Caitlin Barale Potter isn’t a native Minnesotan. In fact, she’s now embarking upon only her second winter in the state. She may be unsure about what’s ahead when it comes to the cold and snow — last winter was pretty darn mild — but the transplanted Californian harbors no doubts about her decision to move to the Midwest.
Sure, her husband, Sam, grew up in Minnesota, but there’s more to it than that: “It seems like every Minnesotan in one way or another is an outdoorsman,” she said. “Minnesotans love nature and doing things outdoors. I’m amazed by all the ways Minnesotans use and appreciate nature.”
A nature and outdoor lover herself, Potter fits right in. And in her position as education and outreach coordinator for the University of Minnesota’s Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in East Bethel, Potter has a unique opportunity to teach others. Thousands of adults and students every year learn about Minnesota’s diverse ecosystems, the role each plays in the larger natural world, and about current and completed research that offers insight into how ecosystems are changing as a result of human pressures.
Cedar Creek, now in its 75th year, is an ecological research site of almost 5,600 acres with habitats representing all of Minnesota. It lays claim to being the home of ecosystem ecology science, and researchers there have studied topics ranging from prescribed burning for savannas to how carbon dioxide levels affect plant communities. Next year, Cedar Creek will use a grant from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund to bring up to 40 bison to the reserve and study whether a combination of prescribed burning and bison may help to restore oak savannas, which are one of the state’s most threatened landscapes.
“Cedar Creek is the single most famous location in the field of ecology, and many prominent scientists have worked here as they’ve developed really big scientific ideas,” said Potter, 30. “Most of my days are spent working with kids and trying to get them excited about science. I want to get them outdoors and doing science, so they realize science doesn’t have to mean sitting in a classroom or laboratory. It can be going out and bird-watching, going for a hike, going boating or catching fish. Science is about looking at the world and asking questions about it.”
During a recent conversation, Potter talked more about what led her to Cedar Creek, the nexus between her work and recreational pursuits, and her impressions of Minnesota through the eyes of a relative newbie. Potter’s edited comments are below:
Effect of her upbringing
My family is all from California, and I grew up in Oakland. Most of my childhood was spent running around and playing in the mountains. My parents met in an astronomy-for-backpackers class in the 1980s, and my first memories are walking around in the woods with my dad while he identified plants. When I was about 12, my parents told me I needed to find a volunteer job in the community. The only thing I could think about was something outdoorsy with animals, so I went to the Oakland Zoo. That really started what eventually became my career. I did my undergraduate work in wildlife, fish and conservation biology at the University of California-Davis, and then completed my master’s degree and Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University. Mostly, I was working in Africa, where I spent a lot of time in Ethiopia and Kenya studying monkeys and teaching conservation and science.
On her love for education
My year is split between working with kids and working with adults. For about half the year — in the spring after the snow melts to the end of the school year — I am with the kids. And then when the school year starts, until there is snow, we have field trips. Every year we have 5,000 kids in grades (kindergarten) to 12th come through the Cedar Creek. It’s hundreds of kids a day, every day, for that part of the year. Every group that comes here does a nature hike somewhere, and I lead those hikes. Our trails let you walk through all of Minnesota’s biomes. There is a prairie, an evergreen forest, a deciduous forest, and then we wind up at a little lake. They can see the variety of nature we have in Minnesota, which is a really powerful experience, especially for kids who come from the Twin Cities and don’t have family cabins or haven’t spent a lot of time in the rest of the state. It’s really empowering as an educator to start the day with kids who may be afraid of the forest as a concept — some are even afraid of grasshoppers — and by the end of the day they are digging in gopher mounds and taking the temperature of the soil. To see that transformation gives me hope for Minnesota and Minnesota’s natural places.
On Cedar Creek’s biodiversity
One thing that started in Minnesota, that’s trickled out to the rest of the world, and is now coming back full circle, is an understanding of the value of biodiversity. The first studies on biodiversity were done at Cedar Creek, and it’s a term that now has expanded well beyond the scientific community. When students are here, we take them to places where they can see and hear and smell what it’s like when there are lots of different kinds of plants in one place. Everywhere you go — including the savannas of Africa — people are talking about biodiversity. People care about native plants and native grasslands and building biodiversity back where we have lost it. Our heritage here is making people care about biodiversity.
On her recreational pursuits
I have yet to go fishing, but I would like to learn how. It seems like it’s the thing to do, and I’m kind of shocked I haven’t tried it. I have gone hunting, but I’m not a huge hunter mostly because I get distracted. If I’m sitting in the woods, I stop listening for deer and start listening for birds or just watch the leaves blowing on a tree. I guess I’m more of an on-my-feet-exploring type of person and always am trying to find places in Minnesota that haven’t been discovered by anyone else. I’m a hiker and a backpacker — that’s what I grew up doing and what I still love to do. When my husband and I have time off from work, we love to explore state parks and forests that are off the beaten track.
On how Minnesota stacks up
I can leave my office, walk 10 minutes in any direction, and end up in a completely different plant community. I’ve never been able to do that anywhere else. The Sierra Nevadas are pretty much the same. The grasslands in Africa are the same for many miles. But in Minnesota we have pockets of everything. I do really miss the topography and seeing mountains, or going for a hike and walking uphill. Minnesota is very flat compared with most of the places I have lived. At the same time, Minnesota has so much natural diversity. It just makes my jaw drop every day.
Joe Albert is a freelance writer from Bloomington. Reach him at email@example.com.