The idea of restoring the health of overworked farmsteads isn't unusual in southern Wisconsin. The father of rehabilitating exhausted land, Aldo Leopold, lived and taught in Madison and carried out some of the first experiments in restoration ecology just a short drive north of here, outside of Baraboo at his "shack" (a chicken coop) and land on the Wisconsin River. Leopold has left many of us with a dream of buying a little place in the country and becoming good caretakers of the land.
One person with that dream was ecologist Steven Apfelbaum. It was 1981 and Apfelbaum was only 26 years old, but he was committed to finding a farm "to become the central focus of my living and my work." Apfelbaum tells the story of how he found that spot and made that transformation happen in Nature's Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm (Beacon Press).
Apfelbaum was so young at the time, he actually went searching for property across southern Wisconsin with his mom. It was his mother's connections in suburban Chicago, in fact, that finally landed him the farm he ultimately fell in love with and bought, outside Brodhead.
Although Apfelbaum is today a professional ecological restoration consultant who owns and operates Applied Ecological Services in Brodhead, Nature's Second Chance is not a tech-y treatise or a step-by-step guide to prairie restoration. It's a memoir of how he rehabbed his farmland and how that process helped him to step away from his more scientific obsessions and learn to live.
Apfelbaum is good in showing how the landscape restorer must become a kind of detective, observing neighboring farms, hunting up old photos, scoping out ecological "markers" in the area -- the bedrock ridges and exposed cliffs of the driftless area -- to reimagine how the land might once have looked before white settlement.
Even though this is not a restoration handbook, Nature's Second Chance will be helpful to anyone who is in the process of, or thinking of, embarking on a large scale ecological restoration -- not in the sense of where to buy good quality prairie plant seed, for instance, but in the way of managing goals and expectations, and the sometimes roller-coaster of emotions that crop up in a life-dominating project like this one. One of the big lessons is compromise and seeing things from a point of view other than his own. Sometimes it's nature he has to learn to understand; sometimes it's the other people in his life, whether that's his partner Susan, her son, his brothers, or his neighbors. That, too, becomes a kind of ecology.
Restoring even a small amount of land is a big investment in time, energy and money; the more acres, the more the investment. Even so, Apfelbaum seems to suggest it's the emotional investment that is perhaps the greatest. And you have no control over what happens to the land you don't own. At one point, a hill near Apfelbaum's farm harboring a remnant prairie is bulldozed without notice, due to a decades-old work order with the township. Development threatens everywhere. People who have good intentions are sometimes as harmful to the land as people who just don't care. And invasives constitute another problem, one with few boundaries.
Sometimes Apfelbaum's transitions between his personal experiences and larger ecological issues can come across as a little rough. But Nature's Second Chance is worthwhile for its pragmatism. It is honest about the ups and downs of restoration ecology, rather than reinforcing the image of an idyllic life in the countryside. For many, that won't make it a less desired dream. And that's a good thing.