Vast stores of seeds lie dormant beneath our feet in soil seed banks until conditions match those required to take root. Brewing grains and lotus seeds have been found in river banks and cave floors that remain viable after centuries of dormancy. Some species may need a flash fire to crack through a tough outer shell, others may only require increased sunlight or moisture. Whatever the required nurturing conditions, a seed begins the process of germination and growth only after a trigger event signals it to do so.
After some initial and relatively successful peat-free growing media research failed to receive follow-on funding, I scrambled for a job, any job. Luckily, I landed a grant-writing and environmental services position with a municipality on the south shores of Lake Michigan near my hometown. I really began to enjoy not living like a poor grad student and the community bordered the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, my favorite spot on the planet. Over my two year stint with the city, I secured grants for trail and park improvement projects, including a habitat restoration for the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly.
Some may find it hard to believe but the highly industrialized region is considered exceptionally bio-diverse. Three distinct habitat biomes from the central plains, eastern deciduous forests and northern coniferous forest all converge and coexist at the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Many species from those biomes survived in the region because the sandy soil was unsuitable for most farming and therefore understory plants were never plowed under. Once industrialists arrived, mostly from Pittsburgh and weary of labor strife, they bought vast tracks of the relatively unspoiled and inexpensive dune-land and fenced it to the perimeters.
By the time of my tenure in the late 1990s, those vast stretches of dune-land had been saved from further development in part by the “Save the Dunes” movement. While the region had certainly been degraded in the previous centuries there were still priceless remnants of native habitat awaiting restoration. The Native Americans populating the region before European expansion had tended this land with regular fires. The resulting oak savanna, which early French explores found so easy to traverse, called it their portal through the dense North American forests. While the name has endured in both the city and county of LaPorte, Indiana, much of the native landscape has changed to a tight canopied woodland, due to fire suppression. The shade cast by the expanded canopy has not been kind to native flora and fauna.
The fire setters had encouraged Karner Blue Butterfly habitat by leaving an oak dominated canopy that allowed Wild Lupine, a Karner host plant, and other nectar sources, to thrive on the open savannas. Once the park restoration project was complete sunlight streamed through the canopy to the ancient sandy dunes below for the first time in decades. The following spring, after intensive clearing, prescribed burning and native seed planting, the landscape was transformed with unexpected surprises. From the dormant soil seed bank, rare native species had emerged on their own.
At about the same time the savanna restoration project was concluding an Indiana congressmen had taken an interest in my recycled, peat free planting media. The congressman’s office investigated my rejected phase two small business innovation research application and learned that the request was denied, despite promising results, primarily because I was not a PhD. As a consolation prize, he arranged for me to be invited to a Clinton, White House, Conference on Recycling. While the kindness and encouragement he extended was definitely appreciated it didn’t soften the blow of rejection and disappointment.
My first steps from naive, enthusiastic, patented inventor to grant funded researcher had been, in hindsight, unrealistically easy. Maybe I’d been blessed or my project hit the right chords but all that seemed to change suddenly and dramatically, oddly, after garnering strong data proving the project’s viability. Perhaps the committee members, worried about their reputations or positions on the panel, didn’t believe a non-academic could deliver on small business innovation. Perhaps they believed only Ph.D. lead projects should be granted federal funding.
Regardless of the reason, this idealistic, Andy Hardy, “Let’s Put On A Show” like kid, now knew how the world really worked. For better or for worse, and without a rich uncle or proper pot to piss in, I decided that it was best for me to put the project on a back burner and concentrate on a career with benefits and a retirement plan. Perhaps a period of reflection would allow me to stew on a new path forward or an innovative funding source. Lingering in that dormancy, I came to realize two things. Habitats aren’t always degraded by savage acts of destruction but often through subtle, benign and ignorant neglect and that restorative trigger events often happen without you knowing it.