Putting in the Hours

Nearly two decades ago in 2006, Don Bolin jumped feet first into volunteer service at Bur Oak Land Trust, known then as Johnson County Heritage Trust, to get back into nature, relax and make some real change in local conservation.

“Within two months of joining [the land trust], I found myself with 40 acres of woodland on my hands and on the board of [directors],” he said, “so, it was kind of a fast start.”

Bolin was used to being immersed in his work. A self-described “compulsive” medical doctor for 25 years, he retired in 2003 at 50, looking for a change.

“I wanted to do something completely opposite, because I knew medicine was very bad for me physically and really, emotionally and mentally,” he said. “It’s a very hard profession. And there’s not any exercise and the stress from it, being up all night, being on-call all week, it’s bad for your body, so I wanted to do something quite opposite and be outdoors.”

A membership with a Sierra Club chapter in San Francisco is where Bolin found an interest in ecology and nature preservation. He worked as a gastroenterologist in California after graduating from medical school at the University of Iowa. He came back to the state a few years later to work in Waterloo before returning to Iowa City where he retired. Bolin found his way to Johnson County Heritage Trust through a friend who lived near Big Grove Preserve and invited him out for a visit.

“It was just packed with multiflora rose and honeysuckle and oriental bittersweet and the usual woody invasives,” he said, “plus, tens of thousands of garlic mustard plants.”

Big Grove was a big project back in 2006. The original 40 acres of the preserve was former farmland that had been abandoned due to poor farming conditions. The acreage had hardly been touched since the land trust acquired it two years earlier. At the time, the land trust was a small organization with few active members, Bolin said, with little extra resources to put toward land management.

“I basically walked in here, and I was like, 99 percent on my own, and I thought, ‘where do I start?’” he said.

Access paths had been made across the preserve before the land trust acquired it, which made it easier to get around the brush and overgrowth. Bolin described the sections of land divided up by the paths as “rooms.”

“I could come through [the preserve] and do room by room by room and feel like I was making some progress,” he said.

The first thing he did was clear six feet of multiflora rose along all paths. That project took him the whole first summer. Multiflora rose is formidable invasive with long sharp thorns and thick stems. It was a nightmare, Bolin said, because oriental bittersweet, another aggressive invasive vine was also growing up through the center of the rose. The tangled masses stretched seven feet tall.

“I put in 1,000 hours out here,” he said, “In fact, I put in 1,000 hours a year the whole time I was out here, which was about nine or 10 years.”

Bolin also cut down dead trees and pulled or treated invasive plants in an area he calls the meadow. He said it hadn’t been completely overgrown like the woodland and still had some native goldenrod, bergamot and bellflower hanging on. To bring the area back to life, Bolin consulted Connie Mutel, local science writer, book author and Bur Oak Land Trust supporter, who identified some native grasses growing among the flowers.

With Mutel’s advice, Bolin created a “checkerboard” plan to mow, treat and seed one third of the meadow, then leave the rest untouched. His hope was that the newly seeded prairie plants would eventually spread and fill in around the native plants.

“I wanted a variety of native flowers and I guess that’s what happened,” he said, “Looking at it now, it’s been very rewarding.”

In addition to the thousands of hours of work Bolin put into Big Grove over the years, he also did thousands of miles of walking. Exercise was one of the reasons he was drawn to working outside in the first place. He said at one point he calculated his steps and determined he walked “across the country twice.”

All the walking led Bolin to an adjoining acreage that was covered with garlic mustard, so he started clearing it, too. As he got more attached to the new land, he financially supported the land trust’s Protect. Conserve. Grow. campaign to purchase it. The 40-acre property known as Big Grove Addition was acquired in 2017 and Bolin realized that by taking on the extra land, he would be stretched thin.

“I couldn’t be out here, the Lone Ranger, taking care of 80 acres,” he said.

So, he looked around for some help and found a property steward partner in Ken Lowder. Lowder was also a member of the land trust at the time and was volunteering on other preserves. Bolin said Lowder would drag him out to Big Grove “when it was raining and cold and windy and I’d say, “oh, we’ll just work for an hour,” and we’d be out half the day.”

Through their hours of service, the pair became great friends. Bolin was the plant guy and Lowder was the bird guy. Bolin described seeing indigo buntings and scarlet tanagers, and some birds Lowder would point out that he had never heard of before, like the yellow-billed cuckoo. Lowder and Bolin even took a road trip together when they found out they each had a connection to Moultrie County, Illinois.

“Some of the best times of my life were [at Big Grove Preserve] with him working,” Bolin said of Lowder, “It was pleasant and rewarding and just really fun, and I knew it was good for me.”

When he thinks about the future of Big Grove Preserve, Bolin hopes visitors understand the importance of supporting the thousands of songbirds that will make their homes in the trees and prairie and the hundreds of thousands of wildflowers that will bloom; that the preserve will continue to be a place of respite and inspiration for generations. He also hopes they get involved like he did by volunteering and contributing financially to the land trust.

“[Bur Oak has to] pay insurance on [Big Grove Preserve] and professional help to oversee it and help maintain it,” he said, “so, it doesn’t come free and all of [the land trust’s] money goes to projects like [Big Grove]. I know that this is going to be here long after I’m just a memory. That’s such a comfort and I think it’s so important.”

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