The lab at Nipper, which is approximately 12 miles southwest of Springfield in Sangamon County, is of a makeshift variety. But all the necessary components are present in the cramped space that barely allows for two workers. Fill pipette with sampled water, transfer to test tube, shake, wipe with a special tissue, insert into analyzer, record data. I was acting as a volunteer assistant to Charlene Falco of The Friends of the Sangamon Valley, testing samples gathered earlier at the site for a wetland hydrology and water quality study. The Friends, on behalf of the Nipper Foundation, have undertaken this study to determine the effectiveness of the five stair-step wetlands created at the sanctuary, not only for their ecological value, but also for their ability to capture chemicals and sediment that may run off from the adjacent farm fields. This runoff eventually discharges into the South Fork of Lick Creek, which is within the Lake Springfield watershed. Draw, fill, shake, wipe, insert, record.
Restoration of the site began in the late 1990s with the reestablishment of tallgrass prairie, and knowledge gained here will inform future restorations. Outside of the nature center lab are 120 acres of privately held habitat that, along with prairie, includes a floodplain forest and emergent wetlands. When walking the trails of sanctuaries such as Nipper, the role science has played lurks out of sight like the immense prairie roots burying deep into the ground. More likely we consider the manpower – the digging, the planting, the invasive species removal, the creation of trails. And rightly so, these are monumental efforts. But where would we be without the researchers and their studies and models and databases that compile a history of life and help us put the pieces back together in these efforts?
From tables and graphs come critical habitats, clean watersheds and a diversity of species.
PIPETTING WATER INTO A TEST TUBE with rubber-gloved hands seems the ultimate representation of what people dislike most about science and scientists – the possible detachment caused by the lab work and paperwork and computers that separate the scientist from that which they are studying; the unraveling of diverse habitats into their unrecognizable pieces; the reduction of living beings into quantifiable elements. Worse, they dislike science itself because it constantly challenges assumptions. Yet it is scientific research that underlies the most incredible, almost fantastical knowledge of our world. Writing about how mind-boggling scientific findings can be, the famous physicist Richard Feynman reminded us of the basic fact that all of us are stuck "by a mysterious attraction" to a spinning ball that has been "swinging in space for billions of years." He states: "It shows that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man."
Because of scientific study, we know that it is gravity that keeps us from flying off our planet. And, through identification and categorization of species, through careful and sustained observation and documentation, through tables of numbers meticulously compiled decade upon decade, we continue to amass information about life's connections. It is only recently that research dedicated to birds, the long-acknowledged bellwethers of environmental health, has revealed surprising similarities between our species. As described in The Genius of Birds, scientists have discovered that chickadees have one of the most "sophisticated and exacting" systems of communication of any land animal; that birds of the same species are not all the same, that individuals respond individually to a variety of situations; that there are remarkable similarities between song learning in birds and human speech learning – from imitation to practicing to the actual brain structures and specific genes involved.
Through these studies we begin to know a species more intimately – as colleagues rather than strangers – we can better understand their likes and dislikes, their quirks and bad habits, and the other species they associate with. We build from individual relationships to communities. We build to the science of ecology, a form of study that has its roots in Illinois.
In 1887, the chief of the Illinois Natural History Survey, Stephen Forbes, presented a paper now considered one of the founding documents of the science of ecology in the United States. It is called "The Lake as a Microcosm," in which he detailed the idea of an "organic complex." He explained that it would be impossible to make a complete study of any species without factoring in its relationship to other species, that it is necessary to know the whole to understand any of the parts.
Forbes' idea seems so fundamental today. But that's the thing about science – we tend to forget that at one time we did not know that we are stuck to the spinning Earth by gravity, or that the concept of ecology, which relates organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings, was once ground-breaking. We don't often stop to consider why we know what we know. And because the fundamental role of science is to build upon findings of the past and to never, ever, assume that we have uncovered all there is to learn, studies of critical habitat and species often proceed unnoticed like structural beams that keep the roof from falling on our heads.
In 2019, the National Audubon Society released a climate science report called "Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink." The report presents information about 604 species compiled from a whopping 140 million bird records and more than 70 data sources. The report found 64% of North American species "were moderately or highly vulnerable to climate change." Using various rise-in-temperature scenarios and computer modeling, the climate science team looked toward what the future may hold for the birds – and for us. "They are nature's early indicators of harm to the environment that is also our life-support system. ..." the report states. And in case you think that climate-related bird losses will occur only somewhere far away, the team has created a "Birds and Climate Visualizer" that allows the user to enter a ZIP code to learn the vulnerability of birds in the user's immediate area. Yet the report ends with a note of optimism. There is still time to change course. "Audubon is translating these scientific findings into an action plan for bird conservation and public policy change." We can help.
From tables and graphs come predictions, warnings and a call to action.
THE FIRST STAGE OF STUDY at the Nipper Wildlife Sanctuary is complete, and the next stage is now underway. The 2019 initial-stage report presents findings regarding the effectiveness of the wetland restoration efforts in removing chemicals from field runoff. I read such lines as: "This data establishes a solid baseline allowing characterization of the seasonal patterns and ambient conditions of water levels and numerous water quality parameters." I stifle a yawn and proceed. This is no eloquent nature contemplation, but I remind myself that it is only because of scientific research and the accompanying reports that we understand runoff patterns and the potential dangers of chemicals in our water.
Now I get to exciting part: "Results from the study indicate...the wetlands are reducing key non-point source pollutants and thereby contributing to water quality enhancement within the Lake Springfield watershed." The wetlands are working.
On a crisp fall day I spend time outside the Nipper lab wandering the trails, listening to the rattle of the wind in the drying prairie plants, admiring the rush of goldenrod and appreciative butterflies, and snapping photos of the stately architecture of dried blossoms that provide for numerous birds and pollinators. I lean over the rail of the bridge near the nature center that crosses the first of the series of wetlands being sampled for the study. The water is now depleted in this wetland, but I enjoy playing Find the Hidden Frog, staring intently at the shallow puddles and muck until suddenly a frog that only moments before had blended completely with its surroundings suddenly and inexplicably, like an image in a hidden-picture puzzle, becomes discernible – as does another – and another.
It is typical at such times for my thoughts to turn to the romanticized musings of writers extolling the wonder of nature. But instead my thoughts turn to science and a suggestion made by Rachel Carson, the biologist and conservationist who saved countless birds from decimation by DDT with the science she compiled and reported in her 1962 book, Silent Spring. She said: "One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, 'What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?'" And, really, Thoreau and Carson are telling us the same thing – pay attention.
From tables and graphs come awareness, success stories and hope.
Jeanne Townsend Handy of Springfield holds an M.A. in Environmental Studies and is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. As a freelance writer, she enjoys exploring the science and dedication underlying habitat restoration and protection efforts. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.