Passing the Drip Torch
Don Parker, Editor
Photo: Katherine Millett
When ecologists evaluate the health of an oak woodland, they find the giant, ancient oaks and look below them for their offspring. In healthy woods and savannas, they’ll find representatives of every age—seedlings, saplings, teenagers, and adults ready to take over from the 200-year-olds.
So when Debra Shore, who founded this magazine with Stephen Packard back in 1997, handed me the editorial reins of Chicago WILDERNESS last November, I saw this passing of the torch — and I can’t help thinking of it as a drip torch, that essential tool for administering ecological fire — as comparable to the continuity found everywhere in nature. Healthy, sustainable nature is based on the passing along of an ancient inheritance — in every plant, animal, and fungus — to the next generation. (Conversely, woods or prairies overrun with invasives are scenes of dead-ends for thousands of species.)
Consider this issue. Continuity is in Henry Cowles’ powerful work on plant succession, in which one community of “pioneer plants” prepares the way for a new group of plants, creating fertile soil, stabilizing the ground, changing the very landscape. Inheritance is the underlying principle behind the quest for drinkable, swimmable water (see our special supplement). Sustainability is the subtext for the ancient cicada cycles in Craig Vetter’s piece, and Katherine Millett’s story about the life-preserving function of fire.
The regional conservation movement has accomplished much in recent decades, saving countless species, preserves, and ecosystems from oblivion. We’ve built a network of agencies and everyday residents who know and care about nature in a profound way. But those who began the modern version of this movement are now in or approaching their 60s and 70s. They’re realizing, both to their bemusement and genuine consternation, that they’re inexorably becoming “the elders.” They joke about gray hair and feign offense (at least I hope that’s what they’re doing) when younger folks refer to their seniority.
But many of them, I’ve found, are accepting this mantle with an active pride and sense of urgency. And my generation needs them more than ever — as teachers and sources of inspiration, to guide us and help us bring others to this effort. (Is it any coincidence that ecologists refer to the growth of the next generation of oaks as “recruitment”?) Without our elders, how would we make sound judgments about where to plant rare seed, or how best to conduct a controlled burn?
For Chicago Wilderness to be a success, there has to be regeneration. In many of our oak woodlands, ecologists aren’t finding enough young oaks. In some of our meetings, we don’t see enough young conservationists.
And while the Internet generation’s seemingly waning relationship with nature is a definite cause for concern, I meet new young people every day who grew up loving nature, who want to learn more, who love to be outside, who plant native gardens and come out to workdays and classes and hikes. They’re genuinely excited.
This magazine is meant to be a portal into that rare and rich wilderness around us. It certainly has been for me, and I hope it is for everyone who reads it.
Though it’s difficult to see from our limited perspective in the present, we are collaborating with generations across time. We are working side by side with Henry Cowles and Jens Jensen, with Floyd Swink, Ray Schulenberg, May Watts, and so many others — even, in a sense, with the American Indian tribes who for millennia hunted on and set fire to the land. And if we do our jobs right, we’re also working with hundreds of thousands of people who don’t even exist yet. Little by little, the elders are passing the torch to my generation, so that we can someday light a fire in the next one.