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Soil Sisters: Working together are two words with huge impact
marci hess

My life’s work is restoring land to native ecosystems. The interactive nature of cooperation, collaboration and competition of the natural world intrigues me. Every action, every management decision, every inaction takes wildlife, plants, soil, and water into account. It’s impossible to separate this network. 

Plants are the visual aspects of native ecosystems yet they represent merely a fraction of the life required to create a healthy habitat. My corkscrew restoration journey morphed into a life-altering trek as I sought to understand this native world. 

Needing a starting place, I made lists of plants, trees, mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians on our land. These were easily seen and easily identified. The lists proved helpful because I could focus my research and education on these specific living entities. But lists are linear and ecosystems are not. My lists braided together: what animal nibbled what plant, what habitat a certain bird preferred, and how adults ate differently than their young. The missing list was insects. So I began studying them. 

My lists and studies were quite helpful in seeing how life worked together. Native plants are the basis for all wildlife. Baby birds, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals cannot survive without the protein from insects. Our native insects require certain plants to “host” their larvae. Most larvae are not highly mobile so adults need their eggs laid on the particular plant the larvae eats. If the “host” plant isn’t around, we lose the next generation of beneficial native insects. Our native insects can’t adapt fast enough to use the non-native plants which are from different continents. Additionally, non-native plants replace the native plants required by insects creating a negative cascade of losses. If there is not the right native species or sufficient quantity of native plants, there will be fewer insects which result in fewer birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and small mammals. Insects meld the ecosystem (aka lists) together. They are the bridge between the plants and other wildlife. Studying insects taught me about the linkages. They reveal how working together is essential.

I realized the tinier the ecosystem aspects I studied, the more expansive my world became. I could look at the big picture and see the invisible at work. I was out of my mind with delight!

I continued digging. Healthy soil ecosystems exist because two different “lists” work together: insects and plants. The soil fauna converts nutrients for plants to uptake and plants exude carbohydrates that feed the soil fauna. Working together this healthy environment grows our plant food supply that literally feeds the living world! I was on to something. I needed more lists! 

I made lists of landscapes: farms, urban parks, yards, waterways, and roadsides. I played the “what if” game. Recent research shows establishing any size native planting has benefits. What if the edge between your crop field and the access road were native plants? What if every vegetable garden had native plants surrounding it? What if every barbed wire fenceline had the invasives removed and natives planted? What if parks had areas of native plantings instead of mowed non-native grasses? What if the narrow strip between your house and your neighbors was native plants instead of mowed lawn? What if our waterways were bordered with native plants? What if our roadsides were planted with natives?

I began to visualize how farms and native ecosystems are an ideally suited synergy. Small family farms growing vegetables and hand-raised livestock depend on collaboration with insects. Our native bees are the most efficient and effective pollinators, ensuring vegetable plants fruit and create our food. Wildlife, such as opossums, eagles, and some insects eat carrion, which can carry disease and negatively affect livestock. 

Restoring an area to natives is rewarding. It requires time, patience, and hard work — just like everything else worthwhile in life! Native ecosystem restoration is a relatively new field with much to learn. The science is young and when new discoveries are made and new theories proved or disproved, management techniques evolve. Candid discussions and sharing experiences are essential. Within this niche, when we work together as scientists, landowners, professionals, and volunteers, we build our knowledge base. Various ecosystems work together, various people work together, and the world is healthier because of it.

Everyone has an area where natives can be planted and nurtured. Look around your place. Where can some native plants be added so they work together with other aspects of your land?

— Marci Hess of Blanchardville has 60 acres that she is restoring with her husband, Jim, called Driftless Prairies. These 60 acres include prairie, woods, and oak savanna and grade from dry soil to wet mesic soils. More info at Marci joined Soil Sisters because these women champion land stewardship and understand the importance of working together with native ecosystems.