Volunteers Turn Dreams into Reality

Arboretum team leaders

Arboretum team leaders lead restoration work parties

Emily Dickinson wrote “To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, / One clover, and a bee. / And revery. / The revery alone will do, / If bees are few.”

With all due respect to Emily Dickinson, it takes more than revery, one clover, and one bee to make a living prairie. It takes hundreds of plant and animal species, countless species of fungi and bacteria, and people working thousands of hours over many years to make a restored prairie. Add on numerous other undertakings—including a native plant garden, a 17-mile trail system, an extensive woody plants collection, a bookstore, ecological restoration across hundreds of acres of diverse landscapes, an environmental day camp, two libraries, multiple citizen-science monitoring endeavors, an archives inventory, a bluebird trail, a long-term soil study, a visitor center, volunteer database management—and you move from a modest cast of three (clover, bee, revery) to a much more substantial and complex production.

In 2019, 800 volunteers worked collaboratively with 27 employees and contributed 11,781 hours to prairie restoration work and much more at the Arboretum. The results were significant, noticeable, and far-reaching.

Some of the most visible tasks happened right around the Visitor Center, where 45 volunteers and a few summer student employees kept busy with Susan Carpenter, tending native grasses and wildflowers that caught the attention of visitors and pollinators in the Wisconsin Native Plant Garden. The team pulled weeds, edged beds, collected seeds, and tamed the more enthusiastic specimens through judicious pruning. The Native Plant Garden, an easily reached teaching space, was particularly popular with Earth Focus Day Camp participants and families looking for ideas on incorporating native plants into their home gardens. Several volunteers also collaborated with Earth Focus Day Camp naturalists to create an exciting educational experience. The four-acre garden was also a training ground for pollinator monitors who submitted numerous photographs to the Bumble Bee Brigade, contributing observations to long-term monitoring of rusty-patch bumblebee and other imperiled pollinators.

Bumble bee monitoring was just one of several active monitoring projects in 2019 as citizen science initiatives began or expanded. Last year at the Arboretum, 35 volunteers also monitored dragonflies, fungi, monarch butterflies and caterpillars, birds, jumping worms, and water, supported by coordinator Jessica Ross. Journey North, coordinated by Nancy Sheehan, vastly extended Arboretum citizen science programming across North America. Volunteers from at least five countries reported sightings online of numerous species, from hummingbirds to gray whales, as well as seasonal phenomena. Jessica and Nancy connected with volunteers, researchers, and fellow Arboretum employees to ensure that the valuable data gathered by citizen scientists could be put to use in local, regional, and national research and land management projects.

Visitors who came indoors met friendly and knowledgeable receptionists who answered questions, pointed out restrooms, and offered advice on what trails to follow. Volunteer receptionists have staffed the front desk since the Visitor Center first opened in the late 1970s, and they have a record of service unmatched by any other group of Arboretum volunteers! In 2019, the 24 receptionists collectively contributed nearly 2,000 hours. In the busiest seasons they handled calls, arriving school tours, package deliveries, and out-of-town visitors with ease. At quieter times they willingly helped staff with tasks ranging from stuffing envelopes to preparing craft materials for Earth Focus Day Camp.

In the bookstore, a team of volunteers and student employees led by Visitor Center Coordinator Katie Pfankuch (who also supervises the receptionists) kept the shelves stocked with an intriguing and fresh mix of books, jewelry, notecards, and small gifts. The volunteer clerks were always ready to recommend books for readers of all ages and interests and assist the receptionists with greeting and helping visitors during busy times.

On the trails, 72 friendly, active stewards spent 970 hours patrolling the trails in all seasons of 2019. Ranger Stephanie Petersen finds the steward reports on trail conditions to be invaluable, giving her and the assistant rangers crucial information to help them prioritize trail maintenance projects. Visitors also found the stewards a vital source of information on upcoming programs, bird or tree identification, and directions back to parking lots. Many stewards contributed to the Arboretum’s long-running phenological records tracking bloom times, butterfly and bee sightings, and bird courtship calls. These records provide ongoing information related to changing climate and species interactions.

Eastern bluebird on bluebird nesting box
Eastern bluebird on bluebird nesting box

Longenecker Horticultural Gardens benefited from 126 volunteers working for 925 hours, led by David Stevens and Keith Phelps. The regular crew of volunteers was supplemented by a number of one-time groups, including participants in the state 4-H and FFA conferences. Longenecker Horticultural Gardens serve as a major resource to the nursery trade, educators, and the general public. It was also home to a monitoring project, with one volunteer studying pollinators and panicle hydrangeas. All who visit Longenecker can also enjoy the results of another volunteer project—the bluebird nest box trail, started over 30 years ago by Sylvia Marek, which has fledged over 700 bluebirds since its inception.

Less visible than the gardens, trails, and bluebirds, yet still essential, are the myriad behind-the-scenes volunteers organizing Friends of the Arboretum events and trips, tending the libraries, creating illustrations, tracking class and hike attendance and participant feedback, serving on the Board of Visitors, maintaining soil plots, and entering data about volunteer endeavors so the numbers and outcomes can be tracked and shared. Thanks to the dozens of people who tend these essential functions that rarely garner public applause.

Back to Emily Dickinson and making a prairie: 404 people volunteered for restoration projects, contributing 2,225 hours (the most of any category of volunteer) at over one dozen sites; clearing out 150 bags of herbaceous invasive plants at least 19 truckloads of woody invasive species; and collected seeds of 9 native species. Thanks to their efforts, coordinated by Marian Farrior with support from the land care staff, 309,000,000 seeds of garlic mustard and dame’s rocket will never germinate! Instead, people and wildlife will enjoy a diversity of plants growing in the restored oak savannas, woodlands, and, prairies (with many species of bees and clovers present) across the Arboretum. Perfect for a revery.

Our heartfelt appreciation goes to each and every person who volunteered, individually or as part of a group effort. The names of the 2019 Arboretum volunteers are listed here. If you volunteered in 2019 and are not listed, please accept our apologies and contact the volunteer office to correct this oversight.

—Judy Kingsbury, volunteer program coordinator