Join the Wednesday Warriors!
The Wednesday Warriors are a friendly group of volunteers who have met on a near-weekly basis since 2002 to lop and chop their way through veritable jungles of invasive vegetation. They have also sown native seeds, blazed new trails, posted boundaries, tucked in tender baby plants, created mountains of pulled garlic mustard, built boardwalks and bridges . . . and done it all with grins and grit.
I used to pull garlic mustard on my own, and it was a terrible chore I did because it was the right thing to do. But now I actually look forward to it as a time to enjoy friends and see beautiful places. Working as a group means we actually see meaningful results. And it doesn’t hurt that we get to enjoy some of the best ice cream around.--- anonymous Warrior
Want to join in?
Anyone is welcome to pitch in to help keep our preserves up to snuff. It’s a wonderful way to experience the preserves with the folks who know them best, plus get acquainted with other active people who share the conservation spirit. There are no long-term commitments, fees, strengths, or special skills required — just a willing attitude and a pair of work gloves (and we might even be able to scrounge up a pair of those for you if you don’t have them!).
RSVPs are always nice; just call the office at 269-324-1600 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you, Wednesday Warriors!
In 2003 the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy (SWMLC) was a fledgling organization, just barely 10 years old, with only about 20 nature preserves and 20 easements. But one thing that has always set our now-25-year-old organization apart from other conservancies is our commitment to stewardship – taking care of the land that we protect, and the habitats, flora, and wildlife that first inspired our founding members to action.
In this spirit of stewardship, SWMLC held Saturday volunteer workdays on the preserves. Slaying invasive buckthorn and garlic mustard in favor of native orchids and trilliums, volunteers found satisfaction and joy in bringing these unique Southwest Michigan landscapes back to their native glory. Then-SWMLC Director Renee Kivikko made stewardship a priority for the organization. At Renee’s encouragement, Stan Rajnak, became an active volunteer and an incidental “stewardship guy,” coming to every workday he could. Early on, Stan remarked that Saturday workdays weren’t enough to finish all the work there was to do, and suggested that a group meet more often, maybe on Wednesdays? – which happened to work for this group that included retired mathematics and biology professors, a woodworker, engineers, a dentist, and retired Upjohn employees among others. And so the Wednesday Warriors were born.
The very first workday entailed assembling and organizing the assortment of weapons the Warriors would use in battle – gas cans, water backpacks, shovels, and loppers – collected from garage sales and donations over the years. Once this unlikely armory had some rhyme and reason, the real work began.
The Warriors’ second workday was POSSIBLY over-ambitious, with a plan to build a 200-foot floating boardwalk at Jeptha Lake Fen to share the spectacular views of the prairie fen, the lake, and the wildflowers! With the woodworking savvy of Ralph Babcock, the youthful spirit of SWMLC staffer Nate Fuller and his father-in-law’s trailer (thanks Bill Jones!), and the handiness and can-do-attitude of the rest of the Warriors, the boardwalk was constructed in sections in the SWMLC office parking lot, transported to the preserve, and assembled over 3 different workdays. It still stands today, sturdy and meticulously straight, as a testament to the Warriors and their passion to share nature with everyone.
Most other workdays were more ecologically-focused. Warriors learned to identify and control invasive plants through chopping, spraying or pulling; and learned which plants were native and how to encourage their spread through seed collecting, planting, and reducing competition. For 2 years, Stan organized and led the workday at a different preserve each week, with a concise mission to help resuscitate a patch of habitat in need.
Eventually Stan realized he preferred diving into the bushes and chopping down honeysuckle to workday logistics. Dr. Paul Olexia, a former SWMLC board member and retired Kalamazoo College biology professor, stepped in to lead workdays alongside then-newbie Kristi Chapman. Kristi had just retired and stumbled upon an advertisement for a workday in the Kalamazoo Gazette, and seized the opportunity to spend more time in the outdoors while giving back to the community. Remembering her first workday, Kristi remarked, “It was just more fun than I could imagine, and you got to see a place you had never experienced before.” Hook, line, and sinker, Kristi was smitten, and quickly became the Warriors’ organizer, motivator, and master team-builder. Now, with Paul Olexia’s ecological know-how, botanical savvy, and infectious knowledge of natural history, combined with Kristi’s charisma, humor, energy, and coordination, the Warriors charged full steam ahead across SWWMLC preserves, leaving heaps of garlic mustard, dulled loppers, autumn olive stumps, sturdy boardwalks, spring beauties, and invaluable memories in their wake.
Today, hundreds of workdays and nearly 14 years later the Wednesday Warriors have transformed hundreds of acres of SWMLC preserves into resilient and diverse habitat for the enjoyment of wildlife and people alike. At the end of the day however, Stan and Kristi and the Warriors agree, there is no one project that stands out as the most important accomplishment. What stands out, they say, is the incremental, persistent, week-to-week, year-to-year changes on the preserves. “A lot of places are a lot better off because of our work,” remembers Stan. Looking over a patch of a SWMLC preserve after a 3-hour workday, and knowing that piece of the earth is better off – healthier – thanks to the work of a group of willing hands, is a tangible and satisfying feeling that has proven addicting for this intrepid group of volunteers.
Marching into an age of new and improved habitat restoration techniques, amazing and accessible technology, precise and breakneck communications, and a newfound appreciation for the natural world, the Warriors are looking toward the future. Building on years of accomplishments and memories, the Warriors are LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE – looking forward to new volunteers – not only to share the work, but to share in the stewardship experience and the knowledge this group of largely self-taught naturalists has collected over the years. For anyone with curiosity and a few hours, reflects Kristi, these workdays are a great opportunity to learn about botany, butterflies, geology, mechanics, and even one-liners! AND I can tell you personally that the Warriors are some of the most interesting and welcoming folks out there, and are a blast to work with!
So in tipping our hats to our Wednesday Warriors past and present, we invite new volunteers to come forward to get some fresh air and exercise, to learn, to give back, and most importantly, to make some new friends. Although we can’t thank the Warriors enough, Kristi doesn’t hesitate to correct us – “Don’t thank me, it’s my organization too! This is what we all like to do, and what we care about. It’s the volunteer-driven heart that makes the organization so strong.”
Well, we’re gonna do it anyway – “Thanks for everything. Wednesday Warriors! And we’re looking forward to the next 25 years!”
(A shorter version of this story first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Landscapes.)