Luther has a stunning central campus designed by Jens Jensen, the pioneer of prairie style landscape architecture, but did you know that its wild, natural areas are seven times the size of its highly designed upper campus? At about 700 acres, these 17 named areas offer enormous opportunities for Luther students. From top-tier biology research to land-management internships to humanities courses bolstered by the natural world and a strong sense of place, Luther’s extensive land holdings enrich student learning in a way few colleges can match. And they transform both students and the land in the process.
Species diversity matters
Iowa’s agricultural history has dramatically changed the state’s landscape, which used to be about 80 percent prairie. Intense land use, such as row cropping and grazing that were common on Luther’s property and elsewhere, resulted in loss or degradation of habitats. This means that there are now far fewer oak savannas, woodlands, and tallgrass prairies in northeast Iowa, and those that remain may need our help. Nonnative invasive species can take advantage of these disturbed systems, crowding out native species and profoundly changing local ecosystems. And when a big flood hits, like the one that inundated lower campus in 2008, there’s little to stop soil from washing into the river, polluting the water supply. Luther has seen the whole process as an opportunity, using the improvement of native habitats as a learning tool.
Molly McNicoll, assistant professor of biology and Luther’s natural areas land manager, administers Luther’s Land Stewardship Plan, which marks its five-year anniversary this October. The plan outlines the goals for Luther’s 700 acres of natural areas:
• to support the college’s educational mission
• to nurture a connection with place
• to sustain and restore our ecological communities
The plan assesses different areas of campus and suggests general actions, such as removing invasive species, planting native species, prescribing fire and mowing, and establishing research plots or recreation trails.
McNicoll also oversees the students who help care for Luther’s natural areas. This summer’s interns, Hannah Garry ’16, Brennen Reysack ’16, and Marissa Wales ’17, spent time clearing garlic mustard, buckthorn, and wild parsnip—an invasive species that produces sap that can blister skin when exposed to UV light. The interns also collected vegetation data on two long-term habitat restoration research projects initiated in 2014 by McNicoll and two research students, Zoe Bachman ’16 and Claire Dembsky ’15.
The interns’ experience with both hands-on management and research is intentional. McNicoll says: “Native biodiversity will only be restored to these disturbed habitats by being actively involved, whether it’s removing invasive species, planting new prairies, or applying controlled burns. But to make the best restoration decisions, we use research to assess the outcome of our efforts. You can’t just arbitrarily apply management and expect to be successful; our choices must be based in understanding the ecology of the system. Doing research requires interns to use what they learn in the school year and then build on it as they collect data, synthesize, and present their research.”
The interns already have a handle on why their work matters. Garry says, “If you don’t maintain these areas, there are plant species that will invade and cover them entirely, and you’ll have just one species when you could have had hundreds.”
Research made easier
Brian Eachus ’15 also worked as a stewardship intern and says he learned a lot about being a team player and working efficiently in a team. “It spurred my interest in climate change and nonnative invasive plants and allowed me to develop my own sense of stewardship and understanding of the need for conservation now more than ever,” he says. Eachus collected data on the effects of different management techniques on wild parsnip, then presented his findings at a Society for Ecological Restoration annual meeting. Eachus’ strong conclusions were possible because he built on research that interns had conducted in 2011 and 2012, emphasizing the importance of multiple years of research. He plans to pursue an advanced degree in wildlife ecology next fall.
Like many Norse who become field biologists, Marissa Schuh ’14 first encountered land stewardship during a first-year service project pulling buckthorn (see also Dan Gibson, page 20). “I saw how different the areas we were clearing out were from areas that hadn’t been infested with buckthorn,” she says. “When I took entomology my second year, I did a small project exploring the effect of buckthorn on ground-dwelling insects with another student, and then I was able to obtain a summer research grant from the Dean’s Office to carry out the project at a larger scale. The process of applying for a grant, then writing the protocols and doing the planning, then doing the actual sampling was such good preparation.” Schuh now studies switchgrass and cereal aphids as an entomology graduate student at the Landis Lab at Michigan State University, and this spring she published, as lead author, the results of her summer research project with Luther professor of biology Kirk Larsen in the scientific journal Environmental Entomology.
“Most students don’t get a publication until they are a couple of years into graduate school,” she says, “so getting a publication—as a first author!—during my first year has been invaluable. I’m really proud of it.”
Luther professors love the natural areas for their accessibility. Associate professor of biology Eric Baack says, “I get to work in this vast space, but it’s only five minutes away from upper campus. When other places do these big field experiments, they often have to travel two hours away.”
Kirk Larsen, professor of biology, echoes, “It’s unique because most schools, especially if they’re in a large city, don’t have any natural areas on campus or even close to campus, so they waste a lot of time in their field biology classes traveling. We can walk out the door with our Bio 151 class, and within two minutes we’re in Anderson Prairie and up into Hickory Ridge Woods, and we take advantage of these areas for three or four weeks of labs.”
Room to experiment
Another benefit of owning vast acreage is that it makes certain kinds of research possible that might be tricky to pull off in tighter quarters or on private or more developed land. For example, McNicoll and Larsen study the effects of fire on plant and insect populations, respectively. They’re able to do this research on campus because Luther has the space and autonomy to do prescribed burns, which help stimulate native prairies.
Similarly, Baack and his students study sunflowers. In one experiment, they are attempting to redomesticate the sunflower from the wild.
“The crop and wild sunflower are the same species—they can fertilize one another,” Baack says. “They differ in the size of the seed, which we expect—humans bred for that—but what’s interesting is that they differ in other ways too. So the question is why these other traits change as seed size changes.”
Baack’s research depends on some amount of isolation—as he notes, the sunflowers can cross-pollinate, and it’s imperative that his control plots and experimental plots have some distance between them. “My control plot is 40 yards from the first selected plot, and the second selected plot is another 200 yards away. Bees are doing the pollination, and most of the time they’re going to travel between near flowers. Having a bit of separation means that most of the pollen is coming from the right plot and not between plots,” he says.
And because Baack is spoiled for choice among Luther’s natural areas, he was able to set up the three plots for this experiment on top of a hill in the Roslien Woodlands, where they won’t meet interference from sunflowers in the Luther gardens, for example.
In addition to his three plots in Roslien, Baack has two at the top of Hawk Hill. “There aren’t that many places in the U.S. where I could have another plot more than a half mile away,” Baack says. “Some schools have only an area where they can do field experiments—and it can be tricky for a faculty member to keep a plot for several years because other people need them for experiments.”
Seeing the big picture over the long term
“So much science is carried out on a decades-long scale,” Baack says. “It’s such a different timeline than the academic calendar that students are accustomed to. Working on these projects at Luther, in which a field season gets us another data point, so one data point per year, makes the slow pace that research can take very apparent” to students considering a career in research.
Larsen agrees that it’s valuable to expose students to long-term research. “It gives students a better handle on what’s involved in research, especially significant ecological research that’s going to take time and a lot of effort and a lot of sampling,” he says. “It’s important for them to see some of the struggles involved in that and realize what a little picture they get of the bigger picture that’s out there. They can start framing their work in the context of a bigger series of work that’s been going on for a long time, and then try to use that to answer their questions.”
And with long-term research come important insights. Larsen and his students have been studying ground beetles, which are indicators of environmental change, for 20 years. “Even on campus, we’ve been seeing insects start to show up that were never here before, that were south of us,” he says. “Over time, things seem to be moving north.”
This kind of research could be indicative of widespread climate change. It also provides a barometer of how Luther’s restoration efforts are doing. Right now, Larsen and his students are looking at ground beetles, butterflies, and native bees relative to available floral resources and comparing Luther’s planted prairies with remnant (i.e., unplowed, pre-European) prairies elsewhere in northeast Iowa to see how effective our restoration efforts are.
Growing a research community
What’s easy to overlook in all this is the sheer time that students and faculty spend together during field research. Baack makes the point: “There’s a rhythm to doing field work that lends itself to conversation about all sorts of things. There are opportunities when we’re germinating or counting seeds to talk about science and career goals. We can have a two-hour conversation that doesn’t necessarily fit into a class period or office hours. For some, those conversations have been really valuable.”
Baack’s former student Kate Freund ’11, who earned her M.S. in ecology, evolution, and behavior from the University of Minnesota in 2014 and started her Ph.D. in applied plant sciences there this year, concurs. “I had many insightful conversations about evolution and ecology with Eric,” she says, “and through observation of the way Eric understood and questioned the natural world, I began to do the same.
“One of the values that Luther emphasizes is community, and working in the Baack lab allowed me, for the first time in my life, to be a part of a formal scientific community,” she says. “It was one of the most influential experiences of my time at Luther because he encouraged me to keep questioning, keep researching, and keep learning.”
Fields for all fields
If you think natural areas benefit only future conservationists, think again. Students in disciplines from art to English to anthropology to physical education and beyond learn through Luther’s land holdings.
Jeff Boeke ’80, an instructor in physical education, uses the areas for his adventure-education courses, and Colin Betts, professor of anthropology, takes students into Lionberger Preserve and Norski for two of his courses. In Experimental Archeology, students harvest materials from the areas to replicate prehistoric technologies—for example, stone tools, basketry, or fire-making. In his Archeological Field Methods course, Betts and his students identify possible archeological sites and then excavate and record them.
Betts says, “For me, there’s a strictly academic part of these courses: using the resources to answer a research question. But I think it’s equally important to actually see the real-world part of it, to go beyond the theoretical—okay, this is what this kind of tree looks like, this is where you might find it—and to say, you actually have to go out and find this. It develops that sense of how to see things. It requires a different mindset or perspective. To start looking at it with a different eye or different purpose changes the way you perceive the landscape.”
Amy Weldon, associate professor of English, sends her students into Luther’s prairies, woods, and valleys to complete creative writing exercises. “Since creative writing in any genre is founded on sensory, precise language—which is rooted in the ability to observe your surroundings closely—Luther’s beautiful natural setting helps my students and me hone this ability in and out of the classroom,” she says.
Jessa Anderson-Reitz ’14, a former student of Weldon’s, reflects on her outdoor classroom: “Stepping out of the academic buildings and into the prairies, woods, and rivers was the best thing I could do to become a creative writer. I was surprised by the natural world’s minute beauties and tried to pay homage to them by writing stories and poems that were alive and rich. Engaging with nature is a restorative practice that strengthens a writer’s observational skills by teaching them to be quiet and still. I learned not to bring an agenda with me into the natural spaces, because the inspiration of swaying prairie grass, a pair of dragon flies twirling through the air, or the moon shining on rounded stones at the rivers’ edge will lead you down a new path every time.”
Luther’s campus also serves as inspiration for the visual arts. In addition to providing a powerful subject for student artists, it has acted as the backbone of assistant professor of art Kate Elliott’s 19th-century art history course. Elliott’s students recently curated an exhibit of Decorah-area works that depicted elements of the writings of Jens Jensen, a great lover of woodlands and prairies and of Luther’s campus itself.
Riley Samuelson ’16 says, “As both an art major and an environmental studies major, incorporating the natural areas of Luther and Jens Jensen’s campus vision did a lot to enrich Dr. Elliott’s course. It gave me a new perspective and understanding about the Luther landscape and how it affects us as people living and growing within it. Along with this, it helped me understand that living with this landscape is an integral part of the experience and education that one can only get from Luther College—and it is one of the very things that connects us (in a way in which only nature can) with Luther’s past as well as its future.”
Samuelson’s reflection reinforces an important point, which is that while the natural areas foster student learning, they also foster student connection to place.
In addition to a better appreciation of the natural world in general, Beth Lynch, associate professor of biology, says students learn to particularly appreciate this place, northeast Iowa. “It would be easy to overlook the particulars of this place in the classroom, where examples from other parts of the world dominate textbooks, lessons, and readings.” But learning the cultural, entomological, artistic, prehistoric, agricultural, and botanical history of this place keeps students connected to it.
And this connection changes them. As Lynch reflects (Agora, Spring 2011): “This practice of attention to the natural world is transformative. It pulls us beyond the physical limits of our bodies, beyond the confusion of human relationships and social mores, out into the world of damp soil, chilly breezes, muddy rivers, lichens on tree bark, and kettles of turkey vultures soaring on a warm updraft. This attention to the world beyond fills us with wonder, love, and sorrow.”