Sometimes a Wild Notion
Mussels are magnets for fish. In fact, the world’s original anglers may have been mussels. Some mussels bait fish by displaying a bit of mantle that mimics a minnow. Others release larvae in juicy-looking, wormlike clumps. Mussel shells harbor aquatic insects that bring fish to feed. But the biggest lure to fish is the habitat mussels make. They create a stable substrate where plants grow and invertebrates thrive. A good mussel bed is good for fishing, says DNR biologist Mike Davis.
Starting with "New Mussels in Old Miss’," this issue has an underlying theme of how people are working to restore and strengthen connections in living networks. The lead story explains how changes in the Mississippi led to the disappearance of mussels from parts of the river. Not long ago, biologists received a tip from a contractor about mussels near a pipeline river crossing, so they began a survey to look for more. Once they were convinced that a mussel renaissance was underway in the stretch from the Twin Cities to Lake Pepin, they came up with another idea: to transplant rare mussels back to their historical home.
"Farms Turning Wild" tells the stories of some farmers who have gotten wild ideas and put them into practice. From harvesting seeds of prairie grasses to idling lands for hunting, they have found ways to combine wildness and profit. The stories could fill a book. And, in fact, various books discuss similar possibilities for restoring wildness. Aldo Leopold’s 1949 conservation classic, A Sand County Almanac, begins with sketches of rebuilding "with shovel and axe" a worn-out farm. A recent book called The Farm as Natural Habitat takes up the cause of conservation with examples of Midwestern landowners who are trying to right the balance between the tame and the wild.
In Buffalo for the Broken Heart, Dan O’Brien chronicles his arduous passage from cattle ranching to buffalo ranching. Always mindful of his debts and the threat of losing his land, O’Brien wrestles with serious doubts about pursuing his wild notion. But when he finally brings home the buffalo, he begins to see why they belong: "Our grass evolved to thrive under buffalo hooves, not cattle hooves. Only buffalo are a force that can match the scale of this land. Only buffalo have the power to massage this land back to health."
All of these wild pursuits on the farm rely on the same matrix: the soil. On page 40, "The Universe Underfoot" gives a glimpse of the mysteries of this life-giving matter. Farmers and ranchers learn first-hand the necessity of guarding their soil currency, formed over the ages from bedrock, air, water, and life itself. "Sadly, there is no technology that can restore topsoil washed away by poor farming practice," O’Brien writes, daunted by the task of revitalizing his abused land. "Topsoil is made of centuries of decayed vegetable matter, and the process occurs only when conditions are ideal. I’ll never live long enough to see even a centimeter of the eroded topsoil replaced."
Our story "Nature Watchers" extols the work of volunteers who help scientists keep an eye on the natural world. And watch we must, Leopold said half a century ago. He told of eagerly watching a country graveyard each July to see his county’s sole surviving "man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. . . . What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked."
Driving by the graveyard one August day, Leopold saw that the highway department had mowed down the Silphium. He wrote: "This is one little episode in the funeral of the native flora, which in turn is one episode in the funeral of the floras of the world."
Sometimes, in one place or another, a wild notion just might take hold and redefine progress in favor of compass plants and buffalo.
Kathleen Weflen, editor