a trip to Whiterock Conservancy

I took some time off recently to attend a family gathering in Iowa, where a few generations ago my family first homesteaded on the prairie. We decided to stop a couple places on the way to take advantage of having everyone in the car for a road trip.

Our first stop was at Starved Rock State Park, just off of Interstate 80. It has some interesting geology that is unique for northern Illinois. There is a nice system of trails, though with the heavy traffic the park receives, it was a little worse for wear. We somehow managed 3-4 miles in mud and stairs without any ticks, medical emergencies, or emotional breakdowns.

Can you spot the groundhog? He made quite a show of his rock climbing abilities for us

Highlights included a water snake, a giant millipede, and lots of beautiful streams and canyons.

The earth paints slowly, with liquid gravity.

The next day we stopped for a long break at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, which we hadn’t seen since we started a family. The refuge is thousands of acres of habitat located in the heart of corn country, and is one of the largest tallgrass prairie restorations on the continent. They have an active “friends group” (non-profit) that participates in programming and fund-raising, and their prairie learning center is top notch. Suffice it to say, I was a little excited!

An educational display on prairie restoration tools.
Plant plugs in a demonstration/learning greenhouse.
The incomparable roots of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

Neal Smith has 700 acres of it’s restoration fenced in for a few dozen bison and elk. Other than rounding them up annually for vaccinations, they leave them be. We didn’t get a close up, but we saw them on the hill.

We lodged that evening at an old farmhouse at Whiterock Conservancy, an organization I have been eyeing for a couple years.

Home, home on the range… a morning filled with the songs of grassland birds.

Whiterock Conservancy is a 5,500 acre non-profit land trust that balances sustainable agriculture, natural resource protection and public recreation on the landscape… Whiterock Conservancy was formed ten years ago to manage one of the largest land gifts in the history of Iowa generously given by the Garst family. Today it stewards 5,500 acres along the scenic Middle Raccoon River Valley near Coon Rapids, IA. The gorgeous Whiterock landscape that attracts visitors from all over the state, region and nation is a mix of savannas, rolling pastures, native and restored prairies, wetlands, riverside bluffs, fishing ponds, crop ground, and unique historic, geologic, and archaeological sites.

Trailhead signs to orient visitors.

I appreciated the simplicity and focus of their mission and the way they integrated the various aspects of the land community. Far from any metropolis or large natural area, it was a very unique place.

Educational signs for field days and tours.

The Prairie Strips project of Iowa State is research that I’ve been following for several years, and I was very pleased stumble upon this demonstration site. “The STRIPS project is composed of a team of scientists, educators, farmers, and extension specialists working on the prairie strips farmland conservation practice. Our research shows that prairie strips are an affordable option for farmers and farm landowners seeking to garner multiple benefits. By converting 10% of a crop field to diverse, native perennials farmers and farmland owners can reduce the amount of soil leaving their fields by 90% and the amount of nitrogen leaving their fields through surface runoff by up to 85%. Prairie strips also provide potential habitat for wildlife, including pollinators and other beneficial insects

Demo site. I saw several researchers in the field as I was sipping my coffee on the front porch.

This is where I’m supposed to write something snappy to sum it all up… but that’s enough commentary and photos. More later… Have a nice weekend!

the return of the Tortrix: Year 3

May 26, 2017 had brought a “plague” of webworm larva to a beautiful plum tree outside of Lindenwood. I wrote about the saga a few weeks after it happened (part 1 and part 2), and the lesson in biodiversity that it offered us. The tree re-foliated nearly completely that summer.

I noticed that the worms were back in 2018. I remember taking a picture, but can’t find it at the moment.

Unsurprisingly, I saw on June 5th that they are back again for the 3rd year in a row (at least).

It looks like we are going to see how resilient this tree is! Until then, we wish a happy feast for all the fat baby bluebirds and red-headed woodpeckers.

Solarize Marshall County

We try to not only demonstrate renewable energy technology through our own operations (like solar panels and electric vehicles), but also to help encourage and facilitate its adoption throughout the community.

So it is with great excitement that we seeing a Northern Indiana Solarize program launch in Marshall, St. Joseph, and Elkhart counties. It is being led by the intrepid and tireless Leah Thill, Senior Environmental Planner for the Michiana Area Council of Governments.

If you are a home or small business owner interested in learning more, please join us in Culver on June 19th.

an heirloom corn trial at Moontree

Perhaps our grand societal experiment in social media will eventually prove to be a huge waste of time, a determinant to our mental health and spiritual satisfaction, and the death blow to civic discourse and democracy, but occasionally it can be quite useful!

I have just enough Spanish fluency to be dangerous (read: to sound like a babbling 3-year-old), and I saw a Spanish-language posting on Facebook looking to recruit folks to plant some heritage/heirloom Mexican corn varieties, for the purpose of amplifying the seed stock.

Corn is an amazing plant. It is thought to have originated from a Mexican/Central American grass named teosinte. Maize (as it’s called outside of U.S., and maíz in Spanish) has been cultivated (domesticated) by humans over the last 9,000 years or so. Through annual cycles of trial and error, humans help create hundreds of varieties of this important grain, suitable for many purposes, soils, and climates. “Corn was ground and made into flour, cornmeal, tortillas, cornbread, hominy, grits, and polenta. They grew flint, dent, and flour corn varieties for these purposes and some of these are still available today” (Growing Heirloom Corn).

I’m pretty sure you have to shuck a minimum of 12 ears of corn per summer or you officially lose your Indiana residency. Bonus Hoosier points if you get a laundry basket full.

Indigenous Americans, at least in the Midwest, appeared to have practiced something like slash-and-burn corn cultivation, where nutrient-rich clearings grew corn for a few years. Without synthetic fertilizers, the fields had to be temporarily abandoned for a number of years or cycled to other crop. Because human populations were much lower than today, this extensive agriculture was not a threat to biodiversity at large In fact, this periodic disturbance, combined with fire and grazing animals, gave rise to a diversity of habitat types across the landscape and thus a diversity of organisms.

You can read more about heirloom corns here. Its history and diversity is not unlike other domesticated crops. When I lived in Bolivia I learned that the Andean people had over 500 varieties of potatoes in circulation.

With the continued trend of commercialization and simplification of our food system (and commercial ownership of the underlying genetics), we are losing the genetic diversity not just of wild species, but also of our cultivated varieties of food.

Thinking more holistically, each generation in the post-industrial West has also become more disconnected from food diversity and food production systems. So I thought a small foray into this project would be well worth the effort. A small bet, as we like to say.

I connected with a seed saver in the Michiana area who had several samples of various heirloom corns. He graciously offered to ship me two lots for seed amplification. We are growing these not for food (this year), but to increase the seed source and try to recruit new people to participate in maintaining this genetic diversity. Corn is a cultural as much as a genetic resource, and has to be maintained over time.

I planted the first block of ~200 seeds the other week. It is called Tabilla de Ocho and is from the Sinaloa region of Mexico. There are some pretty substantial differences in climate, soils, and day-length between here and there, so it’s a bit of a gamble. But you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, right?

Now, the cultural connection I will admit is a bit of a stretch. I don’t have indigenous or Mexican heritage myself. Eventually, I’d like to find a way to connect this project (if it turns into a project) to our neighbors of Mexican heritage. The most recent round of immigration into Marshall County includes Mexican families who came for agricultural work. Most of these jobs, I believe, are gone and have been replaced with factory and service work. I’m curious to see if there is interest.

I invited Sister Yolanda (a PHJC who is visiting from the Mexican community of Sisters) to join me to sembrar. As we planted, she told me about her experience planting and tending corn as a little girl.

Before long, we were done. We covered the seeds in a layer of thick compost.

A week later I caught another break in the weather to plant the 2nd set of corn, Bear Island Chippewa, which is an Ojibwe variety from the Great Lakes region. Without knowing much else, I expect that it will do better than the Sinaloan corn, being that it is adapted to this region. The seeds were a beautiful rainbow of colors.

These are open-pollinated varieties, meaning that if they happen to tassel (pollinate) at the same time, I could get cross-contaminated seed. But… taking an optimist’s viewpoint, I could just be creating a brand new variety of seed. (These aren’t the very last lots of these varieties, otherwise this would be a much more controlled environment).

After 7 days, the first planting of Tabilla de Ocho had already sprouted. And the first weed seedling emerges between the rows, so I had to take care of those too.

Sitting back and enjoying the (small) fruits of my labor for a brief second, my thoughts of course turned to the rest of the growing season… I had just committed myself (and a couple other co-workers) to regular weeding, emergency watering, and fertilization (corn is a very nitrogen-hungry crop). That’s all if the raccoons and deer don’t destroy everything in a single night’s raid.

I suppose that’s kind of the point. Corn is a human invention, a species that has been domesticated to suit our purposes. It requires our intervention, discernment, attention, and resources.

But considering that we (Westerners) have plowed, drained, and chemically treated 99% of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem in pursuit of this grain… perhaps it is in the fact the corn that has domesticated us!

“New Rule Outlaws Sale of 44 Invasive Plants”

Head over to the Indiana Native Plant Society’s website to get an update on this important piece of legislation that was recently signed by Governor Holcomb.

Particularly useful is Ellen Jacquart’s simple slideshow that elucidates these changes. See also the coverage by IndyStar.

What does this mean?

(c) Except as provided in subsection (d), with respect to any species identified in subsection (a) a person must not: (1) Sell, offer or grow for sale, gift, barter, exchange, or distribute a species [as of Apr 2020];(2) Transport or transfer a species [as of Apr 2020]; or (3) Introduce a species [as of Apr 2019)].

Generally, this is good news! Certain species can cause real economic, agricultural, and biological damage (go back up and click on the slideshow to get Jacquart’s great explainer).

Looking at the list, I see some familiar faces from my journeys around the 1,100 acres that comprised The Center at Donaldson.

Tree of Heaven is a fast-growing and stinky tree, a profilic seed producer. If you cut it down, it gets pretty “angry” and resprouts with a vengence. Fortunately, it’s not a major problem here (yet).

Garlic Mustard is familiar to our woods, and widespread. We recently had a garlic mustard pulling party, and our new Moontree co-worker Liz made some yummy pesto out of it!

If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em! Liz & two Maria Center residents helped me pick 5 big bags full this spring.

Black Alder is a wetland tree that lines much of Lake Galbraith. Fortunately, it’s rather contained as it is. It is relatively easy to distinguish this from our native Speckled Alder, which we also have on the property.

Don’t get me started on Mugwort… it’s everywhere, and has established a big presence at Moontree soon after the Moontree prairie was planted. It forms solid stands that excludes pretty much everything else.

Last June we were treated by the presence of Dodder on a patch of Mugwort. Dodder is a native parasitic species that is orange, stringy, and rootless. It has no chlorophyll and can’t photosynthesize. It didn’t really make a dent in the Mugwort, but we let it do it’s thing!

The mystery of Dodder!

Asian Bittersweet is what you typically find in beautiful fall wreaths. Beautiful, but incredibly invasive and destructive. Make sure you opt for the native variety, and if you can’t tell the difference, please don’t buy or plant it! We have it in several places.

Poison Hemlock is common in our ditches. Beautiful feathery green leaves and a large white umbel for a flower. But it spreads rapidly and cause very severe reactions when the oils come into contact with your skin.

Autumn Olive and Bush Honeysuckle species are exotic shrubs that are prolific seeders and pretty much ubiquitous. We try to keep mature plants from going to seed. The used of prescribed fire can also help keep these at bay, to some degree. Unfortunately, we still have a couple Bush Honeysuckle plants that were installed in the landscaping.

Well, you get the picture. There are several more species on the list that I’ve found on the property. Currently, I just don’t have the time or staff to address them all, so I’ve developed a sort of triage system, where certain species are tackled first, and certain populations given priority based on the landscape context.

One very unfortunate omission from the list of 44 was Bradford pear. It’s a very common non-native flowering tree that landscapers use. But the fruits are spread near and far by birds and are very fertile. They aren’t even good for landscaping, and are often brought down by heavy winds. Even the DNR is vocal in the press about refraining from planting these and replacing standing trees.

Fortunately, there are many native species available that are beautiful, pest-tolerant, and well-adapted to our soils and climate. With a little research and effort, one can find a variety of bloom times and colors available as well. This little bit of intention goes a long way towards the first principle of ecological management, medicine, and probably religion as well: “First, do no harm.”

I’ll end with one last photo of a special native herbaceous species, one found in high quality Indiana forests throughout the state. No one has an official record of this plant occurring in Marshall County. I took this photo in Tippecanoe County recently, and it was the first time I saw the species.

I won’t tell you where, exactly, as poachers would likely steal it and sell part of the plant for a good sum of money. Poaching is posing a major threat to this species in some areas. Do you know what it is?

Bioblitz registration page is live

The registration page on Moontree Studio’s website is now available for the 2019 Indiana Academy of Science Bioblitz. Beetle safaris, s’mores, and camping, oh my!

This has long been a dream of ours… and we are so excited to invite the public to learn about the world around them through the lens of science and exploration.

And how’s this for synchronicity… See the link below about the latest report on the state of ecosystems and biodiversity. It’s time!

Phase Two of Solar Panel Installation to Begin at The Center at Donaldson

This came out 2 weeks ago and I just realized I had forgotten to put it up on the blog. Enjoy this press release!

… … …

For Immediate Release- Phase Two of Solar Panel Installation to Begin at The Center at Donaldson

DONALDSON, IN – The Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ are proud to announce phase two of a renewable energy effort with two additional solar panel installations at The Center at Donaldson.

“The Center at Donaldson has a long history of making choices beneficial to our planet – from our geothermal heating/cooling, to hybrid and electric cars, to LED lighting throughout our campus. So, this extension of our solar project is another step in a healthy-planet direction following guidance in Laudato Sí from Pope Francis,” said Sister Judith Diltz, PHJC, Provincial of the American Province of The Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ.

A 515 kilowatt (DC) ground-mounted installation at Ancilla College will supply 75% of the electricity needs for the Residence Halls and college classrooms. An additional 41 kilowatts will be installed on the roof of Lindenwood Retreat and Conference Center, covering about 33% of the building’s demand. Altogether, installing these 1,500 solar panels is like removing 60 homes from the electrical grid.

Here is the majority of our Phase 1 installation. These arrays have 256 panels and are 75 kW (DC) in size. There is an additional 24-panel array at Moontree Studios.

This renewable energy installation follows The Center at Donaldson’s journey into using electric vehicles to reduce air pollution and save on transportation costs. A plug-in hybrid that runs on both gasoline and electricity is used for longer journeys, while a fully electric car is used regularly for local and regional trips. The solar panels produce enough energy annually to power over two million miles of vehicle travel.

The Center at Donaldson continues their work with the Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy (aire-nc.org) on this project. Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy (AIRE) specializes in working with non-profits to effectively own and operate renewable energy systems.

Steve Owens, Co-Founder & Executive Director of AIRE said,“Not only are Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ taking responsibility for their own carbon emissions and demonstrating that such actions are practical and economically sound, they’re leading by example. There’s a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, which embodies what is so wonderful about Poor Handmaids’ ongoing renewable energy initiatives: ‘preach always; sometimes use words.’ This story is still unfolding and there’ll be more innovation we’re certain, and we hope others will take note and learn from these inspiring Sisters.”

Green Alternatives of Kokomo, Indiana will be installing the panels over the summer, with the system commissioned and powered on by fall.

Earth Week recap

Lots happened leading up to Earth Day 2019 and extended into a whole week+ of programming!

A group from the community petitioned the Marshall County Commissioners to adopt a resolution in support of Earth Week, encouraging our residents to attend and participate in community initiatives.

L-R: Jacob Baylis (MC Health Dept), Debbie Palmer (MC Soil & Water), myself, Mike Delp (MC Commissioner), Marianne Peters (Recycle Depot), Christine Stinson (MC Health Dept)

We also visited Jefferson Elementary school and did an Earth Day presentation for some 3rd graders.

We capped the presentation with a wildflower “seed bomb” project, rolling in milkweed & other seeds into some clay, then using Earth Day to get outside and throw the little seed-bombs out into the wild! It was a blast.

We capped the community events with the 2nd annual Earth Hug Boogie festival. You can see more on it’s Facebook page.

Last but certainly not least, a team of us organized a week of lunchtime Earth Week programing, this year around the issue of food. The text below is from a summary e-mail that was sent out after the event, and includes links to photos and video. Enjoy!

the boys taste test some cricket-based chips and snack bars during Earth Week

Thank you to all who were able to come out to our 2019 Earth Week programming in Cana Hall. This year’s theme was FOOD. We wanted to make all the resources & videos available to those who were unable to attend, and for those off-site.

A big round of applause for the organizing committee & all the many co-workers & Sisters at TCAD who assisted in making this possible.


Hunger and Poverty Snapshot for Indiana (Bread for the World)

Boosts and Blocks of Building Wealth (Fair Economy)

50 foods for healthier people & a healthier planet (WWF & Korr; NPR coverage; also, recent big news on a nationwide roll-out of Impossible Burgers)


Food & Social Justice (52 min), featuring:

*Arleen Peterson, Director of Operations, Sojourner Truth House; Board Member, Northwest Indiana Food Council

*Angela Rupchock-Schafer, Director of Development and Communications, Marshall County Community Foundation; Board Member, Bread for the World; Chair, Marshall County Food Council

*Laura Dwire, HEAL Program Manager, St. Joseph Community Health Foundation

our three AMAZING panelists with a Sr. Germaine photobomb! 🙂

Future of Food (44 min), featuring:

*Danielle LaFleur, Community Outreach Coordinator, St. Joseph Health System; Member, Marshall County Food Council

*Christine Stinson, Administrator, Marshall County Health Department.

*Chris Kline, Senior Instructor and Sustainability Director at Culver Academies; Member, Marshall County Food Council

Food Production & Farming (46 min), featuring:

*Sam Erwin, Owner/Operator of Indiana Berry and Plant Company

*Tim McLochlin, Director of Agriculture, Ancilla College

*Robert (Bob) Yoder, Agriculture & Natural Resources Extension Educator, Purdue University

Photos can be found at The Center at Donaldson Facebook page.

Until next year… “Love the Earth, Eat Local!”

Annual Meeting of the Indiana Academy of Science

Well… looks like I’m only about 4 weeks behind on blogging. Winter & spring is generally the conference season. I took a trip down to Indianapolis on March 30th to present my prairie research at 134th annual meeting of the Indiana Academy of Science. What a breath of fresh air! Hoosier practitioners, academics, and students from every discipline celebrating their passion for the natural sciences.

(Here’s where I’d put a photo of lots of happy people milling about drinking coffee and talking about science… but I never took that photo!)

I was fortunate to have a great set of advisors during my graduate school experience at Taylor University. Prof. Robert Reber and his students have continued to collect data on the prairie restoration that was the subject of my thesis. That made it possible to give a brief update/presentation on year six of the project (my thesis, by design, only had one year of data).

Talks were only 12 minutes + 3 min Q&A. Rapid fire! Keep it simple, and brief.

To greatly oversimplify the project… grasses have tended to dominate prairie restorations (reconstructions) over time, pushing out the wildflowers (forbs) that make up most of the species diversity. There are no bison left to graze the grasses they prefer, and it’s logistically difficult to graze with cattle on many of the sites.

To address this, managers must use mowing, grazing, burning, and/or grass herbicide to give the wildflowers a chance. We did an experiment with applications of grass herbicide in conjunction with an overseeding of new wildflower species. We found that the herbicide aided the new species to germinate, grow, and flower, much better than if the grasses was left completely untreated. These effects persisted into year six, three years after we stopped herbicide treatment.

If you are a glutton for punishment, you can read the 2014 study here.

Anyway, IAS is a great place to share ideas, network, and spawn new projects and relationships. Here were a few talks I really enjoyed:

Burnell C. Fischer of Indiana University presented a study redlining practices in Indiana, giving a picture of the extent of environmental racism in the our state. “Analysis using a geographic information system (GIS) was conducted to detect evidence of an ecological legacy of redlining. Using this method, evidence of relatively high-intensity development, low greenspace and forest cover, and disproportionately high incidences of brownfield sites, Superfund sites, industrial waste sites, and Interstate highways were detected in historically redlined zones in Indianapolis.” His abstract can be found here.

Next were studies on various forested ecosystem, specifically at the Hardwood Ecosystem Experiment in southern Indiana. It’s a massive project with plans to last 100 years! Seriously, go read about it. This presentation was about how bats use various types of logged and unlogged forests.

(Forgive me… I’m really out of time to craft a super detailed blog with everyone’s names and research sites appropriately linked. Gotta plug ahead. More pictures!).

Also from the same forest was a study of the species of moths and butterflies. THEY DOCUMENTED OVER 1,000 SPECIES. Yes, read that again. Just moths and butterflies! …. Really!

The next guy talked native bees. We have around 400 species in the state known to science. THEY FOUND OVER 100 BEES IN THIS ONE FOREST! It really is mind blowing how much biodiversity there is, and shocking how little research and basic baseline data is available. I was in the room asking these the top entomologists in the state and… there’s just so much work left to do.

We are scientists… but we love art too! This was the great work from Blue Aster Studio. Go visit their Etsy page and buy all their stuff!

This student-researcher was taking blood samples from river otters to survey the amount of lead that is present in our lakes and streams. The sources included leaded gun shot, as well as previous industrial activities.

Can you tell these are my people? Yes, these are my people. I had such a great time being with my tribe.

I took our all-electric Nissan LEAF to the conference and stopped at the Keystone Mall on the north side of Indianapolis to give it a fast charge (here’s an explanation of the different kinds of EV charging). While I was waiting on the charge, I got some steps in at the mall and… came across a Tesla store. Tesla has become the gold standard for EV technology & charging infrastructure, with all the other manufactures playing catch-up. Their new Superchargers now charge 5 times faster than the “fast” charge I was hooked up to.

I managed to walk away without signing any paperwork, and returned in one piece. Conference time is happy time! It’s important to stay current in one’s field, network with other professionals trying new things, and of course sharing your own work for the benefit of others.

More later … about another and even more amazing conference!

small parcels for conservation

Here’s a post/photo that we published on our Facebook page, and I thought I’d replicate it here:


Scientists are warning us that we are causing the Earth’s 6th mass extinction event. A 2017 report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes a “biological annihilation,” amounting to a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization”.

Pope Francis likewise cautions us in Laudato si’ (2015) that “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.” (para. 33)

This is a pivotal time for us as a species. The urgent task before us as stewards is to make it through the 21st century with as much biodiversity as we can. The genetic diversity of our biosphere (biodiversity) is the source of our earthly sustenance.

This means more than just saving a few large and distant national parks. There is now increasing evidence that smaller plots of forests, remnant prairies, and small lakes and ponds are much more important to biodiversity than previously thought by Western scientists.

We need to build a culture of education and stewardship to empower small landowners throughout the rural Midwest.

Pictured is a two-acre oak woodland adjacent our alfalfa and crop fields. As a part of our management, we recently conducted a prescribed burn in this woods to encourage the growth of native oaks, hickories, and wildflowers. This also increases this ability of this small woodland community to withstand the hot, dry, and fire-prone conditions that climate change is bringing to Indiana.

What are some ways that we can encourage and support land stewardship by small landowners throughout the Midwest?

For further reading, see:

Opinion: Why we should save the last tiny scraps of nature




the drone has really helped us see our land from a new perspective