Seeds of the future: Restoring Chipman Preserve

Some pieces of land are meant to be walked. They evoke a certain feeling of timelessness and a sense of inner stillness, though the land itself is never quite silent.

On a hot August day, humid enough to wring out, during a walk at Chipman Preserve, the indigo buntings call to one another and grasshoppers big and small spring on and off the path. Native bees, smaller than their domesticated cousins, pollinate the blooming prairie flowers. Butterflies in blues, oranges, browns and blacks take flight.

This land is being restored to its native habitats -- woodlands, savanna and prairie. It is land preserved by a man who believed that every child should have a place to explore. This property once was the original site of a nursery that launched John Chipman's business career. Now it's home to red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, coyotes, eastern box turtles, red fox, and all kinds of birds.

Just past the entrance, a map shows the layout. There, Nate Fuller begins the story of the land -- of the property's early management by Native Americans, its years as farm land, its ownership by the family who would donate it to the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy.

The legacy of each is found in the nearly 230-acre preserve that has five miles of trails and is the most frequently visited of the 12 properties across Southwest Michigan's land conservancy protects.

Fuller is conservation and stewardship director for the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy. He works with volunteers and seasonal staff to protect and improve preserves given into the conservancy's care. He also spends a lot of time seeking out funds that will help keep up the properties and protect the plants and animals that make their homes there.

He identifies the different areas of the preserve on the map. A modern stand that holds the map sits in the center of a circle surrounded by matching benches. They have the distinctive style of Landscape Forms furniture for public spaces and the outdoors, stylistic enough to be modern and simple enough to fit into their outdoor setting.

Landscape Forms is the business John Chipman started to keep his employees working year round when he found the landscaping business could provide only seasonal employment. His passion for saving the preserve as a place to bring back native plants from across the region, combined with his business contacts, and his drive to see restoration work on the property accomplished have made the preserve unique.

Chipman and his wife Patricia donated 182 acres in Comstock Township to the land conservancy in 2002 and expanded their gift by purchasing neighboring property in 2004. Chipman was often found working on the preserve. He embraced the concept of restoring the property though, as Fuller says, it will take lifetimes.

One of the good things about working with Chipman, Fuller says, was his willingness to call in his friends to help on a project, and they were always the best person in the area for the job. When it came time to draw up landscaping plans for the property he called in a locally recognized expert, Bob O'Boyle. When a tree needed to be moved from a piece of neighboring property, Chipman contacted friends with tree spades large enough to preserve the fragile root ball of the Burr Oak, and he also came back with an agreement to buy the property on which the tree had stood.

The preserve also is unique to the extent that others share the vision for the property. Especially two volunteers, Bob Pleznac and Jason Cherry. They are dedicated to seeking out Oak savanna remnants across Southwest Michigan and collecting seeds so the plants can be restored in the Chipman Preserve. They even have their own identifiable sections of the property -- Bob's Barrens and Jason's Triangle.

Throughout the preserve, but particularly in these two spots, Pleznac and Cherry have planted seeds from across the region, found on special expeditions, searching for plants that are nearly gone. They often find remnants of savannas near cemeteries where development has not encroached on them. They have helped bring back grasses, sedges and other grass-like plants that are not as well-known as wild  flowers but vitally important to restoring the land. And Fuller says, the seed hunters view the Chipman property as an ark, a place to save from extinction the plants and the animals that need them.

As for the legacy of the native Americans who once took care of the property, the land conservancy uses the same management method the natives did. They burn the property regularly to keep down the thickets that otherwise grow so densely no light gets through to the woodland floor.

As the honey suckle thickets and non-native trees like the Scotch pines burned off, seeds that lay dormant for decades germinated and flowers once again spilled across the property. Black, white, red and burr oaks thrive once again. Fuller tells with wonder of the re-emergence of a delicate, 4-inch tall plant with a little white flower called Ladies Tresses that grew by the thousands after fire cleaned out the land.

This spring, in the most recent fire, the conservancy burned 110 acres. Within 10 to 14 days the grasses grew back, looking like a golf course green.

Although John Chipman was all for getting rid of the fruit trees that still stand on the rows of his original nursery, he was ultimately convinced to allow them to stay as part of the interesting history of the property. In the winter, those trees now provide a banquet for all kinds of birds.

Along the path, Fuller points out the plant invaders, the natives and the friendly Europeans who don't crowd out native plants. Piles of spotted harpweed along the trail show the work of volunteers and part-time staff working to get rid of the invaders. This pile is full of the Eurasian transplant that sends out toxins through its roots that kills off its competition. (There is always a need for volunteers to help with such work, Fuller says.)

Then there are the surprises that only nature can deliver. Fuller remembers the day he was leading a walk through the preserve, describing how to tell the difference between white and red oaks. He was astonished to find a mouse in the crotch of a tree, looking as if it were sleeping. Upon further investigation he found the mouse was dead, pierced in the back of the neck by a shrike, also known as a butcher bird. When he met another group coming in the other direction he stopped to let them know about the unusual find, only to learn they had seen another mouse in the same condition in another tree.

When pressed for his other most vivid memories of the property over the years, Fuller has trouble narrowing it down but no trouble coming up with them. One has been watching three generations of Chipmans work side by side on the land, he says.

John Chipman died in April, leaving behind a company that has grown into North America's largest designer and manufacturer of furniture for the outdoors and public places, a preserve that bears his family name, and a legacy of natural restoration beyond price.

Kathy Jennings edits Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Photos by Erik Holladay.

Nate Fuller, conservation and stewardship director for the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy.

Black Eyed Susans are a-buzz with bees on the Chipman Preserve.

Landscape Forms benches are located at the entrance of the Chipman Preserve. Boulders serve as resting places in other spots.

Some cactus are actually a native plant to Michigan.

Nate Fuller, conservation and stewardship director for the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy.

Culvers Weed is a native plant being grown on the Chipman Preserve.

Black Eyed Susans bloom in the middle of a wooded area at Chipman Preserve.

Nate Fuller, conservation and stewardship director for the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy.

An burr oak tree stands at the middle of a circle of benches and information plaques on the Chipman Preserve.

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