Ben Johnson — Expanding the Green Dream

It’s been almost a year since Anne Korman, Assistant Superintendent of the Kettle Moraine State Forest — Southern Unit, introduced me to Ben Johnson and his contributions at The Springs have been gaining momentum ever since.  From his first, fearless, dead of Winter, forays in the Buckthorn Alley wielding a decidedly underwhelming chainsaw — to his latest step building project using recycled buckthorn logs on the sand prairie — Ben has demonstrated natural creativity and indefatigable enthusiasm.  Let’s take a look at some of his recent accomplishments and find out what makes Mr. Johnson tick (his words are indented in italics below.)

Is it an obsession, a religion, a deep metaphysical connection to our primal ancestral past?  I’m not quite sure why some of us have the ability to see and feel the natural world, while others have no association whatsoever to the land. That’s a pretty judgmental assumption to make, but quite simply, some people get it and others don’t. The Aboriginal People of Australia believe in “dreamtime,” a spirit world where they can transcend space and time. Maybe there are a few of us that are fortunate enough to journey into a green dream: a mindset or inquisitive state of consciousness where we can actually speak the language of ecology. And it’s absolutely a journey. Nobody just walks into the woods and is given this gift. We have to work at it, study, inspect. We must experience the rain on our faces, see the first buds open, and the last leaves fall to the ground, the progression, the phenology of the landscape.

On September 4th, Ben bugged out of work early and headed straight for the gaging station bridge to do a little stream bank remediation.  The view downstream before he got started on that steamy afternoon.

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And after…

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Seen from the left bank.

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A few years back, after investing a good many years in college, and a solid decade trying to capture an income under a fluorescent enclosed sky, I asked myself, “does any of this make me happy? Ok, then what would?” I felt there was only one route to take, and that was in a natural setting, far away from the corporate path I had chosen. It’s not quite so easy to dump ones routine and dive into a new career. I have plenty of experience in the “green industry”, but the world of commercial landscaping is a far cry from ecological stewardship. To get to where I wanted to be, I felt that education was the key component. So I again enrolled in the university. I chose to pursue an MA in Environmental Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

One of the first things Ben noticed when he began volunteering at The Springs, a fact I lamented as well, was that there were no benches anywhere along the trail to rest one’s weary bones.  We talked about it many times and I know the satisfaction Ben must have felt when he finally got a chance to do something about it.  On Saturday, September 6th, he did some erosion control at the edge of the stone wall at the Scuppernong Spring and installed one of his custom benches using red oak pedestals foraged from a pile up the trail where the source tree had fallen across the path.

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On Sunday I joined Ben and we picked out 4 more pedestals, loaded our wheel barrows with two more benches, and headed for the Indian Spring.

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The bench design couldn’t be simpler and they are surprisingly stable when screwed into thick oak stumps.

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The views from the bench, looking right and left, of the some of the springs that comprise the Indian Springs.

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You get a great view of the prairie to the west as well.

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There is no such thing as a free lunch, so on top of the scholastic pursuit, I began volunteering at the Wildlife in Need Center as an animal rehabilitation technician and this soon evolved into showcasing wildlife at educational events. The next step, and it felt like the natural one to take, was to find a habitat or ecosystem to immerse myself in, and take the time to learn the land. The Southern Kettle Moraine DNR volunteer coordinator pointed me towards Paul Mozina and the Scuppernong Springs Nature Trail. I wouldn’t say that I found a blank slate to work, it was more like a Jackson Pollack painted over the top of a Thomas Cole.

We took the other bench up to the sand prairie and, amazingly, Ben picked one of my favorite spots, from which you get a classic view of the Scuppernong River winding westward, to plant the bench.

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The view from the bench.

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These conveniently located resting places cost almost nothing to build, and only a few minutes to install, yet they had gone wanting for years.

In due time, I came to understand that the work at the Springs was the practice of restoration ecology, be it in the river, the sand prairie, or knee deep in the snow removing buckthorn. Vegetation is a monster to ID, learn, and control in itself, but I felt the fauna of the area deserved attention as well. I used the skills gained through osmosis as the son of a carpenter (thanks Dad) to build fifty nesting boxes for various woodland and prairie species. I would like to think that the overall avian population at the property increased as a result of this project. That’s the restoration, let’s bring back what’s native to the Springs.

The morning passed quickly and in the afternoon I headed over to the buckthorn alley to cut the buckthorn resprouts and seedlings that flourished there with my brush cutter.  Ben had other plans.  There are two trails that descend from the sand prairie down to the Indian Springs and they converge along the edge of the outflow stream forming a little loop trail.  Both trails are pure sand and suffering from erosion, so Ben decided to build some stairs.

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Ben plans to finish the steps on this path and then tackle the more deeply eroded trail that leads directly down to the Indian Spring.

Johnson, another carpenter’s son, loves to work with his hands on wood.  We saw some of his handiwork resurrecting the deck near the Scuppernong Spring.  Thursday after work, he stopped out with his friend and coworker, Glen Rhinesmith, and replaced the missing toe boards on the boardwalk leading to the Emerald Spring.

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While Ben worked, I got to show Glen around The Springs and I learned way more from him than he did from me.  Glen has a great eye, two in fact, and deep, deep knowledge about plants, fish, birds and the natural world, not to mention photography and ham radios.  I hope to post some of his pictures of The Springs here soon.  Here are just a few of the interesting things he pointed out to me.

Blue Milk Mushrooms.

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Indian Pipe.

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Evening Primrose, which Glen explained attracts moths and smells like lemon!

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Ben and Glen.

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Though I thought the day would never come, I have reached the final course in the Master’s degree program at UIS, the capstone internship. With the help of Anne Korman, Assistant Superintendent of the KMSF – Southern Unit, I secured my graduate internship with the WDNR at the Springs. We have outlined projects and areas of need on the property. First priority is invasive vegetation, followed by trail improvements and accessibility. The fisheries team has also given me the opportunity to learn about stream restoration. It’s an honor to have such a beautiful classroom in which to work. This is the place where I enter the green dreamworld. I carry on a conversation with the land. It’s a very Leopoldian concept. Restoration ecology is an ethical practice, deciding what is right for the landscape.

Thanks Ben!  It’s a pleasure to work with you.

I got a few licks in myself this past week cutting buckthorn resprouts and seedlings along the trail from the parking lot on Hwy ZZ all the way to the end of the Buckthorn Alley.

The spotted knapweed flower weevils we released in early August appear to be doing well and I have spotted them munching seedheads on the south end of the prairie and in the huge patch of knapweed to the east of the Indian Spring spur trail.  I am leaving these remaining mature knapweed plants for the weevils despite the fact that they are loaded with seeds.  There are lots of first year plants that do not have flowers, and that are far from where I released the root weevils (they migrate less than 100 yards a year), that I may dig out yet this season.

I love the view from the Scuppernong Spring as the late afternoon sunlight illuminates the valley.

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Sunset out on the marl pit canal looking East towards the sand prairie.

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Looking south…

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… then north

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Last Monday evening at the marl pit bridge.

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Sunset on the south end of the sand prairie.

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See you at The Springs!

p.s. I’m taking a week off to relax with Pati at a cabin up north on Lake Owen.

14 thoughts on “Ben Johnson — Expanding the Green Dream

  1. Great teamwork! The progress is so evident & beautiful… I especially enjoyed the video with the sounds of water & crickets. Thanks for all you do! To repair even a small part of our earth is a worthy endeavor that we all benefit from.

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