We asked fellow Iowans who have experience in the fields of natural resources, either as professionals or amateurs, to contribute an essay related to one of the main Iowa Master Conservationist Program topics. The following essay was contributed by Marlene Ehresman. Marlene works for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation as the Program Planning Associate, where she coordinates the INHF conservation easement monitoring program and assists with drafting conservation easements.

Into the Woods – Planting the Seeds of Conservation
The importance of a woodland legacy to Iowa's future generations

Hip-high to her rifle-toting dad, a girl tagged along as he and her big brother trekked through Iowa’s woodlands and woodlots on the crisp Sunday afternoons of her childhood. While her mom sat in the car reading the Sunday paper, the three seekers searched for fuzzy leapers and scolding squirrels. The blond head tilted toward the ground as often as it tilted upward, hands gathering her bouquet of colored leaves for the evening dinner table.

A few years later, she strolled with her dad through the woods of the Ames Isaac Walton League, stumbling on a ball of baby garter snakes that made her shoes come alive and her heart rise into her throat. “Just stand still. They won’t hurt you,” her dad said calmly as they writhed in confusion and made their slithering escape.

Years later, fresh on her own, she drove into the forest with her new husband to cut and haul wood for their winter cooking and heating. The scent of the freshly-cut limbs and logs permeated the air and warmed her from the inside out as she thought of the quiet moments she would spend standing in front of the wood stove, cold hands catching the rising heat.

A few short months later it was Spring and she sat in solitude on a sun-drenched slope, thumbing through the pages of her first field guide to wildflowers, in awe of the rue anemone and Dutchman’s breeches that spread as a blanket before her.

Not long before her first son was born, she heard the cackling “fly-down” calls of wild turkeys as they left their communal tree roost to amble through the deepening snow scratching for acorns and tubers of wildflowers.

As a middle-aged adult, she gasped at the sight of her first pileated woodpecker, as big as a crow, pounding a tree like a fevered lumberjack, chips flying. Still later while on a hike with a group of bird-savvy ears and eyes, she strained to see the Cerulean warbler singing amidst the choir of returning Spring migrants.

All of this has led her to a career in protecting our natural areas. First it was as a volunteer, helping a grassroots group from Ames and the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation to protect what is now called Ann Munn Woods. This urban woodland now provides both recreation and refuge for many. Later, she joined the staff of this conservation land trust which has helped to protect many public and private natural areas. She delights in walking with landowners through woodlands and prairies they have permanently protected through INHF with conservation easements, seeing that land through their eyes and hearing their stories of connections with the Earth. These stories usually include children and grandchildren.

The landowners who choose to protect their land, woodland or not, are gifting a vital legacy to future generations – just as Dad’s gift of time outdoors left me an amazing legacy of woodland consciousness. It is said that childhood experiences mold the adult we become, and I agree. But the experiences I’ve had since, with my husband and sons and friends and self, have further strengthened my sense that Iowa’s woodlots, savannas and deep forests are just as vital as our prairie heritage in defining who we are as creatures of a living Earth. We owe it to those who follow to ensure that they have a chance to learn from trees. As John Muir wrote, “Going to the woods is going home.” No offense to prairies, but I tend to agree.