Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit has long been one of Mike Smith’s favorite places to relax and commune with nature. He has been coming here since he was a teenager in the 1970s, “as soon as I got my driver’s license,” he said.
Smith, Washington, has spent most of his life studying and learning about the natural history of this region — by reading books, asking questions and getting hands-on experience.
Last spring after retiring from 25 years as an industrial arts teacher with the Washington School District, Smith didn’t need to think twice about how he wanted to spend his newfound free time. He began volunteering at Shaw on a regular basis, lending a hand wherever he was needed.
Last month, Shaw named Smith as its first volunteer land steward.
In this new role, Smith is overseeing 16 acres of riparian habitat between Brush Creek Trail and the Trail House Loop Road, on the nature reserve’s western edge.He is leading restoration efforts and working to control invasive species of privet and bush honeysuckle.
It’s back-breaking work, especially on days where Mother Nature serves up her worst conditions, but Smith is loving every minute of it.
“How does this feel to do today? Really good, very gratifying,” Smith remarked.
“It’s hard work, and my back is kind of sore right now from it, but having just retired, at this stage of life, you start thinking how do I want to use this next stage of life? When I ask myself that, this is it, being part of the solution.”
Mike Saxton, the ecological restoration specialist at Shaw, said Smith was the ideal candidate for this new volunteer position at the nature reserve.
“Mike, as an educator and community leader, for him to come out here, with his background in ecological knowledge and the natural world, he has fallen seamlessly into our program,” said Saxton. “Without much effort on our part, Mike had already emerged as a leader.”
Smith is known around Washington for his conservation and restoration efforts. He served as chairman of the Washington Urban Forestry Council for 12 or so years, and in that position he led several small-scale restoration projects along the Washington riverfront and other places, removing invasive species and planting native seeds.
His to-do list for his area along Brush Creek has four parts — cutting out the brush and invasive species, taking a plant inventory, collecting seeds and then dispersing seeds.
Smith has already made a nice dent in the wall-like thicket of brush, but there are many more acres of it.
As the season advances, he will pause in the brush removal to address the other tasks (taking an inventory, collecting seeds), and the brush will wait for him.
Requested Brush Creek
When Saxton approached Smith about the idea of stewardship, he had a couple of places on the grounds in mind where Smith could get to work. But Smith already had an area in mind — the land surrounding Brush Creek Trail where it crosses the creek.
There isn’t a trail at Shaw that Smith hasn’t hiked many times, but he felt Brush Creek Trail was really in need of some TLC.
“I would cross Brush Creek Trail and look around and it was just, ‘Yuck! Yuck!,’ ” said Smith, noting there was a thick wall of invasive plants and very little plant diversity.
Now in the section of the land where Smith has cleared the privet and honeysuckle, the difference is already being seen. There are trout lillies, spring beauties, Jacob’s ladder and other delicate things popping up from the ground. They were there all along, but couldn’t grow because they were robbed of sunlight by the privet and honeysuckle.
“But now that it’s been removed, you can see how much diversity there is on the ground that now can be released to grow,” said Smith.
Diversity Supports Resiliency
The reason it’s important to have diversity in the plants goes beyond simple aesthetics.
“It’s about turning sunlight into biomass,” said Smith. “Starting with sunlight as a source of energy, you produce the different plants, and each species of plant has its associated insects. And with the insects, you have small mammals and birds who feed on them, and on up through the food chain. It creates a more diverse environment overall.”
And as the world is changing, biodiversity will be the key to resiliency, said Saxton.
“At this stage in the game, where we’ve already had this profound impact on the landscape, we also are beginning to change the climate, these communities are going to be put under pressures that historically they might not have been experiencing, either the level or rate of change,” Saxton said.
“So the greater number of species we have, the greater the resiliency of the landscape is. In the long term, the more diversity we have the better the chances we are going to maintain diversity going forward through all of this profound change.”
Leaders Among Volunteers
Smith typically spends two or three days a week working at Shaw. He volunteers one day with the horticulture department and one or two days working in his area along Brush Creek. He has a couple of set days to work, but he can make adjustments to fit his schedule.
Eventually, Shaw hopes to expand the program to have more volunteer land stewards like Smith.
“The three words I use when I talk about volunteer stewardship are ownership, autonomy and empowerment,” said Saxton. “We are looking for Mike and other stewards like Mike to be leaders amongst volunteers.”
The program is about “empowering leaders to do what they’re skilled at, to take initiative, to be creative, to be mentors to other people,” Saxton explained.
He envisions that more volunteers worthy of being named land stewards will make themselves known through Shaw’s weekly restoration workdays.
“Leaders will emerge organically through the process, volunteers who show up and are taking on longer term commitment,” Saxton remarked.
As a volunteer land steward, Smith has ownership over his area and autonomy in decision making, but that doesn’t mean he’s unsupported.
“It’s more of a collaboration and less of a directive on our part,” said Saxton, noting Smith will discuss his ideas with him.
Sense of Permanency
The benefit of doing this kind of restoration work at Shaw rather than other venues is the sense of permanency that comes with it.
“You can do this at home, around your house or if you have some acreage, but there is no guarantee that your effort will persist over time, if you sell your house, for example,” said Saxton. “But at Shaw and Missouri Botanical Garden, we are in it for the long haul. There is a sense of permancny here.
“Every time we come out, we are leaving what should be a lasting impact on the landscape,” Saxton remarked. “And the sheer diversity and how dynamic the landscape is makes it exciting to be a volunteer at Shaw.”
Smith said what he finds so motivating as a volunteer for Shaw, which is part of the Missouri Botanical Garden system, is that it is part of the solution.
“Our landscape has just been so severely degraded from the early 1800s to now, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and not know what to do about it,” said Smith. “But the Missouri Botanical Garden is definitely part of the solution, so tapping into their wherewithal is very empowering.
“For them to trust me as a steward on something that we all recognize as so valuable, and a effort that is so important, yeah, it’s a good feeling. To actually be able to do it,” Smith remarked.
‘I’ve Seen the Mistakes, I’d Been Part of the Mistakes’
Now in his early 60s, Smith says he’s just old enough to recognize the learning curve that has taken place over the last 50 years in terms of plant diversity and invasive species.
“Europeans came into this landscape that was just exceptionally diverse, more so than a lot of North America,” said Smith. “This region right here was exceptionally diverse.”
But they devastated the land “more dramatically than most people realized,” he said. “One, because they looked at it as a resource, and two, because they didn’t have an indepth understanding.”
By 1920, Missouri’s landscape was horrific, said Smith. The conservation movement began sweeping across the country, but again many efforts were misguided from a lack of understanding.
“I’ve been paying attention to it long enough that I’ve seen the mistakes, and I’ve been part of the mistakes,” Smith admitted. “I planted bush honeysuckle. I was involved in propagating euonymous and these things we are trying to get rid of today. But at the time, we thought we were doing the right thing.
“We didn’t realize that you can’t take a plant that evolved for 100,000 years in Asia and plant it here without consequence. Now we are seeing that if you want to turn sunlight into biomass and increase diversity, you have to do it with the plants that have evolved here,” said Smith.
‘Too Important Not to Make an Effort’
Standing along Brush Creek staring at a thick wall of privet that has yet to be removed across many more acres, Smith knows there is no end in sight for the work he has signed up to do at Shaw. It can be disheartening, but he’s not afraid.
“You put on blinders and look straight ahead. It’s such an important thing,” he commented. “I grew up walking through woods that weren’t infested with this.
“I’ve always loved being in woods, loved our landscape here and to see it turn into this . . . On one hand it’s overwhelming, but on the other hand it’s too important not to be making an effort toward it.”
Smith jokes that his body may give out before the work can be completed. He hopes still to be actively volunteering at Shaw into his 80s and even his 90s.
“The more you learn about it, the more fascinating it is. The more fascinating it is, the more you want to learn about it. That’s how I want to spend the rest of my life,” said Smith.
To learn more about volunteering at Shaw Nature Reserve, go to http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/visit/family-of-attractions/shaw-nature-reserve.aspx and under Things to Do, select Volunteer. Or call 314-577-9555 for more information.