I Brake for Dirt Piles


Never ask an ecologist “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”  Unless, of course, you are ready for a long discussion that touches on the relationship between habitat and wildlife.  Does it matter if we cut down dead trees, since there are so few red-headed woodpeckers around to nest in them? Or would the presence of suitable nesting cavities attract a migrating pair who just might take up residence and re-establish a population of that declining species, in your backyard? Discussions of the connections between specific critters and plants – grouse and aspens or scaups and seasonal wetlands – can go on for weeks. That inter-connectedness is challenging whenever a landowner asks my advice on restoring wildlife habitat on their land and I ask for clarification on which wildlife they want to attract.

Similarly, we can ask if our careers result from our hobbies, or if our hobbies are a refinement of some aspect of our jobs. Many of my peers spent early vacations enjoying the natural environment with an older family member. Sometimes it was a hunting or fishing bond; in other cases it was an escape into the wild areas surrounding the house with someone who appreciated strange seed pods or pretty flowers. Their career choices weren’t tightly defined when they entered college, and their current job descriptions might differ from their youthful expectations. What remains constant is an appreciation for the whole system, an acknowledgement of how the pieces fit together to create that system. The fishermen understand the impact that a solid field of vegetation high in the watershed has on the water quality of the trout stream.  The artist may connect visual associations with plant communities, and use that information to locate additional subject matter for their art. But their awareness of the natural environment is integral to their lives, not just their nine-to-five jobs which might focus on measurement of total suspended solids or design of raingardens.

If you are a regular reader of Angie’s column, you’ve probably noticed that she enjoys traveling to exotic locations on her vacations, and later writes about her observation of issues relating to water resources. I’m not so lucky. My observations are less scenic, and usually need more explanation to my companions about why I want a closer look. Instead of ooh-ahh waterfalls, I brake for dirt piles spotted at the edge of a wetland. I whip out my binoculars to scan for silt fence at the edge of the pile. I identify the species of the vegetation growing on the slope of the pile, and sigh with relief if it is a cover crop rather than weeds. Then my husband reminds me that we aren’t in Minnesota, so can we please move on? Or we go mountain biking, and I crash while trying to avoid crushing the trailside trilliums and orobanche. I’m also the one who gets scolded by park rangers for stepping off the trail to bag a close-up photo of nodding ladies’-tresses or rock tripe.  I can’t help it. Those are plant species that I don’t encounter back here, even if I’m out in the field every day.

On bike rides with friends, I’m often asked for plant identification and updates on construction sites. It’s hard to separate my work-self from my personal self, and I really don’t mind that blurring of roles. I admit to being passionate about the work we do. During one memorable ski trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, we skied a new trail and saw silt fence protruding from the snow. Naturally I stopped for a closer look, and realized it was a wetland mitigation site, replacing impacts from the recent trail improvements. Discussion on wetland regulation continued back at the lodge, but that time I handed off a business card to one really interested person, and suggested he call me at the office.

Among the staff at the Washington Conservation District are hikers, gardeners, hunters, birders, chefs and artists. Our personal activities often include aspects of natural resources that we don’t get to use on a typical day at work. That knowledge base gives us depth, allowing us to respond directly to many questions from the public, rather than referring them to our resident expert. Even our seasonal water monitoring technicians can usually identify plants growing along the roadside, by the end of the season. The brake lights might flare for sightings other than deer on the road.  But please, if we are at the grocery store with our family, let’s keep the business conversation short, okay?


Guest Writer: Jyneen Thatcher is a Natural Resource Specialist with the Washington Conservation District. She can be reached at jyneen.thatcher@mnwcd.org or 651-275-1136 X 37.