The Nature of Change

Think Minnesota winters are bad? You should have been here 75,000 years ago when the snow never melted, even in the summer. Massive glaciers covered the land, encasing Minnesota in a slow-moving, back and forth deep freeze that lasted 65,000 years. When the glaciers finally retreated for good, they scraped the earth bare in some places, left heaps of rocky soil in others, and etched deep wrinkles across the land as the melting ice water flowed away to the oceans. Over the past 10,000 years, the glacial waters continued to recede, leaving us with the Minnesota landscape we know today. As the glacial lakes have dried up, they’ve left behind thousands of smaller lakes and wetlands as remnants, and the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers now flow through wide valleys carved by the glacial River Warren.

The Minnesota we know today includes three distinct biomes: pine woods in the north and east; oak woods in the center and southeast; and prairie grasslands across the southern and western portions of the state. Climate change is gradually moving the boundaries of these biomes, however. As a result, some keystone species like aspen, tamarack and moose are declining, while others like maple are migrating north and east. On top of all that, scientists are learning that temperature and precipitation are changing more rapidly here than in other parts of the U.S., especially in northern Minnesota.

For most of us, the changes we are most familiar with are those we see in our own communities. Farm fields give way to new developments, or an empty lot becomes a new store. Many rural landowners in the county tell me they’ve seen changes on their own land over the years. A few years back, after several consecutive years of drought, I heard more than one person remark that a pond or wetland on their property had gone dry for the first time that they could remember. People also notice that the woods around them are changing, as older oaks die and invasive species like buckthorn and garlic mustard move in. Sometime, they notice changes in the kinds of birds that come to the feeder, or the ducks that land on the lake. Change happens in town as well.  Neighborhoods gradually grow shadier as the spindly trees planted decades ago in yards and parks grow and spread, and invasive species in the form of weeds march across lawns and under fences.

On February 21, Wild Ones, a local nonprofit, will hold a daylong conference entitled Design With Nature: Changing Tactics. An event for gardeners, designers, and enthusiasts of native plants and natural landscapes, the conference is billed as an opportunity to “rethink how we design and manage our landscapes” in the presence of constant change, both natural and manmade. Travis Beck, a nationally recognized landscape architect, will share tips for designing yards and other landscapes that adapt naturally over time as trees and shrubs mature and other changes occur. Wiley Buck, a restoration ecologist with local nonprofit Great River Greening, will talk about local grazing initiatives using sheep, goats and horses to control buckthorn and manage prairies in rural and urban settings. Leslie Brandt, a climate specialist with US Forest Service, will discuss a Chicago-based initiative to manage city trees as an urban forest, using forest management practices to respond to the impacts of climate change.

The Wild Ones Design With Nature: Changing Tactics conference will be held Saturday, Feb. 21 at the Nicollet Island Pavilion in Minneapolis (free parking).  Register by Feb. 13 ($55 Wild Ones Members / $60 General Public). Learn more at