Friday, November 22, 2013

Welsch Nature Preserve

I'm grateful to my husband Dan Kramer for setting off an important chain of events last month. On a long flight to Shanghai, he shared my project with his co-worker, Daniel Hayes, and upon their return to the U. S. I received an email from Professor Hayes encouraging me to contact a man by the name of Clifford Welsch. Thank you Professor Hayes for that email! A few days later I spoke with Clifford by phone and a week later visited him and his wonderful wife Margaret at their home on Welsch Nature Preserve in DeWitt.

Clifford and Margaret Welsch own 80 acres of land: 20 acres of prairie, 8 of wetland, and 52 of woodland. They bought the land in 1994 when Clifford retired as a cancer researcher at MSU. He was worn out from oncology research and wanted to spend his days outdoors learning something new. He knew nothing of ecology, but taught himself everything there was to learn about starting and managing a native wildflower and grassland prairie.

He and Margaret started by planting 10 acres of land with native wildflowers and used those first seeds, and those of native grasses, to add an additional 10 acres in later years. There are now over 140 native plant species in their 20 acre prairie, many of which are endangered and threatened. Removing every invasive plant from the field, of which there are now few due to his incredible hard work, is an ongoing task. As if that weren't enough, he mows it all down once a year in the fall and burns it every three years. This helps stimulate new growth and he said the plants come back like crazy the following year. It would be hard work at any age and he is 80! He says it's good for his health, but it's clearly a labor of love.

Though they get a lot of visitors to the preserve throughout the year; from MSU classes and seed collectors to photographers, Clifford had never heard of anyone making paper out of invasive plants. 

He walked me right through the middle of the field, pointing out and naming various plants, breaking open seed pods, and giving me the history of the preserve. It was so incredibly different from observing the endangered plants at MSU, that I had agreed not to touch and where there was typically only one plant per species available. Clifford and I pushed our way through a sea of native plants with dried seed heads, leaves, and stems brushing up along the sides of our legs and sometimes up to our necks! What a treat it was to be surrounded by a field of native plants with someone who knew them all by name. It was one of the best afternoons I'd had in a long time.

I spent the next couple of hours photographing two species. The first, compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), a threatened plant species which grows up to 12 feet high, and the second, white indigo (Baptisia lactea), also called prairie false indigo, which is on the special concern list. The green foliage on both plants was long gone, but the seed heads and dried, curled leaves held a beauty all their own. It was a beautiful day and terribly difficult to tear myself away from such a magical place.  

Thank you Clifford for your time, for sharing your knowledge, for walking me through the field, for allowing me to photograph the plants, and for sharing your story of love and dedication to the preserve! It is yet another benefit of doing this kind of project - spending time with inspiring people like you and Margaret, and learning about something so dear.

Monday, November 18, 2013

W. J. Beal Botanical Garden at Michigan State University

I began photographing endangered and threatened plants in the W. J. Beal Botanical Garden the first week of September. I had just been awarded the 2013 Chris Clark Fellowship from the Arts Council of Greater Lansing and was waiting until I had purchased my new camera with the award money before starting the project. I made several trips to the Beal Garden and photographed twelve different plant species:

One endangered species - purple turtlehead (Chelone obliqua)

Nine threatened species -  canadian burnet (Sanguisorba canadensis), cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), starry campion (Silene stellata), wild oats (Uniola latifolia), Houghton's goldenrod (Solidago houghtonii), and downy sunflower (Helianthus mollis).

Two special concern species - lead plant (Amorpha canescens) and seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia)

When I first wrote the proposal for this project, I hadn't yet decided if I would photograph the actual plants or the shadows of the plants. However, it was clear during the very first shoot that the shadows carried a much stronger message, on many different levels. It was a sunny day and the act of positioning the white board and tripod, avoiding my own shadow, and trying not to touch the plants proved to be extremely challenging - in a good way. I experimented with stretching the shadows and came away with several strong images. But you'll have to wait to see them. :)

The endangered and threatened plant garden is located in a bed along an embankment under some trees, though there are a few species located in other beds and near one of the ponds below. It truly is a beautiful garden. I can't wait to return in the spring. 


The Search for Endangered Plant Species

The plant species I'm photographing for this project are placed into one of the following categories:
(1) Endangered - in danger of becoming extinct in Michigan; (2) Threatened - likely to become endangered if they are not protected; (3) Special Concern - not yet protected by the Endangered Species Act, but identified by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MIDNR) as needing special attention; and (4) Extirpated - believed to be extinct in Michigan. How do they determine what category each plant is in? The degree of endangerment is based on the size and distribution of the populations of that species and the vulnerability of those populations to various threats.

Because these plants are extremely rare, they're difficult to find, let alone photograph, in their native habitats. I was encouraged by Mike Penskar, Lead Botanist at Michigan Natural Features Inventory, a private/public collaboration that has assembled a database of endangered plant species and their locations throughout Michigan, to visit the Endangered and Threatened Species Garden at the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden at Michigan State University. This section of the garden includes Michigan native plants whose remaining populations are protected by the Endangered Species Act. I met with Dr. Frank Telewski, Professor of Plant Biology and Curator of the MSU Beal Garden and Campus Arboretum and he graciously issued me a permit to photograph the plants. This allows me to move the signs and mesh wire around the plants. It also permits me to harvest some of the invasive plant species along the Red Cedar River with which to make my paper. Thank you Dr. Telewski!