Private Land Conservation is Troubling—and Probably Indispensable

A bright yellow mushroom spills out from a dark grey log.

I dipped my toes in first to test the water’s temperature. Dan took the plunge more eagerly, doing a double-jump off the ancient diving board. It was a sunny day in early September, and feeling much like a lizard, I liked the warm rock I was sitting on next to Ives Lake. I was the last to join the group for a swim, but no one seemed to mind.

Silhouette of a person standing up to her ankles in a reddish lake.

The author steeps in Ives Lake. Photo by Andrew Thomas, September, 2017.

Forrest, a poet, said as he floated by that it felt like swimming through a lake of whiskey. And it did: the water was a deep amber color, dark and golden. You couldn’t see more than a foot or two down. As we bobbed through this glacial lake, the newly changing leaves danced like seasonal glitter before they landed on us.

Anne, a mycologist, said that this was a very healthy lake. The water’s color was a testament to the accumulation of plant matter that had been steeping for centuries, if not longer. So, it was more like an Earl Grey lake. Between the whiskey and the tea, we might have been swimming in a toddy.

We were all bathing in something very special, almost pure. This lake had been so little tampered with that the biological matter had seasonally accumulated in the water, transforming leaves, algae, sediment, and other biotic materials into a truly magical elixir. I wondered, might this magic rejuvenate me in some way? What if I drank the lake like a tonic? For a moment, I surrendered to my whiskey bath, surrendering also to the myth of purity.

A stone building with a gable roof and a long porch sits above a calm lake under an overcast sky.

The Stonehouse on Ives Lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Photo by Andrew Thomas, September 2017.

Last September, I was invited to go mushroom hunting with a group of mycologists, visual artists, a poet, and a literary scholar at the Ives Lake Field Station, a restricted-access research station on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula located within the Huron Mountain Club.

The trip was an experiment in collaboration. We explored how different fields of study communicate knowledge of the natural world and how we can use the affordances of each field not just to produce something that is aesthetically beautiful (like a poem, photograph, or bronzed mushroom) but something that can do what seems utterly impossible in our times: communicate across difference. I mean both difference that is enforced by academic disciplines (such as separation of the sciences and humanities) as well as those ideological differences that are highlighted in public conversations about the environment and climate change.

A large disc of a mushroom, grey with red edges, grows low off the ground around the base of a tree surrounded by green grass.

A giant polypore fungi or “artist’s conk” inhabiting a tree trunk at the Ives Lake Field Station. Pinhole camera photo by Adriana Barrios, September 2017.

The group spent the week circling around two questions: When is knowledge proprietary? And when is knowledge free?

These questions were made all the more provocative because the Huron Mountain Club (HMC) was sited on land ceded to the United States by the Ojibwe people in the Treaty of 1842. One history occludes another. Founded in the 1890s by wealthy white Midwest outdoor enthusiasts qua enviro-capitalists, the HMC sits on more than 8,000 hectares of old-growth hardwood forest. And in the 1930s the HMC was an important stop for Aldo Leopold whose report on the Club helped put into practice his theories of land management driven by a conservationist ethic. Since 1955, the Ives Lake Field Station has been maintained by the Huron Mountain Wildlife Foundation.

The history of the United States is the history of private property and the privatization of the non-human world. Unlike the National Park system, which was founded at nearly the same time as the HMC and which conserved land for public enjoyment and appreciation, the HMC was always private, exclusive, and elite. But like the National Park Service, the HMC deployed the myth of wilderness and the both naïve and hubristic belief that certain humans can create or sustain such a thing. This belief is possible first because Indigenous people were forcibly removed. And for the National Park Service, maintaining this belief is a growing challenge due to a surge in visitors, invasive species, climate change, and other factors.

A detail of Ives Lake and the map legend showing a portion of the land-holdings of the Huron Mountain Club.

A hand-drawn map of Huron Mountain Club property. Photo by Yooperann, June 2014.

This terrain, deep in the interior of the continent, was a place apart from the islands and archipelagoes that I’m accustomed to thinking and writing about. From my vantage point, the concept of insularity—so important to the study of islands—makes sense here. Insularity creates a myth that lands and peoples are static, away from centers of power and influence, and therefore outside of time. Insularity makes islands appear remote and parochial instead of interconnected. So I started to wonder, how might that logic help me make sense of our time at the field station, located on this continent’s Third Coast? How does the logic of insularity shape the cordoning off of lands under conservation? The trope of island insularity is relevant here, but so is the shape of island insularity.

The HMC is island-like because some people desired an exclusive space in a way that corresponds to colonial desires for desert island paradises. The presumed isolation of land made it valuable and picturesque, but the isolation of people has the opposite effect. Thus the United States Supreme Court could decide against the full incorporation of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam in the Insular Cases, after the acquisition of these lands following the War of 1898. The insularity of certain people makes them or allows them to be non-cosmopolitan, anti-modern, or “foreign in a domestic sense” and therefore without full constitutional rights. The insularity of land makes it beautiful, desirable. All of this is a problem.

Insularity favors stasis, a myth itself because people, cultures, ideas, ecosystems are mobile, and transgressive, even if for varying and violent reasons. We know that an archipelago of private landholdings in the service of conservation will always have porous ecological borders, but human mobility across these borders shows how they can also be a selective and semi-permeable membrane that wealth and privilege (including academic privilege) alone can lubricate. These logics are unsurprisingly exclusionary, but our trip to Ives Lake was in part shaped by the opening up of this field station to research groups along with the reality that lands under conservation are now valuable in a new way because of climate change and the Holocene extinction.

A brown and white mushroom with a broad, short cap juts out from the forest floor.

A mushroom breaks through the duff on the forest floor. Photo by Andrew Thomas, September 2017.

After our swim in the lake we returned to the field station headquarters to look over the results of our mushroom foraging from earlier that day. The different textures and smells of our finds were enchanting: witches’ butter (Tremella mesenterica), trumpets of death, blue stain fungus (Chlorociboria aeruginascens). I hadn’t expected to be so drawn to these small wonders, and joined mycology graduate students Savannah and Denny in trying to identify the mushrooms we collected. Between the glacial lake and these rare mushrooms, the experience of insularity began to feel more complicated—an experience that carries forward a troubled history, but one that also carries ecological and cultural significance while fostering knowledge.

The value of this collaborative endeavor increases as higher education becomes more privatized and politically vulnerable—something not lightly felt in the state of Wisconsin, where I work. In this context, sharing knowledge across disciplinary boundaries takes on a sense of urgency. But the value of this endeavor increases along another axis, as the isolation of private and elite lands nevertheless preserves species of fungi (and much more) in the face of global biodiversity decline. Moreover, these lands provide carbon sequestration, recycling the air for humans in our shared (even though unequally shared) habitation of this planet. What may just save this piece of land, for now, is its private status. And what should continue to be the value of public education is our efforts to share knowledge, to pay attention to wonder, and to cultivate awareness of the historical contexts that make our work possible.

Featured image: Witches’ butter (Tremella mesenterica). Photo by Jacinta Lluch Valero, November 2014.

Sara Thomas is a Literary Studies Ph.D. student in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a member of the Edge Effects editorial board. Her research spans twentieth and twenty-first century transnational American literature and culture. She is especially interested in the archipelagic and oceanic networks of U.S. empire making and the affective, aesthetic, and ecological effects of these material and metaphorical relations. Contact.

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