Making Connections as Diverse as the Prairie
In 1999, Grinnell College founded the Center for Prairie Studies, a first-of-its-kind interdisciplinary program that is committed to "increasing the awareness, appreciation, and understanding of all aspects of the North American Prairie." Almost 10 years later, the program is flourishing, thanks in large part to consistent collaboration with professors and their classes.
Since prairie studies is not a concentration, a concrete set of courses concerning prairie studies does not exist. Instead, students can take classes in a variety of disciplines, ranging from art to political science, that study some aspect of the prairie region. In this way, the Center for Prairie Studies helps Grinnell "use its location as an archive, laboratory, text, stage, and canvas through which to examine the nature and culture of our region."
Lee Running, assistant professor of art, utilized the Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA), a 365-acre preserve that is primarily used for the study of ecology, in the past year when she taught her intermediate drawing class. The trip was inspired by a documentary created by Andy Goldsworthy, a British artist who devoted some of his talent to creating land art. Running's class spent two consecutive days at CERA, with the goal of working with nature in order to create similar, site-specific land art. On the first day, the class walked the land to assess the material site, and on the second day, students created and photographed their work. The results varied widely, as one student braided parts of the tall grass, while another focused on a simple leaf hanging from a tree, which she photographed and modified. In this way, Running's students used the local habitat as a source of inspiration for their work, as well as a place to apply what they had learned.
Jon Andelson '70, professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Prairie Studies, taught a tutorial about Grinnell called Our Town: the World at Our Doorstep. Through field trips to a nearby prairie, local farms, and buildings and businesses in Grinnell, and aided by primary documents in the College Archives and Special Collections in Burling Library, students gained a "hands-on" familiarity with the land and the people of the community. One set of student papers was published in-house as a book, titled Our Town: Glimpses of Grinnell, Iowa, in the 19th Century.
Iowa's prairie remnants have also traditionally attracted faculty and student researchers in the sciences. This past summer, two biology students, Curran Johnson '09 and Brian Perbix '09, researched at CERA under the direction of Kathy Jacobson, associate professor of biology. They studied the practicality and effectiveness of using goats to control invasive species, such as Multiflora Rosa and honeysuckles. According to Larissa Mottl, the manager of CERA, local farmers Barney Bahrenfuse and Suzanne Costello provided the goats. Mottl asserts that CERA provided several practical benefits: a local area in which students could study the effectiveness of specie control that did not rely on herbicide, experience for the student researchers, and a free pasture for the goats of the local farmers.
The Center for Prairie Studies also supports diverse projects that indirectly relate to the local habitat. Ami Freeberg '10, Hart Ford-Hodges '10, and Neal Wepking '10 are currently taking an independent study course titled Think Global, Eat Local. The students are exploring various aspects of local food and its economy, under the guidance of Andelson. Although it was not a requirement of the course, these students decided to intensify their experience by spending the month prior to fall break on the "100-mile diet," which restricted the students to food produced within a 100-mile radius of Grinnell. Although Freeberg admits they had to overcome "cravings," she described the experience as "liberating." Ford-Hodges says, "One of the most fulfilling parts of the goal was developing a relationship with local producers." Although they had to spend more time on meal preparation, Wepking says he enjoyed the cooking, because it gave him a chance to relax and unwind each day. All the members of the group say the experience made them more aware of the local food producers and of the availability of local foods, and taught them the importance of food preservation and planning ahead.
The opportunities that the Center for Prairie Studies offers, however, are not limited to students in select classes. Lesley Wright, director of Faulconer Gallery, plans to curate two exhibitions in the near future that focus on Grinnell's local habitat. From early June to early September 2009, an exhibition titled Below the Surface: A 21st-Century Look at the Prairie, will be on display at Faulconer Gallery. The goal of the exhibition is to explore "contemporary views of our place and its natural history, infused with overtones of the cultures that now live on the lands that were once a sea of grass." Andelson also plans to host or co-host speakers in the upcoming semester on topics as diverse as the prairie itself. Watch your calendars to see how the Center for Prairie Studies will grow in 2009.