.Our crew of five gathered around the edge of the prairie on a pleasant March morning, wielding tools both to start and to fight fire. In the shade of the trees, frost still lingered on the dry grasses and plant stalks that would serve as fuel for the fire, so we made our way around to another section of the prairie to begin the burn. A drip torch provided the fire to get things going, and I stood by with my fire-swatter to stamp out any fire going where it wasn't supposed to go.
Controlled burns have become a key management tool for many ecosystems in the Midwest. I had always wanted to watch or assist with a controlled fire, but this spring was my first chance to do so. This controlled burn was at Lake Katherine in their Buzz 'n' Bloom prairie. The trails around the prairie served as fire breaks, and we closely monitored the fire. However, with the damp ground and effective fire breaks, there wasn't too much cause for me to use my fire swatter. I really only used it once to keep the fire back from a compost area of the neighboring heritage garden.
Prairies, oak savannas, and even many of our local forests have fire-adapted species. In the case of prairie plants, their deep roots and growth points tucked down low allow them to recover quickly from fire. Fire also helps promote a diversity of native species and reduces the prevalence of invasive species in these habitats. If you are driving along the forest preserves this spring (or later in the fall) you might see their burn crews at work, as prescribed fire is a key management tool used in the preserves as well.
Obviously, fire must be used with care, but it's an important part of conserving native species and landscapes in our region. What looks black and charred today will soon show the evidence of a flourishing ecosystem, with leaves emerging and flower buds forming.
This past week, students in my Survey of Plant Animals course took some time to share about God's creatures with students in the after school program at Restoration Ministries in Harvey, IL. This year their topic was cave creatures. In the preschool classroom, the kids drew different cave creatures and then played a game of blind cave fish tag. In the first and second grade classroom, students acted out a variety of cave creatures from bears to snails to epsilonproteobacteria. In the third and fourth grade classroom, animal bingo and a bat-themed craft allowed for exploration of different cave-dwelling animals.
Cave creatures like cave spiders and the Texas blind salamander may not be cute and cuddly, but they have their own unique and interesting traits. To me, these give evidence of the diverse and amazing world in which we live. I always enjoy the opportunity to visit Restoration Ministries and share about the wonderful biodiversity of God's creation.
Students acting out different cave creatures with Ben Friesen leading
Moses Creek Wetland Restoration in Stevens Point, Wisconsin
How can we be co-workers with Christ in caring for the creation? One way we can work to support and bring back native plants and animals as well as functioning ecosystems is through ecological restoration. Yes, humans have radically changed landscapes, often reducing biodiversity and imperiling unique habitats, be we can also work bring back communities and species that have been lost or harmed.
In April, I had the opportunity to travel to Stevens Point, Wisconsin, for a chapter meeting of the Society for Ecological Restoration. I soaked in presentations on caring for waterways, prairies, forests, and threatened species. Here is just a sampling of the kinds of research and management questions I heard discussed: What are emerging pollutants for which we should consider monitoring? How can we assess stream water quality? How can we best use fire as a management tool? Are restored prairies providing habitat for a diverse bee community? How have populations of the trumpeter swan fared following re-population efforts? I also had the opportunity to share the work my students and I have been doing in a poster.
Can a Suburban Campus Be a Haven for Biodiversity?
Poster sharing work on campus biodiversity, particularly from analysis of field cameras placed around campus and from assessment of local milkweed populations
On the last day of the conference, we headed out from the meeting rooms and into the field. My trip took me to Moses Creek, a restored area that is part of Schmeekle Reserve. I stepped out of the bus and onto a boardwalk through the restoration area, which still had significant snow cover from the snowstorm that had hit the area the weekend before.
Moses Creek was a wetland that through human alteration of waterways essentially dried out and no longer supported wetland species. The connection between the creek and the soils around it had been largely cut-off. However, through restoration, that connection between creek and floodplain has been re-established and wetland species have returned to the site. Wetlands are important habitats that “soak up” water in the landscape and help maintain water quality.
I learned that, historically, Moses Creek would have been a more meandering, braided stream, and at a higher elevation that it is today. However, restoration efforts need to take into account both historical and modern context. Today there are neighboring homes in the area, so the restoration plan needed to ensure that changes to the landscape wouldn’t result in flooding of the surrounding area. This meant major work to change the area’s elevation while preserving the wetland-formed soils that remained on the site. The top layer of organic soils was excavated and stored so that the underlying sand could be removed to lower the site elevation. Then the organic soils were added back, and a shallow stream channel was established to better connect the water with the flood plain. Quite a monumental task! Native plants were then seeded and also came from the seed bank and upstream native community.
While observing the site, I could see the evidence of the plant community coming back, and I was also rewarded with views of a Pileated woodpecker (heading into the nearby forest), a downy woodpecker, a northern flicker, and several red winged blackbirds.
Restoration is rarely (never?) something that can be considered entirely complete. Yes, the major changes to the stream channel and site elevation are complete. Yes, native wetland species are rebounding on the site. However, ongoing concerns and management needs are always a part of the picture. For Moses Creek, invasive species such as hybrid cattails and buckthorn are a concern—if they come to dominate the site, fewer resources will be available for other species to thrive.
Ecological restoration is a way to care for God’s creation and to learn more about the workings of the creation. It also provides an area where people can enjoy the beauty and complexities of functioning ecosystems—in this case, not only land managers or researchers, but also anyone who cares to walk the trail at this popular preserve. I am grateful for the chance I had to enjoy the beauty of this site and learn firsthand from people managing and studying the ecosystem there.
Tour of Moses Creek Wetland. My thanks to our guides, Jon Gumtow and James Cook!
Enjoy this guest post from Mariah Neleson, a student in my Biology 100 class this semester. With the cold weather this April, we weren't sure what weather conditions we'd have for our work day at Lake Katherine, but nevertheless, we headed out to engage in hands-on stewardship.
I heard the birds chirping, felt the sun shining, and sensed the excitement. Our Biology 100 lab class finally got to take a walk and be in the nature we have been talking about and studying. In anticipation we brought raincoats and work shoes, not quite sure what we were getting ourselves into. We took the 7 minute walk down the street of Trinity’s campus and into the nature reserve (Lake Katherine) parallel to the busy street named College Drive. We were soon on a paved path under the shining sun awaiting instruction for the next few hours. After a short introduction, we all grabbed some work tools and went to work on the prairie looking hill alongside of us.
Lake Katherine is a nature preserve and botanical gardens located in the Southwest suburbs of Chicago. It was established to provide opportunities for education for everyone to have a place to connect with nature. It also gave opportunities for the environment to grow and flourish without being destroyed with the growth of business and economy. With the establishment of the nature preserve, natural species had the opportunity to grow and develop and be preserved. However, with natural growth, there were also ample opportunities for invasive species such as buckthorn to grow and develop. Buckthorn is a plant that originated in Asia and Europe and was brought over to North America at some point in time. Now it has been named an invasive species because it steals nutrients and sunlight from native species that are healthy and beneficial to the environment.
Our job on April 5 was to clear out the buckthorn from the prairie hill. We also came across other invasive species such as honeysuckle. Throughout the workday, as I worked under the sun and alongside of peers, surrounded by the beauty of creation, I was reminded of the goodness of God. In the beginning of the creation of the world, God put human beings on the earth to care for it and be stewards. With the fall came the brokenness of human beings and the sins that come with it. We have destroyed and polluted creation with our own selfish ambitions. Being back in nature reminded me of the call that was put on us in the beginning and the continuation of that call in our own lives today. To care for and restore creation and to partner with God to be shalom bringers. By spending a few hours on a Thursday afternoon clearing out a species that has invaded and taken over, I got to join in God’s redemption plan for creation: that everything will be restored in perfection and glory when Jesus comes again.
Photos from field cameras along the Navajo Creek on Trinity's campus, showing wood ducks and raccoons, just a small sample of the diversity seen in our suburban landscape.
How much wildlife could there be on a college campus in a suburb of Chicago? Well, quite a lot actually. Efforts to catalog and understand biodiversity on our campus have been ramping up. Field cameras were first launched around campus in the fall of 2015 as part of a Conservation Biology class, and students have been working on the project since then both as independent research projects and as part of their coursework.
Yes, we see a lot of common species of the suburban landscape, such as raccoons and squirrels. However, we can see them in unique ways, such as the raccoons gathering at night to feed on stream invertebrates. We also see species that tend to be more timid, such as the woods ducks. In my many walks along the Trinity Trail that follows Navajo Creek, I've never seen a wood duck with my own two eyes. However, we know they are frequent visitors based on how often we see them in our photographs.
These field cameras are wonderful, but they generate a lot of data! That's why we are working on an effort to get help in looking at all of these photographs. The Zooniverse website hosts various citizen science efforts, which allow anyone willing to put in some time and effort to help out with scientific projects, many of which are analyzing photographic data.
I've just started putting together a project through their website, and when it's ready, I'll be sharing the link so that you can share in our efforts as well. I'm excited about getting the broader community involved in this effort. Not only does it help our scientific endeavor, but it's also a way to get to know the local wildlife better and gain a deeper sense of place.
Here's our Zooniverse project in progress
On this chilly December day with snow flurries, it may be hard to remember the hot days of September. I've been meaning to share this additional guest post on from a member of my Environmental Science class this semester, so here it is.
Thursday, September 21: A sweltering 94 degrees with record high degrees for that day. And what do we have planned for that day in Biology 102? Doing physical labor outside for a couple hours. While this gave many opportunities to complain and whine, I think our class did well considering the conditions.
We went to Lake Katherine on this day for our lab time. Lake Katherine is a nature center and botanic garden. The area includes woodlands, prairie, wetlands, gardens, and a 10-acre lake. There is a trail that runs through some of the park. Our class walked over from Trinity Christian College and it was pretty close right there by the path. We were working on a hill that was mostly prairie and some woodlands. While there, we were trying to cut down invasive species, which are plants that are not native to this area that spread and cause damage to the environment and our ecosystem. The most common invasive species we were cutting down was buckthorn which had a skinny trunk and oval green leaves. Sometimes, it was hard to tell if the plant was invasive or not, and we had to be careful not to cut down the good plants.
Why do this type of work and ecological restoration? Invasive species can wipe out some of our native species, so cutting down the invasive species to restore the ecology can increase biodiversity. This means we can have the native species back promoting a variety of species in the area which God intended. He wants plants to live in unity with each other, just like humans should. We are to take care of this earth He has created and restore the earth back to its perfect form.
Even though we sweated through everything that day and some poison ivy was found that gave itchy aftereffects, the important thing is that we were taking care of God’s earth and learning more about His creation.
The following is the first in a set of guest posts written by students in my Environmental Science course this semester. Enjoy!
The sun beat down on the afternoon of Thursday, September 21 pushing temperatures to mid-90’s, but the heat was no match for the environmental science crew. During our lab time, we strolled a few blocks from campus to care for a prairie located on the outskirts of Lake Katherine Nature Center. The bluff the prairie was located on was formed when workers removed soil for the development of the Cal Sag channel. Now, this soil plays a large role in providing habitat to several natural organisms.
Our class’s job was to remove invasive species that were hindering the native species from thriving. These invasive species were most commonly woody species such as Buckthorn and Honeysuckle. These invasive plants were so successful in the Lake Katherine environment that they hindered natural species from growing to their full potential. It is the hope of the local environmentalist group that they will soon be able to conduct a controlled burn on the prairie bluff. This will aid in removing invasive species, but also return precious nutrients to the soil.
As Christians, we are called to be environmental stewards. This means that we are to use creation, but also care for it. Lake Katherine can be a great example of stewardship. The Cal Sag Channel was created, but the excess soil was not hauled away to serve no purpose, rather it is now the habitat to a prairie teeming with natural plants and animals. We used creation to create the Cal Sag Channel, yet also cared for creation in using the construction to benefit the local ecosystem. It is also important that we as Christians are willing to donate our time to care for God’s earth. On Thursday, we took time to pick up trash and cut down invasive plants. We are caring for an earth that does not belong to us, but stands as a showcase of God’s power and glory.
Trinity Christian College faculty attending the March for Science Chicago: myself, Dr. VanderWoude (Chemistry), and Dr. Carlson (Biology)
On April 22, Earth Day, my family and I took the train into downtown Chicago, got off at the VanBuren stop, and headed the to March for Science in Chicago. According to estimates, we were joined by about 40,000 or so other people in the Chicago march. Later in the march, we met up with two other faculty members from my college as well.
The march, of course, brought people from many walks of life. Many who are scientists themselves, but also many others who recognize the importance of science and the thoughtful use of scientific information. I especially wanted to to be there to stand up for the importance of science as a Christian. I see science as a gift from God that allows us to understand and care for His creation. While the media may often portray science and faith as being at odds with one another, that's not really a fair portrayal. God created the world and everything in it, and he also gave humans the minds and abilities to investigate that creation. When we make discoveries in science, we are discovering God's work in the world. I see that as especially important in the context of earthkeeping; God calls us to be stewards of the earth and its biodiversity. We need good science to be good stewards and to protect the planet and all that it provides for people across the world.
Some people had voiced concerns that the march might be too politicized. However, I was pleased to see a number of signs speaking to the fact that people of different political persuasions could all stand together to support science. If you look at the mission of the March for Science, you will see that indeed there is a political aspect in that part of the mission is that policy will be informed by scientific information. However, this should be the case for all political leaders and political parties. As a Christian, I recognize that we need more than science. For example, climate science can tell us about changing weather patterns and rising seas, but ethics and faith speak to the need to act on these problems to minimize their negative impacts on those who are most vulnerable.
If you'd like to read more about what some other Christian are saying about their faith and the March for Science, check out what was written by the president of Biologos, Deborah Haarsma, and by biblical scholar Chris Smith whom I had the privilege to get to know when he volunteered with Graduate Intervarsity Christian Fellowship.
Standing up for science with the whole family
source: USA National Phenology Network, www.usanpn.org
Spring is rapidly approaching the Chicago area, and that's based on more than just the fact that it's almost March 20, the spring equinox. The Spring Leaf Index you can see above shows the arrival of spring in the southern half of Illinois already, based on temperature data. How was this index determined? Well, it all comes back to plants. Historical data on seasonal changes in plants, in particular lilacs and honeysuckles, were related to changes in temperature, which are then predictive of a broader array of spring activity in other species, such as leaf emergence and spring flowering.
The National Phenology Network's data indicates that spring is arriving 2-3 weeks early in many parts of the country. Check out their animated map showing the spring index anomaly, which basically shows how much this year differs from the average.
As much as I enjoy a warm sunny day, the trend of warm winter weather is troubling given all that we know about the damaging effects of climate change. Looking back over my own posts, it was just January last year that I wrote about "A Dose of Mild Winter Weather." Below is a temperature anomaly map for January of this year (February's data hasn't been released in this format yet). You can see that the Eastern US had higher than average temperatures, and NOAA reports that globally it was the third warmest January during the recorded period since 1880.
In February, I started adding to my own observations to submit to the National Phenology Network, though their Nature's Notebook citizen science effort. My pussy willow tree is already beginning to flower, and the buds on my red maple tree are swelling and looking like they may be opening soon. I'll be able to see how the seasonal changes in my own yard compare between this year and previous years when I've recorded data, but my data will also be part of a much larger database that scientists can use to continue to evaluate how species and ecosystems are being and will be affected by climate change.
Climate change is a major global issue, and it's easy to feel overwhelmed. However, rather than getting stuck in the mode of feeling we can't make a difference, we can take more proactive steps. Continued data collection and scientific analysis are critical, and anyone can contribute through programs such as Nature's Notebook, Project Budburst, or some of the citizen science efforts that are a part of Zooniverse. From a standpoint of speaking towards policy, consider looking into and supporting the Paris Agreement on climate change, which is a worldwide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Read the letter to Congress put together by the Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (YECA), and see if you might add your voice with Christians calling for governmental response to the issue. Pray that we all may have wisdom as individuals, organizations, nations, and a global community as we approach the problem of climate change.
This past week I had the opportunity to visit the Garfield Park Conservatory with students in my Survey of Plants and Animals course. Although driving a 12 passenger van there is not my most beloved of tasks, this is a field trip I look forward to each year. Wandering through the different rooms of the conservatory, you get a sense of the incredible diversity of species on our planet, as well as the diversity of habitats that plants inhabit.
Flowering plants often steal the show, so to speak, and dominate the Spring Flower Show. However, don't miss the beauty of the plants that don't "advertise" with showy reproductive parts. In the Fern House you will find a plethora of seedless plants, such as mosses, liverworts, and ferns of all kinds. These species reproduce and disperse using spores. This year seemed to be a particularly good year for fern reproductive activities in the Conservatory, as sori (the structures that contain fern spores) could be found on the undersides of many a fern's leaf. The Fern House also houses an extensive collection of cycads, which are a type of gymnosperm. These plants do produce seeds, but the seeds are "naked" in the sense that they lack the exterior coating of a fruit. Among these plants, one might imagine strolling along the path and encountering a dinosaur or other prehistoric creature.
The angiosperms, or flowering plants, should receive their due as well. In the Sugar from the Sun garden, many edible plants are on display--bananas, oranges, grapefruit, vanilla orchids, and the chocolate tree. Angiosperms have given us the great benefit of their many types of fruits. All angiosperms produce fruits in the botanical sense, as fruits are the mature ovary of the plant's flower (sound delicious, doesn't it?). Not all of the them are edible, but I am certainly grateful for all the delicious foods that we do get from fruits.
And just think...not only does God's creation sustain all this amazing diversity in the plant world, but these plants then provide for all kinds of other creatures--ourselves included.
I'm a biology professor at Trinity Christian College. I'll be using this page to share interesting stories related to ecology and conservation at Trinity and in the Chicago area (although I might be tempted to expand my geographic focus upon occasion).