Sauk Centre woman explores, monitors and teaches as part of the state’s Master Naturalist Program
By Tim King
Ann Luloff, of rural Sauk Centre, is part of a team of several hundred Minnesota citizens that make up the Minnesota Master Naturalist Program. The Program is coordinated by the University of Minnesota Extension Service and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The Master Naturalist Program was started 15 years ago with a jump start grant from the National Science Foundation. To become a Master Naturalist, people receive 40 hours of training in the natural history of one of Minnesota’s three biomes, or ecological regions. The training course consists of classroom training that includes lectures, hands-on activities, videos and field trips. The 40-hour course, including all instruction manuals, costs $295. Scholarships are available.
“I took my first course in August, 2016. It was the course on the North Woods/Great Lakes biome,” Ann said. “There was an instructor there who could take you on a two hour hike, cover half a mile, and never run out of things to tell you about everything you saw. It made me realize how little I actually knew, and how much I really wanted to be him when I grew up.”
Ann had actually grown up by 2016. Her children had left home and she was in semi-retirement teaching art part time at Camphill Village Minnesota. The Camphill farm, on the Sauk River in Todd County, is close to her family’s land.
“I have always been neighbors with Camphill,” she said. “My kids grew up playing with the kids in the village. I was also always a birdwatcher. When I decided to put some time into birding and put my lists on-line at ebird, I asked to bird on Camphill’s land also. I eventually shared my findings with them, and I started working for them, teaching art, in 2016.”
It is a requirement that Master Naturalists do forty hours of community service every year. They can do that service in one of four areas including stewardship projects such as habitat restoration or invasive species removal. They can also do their community service by being involved in public education or citizen science projects. Ann, who grew up in Alexandria and was inspired by birding outings with her father, chose to do service in the area of education. And, because of her three decades long relationship with her neighbors, Camphill Village seemed like the place to do her service. Ann set out to learn about the non-human residents living on the Village’s land and to educate the fifty or so human residents about their non-human neighbors.
Her idea was to show Camphill residents, just like that instructor she wanted to “grow up” to be, what was under their feet and all around them.
“After completing the course I had time to think about where and how I could donate my time to increase other people’s awareness and knowledge of nature around them,” she said. “Since I couldn’t actually go back in time and learn the things this man knew from his lifetime, I decided to start with my own back yard. I could learn what things were here. That rather naturally lead to my decision to do a biodiversity study of Camphill’s land.”
Although the Camphill farm is near the Luloff farm, it has a wider variety of environments and thus may have a wider variety of species. Camphill has riparian areas along the river, deciduous woods, steep hill sides, native prairie plantings, and an interesting place called Marl Springs.
“Camphill had a weekly, in-village newsletter and it seemed only natural to share with them what I was finding out there,” Ann said. “So my column was born. At the end of the first year I presented a slide show of my findings to everyone who wanted to see it.”
The Village liked sharing what Ann was learning about the beautiful and complex ecology of their farm and forests. The sheer number of non-human species was amazing. She tabulated the total number at one point.
“The breakdown for Camphill, at the end of that year, is as follows,” she wrote. “Plants 240, trees and shrubs 28, fungi, lichens and moss 137, birds 180 (within a three mile radius), animals and insects 105. Even with what appears to be large numbers, I am finding other species in the surrounding areas that I have yet to see at Camphill. I often feel that I will continue finding new and exciting things for as long as I wander the woods and fields. The vast numbers leave me with no rush to see them all. I cannot possibly know it all or see it all.”
Camphill Village eventually asked Ann to put her findings on their website as well as in their newsletter. So she established a blog that is housed at the Village website called the Nature and Ecology Blog. Each entry is titled “Where the Wild Things Are” and then is given a subtitle such as a posting on Aug. 9, 2019 called “Where the Wild Things Are: You Can’t See the Forest for the Trees.” In this posting Ann shares her strategy of observation and then introduces readers to three new plant species they may not be aware of.
“Today the white spires of the Culver’s Root plant stand out against the green,” she writes. “Last week I didn’t even notice the tall green stalks. A few short years ago I didn’t even know the plant existed. Now it is a pleasure to see those spires waving in the wind. Along the edges of the grasses Witch Grass is in bloom. No showy flower, but a delicate spray of fine stalks and tiny seed. What else lies hidden in the green?”
A photograph of the flowering Culver’s Root, along side a spikey flowering Giant Purple Hyssop, closes out the short essay. In another essay, from earlier that summer, Ann lets the reader take a walk with her through prairie and woods in search of “the elusive Shinleaf.” It remains elusive, and she can’t find it.
“Back in the prairie, on the way home from my unsuccessful, yet fulfilling walk, there was Bergamot and Purple Coneflowers blooming. Bees were buzzing and Monarchs soaring over the blooming milkweed. Widow Skimmers and Halloween Pennant dragonflies were performing their impossible flights over the rising Bluestem grasses. It was one of those incredible summer mornings that we long for in the depths of winter. I refuse to think about summer winding down and I will grasp every chance I get to go outside and enjoy nature,” she wrote in the blog post.
Ann may recognize Widow Skimmers and Halloween Pennant dragonflies, along with a lot of species most us have never heard of but, at times, she discovers something new. Then she has a methodology for identifying her discovery.
“Identifying new species of mosses and lichens is very difficult,” she says. “Most of them require either an expert to weigh in, or at least a microscope and a detailed book with keys.”
If her new discovery is a larger plant, she’ll take a lot of photos of the flowers, leaves, and stem of the plant. Digital photography is great, because she can take her photo collection home and immediately start studying the mystery plant.
“I might start with the flower or leaves and page through a flower guide,” she said. “There is also a website called Minnesota Wildflowers that is an excellent resource. It allows you to search by flower color, or do a deeper search with whatever information you can load in. Sometimes you get lucky and find it right away. But sometimes I put the photos on a Facebook group and someone else tells me what I’ve got.”
Occasionally she discovers that she missed an important identifying feature and has to go back to look at the new plant again. It takes diligence and hard work but, for Ann, it’s deeply rewarding.
Ann hasn’t limited her biodiversity studies to her farm and Camphill Village. She did a biological survey of a prairie remnant in an effort to persuade township officials not to develop it. She’s surveyed Elgin Woods Wildlife Management Area, in Southeastern Todd County, and did a similar count in Riverside Park in Long Prairie.
“I did Riverside Park as a way to raise awareness as the city decides what to do with the land,” she said. “The “best” thing I have found was a plant called Rough Avens. It doesn’t look like much and is easily over looked, but I found it at Riverside Park. This plant has only been recorded in about five counties in the state, and Todd wasn’t one of them. The DNR Rare Plant specialist confirmed my identification and collected a sample to be placed in the Bell Museum Herbarium.”
Ann has taken great pleasure in her work as a Master Naturalist. Whether identifying rare plants for preservation in a museum or educating people about the rich biological diversity of the place where they live, she’s enjoyed learning while serving. She plans to continue her work as a Naturalist and to expand her knowledge by taking the third 40-hour course offered by the program.
If you’d like to learn more about the Master Naturalist Program visit https://extension.umn.edu/master-naturalist/become-master-naturalist-volunteer or call 612-624- 1222. If you’d like to read Ann’s blog visit www.camphillmn.org/natureandecology