Monday, January 24, 2011

Nurturing a Sense of Place: The Stewardship Network Conference, 2011

I mentioned on Facebook last week that we were preparing for the 2011 Stewardship Network Conference. We had been asked to do a poster presentation, and were more than happy to oblige, but it took me about a day and half to put it together and get it printed. That coupled with the conference itself left no time for blogging!

The Stewardship Network is an organization that brings other ecologically-minded organizations, businesses and individuals together to help us all better manage our lands. Concerned primarily with restoration of damaged habitats, the Network serves as a central place for those doing the dirty work to connect for the greater good. The Network is comprised of eight clusters in Southern Michigan, and each cluster holds its own events throughout the year as well as participating in the Garlic Mustard Challenge, where one cluster tries to pull more of the nasty invasive species than their neighbors.

Now in its (I believe) fourth year, the conference has grown each year and now takes up a big chunk of the Kellogg Center on the MSU campus. The two-day conference starts with several speakers, then we break up into groups for some smaller, more specific concurrent workshops. The speakers this year were quite diverse and represented a break from the normally somewhat dry "scientific" presentations loaded with statistics and study results.

Peg Kohring, a biologist with The Conservation Fund, talked about economics and biodiversity, and how it is vital to show the economic value nature holds--for instance, the 47 million birdwatchers in this country spent $32 billion on their hobby. And for the urban planner, statistics like this: that a five percent increase in the number of trees in a region reduces storm runoff by two percent.

After Peg came Guy Williams of G.O. Williams and Associates, a sustainable community consulting business who has also worked for The National Wildlife Federation. He talked about stewardship and how it can benefit the common good. His talk was much more personal and much less scientific than past speaker's. He stressed the need for us to have a personal mission statement that can help guide us in our life and work, and urged us all to look for those things we agree on and then begin our dialog from there. He also joked about being one of the only persons of color in the room, which I personally think has less to do with culture and more to do with economics and opportunity, but that is for another discussion.

Professor Emeritus Jim Crowfoot, who teaches at the University of Michigan, continued the more personal theme of the conference and gave a talk about deepening our sense of stewardship by reconnecting emotionally and spiritually with local nature. He gave one of the Saturday workshops where people actually broke down and cried when talking about those places that are dear to them. He stated that we are facing the crisis of all crises where all planetary systems are affected, and asserted that while science is essential to solving these issues, it is not in itself sufficient. As Baba Dioum stated, "We will conserve only what we love." Conservation is as much about emotion as it is about need.

Frank Ettawageshik, a traditional Odawa storyteller and potter, spoke on climate change and our sense of place. He stressed that we need to remember that our environment is constantly changing, and that we need to know our place within the context of time. Conservation, he said, is really about preserving ourselves and our place on Earth, and as we restore the Earth we are restoring ourselves.

After a wonderful lunch keynote speaker Henry Lickers took the stage. Henry, of the Seneca Nation, currently works for the Department of the Environment for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne in Ontario, Canada. He spoke about stewardship and sense of place (see a theme here?). He talked about the value of local knowledge when it comes to place and how critical that knowledge is when it comes to restoration. He spoke of a "naturalized knowledge system" that begins with accepting Earth as Mother and ends with the idea that the spiritual world is not "out there" but here, close to earth. Everything is connected, something Native peoples have known for countless generations but that Western culture is only just now beginning to realize and accept.

That evening the poster presentation area was opened and lots of yummy snacks were laid out (they do feed us well there!). Most of the presentations were very scientifical, loaded with info about this study or that research.

I must say we really stood out with our artwork! The poster next to us, as an example, is about biofuels and restoration. I did write a piece about art in the conservation movement to try to make us look a little more legit!

Lori stands dutifully by to answer questions. (And yes, for those of you paying attention, we did move our presentation to another panel.)

That evening there was a "fireside chat" with conference elders. The term elder simply means one with great knowledge, and can be a person of any age. It was a very informal gathering where the group chatted and talked about their hopes and fears for the future, and I think pretty much everyone left that night feeling all warm and fuzzy, and hopeful.

The conference wrapped up Saturday with more workshops. Again, there were plenty of opportunities to talk about Nature and our connection to the land, and the importance of that spiritual connection to place in the conservation movement. I know I for one got a lot more out of this conference than in years past. I hope that next year, along with presentations of studies of the restoration of oak savannas in Iowa that we also continue to study our own emotional connection to place, to the Earth, and to all who walk upon it with us.

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