My cousin, Anne, who writes a weekly column for the Alden (Minn.) Advance newspaper reminded her readers this week that the first holiday without a loved one who has died is always very difficult.

When her family gathers at their Thanksgiving dinner this week she will say she is thankful for the 57 years she had with her husband, Ray, who died earlier this fall, and for the family that they raised together.

And so it must be for the family of George Varnum of Holmen, who died Nov. 18. HIs family and the community celebrated his life in a visitation Sunday and funeral on Monday — just days before our time of giving thanks.

Ray and George had this in common: They both loved the land, Ray as a dairy and crop farmer on the rich soil of southern Minnesota, and George as a persistent advocate for saving the rich natural heritage of an endangered prairie.

I mentioned to George’s sister at the visitation Sunday that I was grateful for all of the work George had done toward preserving the Holland Sand Prairie, the permanently protected 61-acre sand prairie across the road from his home just west of the village. She responded that the love of nature was something she shared with her brother and that he had shown her the beauty of the prairie and its flowers and birds.

George also introduced his daughter to the prairie many years ago, and it was then that he realized that the land, which had never been plowed, was a remnant of a landscape with many rare species of plants that has largely disappeared. He brought this to the attention of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and began to urge the Mississippi Valley Conservancy to save the land.

The conservancy and the Friends of the Holland Sand Prairie honored George last year for his dedication to the preservation and care for the prairie. After the prairie was purchased by MVC in 2004, he continued to participate in the maintenance of the land. Even as his illness advanced in recent years, he continued to mow the prairie’s trails on his riding mower.

Aldo Leopold famously said that one could demonstrate having a “land ethic” by treating land as “a community to which we belong.” He wrote that land conservation was not something that could happen by government decree; it requires that people have an ecological conscience. Every year this becomes more vital to our future as we see growing pressure on our land and its resources.

We can be grateful this Thanksgiving that we have people such as Ray and George who loved the land well enough that they accepted being a part of the land community. I recall conversations with Ray after he retired from farming when he expressed his concern about the direction of modern farming away from crop rotations and other practices he had used to maintain the health of his land. I’ve long admired George’s determination to save the prairie as well has his dedication to the simple tasks of maintenance. We can best express our gratitude by following their example.

The late Wisconsin author Ben Logan reminded us that “The Land Remembers” in the title of his book about life growing up on a ridge-top farm in southwest Wisconsin. Pete Putnam, chair of the Friends of the Holland Sand Prairie, asserts in a tribute to George Varnum that the land will remember him.

The larger question for all of us is how the land will remember how we have treated it here in the 21st century. I hope we can live up to the examples set for us.

Dave Skoloda is an award-winning journalist and former owner and editor of the Onalaska Community Life and Holmen Courier. He also formerly edited Sheep! magazine.

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Randy Erickson, formerly the editor of the Onalaska Holmen Courier-Life and Coulee News, covers arts and entertainment and county government for the La Crosse Tribune. Contact him at 608-791-8219 or randy.erickson@lee.net.

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