The sign off the highway announced “Ridgeway Pine Relict State Natural Area” but there were no other clues we had arrived at one of Wisconsin’s unique landscapes to help sow prairie seeds and burn brush that crisp January day.
No cars, no people, no sublime nature — just a sign next to a nondescript house with a field behind it and a windbreak of pine trees along the highway.
Surely a more fitting and aesthetic entrance lies ahead, I told Mick Skwarok, my friend and photographer for the day, so I turned my attention back to the road and placed my faith in my GPS.
We barreled up and down and through remote wooded hollows, scattering a flock of turkeys before deciding Siri had steered us wrong and returning to the sign off the highway — the one described in our written directions.
We pulled off the highway behind a truck and a four-wheeled utility vehicle. This, indeed, was the right place. The place we were to write about for the Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine, the place now being restored by state crews and an unlikely pair of caretakers who delight in restoring and revealing to others what they call southern Wisconsin’s “best kept secret.”
One half of that pair, Steve Strutt, 24, leads us past the sign down a path into a field of brome grass, now covered with snow and several big piles of buckthorn branches.
A recent UW-Madison wildlife ecology graduate, Steve grew up on a farm across the highway but had never set foot onto the property until a few months earlier when he first met Mary Kay Baum, the local resident spearheading volunteer efforts to care for the natural area. He loves this kind of work: being outside, leading work parties to get people involved, and using chainsaws and other equipment to tackle invasive species like buckthorn and honeysuckle.
Mary Kay Baum, a well-known Madison community organizer, lawyer, school board and county board member, ordained minister and onetime mayoral candidate, moved to the area in 2015 to be near land she could help care for and enjoy.
She believes that opportunity has been important in reducing cognitive changes related to an underlying epileptic syndrome diagnosed in recent years.
“I do believe it’s not only the medical treatment I’ve received but my time in nature,” she says. “When I slow down and am quiet in nature, I experience a deep connection with all that surrounds me. We know meditation is good for us, and this is an easy, natural form of meditation. I am fully ‘in the moment.’ All my to-do lists are gone. I feel fully embraced and accepted.”
She loves to tell the story, as she does today, of the rock cliffs protecting northern pine relicts and their associated flora from fire, while the prairies and oaks took over the rest of southern Wisconsin. And she loves to document, with her camera, the resulting biological mashup.
Pine relicts like these are pine forests that have persisted since the last glacier receded from southern Wisconsin thousands of years ago.
The cooler climate while the glaciers receded favored the growth of vast pine forests. As climatic conditions gradually warmed and became drier and fire became frequent, prairie, savanna and oak forests replaced the pine over most of the landscape. The steep slopes and rocky outcrops at Ridgeway Pine Relict protected the pines against fire, and they have regenerated and persisted while the southern species have grown up around them.
Now, oak and pine (primarily red and white) are interspersed with smaller amounts of Jack pine, mountain maple, yellow birch, mountain ash and yew. Ground-layer plants are a mix of southern and northern species including bunch berry, star flower, wintergreen, blueberry, huckleberry, Canada mayflower and many others.
“It’s amazing we have oak savanna plants like wood sorrel and then plants you’d normally only find in northern climes,” Mary Kay says. “The combination makes this so special.”
Today, volunteers work toward restoring prairie on the field of brome grass. While Steve recruits some volunteers to help throw brush onto the pile he’s lit, Mary Kay scoops seed from big brown bags into plastic ice cream buckets. Canadian rye, Indian grass and an assortment of wildflowers, all of it collected by Mary Kay and other volunteers last spring in another part of the natural area.
Volunteers will continue the work started yesterday by several seniors from the local CrestRidge Assisted Living Home, whom Mary Kay recruited to help with the task. She shows us photographs she took yesterday of one of the retired farmers who helped.
“This is the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on this gentleman,” Mary Kay says. “I’m proud to have been a part of making their day…they were so happy to be back on the land and doing something constructive.”
We scatter seeds from the buckets on top of the snow so it sinks down as the snow melts and gets pushed into the soil by ensuing snow and rains. Our task goes quickly, and afterward Mary Kay encourages us to take a break and enjoy the hot chocolate and tea she has brought along.
She grabs her camera and hands out walking sticks — repurposed cross country ski poles. It’s not a work party requirement, but she wants to take volunteers to see the rock cliff. “Part of our work party is promoting and getting the word out,” Mary Kay says.
She starts down a path tamped down between the trees. It’s steep, and she moves carefully sideways down the hill.
“Isn’t this something,” she says, poking the stick at the desiccated oak leaves still hanging onto a young, knee-high sapling. “To have young oak and young pine together.” She takes a few steps and halts.
We look out and there’s a sandstone cliff across a steep gorge. Huge icicles hang off the rock and in the horseshoe of the gorge there’s a wall of milky ice that looks like a glacier. “It’s even more magnificent than the last time I was here,” Mary Kay says.
The group lingers, looking at the site for a while, and then follows Mary Kay back up the path. She stops frequently to point out rocks, a hardy pine seedling, a fern growing from a rock.
“It’s important that places like this are available to the public. You just learn a lot – even sense it – when you spend time outdoors,” Mary Kay says. “I sense the wonder of the land around me. I am drawn to renewed hope… hope that together we can imagine and work toward that deeply inter-connected world that is meant to be.”
By Lisa Gaumnitz, Foundation member and volunteer (guest blogger)
Ridgeway Pine Relict SNA is one of the Natural Resources Foundation’s priority state natural areas. In 2016, we will help fund WDNR conservation activities in the area, including establishing burn units; controlling herbaceous, invasive plants; and mowing. If you’d like to donate to the management of this SNA, please visit our Network for Good page, choose “State Natural Areas” in the designation field and specify “Ridgeway Pine Relict SNA” in the dedication.
If you’d like to volunteer at Ridgeway Pine Relict SNA, please contact Mary Kay Baum directly at (608)-935-5834 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Facebook message Friends of Ridgeway Pine Relict. For more state natural area volunteer opportunities, visit the WDNR state natural area volunteer page.