will be prioritizing invasive plant control & the introduction of native species.
The idea of “seven generation stewardship” – said to be based on the Great Law of the Iroquois – is to make decisions based on the benefit of those living 7 generations into the future. What seems like an interminably long period is really not. This fen has already persisted for 7 generations since the year the Potawatomi stewards were removed at gunpoint.
Despite that happy feeling we might have when we pay off our home mortgage (someday…), the idea of ownership is still new and foreign to this land, a convenient myth we have built to organize the flow of capital. The name on the land’s deed today lists only the current, temporary stewards. The sun rises and sets on our time as stewards, the bonds between generations linked by culture, wisdom, and lovingkindness.
Which makes me wonder… when my daughter’s great-granddaughter stands on a rise in what is now Marshall County and looks to the horizon with her grandson, what will they see?