It’s easy to miss the driveway to the Tom and Jane Dustin Nature Preserve. The Dustins, back when the preserve was their home, probably intended this. These country roads outside of Fort Wayne fall into a curving, hilly jumble here where they break from the township grid and follow the bluffs and meanders of Cedar Creek, reinforcing Michael Martone’s ideas in his essay, “The Flatness,” that there is more than just flatlands in Indiana.
The long gravel drive leads to a parking lot and the Tom and Jane Dustin home, a mid-century modern low to the ground with large windows, dwarfed by the surrounding trees. Inside, the big windows magnify the tree trunks and heighten the sense of being under the canopy. This house and the property are their vision, and a central part of that vision is ACRES Land Trust. They were early founders and supporters, and their legacy lives on in this land and this house, the current ACRES Land Trust headquarters.
We are walking through the Dustin’s vision, seeing their trees and their soil, more than a half-century after they first bought the place. They embodied Aldo Leopold’s philosophy from “The Land Ethic” in The Sand County Almanac. “A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land.” From the house, ACRES Executive Director Jason Kissel leads us along a bluff above Cedar Creek, and a forest stretches in every direction. For decades, ACRES has worked to protect land along the Cedar Creek corridor, creating an important ecosystem for wildlife, plants, trees, and people.
We turn from the wooded ridge into a younger woods. Hickories grow out of their forebearers’ stumps. This may have been logged before the Dustins bought it. It was probably logged in the 1850s or the decades soon after when railroads pushed into Indiana, causing “a new epoch of forest destruction,” according to Charles C. Deam, Indiana’s first state forester, in “The Forests of Indiana: Past, Present, and Future” from 1920. He continues, “The richness and early conversion of our forest resources soon placed Indiana among the leading States of the Union.” Indiana was thoroughly clear cut by 1900, and this grove of trees shows how the forest can regenerate.
The group continues along the trial, and Kissel points out the size difference of leaves from the same tree, how big they are near the bottom so they can catch the same amount of sunlight in the shade as smaller leaves closer to the top and full sunlight. We enter an open field that was planted with tree seedlings from a machine, much like corn or beans are planted. A variety of trees are planted 600 to an acre, and a diverse forest will grow out of it.
We gather for a meal and discussion in a restored barn, a testament to this land’s agrarian past, a testament to ACRES’s future of preserving land and returning it to nature. We discuss the idea of extravagance inspired by Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever-fresh vigor.” We have hiked bluffs and ridges, seen new trees and old. We talk about corridors and the return of species like eagles. We talk about the work that can be done to restore these extravagances.
On the hike back to the parking lot in the dark, we see another extravagance. Kissell switches off his light and points us to lightning bug’s green glow on the ground, but lightning bugs are long forgotten by this point in the fall. These are glow worms, the larvae form that will overwinter and burst forth into lightning bugs in June. The cold October rain reminds of us of winter’s approach, and glow worms ignite our dreams of summer.
“Remembering Indiana” excerpt from The Near-Sighted Naturalist. Ann Haymond Zwinger, 1998
“Heaven and Earth in Jest” excerpt from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Annie Dillard, 1974
“The Land Ethic” excerpt from A Sand County Almanac. Aldo Leopold, 1949.
“The Forests of Indiana: Past, Present, and Future” excerpt from One Hundred Years of Indiana’s Resources. Charles C. Deam, 1920.
“The Flatness” excerpt from The Flatness and Other Essays. Michael Martone, 2003.