Blue Heron Ministries

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

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View from the Crew – featuring Emily Schmidt

Blue vervain
Michigan lily
Wild bergamot/Monarda
Mountain mint
Grass pink orchid (note the unusual location of the “lip” at the top rather than the bottom)
Summer intern Cassidy Robinson looks out at Mike Metz Fen (formerly Duff Lake Fen) as John Brittenham recounts BHM’s successful efforts of restoring the former cow pasture to a landscape featuring fen, sedge meadow, wet prairie, upland prairie, and oak woodland communities – July 7, 2020
Dave Drogos (front) and Josh Hall (back) plant native plants at Bill and Judy Greffin’s Clear Lake residence – July 10, 2020
Josh Hall applies herbicide to a dense stand of non-native cattails at IDNR Div. of Nature Preserves’ Marsh Lake Nature Preserve – July 15, 2020
Emily Schmidt and Nate Simons (taking the photo) push the herbicide-coated, two-person wick through a patch of non-native cattails at IDNR Div. of Nate Preserves’ Lime Lake Nature Preserve – July 20, 2020
Cassidy Robinson and John Brittenham use the “glove-of-death” technique to apply herbicide to non-native cattails in a fen at the John Bachelor farm – July 21, 2020

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Gazings of a Geezer

by Don Luepke

Age is certainly defined by a number. Considering that, I must admit that I am old. My years identify with that address on “Sunset Strip” (you probably have to be a “senior” to understand that). And even though I am of “geezer age” I thoroughly enjoy being out in the natural environment, walking slowly and observing the Creator’s Touch in everything around me.

Early this last May I was hiking through the Brennan Woods area of the Clear Lake Nature Preserve seeking out some spring ephemerals Not many were visible at that point in time but did notice something colorful on a shrub atop a ridge not too far away. I left the trail and climbed up the incline to get a closer look.

I found just one sort of purple “bud bloom” on one of the branches.

Red elderberry flower bud

When I got back home and checked some plant ID resources, I did not find an answer. Several weeks later I was again in Brennan Woods and this time I again sighted the bush but now there were many blooms but they were in a cream color.

Red elderberry in flower

This time I posted the photos to the Facebook page of the Indiana Native Plant Society requesting an identification. There were two responses but neither seemed reasonable. What is a geezer to do? Ah, check with the experts. And so a quick email to Nate Simons and Fred Wooley; they surely would know what this is. Within a short time answers came back from both. I had found a rather rare plant for this area, the red elderberry, or Sambucus pubens.

How ironic I thought; of all the plants to find, the old geezer came across an ELDERberry!

Charles Deam in a 1932 edition of Shurbs of Indiana shows the following illustration of the plant:

He reports that “the distribution of this species is strictly confined to the lake area of the state. It is usually found in bogs, boggy places, wet woods and rarely in dry situations.” (This is the situation in Brennan Woods). “It is infrequent to rare” even in the lake counties. Finding it here in our section of the state is a tribute to sound management of natural resources. “Roses” to the Clear Lake Township Land Conservancy for preserving this special area.

I recently went back to see if the fruit was set. Actually I was a bit late as most of the berries were already eaten or had dropped off. But it was fascinating to observe a small segment of this elderberry life journey.

Oh, there is another incriminating bit of evidence of my age. I was not the first to “discover” this plant. Actually Fred Wooley saw it well over a year ago and even wrote briefly about it in the May 2019 issue of Rustling Grass. He had made two discoveries on his day at Brennan – the red elderberry and the prothonotary warbler. I even remember reading the article but I guessed focused more on the beautiful yellow songbird rather than the plant. My memory does seem to have its limitations.

Red elderberry with immature fruit
Oops! Somebody ate the fruit.

And so even though the years keep piling up in this body I have been given, I shall always take time to walk in the woods – to look, to listen, to touch, to smell, perhaps even to taste – to explore the boundaries of all that our Father has created. There are always new and wondrous things to be discovered as I live out a personal life mantra of “Always a Student!” This Geezer will keep on gazing.

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Butterfly Count Hosted by LaGrange County Parks Department

From our friends at LaGrange County Parks and Recreation:

I am seeking volunteers individuals, partners, or teams to count in LaGrange County’s first North American Butterfly Association count, on July 25. Similar to a bird count, the volunteer can choose what time of day to count, but 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. is preferred.

In an effort to choose locations that will be accessible in the future, I am focusing on public lands. I am looking for people to count at Pine Knob Park (and the fen), Pigeon River FWA, Fawn River Nature Preserve, and Maple Wood Nature Center. You can walk a trail, or drive along a road. I am open to counting at other public locations I don’t know about if someone has a favorite! I do have a suggested area at Pigeon River.

We’ll use the Pollard Walk paperwork created by the Michigan Butterfly Network with a slight adaptation. Similar to Pollard Walks we want it to be repeatable in the future!

If someone already walks a route at any of these locations, they could double down on July 25!

Volunteers can register by calling me at (260) 463-4022 or emailing at I will then get them the paperwork they need and decide on a location. There is normally a $3 NABA fee but this year we are picking up the tab.

Thank you very much,
Leslie A. Arnold
LaGrange County Parks and Recreation

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Your Hospitality Requested, Please.

Blue Heron Ministries has maintained a pretty good reputation as a fine place and good environment in which to spend time as a summer intern. Annually since our summer internship program was initiated in 2011, we have hosted and trained and worked and paid a college student to learn from us the hands-on craft of ecological restoration. This summer we have committed to bring another student on board for the summer experience in Lakes Country.

Cassidy Robinson is a recent Purdue University graduate from Hagerstown, IN. She obtained Bachelor of Science degrees in Forestry and Wildlife and will be joining us June 29 through the end of August.

She has expressed interest in staying in the area rather than endure a daily commute after a hot, sweaty day in the wilds. Over the years several of our Blue Heron Ministries’ family members have generously hosted our summer interns. Could we please carry on the tradition of hospitality? If someone would be willing to open their home to this budding restorationist, please contact Nate Simons via email or phone 260/316-2498. Thanks!

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Butterfly Monitoring Update

Blue Heron Ministries will not host a butterfly monitor training workshop this year. However, the Michigan Butterfly Network will host a free online butterfly monitor training workshop on Saturday May 16 from 10 AM to noon.

If anyone is interested in becoming a volunteer butterfly monitor in northern Indiana, they can complete the online training with the Michigan Butterfly Network and then contact John Brittenham at to complete the outdoor training portion of the program. You can register for the Michigan Butterfly Network monitoring workshop here.

If you have any questions regarding this years training, you can contact John Brittenham at or the Michigan Butterfly Network at

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It is a beautiful day in the neighborhood! – by Nate Simons

Yesterday my neighbors were these hazelnut

male hazelnut catkins dancing in the spring breeze

Male hazelnut catkins dancing in the spring breeze

shrubs next to a wetland filled with the symphonic music of the chorus frogs. The male catkins of the hazelnut shrub, puny and stubby all winter, were elongated and dancing in the breeze as the wind pollinated female flowers on nearby branchlets. The fruit will form and hazelnuts will be borne in the fall. And chipmunks and squirrels will relish them.

I anticipate this harbinger of spring…the flowering of the hazelnuts. And I am reminded that our Dad is still in control of and cares for and is in love with his very good creation. All if it. Yes, even his dearly-loved kids!


Sing a new song of praise to him; play skillfully on the harp, and sing with joy. For the word of the Lord holds true, and we can trust everything he does. He loves whatever is just and good; the unfailing love of the Lord fills the earth. The Lord merely spoke, and the heavens were created. He breathed the word, and all the stars were born. He assigned the sea its boundaries and locked the oceans in

the easily-overlooked female hazelnut flower

The easily-overlooked female hazelnut flower

vast reservoirs. Let the whole world fear the Lord, and let everyone stand in awe of him. For when he spoke, the world began! It appeared at his command. But the Lord’s plans stand firm forever; his intentions can never be shaken. The Lord looks down from heaven and sees the whole human race. From his throne he observes all who live on the earth. He made their hearts, so he understands everything they do. But the Lord watches over those who fear him, those who rely on his unfailing love. He rescues them from death and keeps them alive in times of famine. We put our hope in the Lord. He is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. Let your unfailing love surround us, Lord, for our hope is in you alone.  Psalm 33: 3-9, 11, 13-15, 18-22  NLT

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Community Amidst a Climate of Social Distancing – by Emily Schmidt

The COVID-19 pandemic is at the forefront of everyone’s minds. It continues to infect its way into our everyday lives, directly and indirectly. Each day brings something new: another case contracted, another entity declaring lockdown measures, and above all, another plea to practice social distancing.

The phrase “social distancing” has many interpretations, from limiting time spent in public places to basically putting oneself under house arrest. Nevertheless, social distancing has been difficult, especially for those who recharge from spending time with other people. I, on the other hand, am an introvert through and through. I typically feel drained after spending time in gatherings of people and need to recharge by myself. Over the last few months, however, I have realized that I need people more than I thought. Even if it’s just receiving a call from a friend or having that peace of mind knowing that someone else is in the room, I need people. Scratch that, I need community.

In May 2019, I relocated from my home in Morenci, MI to Northeast Indiana to join BHM first as a summer intern and more recently as a full-time field steward. Since being adopted into the BHM family, I have more fully explored what it means to seek and build community. I love that each work day begins with the Blue Crew meeting to discuss the day’s plans and enter into God’s presence with thanksgiving. I enjoy the conversation and teaching moments we have in the field and on the drive to a site. I am so thankful that I work with an amazing group of people who encourage each other when the work is taxing, assist after-hours with volunteer events, and gather outside of work in support of a fellow member of the BHM family. Just this past weekend, eight members of the BHM family congregated following a prescribed burn at Tri-State Airport to enter into communion. It was a beautiful reminder that even amidst the COVID-19, social distancing climate, we can come together as children of God to rejoice in the fact that Jesus is coming soon to restore our broken world–and he has already begun his work of restoration in and through us.

On a rare Sunday afternoon opportunity, Emily strings a line of fire during our annual prescribed fire at Tri-State Airport's prairie remnant

On a rare Sunday afternoon opportunity, Emily strings a line of fire during our annual prescribed fire at Tri-State Airport’s prairie remnant.

That experience has convinced me that now more than ever is the time to intentionally seek community. Many of us may be confined to our homes or prohibited from entering the workplace, but that does not mean that we are prisoners of isolation. We may be urged to practice physical social distancing, but we are not restrained from practicing other forms of the phrase. Call friends and family. Write a letter to an old friend. Utilize video chat and live streaming services to visit with loved ones or participate in church services from afar. As my boyfriend’s church did this Sunday, take the family for a drive around the neighborhood and pray over your community and COVID-19.

Though the current climate of social distancing discourages us from gathering together physically, we can still be intentional in the way we participate in community. Over the last few weeks, I have been especially mindful of BHM’s mission statement as well as verses such as Matt. 18:20, Heb. 10:24-25, and Rev. 21:3-4. The reality is, we have all been created for community; and as the Church, we are called to be a community of love to a broken world.

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. Matthew 18:20  (NIV)

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Blue Heron Ministries Works with Oak Farm Montessori School to Create a Natural Resource Management Plan – by John Brittenham

Big changes are happening at Oak Farm Montessori School in Avilla, Indiana. For the past five years I’ve had the privilege of working with Oak Farm both as a professional and a parent. Before my first visit to Oak Farm in 2014 to give suggestions on how to manage the natural resources at the school, I knew very little about Montessori education. From that very first experience, I was very impressed by the role environmental stewardship and direct contact with the natural world had in the curriculum and experiences of kids at Oak Farm. Now, after having children at Oak Farm for the past five years, I’ve seen firsthand these principles put into effect. From daily walks outside with toddlers to high school students helping to plan the restoration activities around campus, all age levels are engaged with the environment at Oak Farm. Oak Farm NRMP

Environmental stewardship is an important part of Montessori education. “The land is where our roots are.” said Dr. Maria Montessori, the founder of Montessori education in the early 1900s. “The children must be taught to feel and live in harmony with the Earth.” In order to help facilitate this vision, Blue Heron Ministries was asked to create a natural recourse management plan for Oak Farm. The campus has been expanding quickly in recent years, acquiring additional property and building many new buildings as the school has expanded to serve infants through high school students. Today the campus is around 100 acres in size, with roughly half of that area being devoted to natural areas and wild spaces. At least six unique natural communities exist on the campus today and include: mesic prairie, oak woodland, emergent marsh, shrub wetland, forested wetland, and old field. One goal of the management plan is to create or restore the habitats on campus to include at least ten unique habitat types that are appropriate for the local site conditions. This will allow students at Oak Farm to experience a wide variety of the natural communities that once dominated northeast Indiana.

The current status of northeast Indiana’s most threatened and degraded habitats was one important factor when deciding what natural communities to create or restore on Oak Farm’s campus. Creating and restoring threatened habitats not only teaches people about the habitats themselves, but also creates habitats most in need of habitat restoration and recreation. In the early 1800s, just prior to the EuroAmerican settlement of Indiana, it is estimated that 18 to 20 million acres of forested land existed in Indiana. Today, that number has dropped to 4.9 million acres of forest, just 25% of the original acres. Less than 1,500 of those acres are old growth or undisturbed forest. There is no estimate on how many acres of savanna existed around the area in the 1800s, but oak savannas were certainly present and intermixed throughout the area. They would have occupied sites next to prairies or in places frequently burned by Native Americans. Today, no historic examples of these habitats exist in northern Indiana. Of the roughly two million original acres of prairie in Indiana, only 1,000 acres of undisturbed prairie are left. Finally, of the roughly 1 million acres of wetland in Indiana, only 134,046 acres are left.

The name Oak Farm Montessori School is a beautiful way to frame how Montessori education balances human needs and human responsibility. The name carries with it a rich meaning, full of history and nuance. It speaks of a history of place, a philosophy of education, the inter-dependency of people with the environment, and a hope for the future, just to name a few. There are oak trees today on the campus of Oak Farm because Native American peoples once frequented the area and burned it often, living in balance with natural processes while benefiting from them. EuroAmerican settlers then developed and farmed the land, living in the way they were taught and thought best. Today, the campus is being actively restored in many areas, helping to repair the broken relationships between different parts of the environment and between people and the environment. A farm still functions on the campus, allowing students to interact with and care for animals and plants that provide for human needs. This is the perfect setting to prepare students for the future; to work through the problems that our past and current lifestyles have brought about and come up with solutions. Our world needs this right now more than ever and I’m given hope for the future when I see what is happening at Oak Farm Montessori School and other places like it. I leave you with this quote from Dr. Maria Montessori. May it leave you inspired, as it has me, to help others learn from the trees, forests, prairies, and all God’s good creation.

“There is no description, no image in any book that is capable of replacing the sight of real trees, and all the life to be found around them, in a real forest. Something emanates from those trees which speaks to the soul, something no book, no museum is capable of giving.” – Dr. Maria Montessori.

Habitat Cover Types at Oak Farm

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Sugarin’ Time – by Nate Simons

Sometimes there is snow on the ground and the nights are cold. Sometimes the snow is thawed and the daytime temperatures are above freezing. That’s the time to collect maple sap to make sweet confections.

Alexis tapping a spile

Alexis tapping a spile

While John was teaching his son how to steward prairies, I invited Denille, Olivia and Alexis Conklin to Blue Heron Ministries’ LaTierra Sanctuary to carry on the late winter tradition of tapping maple trees. The sun was shining and the sap was flowing strongly. The girls got a taste of the maples’ first offerings.

Olivia Conklin taste testing the first sap

Olivia Conklin taste testing the first sap

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Fire Any Time? – by Nate Simons

As we try to recreate a culture of fire within our remnant and restorable prairie-oak ecosystem at home here in Lakes Country, we grapple with the question of “When should we burn?” So we look for clues from the past in order to carry on the tradition that has been handed to us by the folks who lived here before us.

Typically, land managers within the last forty years have focused on lighting fires to prairies and open oak woodlands in the spring. The fuel, oak leaves, dried grasses and wildflowers, is “cured” and dry and brown and burns readily. At recently-attended Michigan Prescribed Fire Council meetings, we listened to land managers who indicate that we are losing ground to the shade of invasive shrubs and non-oak, non-fire dependent trees. In other words, we are losing the battle to restore our fire-dependent prairie-oak ecosystems to shade-tolerant, fire-intolerant ecosystems because we can’t keep up with the number of acres that need to be burned regularly. One limiting factor to putting more fire on the ground is the practice of holding tightly to the recent tradition of burning only in the spring.

In our quest to restore more of our home landscape and to create a culture of fire, we are encouraged by the vanguard to look at as many opportunities as possible to light fire outside of the “normal” burn window. But did the region burn historically at other times of the year? We all have heard anecdotally of fire in the fall. In fact the colloquialism “Indian Summer” refers to the autumnal warm-up after a hard, killing frost. Our European forefathers coined the term referring to the smoky, hazy skies that resulted from late fall fires set by their aboriginal neighbors…skies that looked like the hazy skies on a muggy August evening.

But what about fire in the summer? Apparently the Potawatomi also burned the prairies and oak openings during the growing season as well. Below, and once again, is an excerpt from James Fenimor Cooper’s Oak Openings.

[Note: The bee-hunter was named Ben Boden or le Bourdon. Just prior to their marriage under the bur oak cathedral (see the November issue of Rustling Grass for that account), he and Margery had attended a council meeting of the Potawatomi and were on their way back to their camp in the oak openings adjacent to the Kalamazoo River. As the story began in late July, 1812, this seen likely took place in early August.]

“Boden and Margery had much to say to each other in that walk, which had a great deal about it to bring their thoughts within the circle of their own existence. As has been said, the fire had run through that region late, and the grasses were still young, offering but little impediment to their movements. As the day was now near its heat, le Bourdon led his spirited, but gentle companion, through the groves, where they had the benefit of the most delicious shade, a relief that was getting to be very grateful.”

Fire during the growing season has the positive effect of setting back brush and fire-intolerant trees better and for a longer period of time than fire in the spring. Fire during the growing season stimulates a new flush of grasses and wildflowers (especially legumes) which increases foraging ad grazing by ungulates. And if the entire area is not burned, the resulting patchiness and heterogeneity creates a more diverse habitat that can lead to more opportunities for nectaring by pollinators. In effect, the burned wildflowers sprout and bloom again later thereby extending the flowering period of the forbs.

We will be looking for more opportunities to experiment with summer fires as we did a few summers ago in Karner Blue Butterfly habitat in western Michigan.

Members of the Blue Crew string fire in an oak woods in Newaygo County Michigan to stimulate Karner Blue Butterfly habitat

Photo by Nate Simons

And what about winter? Yes, when there is no snow on the ground and the relative humidity is low enough, the short days still provide opportunities to burn. The Blue Heron Ministries crew ventured into the (prairie) field in early January with sub-freezing temperatures to cozy-up next to the fire. With no water to defend against mishaps (we had very good fire control lines) and at 22 degrees, fire still did its job to maintain the prairies. We conducted 6 prescribed fires the second week after the new year.

Josh stringing fire in an early January 2020 prescribed fire

Photo by Nate Simons

And in the spirit of recreating a culture of fire, John Brittenham took the opportunity that a weekend warm-up provided prior to this last snowfall to teach his 6-year old son, David, how to carefully burn a prairie.

David torch and water sprayer

Photo by John Brittenham


So with the erratic weather that has produced wetter than “normal” springs and falls, our new normal might be to take care of the land similarly to the traditions of people who lived here before we moved in. We can live into those traditions and burn any time conditions are favorable to carry fire…because that is when fires happened historically in our neck of the woods.