Second Nature

30 October 2020

Walking through the Arboretum, it’s easy to get lulled into thinking the landscape has always looked more or less the same. But what many people don’t realize is that almost all of the Arb was agricultural land from the time of European settlement in Northfield to the mid-1900s. Extensive ecological restoration work (i.e. planting) and rigorous management practices are behind this “natural” landscape.

But what does “natural” even mean?

Humans have reconstructed this landscape based on a state-wide public land survey conducted from 1848 to 1907. This extensive survey included reference markers, plat drawings, and handwritten descriptions of land vegetation across Minnesota. These observations were compiled into a map, titled “The Original Vegetation of Minnesota,” in 1930 by Francis Marschner, a research assistant for the USDA in Washington, DC. This map sat unused and largely undiscovered until 1974, around the same time that both Carleton and the world were beginning to think about ecology.

While the Marschner map is an invaluable tool for landscape restoration efforts, it does raise some questions. Marschner himself never set foot in Minnesota, instead basing vegetation types off of handwritten observations and the stately trees picked as markers by surveyors. Beyond just survey bias, it is important to think about what exactly we are restoring the landscape back to. It is wrong to think that this land was “wild and untouched” before European settlers forcibly removed the Mdewankaton and Wahpekute Dakota peoples from their homeland; this land has always had a human influence.

Fire is an integral part of prairie ecosystems, and Indigenous practices heavily influence how we manage prairies today. Historically, while some fires were started by lightning strikes, many fires were set by Indigenous peoples to clear land, improve grazing for game species like bison, and control game migration.

If the goal of ecological restoration work is to return the land to how it looked in 1850, how do we account for a changing climate? How would this landscape look today if Europeans never arrived? And does the fact that this landscape was constructed by humans change its value?

Goldenrod on one of Carleton's restored prairies.
Goldenrod on one of Carleton’s restored prairies. Photo by Brittany Johnson ’18.

Posted In