Book Review: Nature’s Second Chance: A personal journey that became a lifetime quest

By Susan Johnson

Copy Editor

Steven I. Apfelbaum’s Nature’s Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm (Beacon Press, 2009,  $25.95, ISBN13: 978-0-8070-8582-0) is the story of a personal journey that become a lifetime quest. Apfelbaum, together with his partner, Susan Lehnhardt, has made a lifelong career of ecological restoration of land, starting on a limited, personal level, eventually expanding into a growing business to help others achieve the same.

Inspired by Aldo Leopold, who wrote the eco-classic A Sand County Almanac, Apfelbaum purchased a rundown, southern Wisconsin farm, which he used as a living laboratory for the ecological principles he had learned. He decided to call it Stone Prairie Farm, for all the rocks that symbolized the many obstacles he encountered. Along the way, he had to come to terms with the fact that his neighbors’ plans for their land, which bordered his, might not mesh with his own. He also had to make allowances for the culture into which he was suddenly thrust, accommodate well-meaning relatives who arrived to
help out,

and make adjustments to his own schedule to grasp an opportunity to learn about the local history from someone who actually lived through it.

While on a trip to testify as an expert witness on a degraded natural area for the Iowa Department of Transportation, Apfelbaum met Susan, who was to become his life partner. As sometimes happens, this rare opportunity came at a time when he was physically ill and least equipped to make his best presentation. But, fortunately for him, Susan was willing to give him a
second chance

and agreed to come out and look at his farm. Once they found their goals were headed in the same direction, the friendship blossomed, and as one assisted the other, a truly symbiotic relationship was formed. After a number of dates and camping trips in natural areas, in 1990 it was agreed that Susan and her son, Noah, would move in with Steve at Stone Prairie Farm.

But just as trees transplanted from their original locations need time to adjust and put down roots in their new surroundings, Susan and Noah also had to adjust to change. Even with the best of intentions, human behavior and habits long established often clash with new requirements. Noah was just entering adolescence and tried to express his hostility by driving an ATV around the farm. But with time and effort, new bonds were forged, and a new family unit emerged.

By the time the newest members came on board, Steve Apfelbaum had formed his own environmental research and development company, Applied Ecological Services, created to help others who were interested in land restoration follow the pattern Apfelbaum had utilized in restoring his farm to a nature-friendly state. Begun in the upstairs office of his farm house with a couple helpers, it gradually expanded into a full-fledged enterprise devoted to systematic planning to reverse environmental damage, using scientific analysis. Eventually, AES was able to purchase a foreclosed dairy and corn farm for their new, expanded facility. In addition to basic land restoration, the company maintains a native plant nursery, and one division is devoted to collecting seeds of native plants for restocking areas that have been degraded.

After the three of them had lived in the 150-year-old farm house for several months and become acquainted with its obvious deficiencies (freezing cold in winter, easy access for insects, mice and rats), Steve was finally forced to accept the fact that the dwelling needed massive renovation. The house was transported into the 21st century with environmentally-efficient techniques such as modern piping, rooftop solar panels and radiant heating. Recycling was employed wherever possible. Old wood found new uses, and they had a root cellar for storing vegetables and fruit from the gardens and orchard. Even the waste products from AES’s seed nursery were recycled and spread in areas that needed filling, which resulted in not only stopping erosion but the resurgence of native plants and beautiful wildflowers along formerly damaged stream beds.

Over a period of 30 years, beginning with a 2.7-acre parcel and eventually expanding to  80 acres, Apfelbaum and his helpers, including neighboring farmers and

the bulldozer operator, worked to apply the principles of Aldo Leopold’s land ethic in a practical way.  As Dr. Alan Haney, dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, described it in a review,
Nature’s Second Chance is the story of that transformation as well as of the work of the firm Apfelbaum started, Applied Ecological Services, first restoring neighborhood farms, then projects in neighboring states, and now projects in countries around the world.

Nature’s Second Chance is published by Beacon Press and is available through Yahoo Books,, Barnes & Noble, and other online sources and most bookstores. Twenty-five percent of the proceeds go directly to the Aldo Leopold Foundation, and the rest go into a trust to fund ecological research.

From the Dec. 9-15, 2009 issue

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