Prairie Inspiration

Thursday, Jun. 5, 2014 3:46 pm

For many Grinnell students, the College-owned prairie down Interstate Highway 80 is much more than a place to do biological research — though plenty of that happens.

It’s a place where you can write, read or paint, listen, canoe, or meditate. It’s a great chance to mix in some outdoor time, a nice complement to attending a concert, visiting an art gallery, or checking out Lyle’s Pub on campus.

The 365-acre Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA) is 11 miles west of Grinnell. The rolling terrain belies the Iowa-is-flat stereotype.

The prairie underscores the big-sky vibe in Iowa, a view that proclaims openness and gives you space. It adds a rural touch to our nationally-ranked liberal arts college in an active Midwestern town, nestled between two cultural centers — Des Moines and Iowa City.

The city will always be there for those who want it. For the critical college years, Grinnell offers you a learning oasis in a place that fosters reflection, study, and growth.

The prairie is part of that.

“I ask our students, ‘Is it worth it to spend some quiet time to contemplate?’” says CERA manager Elizabeth Hill.

The Grinnell prairie contains remnant and reconstructed tallgrass prairie, oak savanna, riparian forest, and woodlands. CERA is named for faculty member and botanist Henry S. Conard.

It’s also a bit of a monument to energy efficiency. A LEED-certified Environmental Education Center (EEC) gets most of its power from a single wind turbine next to the complex. The building also benefits from geothermal and passive solar methods of temperature regulation.

There are other attractions.

Just down the hill from the center, you can canoe on 14-acre Perry Pond. The North Skunk River runs along the CERA’s eastern edge. British installation artist Andy Goldsworthy’s limestone Prairie Cairn adorns an open area south of the education center .

Trekking through nature’s diversity

Sun low in the sky shining through the grasslandsLook around and you could see wild turkeys and bluebirds, and plants such as bloodroot, Jacob’s ladder, and Virginia waterleaf.

“These are remnants of the past,” Hill says. “They are reminders of a fully functioning ecosystem. You get on the landscape and you will learn who you are. It’s intertwining landscape and human history.”

Biology students inventory the life they see on the woodland floor. Chemistry majors research conditions at the pond. Artists capture the view, or use it as inspiration.

You can visit on your own, too.

“It’s a wonderful experience,” says Jonathan Andelson ’70, director of the Center for Prairie Studies.

“The prairie exposes people to a very different way of experiencing place. The sky. The wind. The sound of the wind in the grasses and trees. The night sky. It can be wonderfully embracing.”


A Living Lab

Students study test plots to see how plants respond to different combinations of fire and mowing. “The prairie is about death and rebirth, loss and restoration,” Andelson says.

Underneath is some of the richest soil on the planet.

“Why is so little prairie left? Because of agriculture. Why do we have so much agriculture? Because the prairie provided such good topsoil,” Andelson notes.

Those questions set up decades of outdoor learning experiences at Grinnell, where social responsibility and sustainability are central goals.

“The land has been used for production purposes, but that use has sometimes become abuse at the cost of biodiversity,” Andelson says. “Students are being allowed not only to do research, but also to become doctors to the land to bring it back to health.”

Some students care for the prairie in a 10-week Summer Restoration Assistant (SRA) Program. For summer 2014, the SRAs are Toni Androski ’16, a biology major, Nick Matesanz ’16, biology; Liza Morse ’15, biology/Spanish; and Carl Sessions ’15, philosophy.

They, and other students, are discovering that Grinnell can take you to the prairie of the past and future, not far from the city.