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Voices of the Land – The Swansons

Published on
18 November 2011

The Swansons, both retired teachers originally from McHenry, have always been strong conservationists. Marti is a longtime member of both The Land Conservancy and Environmental Defenders of McHenry County.

When Marti and Ken Swanson moved to their 4.7 acre property outside Ringwood 19 years ago, it was thoroughly mowed down. After Ken mowed a few more times, Marti called a halt. “I told him to stop mowing above the driveway,” Marti said. “I told him, ‘you follow me and cut a path.'”

Almost immediately, they were rewarded with a patch of shooting stars, a local prairie flower. From then on, clear-cut mowing was out of the question. The Swansons cut more trails to supervise nature as it retook its course over the rest of the property. “The seed bank was there,” Marti said. “The seeds were in the ground after how many years of being mowed down, and [the mowing] didn’t work” to kill the seeds.

About two years ago, the Swansons decided to put a conservation easement on four acres of their land to preserve it. Development wasn’t a concern – their property is hemmed in by Glacial Park and several other easements – but the Swansons’ patch of land is technically two parcels which Marti worried might be split by the next owner. The property is also adjacent to Glacial Park, an important local island of biodiversity, and the Swansons didn’t want it to return to the state in which they acquired it.

“I’ve worked very hard on this, and I don’t want somebody else coming along with a lawnmower and cutting everything down,” Marti said. One of Marti’s labors is the war on invasive species. The estate is bedeviled by garlic mustard, which seems to pop up all over the property. “I would like it if some kind of plague would come around and wipe out all the garlic mustard,” Marti said. Another botanical invader is buckthorn, which the Swansons largely eradicated after an extensive campaign of cutting, burning and herbiciding. Marti believes the problem would be lessened if the neighbors uprooted these plants as zealously, but they thrive on the other side of the fence.

Slowly, the Swansons are bringing back the natural environment. They conduct yearly burns on their property and uproot invasive species wherever they find them. When they moved in, buckthorn dominated the new understory growth. Now, the Swansons proudly point to a proliferation of oak and hickory saplings coming in to replace six old oak trees felled by oak blight.

Their efforts are paying off. Migratory birds that normally stop in nearby Glacial Park have added the Swansons’ property to their itinerary, though their namesake swan, painted on a sign at the entrance to the driveway, has yet to make an appearance.

The Swansons’ property is a much more natural place than when they acquired it, and the Swansons take pride in the fact that they are not alone in their community. The forest of invasive species over the fence notwithstanding, they have many friends and neighbors who are also taking out easements and restoring their properties. Marti said they provide support, including sharing some native plant species that they’ve reintroduced to their property.

“We have a community of people out here who are concerned about the environment,” Marti said.

Story by Mark Hertvik

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