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Seeing the forest for the grass: Grassland conservation and restoration in northwest Minnesota

By Eric Chien

Part I

Two doves soar above the simple wooden altar that presides over the chapel pews where I received much of my instruction on living. Those enormous white birds share their lofty perch with words of peace and unity scribed in many of the world’s languages, a tribute to the ideals of diversity and acceptance that my Episcopalian school sought to impart to its wards. As a 9th-grader, I remember our chaplain, Father Bellamy, announcing the beginning of the mosaic’s installation, his warm voice promising, “A mosaic will be erected one tile at a time, and eventually all those pieces will come together and become a testament and daily reminder of the spiritual and educational mission of this school.” I don’t remember ever noticing the mosaic after that morning service when the vision of it was painted for us in words. For the following year a single artist worked piece by piece, the daily tile additions so slow that the wall seemed perpetually unchanging. Until one spring morning when I walked into the chapel, and my eyes snapped to the back wall and there was the mosaic, a shimmering, complete work of art that simultaneously demanded attention to its entirety and also each colorful tile. Today, as a Conservation Corps crew leader in my home state of Minnesota, I learn and work amidst a mosaic as grand, complex and dynamic as any in the world. Just as in the hallowed halls of my high school, I am daily reminded of how profound change can go unnoticed until it bursts out of imperceptibility and demands attention.

This April I stepped out of a Conservation Corps truck after a long Monday drive to our crew’s work site. Three hours of Minnesota Public Radio, and crackling country stations paired with the perpetual drone of tires on state highways can and often does dull my senses of anything beyond the borders of the pavement. The air smelled different. The sun was warm on my skin until a stiff, west prairie wind ushered that warmth away. But before all of these environmental cues reminded me that we had arrived on the Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge, I was washed with the sounds of sandhill cranes. In front of the truck, a hundred soft brown birds whirled and swept across the open northwest Minnesota sky, chortling to the wind that bore them around and past us to their ancient breeding grounds.

That morning was a moving introduction to a part of the state that had so far remained beyond the farthest strides of my boots. In many ways it fit seamlessly into my preconception of Minnesota’s northwest that had been formed from history books and tourism pamphlets; an open, wild part of the state, a borderland defined by the historical mixing of peoples and confluence of ecoregions. Despite the immediate beauty and apparent wild fertility of the place, I would come to find in the following weeks that my perception of the place was of a single tile in an expansive canvas. There was a reason my crew had been asked to come out to the northwest. If I could get aloft, soar on cranes’ wings and transcend the experience of a single tile, I would have seen a landscape that is experiencing profound change.