Blue Heron Ministries

An opportunity to be stewards of our Lord's creation within the context of community


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Oak Openings – by Nate Simons

I love weddings! And I love bur oaks. In this installment of excerpts from James Fenimor Cooper’s Oak Openings, we get to peek into a wedding scene set in a bur oak grove. Remember the setting for the adventure was the Kalamazoo River and the oak openings of the present day Kalamazoo-Portage-Schoolcraft area in Kalamazoo County. The time is late summer, 1812. The only characters in this scene are the hero (professional bee-hunter Ben Boden, also called Le Bourdon); his soon-to-be bride, Margery; a missionary to the Potawatomi tribe (and any other tribes that would listen)named Parson Amen; and the missionary’s American military escort, the corporal. The story is very romantic and the description of the scenery is as well, but Cooper does paint a word picture of a Midwestern landscape that is long-forgotten, is almost lost today, yet might serve as a model for the wildlands of Lakes Country of the future.

Little ceremony is generally used in an American marriage. In a vast many cases no clergyman is employed at all; and where there is, most of the sects have no ring, no giving away, nor any of those observances which were practised in the churches of old. There existed no impediment, therefore; and after a decent interval spent in persuasions, Margery consented to plight her vows to the man of her heart before they left the spot. She would fain have had Dorothy present, for woman loves to lean on her own sex on such occasions, but submitted to the necessity of proceeding at once, as the bee-hunter and the missionary chose to term it.

A better altar could not have been selected in all that vast region. It was one of nature’s own erecting; and le Bourdon and his pretty bride placed themselves before it, with feelings suited to the solemnity of the occasion. The good missionary stood within the shade of a burr oak in the centre of those park-like Openings, every object looking fresh, and smiling, and beautiful. The sward was gieen, and short as that of a well-tended lawn; the flowers were, like the bride herself, soft, modest, and sweet; while charming rural vistas stretched through the trees, much as if art had been summoned in aid of the great mistress who had designed the landscape. When the parties knelt in prayer–which all present did, not excepting the worthy corporal–it was on the verdant ground, with first the branches of the trees, and then the deep, fathomless vault of heaven for a canopy. In this manner was the marriage benediction pronounced on the bee-hunter and Margery Waring, in the venerable Oak Openings. No gothic structure, with its fretted aisles and clustered columns, could have been one-half as appropriate for the union of such a couple’.

James Fenimore Cooper, Oak Openings pg 333

Kauffman Farms bur oak on the first of November by shelby holsinger

Kauffman Farms bur oak on the first of November – by Shelby Holsinger

The Kauffman Farms bur oak set against this year's first snow by Nate Simons

The Kauffman Farms bur oak set against this year’s first snow – by Nate Simons


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“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. His faithful love endures forever.” (Psalm 107:1, NLT)

It is Thanksgiving season, and yet giving thanks is to be a daily, even hourly predictable pattern in our lives. So this is a good time to remember our Father’s goodness and remember how folks who have been good to Blue Heron Ministries remind us of our Father’s goodness. I am reminded that when we are generous and show love, we look a whole lot like our Father. When we reflect the image of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are living into our true identity as sons and daughters of the Creator of the heavens and the earth. And here we are vocationally conformed to the image of Christ.

So, thank you to:

  • Allison Klement, Terri Gorney, Hannah Olsen, Donna Rayl, Henry Kroondyk, Harve Hathaway, Mary Durand, Bridget Harrison and Dave Drogos, Marilyn Clevenger, Mike Clock, Janel Rogers, Fred Duschl, Rick and Martha Fansler, Aimee and Nate Simons, Melvin and Denille Conklin, Anita Dierkes, Lee and Pat Casebere, Steve Witte, Jim and Bette Thomson, Ken and Dee Wolf, Roger and Mary Hawks, Kate Sanders, Pam Morton, Peg Zeis, Jo Burkhardt, Fred Wooley, Cheryl Taylor for the Ralph E Taylor Conservation Fund held by the Steuben County Community Foundation, the Ropchan Foundation, and an anonymous donor from Clear Lake for your generous financial gifts to Blue Heron Ministries towards the acquisition of the addition to Badger Barrens…otherwise known as Headacres Farm.
  • Jim and Lynn Simons, Roger and Mary Hawks, Dee and Ken Wolf, Abby and Byron Getz who faithfully support Blue Heron Ministries with regular financial gifts.
  • Linda Austin, Greg Carlson, Barb and Gary Baus, and Lauri Rowe who, out-of-the-blue chose to give financially to the work of Blue Heron Ministries this year.
  • Phil Bieberich, John Brittenham, Josh Hall, Gary Wappelhorst, Fred Wooley, Shelby Holsinger, and Emily Schmidt who have chosen to labor full time with Blue Heron Ministries to bring about the restoration of the natural landscapes of Lakes Country.
  • Peter Bauson, former full time field steward with the Blue Crew, who has moved on to more and greater adventures.
  • Mike Holcomb, Tina Flanigan, Gene Huss, Dave Drogos, and Will Rocky who joined the Blue Crew as needed to help with prescribed fire.
  • Ariana Perez Diener, our intern who cheerfully labored with the Blue Crew this summer.
  • Beth Williams, our administrative assistant who brought new life to our Facebook page and Rustling Grass newsletter and even tried her hand at grant writing.
  • Tom Smith, Peg Zeis, Beth Williams, and Neal Lewis, Board of Advisers who gather occasionally to keep the mission and path of Blue Heron Ministries headed in the right direction.
  • Nathan Shoemaker, my son-in-law who is ready to answer my often stupid computer questions.
  • Kurt Stump, Peg’s neighbor who faithfully kept the trail at Badger Barrens cut.
  • Jim McCulloch, a neighbor of our office who faithfully kept our garage lawn cut.
  • Peg Zeis, Bette Thomson, Emily Brittenham, Kathy Brittenham, Don Luepke and Fred Wooley who met as our first ever committee members to brainstorm and plan future Blue Heron Ministries events.
  • Denille, Olivia, and Alexis Conklin, Mary Durand, Don Luepke, Kate Sanders, Atiyana Ward, Tori and Addison Mumaw, Lynn Simons, Jim and Bette Thomson, Deanna Vazquez, Beth, Marc, Jeremy, Sarah, and Rachel Williams, Peg Zeis, Heath and Luke Hurst and Maraiah Russell, Lorri Stump, Donna Rayl, Ken Holden, and Jeannine Walker, a hearty bunch of volunteer friends who served to steward our Lord’s creation by pulling weeds at Badger Barrens and collecting seed for our prairie planting projects.

Together you all brought a bit of heaven to earth this year. This is kingdom come here and now! while we wait for Jesus’ return to bring heaven and earth together in its completeness.


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Last of the Blooms – by Nate Simons

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Bottle gentian – by John Mowry

On a mission to locate it, John Mowry captured this photo of a single flower of the bottle gentian. Bottle gentian is one of the last prairie flowers to bloom. The second week of October, John found this plant showing off its autumnal beauty in a wet prairie near a tamarack tree in northeast Steuben County. Also called closed gentian (Gentiana andrewsii), this flower never opens. The flower is only pollinated by bumble bees that are strong enough to force the closed petals open. Completely disappearing inside, the bee gathers nectar, accidentally covers itself in pollen while turning around, forces open the petals, then exits to fly away to another.


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Oak Openings – by Nate Simons

On our way to South Haven to enjoy the beaches and waters of Lake Michigan one fine late August day, we stopped at the rest area on Interstate 94 near Kalamazoo. Near the parking lot, an historical marker with the words “Oak Openings” caught my attention. I read about the natural history of the region around Kalamazoo and the term coined by mid-nineteenth century author James Fenimor Cooper (think Last of the Mohicans) in his book by the same title.

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A weathered bur oak at the edge of a field at Pigeon River Fish and Wildlife Area

Oak openings as a landscape type were once found in our region. In fact, oak openings are described as the settlement place of choice in the History of Steuben County: 1885. Oak openings, as the name suggests, are open areas in an otherwise closed-canopy forest. The openings, historically were hundreds and thousands of acres in size. Bur oaks were the predominant tree of the openings and typically were scattered within the openings with the floor of the openings composed of prairie grasses and wildflowers. The oak openings existed on a landscape continuum between forest and prairie.

So I bought the book, Oak Openings, and finally finished it this month. In the tale Cooper writes of the adventures of a professional bee-hunter and his interactions with the Potawatomi tribe at the beginning of the War of 1812. The setting for the adventure was the Kalamazoo River and the oak openings of the present day Kalamazoo-Portage-Schoolcraft area in Kalamazoo County.

In this and the coming issues of Rustling Grass, I will share excerpts from Cooper’s book. Following is the description of the tale’s setting. Go back in time with me and imagine a wilderness that was the happy hunting grounds of a people who lived here before us and took care of the land a bit differently than we do.

The precise period of our legend was in the year 1812, and the season of the year the pleasant month of July, which had now drawn near to its close. The sun was already approaching the western limits of a wooded view, when the actors in its opening scene must appear on a stage that is worthy of a more particular description.

The region was, in one sense, wild, though it offered a picture that was not without some of the strongest and most pleasing features of civilization. The country was what is termed “rolling,” from some fancied resemblance to the surface of the ocean, when it is just undulating with a long “ground-swell.”

Although wooded, it was not, as the American forest is wont to grow, with tail straight trees towering toward the light, but with intervals between the low oaks that were scattered profusely over the view, and with much of that air of negligence that one is apt to see in grounds where art is made to assume the character of nature. The trees, with very few exceptions, were what is called the “burr-oak,” a small variety of a very extensive genus; and the spaces between them, always irregular, and often of singular beauty, have obtained the name of “openings”; the two terms combined giving their appellation to this particular species of native forest, under the name of “Oak Openings.”

These woods, so peculiar to certain districts of country, are not altogether without some variety, though possessing a general character of sameness. The trees were of very uniform size, being little taller than pear-trees, which they resemble a good deal in form; and having trunks that rarely attain two feet in diameter. The variety is produced by their distribution. In places they stand with a regularity resembling that of an orchard; then, again, they are more scattered and less formal, while wide breadths of the land are occasionally seen in which they stand in copses, with vacant spaces, that bear no small affinity to artificial lawns, being covered with verdure. The grasses are supposed to be owing to the fires lighted periodically by the Indians in order to clear their hunting-grounds.


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Fall’s Gathering of Friends and Seeds – by Kate Sanders

I grew up in a family with a very large garden.  We picked, shelled, gathered what we could from other places, hunted, fished, dried, canned, and stored what we could.  As a kid, not much came from the grocery store.  As a result, and probably for other reasons too, I am tied to the seasons.

Community and friends seem to have seasons too.  In the spring, once the ice melts, everyone is out and about talking, making impromptu plans, continuing conversations and projects that had been dormant over the winter.  Once it gets warm, and we are in the midst of the carefree days of summer, community events and friend gatherings are at their height.  In spring, and in summer, people are wont to be adventurous and gather without reserve, or particular reason other than the appreciated warm weather.  In the fall, especially once the temperatures cool off and we feel that change, gatherings seem to get more prescribed.  We make it a point to spend time with people we won’t spend as much time with over the winter for one reason or another.  Finally, in the winter when it is cold, and snowy, it feels like meetings with friends are the most intentional, and infrequent of all.

Fall is the season I look most forward to.  I love the way the cool air feels on my face, while I am warm under cozy layers of sweaters and wooly socks, a warm cup of tea in my hands whilst my nose is still cold from the outdoors and tucking my toes under the dog to warm them.  I love the way the air smells, the beautiful colors, apples, and the fall rain.  Most of all, I look forward to collecting seed.

When I started volunteering, I was a dutiful collector, going off and coming back with the best haul I could at each stop.  As I grew to know the Blue Heron Community, it became just as important to me to collect seeds of wisdom and understanding, seeds of patience and perspective, seeds of observation, seeds of truth, from the community I was collecting with.  This year I realized, I do not collect as much native plant seed as when I started, taking time too now for fellowship and collecting other kinds of seed.

Blue Herons scatter at the Tri-State Airport prairie remnant to gather this fall's seed.

Blue Herons scatter at the Tri-State Airport prairie remnant to gather this fall’s seed – photo by Nate Simons

Fall is the season where I find myself in the midst of two communities where I feel more at peace than anywhere else.  The first community being the native plants around me as we collect, the second the community of volunteers who collect seed, aka Blue Herons.  This combination of two of my very favorite communities is more joyful than I could ever find words for.  It is treasured time with old friends and new, plants and people alike.


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2019 Seed Collecting: Same Process, Some BHM Changes – by Fred Wooley

I heard from my brother this morning, from outside Chicago, they got 2 to 3 inches of wet, slushy snow!

“What! Snow already?!”

I guess it is that time, as we wrap up October and flip the calendar to November. We have already had some October mornings of frost on the pumpkins and vehicle windshields. At Blue Heron Ministries, these natural events also signal that we are reaching the end of seed gathering activities.

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Emily Schmidt cleaning seed – photo by Josh Hall

We like to think of work at BHM as a series of events, all leading to one objective, restore and maintain natural areas to their original, high quality of native plants and a healthy, functioning system to keep them high quality. Some of the year is spent removing

unwanted, non-native, invasive plants. At some areas we manage, we introduce fire to the landscape at certain times, as once occurred naturally to the landscape, including set by Native American people. Parts of the year are spent planting species to restore the land, plugs in the spring and summer, seeds in the fall, winter, and very early spring; again, depending on the species of plants and the areas being managed.

The summer and fall fruiting seasons often find us out collecting the seeds of those plants. The goal is to collect as many as possible in the most efficient fashion, dry them, and store them. A winter project is to then clean those seeds, which are then planted at our various project sites. This is a tremendous savings over purchasing seeds from vendors that provide such, plus we get the very local genotypes from natural areas right here and the repopulation of these plants is the purist it can be.

BHM employees always comment this is one of the favorite tasks of our year and one of the best times of years. For one thing we are not out just killing plants, as is needed to remove invasives from our worksites. We are reaping the fruits of our efforts, literally, by collecting seeds of desirable plants and making them available in that area we are working, or at new areas being restored.

The work is good, quiet, and clean, no noisy equipment and no chemicals. Just work with a five gallon bucket belted to your waist… pulling, maybe cutting, and dropping seeds into a bucket. All the while we are in some of the most beautiful areas in Northeast Indiana. Though for some seeds, grass seeds mainly, we do have a combine like apparatus that can be pulled behind a tractor that greatly increases our efficiency.

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Phillip Bieberich harvesting little blue stem Mongo prairie – photo by Fred Wooley

We don’t keep the fun to ourselves either; we invite volunteers to join our efforts! Every Saturday in October, we offer volunteer days where anyone can come out and join us in these wonderful natural areas, share in the work, and enjoy the camaraderie of being with kindred spirits in the out-of-doors. To all who have joined us in the past, thank you! To others who would like to be a part of this fun and valuable work, please contact our BHM office. Though October is ending, there are still some target species that can be collected. We can arrange for you to join us still, or with a little training and direction, send you to an area to collect and bring back a target species. Please call Director Nate Simons if interested.

Seeds in drying bins in BHM Barn 10_29_2019 by Fred Wooley

Seeds in drying bins in BHM barn – photo by Fred Wooley

While the process remains the same, some big changes were in place this year. Our barn we used to dry and store seed in the past was at the country home of Nate and Aimee Simons. They have relocated, and we no longer had access to that barn. While it was valuable and served our purpose in our early years, we have moved operations to our own barn near our Chapel of the Lakes office. This is a welcomed addition to have work and storage space right near our headquarters. We quickly established new drying racks and storage shelves this fall. On very busy days, we even stretched the BHM mega-tarp on the shop lawn and took advantage of solar drying.

Plans are underway to add to our current garage/barn. That work will happen this fall. Stay tuned and watch for these future changes at Blue Heron Ministries. If you’d like to be a part of the process, part of some very rewarding experiences, please raise your hand or call!

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Various seeds out to sun and air dry at BHM office yard – photo by Fred Wooley


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Restoring Native Diversity in a Grass-Infested Wet Prairie – by Nate Simons

One of the most aggressive plant invaders in a sedge meadow or prairie fen ecosystem is the ubiquitous reed canary grass. Long planted (and abundantly escaped) as a pasture grass for soggy soils, reed canary grass is adventive from Europe. The rhizomatous grass spreads by underground, horizontal roots to quickly form a dense sod that outcompetes and displaces almost all native wetland plant species…often times forming complete monocultures.

Restoration of sedge meadows and prairie fens infected with this exotic, invasive grass is difficult and time consuming. A complete cover of this grass in a restoration project usually requires complete chemical eradication of the sod. If, however, the reed canary grass has not yet formed a complete sod and native sedges and wildflowers still remain, another process may be employed to recover and promote the native vegetation.

Year 4 of mowing and spraying reed canary grass at Div. of Nature Preserves' Marsh Lake Nature Preserve. Sedges and wildflowers flourish where reed canary grass once dominated.

Year 4 of mowing and spraying reed canary grass at Div. of Nature Preserves’ Marsh Lake Nature Preserve. Sedges and wildflowers flourish where reed canary grass once dominated.

Given that reed canary grass possesses two sets of buds on their rhizomatous roots (buds that produce leaf shoots in the spring and a different set of summer-dormant buds that produce leaf shoots in the fall), control of the grass is tricky. The use of a grass-specific herbicide (clethodim is the herbicide of choice and is labeled for non-cropland areas) allows the restorationist to suppress the growth of the grass without harming the sedges and wildflowers. If conditions are right (no standing water…many fens and sedge meadows have saturated soils with no standing water), the herbicide can and should be applied two times a year.

The process looks like this:

  1. Burn the sedge meadow in the early spring.
  2. Apply grass-specific herbicide when the reed canary grass reaches ankle-to-shin high (April). The herbicide must be mixed with a crop oil or methylated seed oil to penetrate the waxy coating that the leaves naturally possess. This application suppresses the early leaf growth that emerges from the first set of buds.
  3. Mow the sedge meadow in late August (yes, a small tracked skid-steer loader can rumble across the quaking, soggy soil as long as enough native sod forms an interwoven mattress of roots) . The late, dormant buds then produce new leaf shoots.
  4. Apply grass-specific herbicide and seed oil solution when the grass again reaches ankle-to-shin height (late September and early October.

This process must be repeated for a number of consecutive years until the strength of the rhizomes is completely diminished and the native sedges and wildflowers moves into the resulting soil space. Skipping a season almost assuredly means starting the process over. The process often takes more than five years. However, with repeated semi-annual applications of grass-specific herbicide in conjunction with late summer mowing, the result can be an abundance of and diversity of native sedges and wildflowers. Upon a soggy walk through the late summer prairie, ones senses will be thrilled with the sights, sounds, fragrances, and beauty of a gloriously-rich and uncommon ecosystem. And the native pollinators and other fen-dependent animal species will thank you profusely when they re-discover home.