Stewards of the Land: Fostering Common Ground on a Changing Landscape
There’s a recurring misconception that Lake Menomin has always been green, yet this is not the case. In fact the lake hasn’t always been a lake! The Red Cedar Watershed has a long history tied to various communities with different values. Dissecting the past offers us invaluable insight into the different ways that we have shaped the land and in turn, how the land has shaped us. By cultivating a general understanding of the implications of our past relationships to the Red Cedar Watershed, we become more informed and engaged with our current social and ecological communities that make our home, home.
This summer my partner Esther and I dedicated our summer to understanding these changes by asking: (1) How have interactions with the land evolved over time and what can we infer about our current and future land use patterns? And (2) How have our relationships to water changed and what forces acted to maintain or impede these changes?
Esther and I spent weeks digging through archival materials that included everything from travel brochures and postcards, to maps and oral histories. We analyzed all of this and took note of recurring themes. Each of these shed a unique light on the changing public and personal perceptions of the Red Cedar Watershed over the last several centuries. We were then able to condense these interactions into four primary epochs describing the driving forces behind interactions. These four consisted of: viewing the watershed as a source of livelihood; as an economic resource; as having recreational value; and most recently, as having an aesthetic/symbolic value to the community.
As early as 8000 BC the Ojibwe called much of northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan home. Our research on pre-settlement land relationships focused on primarily the Ojibwe and their traditional relationships to the land as they depended upon it for sustenance. Wild rice was not only a staple part of their diet but also their culture. Wild rice fields once lined the shores of upper Midwest wetlands and were regularly managed by the native families who would return each year to harvest and to reseed. Controlled burning, hunting, and foraging were also commonly practiced.
Even today, the Ojibwe understand the land through Gakina-awiiya which means “We Are All Related”. This concept acknowledges that the environment should be treated with the same respect as a person, and therefore fosters more sustainable management practices and relationships to the land.
The next era was marked by an abrupt change in land use patterns and is a defining part of modern relationships to land. This era was defined by treating the land solely as an economic resource. With the influx of white settlement, the fur trade exploded while beaver populations plummeted. By the 1800s the fur trade had collapsed but the prospects of the timber industry encouraged settlement and extractive economies at a rate even greater than before. Yet again, destructive actions upon the land such as wetland removal, damming, and logging all had permanent effects on the environment despite the timber industry’s short-lived prosperity.
Moving into the 1900’s, we see that the environment maintains its economic significance through agricultural means but has developed recreational, symbolic, and aesthetic value. The town of Menomonie viewed the Red Cedar River and Lake Menomin as being deeply tied to its sense of community and sought to drive in tourism by promoting things like swimming, canoeing, and fishing. At the same time, the introduction of synthetic fertilizers, lawn mowing, and recreational parks become extremely popular and also have had long term effects on the land.
There’s no doubt that we’re at a turning point. As early as the 1970’s newspapers began mentioning green algae blooms affecting Lake Menomin. Relationships to the land are changing and our research shows that striving towards a reconciliatory landscape that acknowledges human’s role in the complex network of actors is vital as we move into the future.
It is important to acknowledge that there is no achievable “novel” landscape. However the more exploitative, extractive, and uneven our relationship to the watershed is, the more vulnerable it is to unsustainable interactions. Connection to the watershed is strongly associated with better land management practices, and should be cultivated through engaging with the community, participatory-based research, and integrative land management practices. As voters, community members, and stewards of the land we owe it to the watershed to acknowledge its inherent value, to stay informed and educated, and to acknowledge that we are not separate from, but part of the “natural” world.
Although the landscape has been physically and culturally altered by active and passive colonial, economic, and natural processes, it is necessary that we learn about and care for the land. Traditional and Local Ecological Knowledge of the environmental history of this place can inform current restoration practices. By working with the local community, which knows and values this place, scientists can make better conservation and restoration decisions.
This summer has instilled a new sense of passion and curiosity in me. Water quality, management, and access are without a doubt universal issues; the solutions certainly won’t be quick or easy, but they must strive to address social, environmental, and long term problems. Approaching the issues holistically and collaboratively, we can be sure that we’re taking regular vital steps to cultivating a more sustainable network of humans and the earth.