Rooted in St. Louis: The creation of a campus forest
One of the misconceptions we have about nature is that we are somehow separate from it, that we humans can organize in one box and nature in another. People like to think of us as special, and the idea of pristine wilderness is an appealing myth. In order to really grasp nature, we have to get involved and understand our role as part of this system.
So let’s go on a journey – through time, space and trees.
We can begin 20,000 years ago in the last ice age – St. Louis was south of the polar ice that reached as far as Des Moines. The environment in Missouri would have seemed completely alien to you back then, comparable to today’s in central Canada. A coniferous tundra with tall spruce trees and a blanket of snow.
Once the planet warmed up, the newer “natural environment” of Wash emerged. U. Tall grass meadows, native sedges, and low scrub dominated the landscape, mixed with open forests of oak and hickory. In 1820, the American geographer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft described the landscape of the remaining forests as follows: “Wild grass covers the whole land, in which the oaks stand like fruit trees in a well-tended orchard.”
This was Wash’s natural environment. U., but it wasn’t a pristine wilderness (if there ever is). As long as there is nature here, there will be people – and there has been fire.
Doug Ladd, an ecologist teaching Sam Fox’s Master of Landscape Architecture program, highlighted the role of humans in shaping the Missouri landscape.
“Native Americans had managed the landscape for the past 14,000 years, including a longstanding Aboriginal regime of deliberate fire,” he said. This frequent use of controlled fires created the tall grass meadows and open oak forests – without them a denser forest would have grown instead.
“The only ‘natural’ systems we have in modern times are those that are closely related to humans,” said Ladd. “There is no nature but humans.”
This equilibrium lasted for more than 13,000 years. Then came 1763 and European colonization of the area began. The level of development in the centuries to come was too rapid for nature to keep up. They would be defined by dominion over nature, not coexistence with it.
Built in the early 20th century, the Danforth campus was not a complete departure from nature. However, that early campus was certainly a rock bottom for biodiversity. Pen oaks dominated early landscaping, easy-to-grow trees that should primarily fill young areas quickly. Effective, but kind of boring. The following years brought a trickle of biodiversity: a bur oak here, a linden there, a ginkgo allée in 1927.
It was not until the 21st century that the Wash. Forest Revolution. U. began. Efforts to Wash. U. to transform into an arboretum, an open-air museum with trees, brought variety and perspective to the landscape. Trees were not only planted for short ornaments, but also for long-term diversity, sustainability and holistic beautification.
Both Chris Anderson, Ground Manager and Gardener from Wash. U., as well as Stan Braude, professor of biology who teaches a class in the Missouri trees, emphasized the influence of Kent Theiling, Chris’ predecessor.
“Kent has planted this forest for the past 20 years and I think people didn’t appreciate it until recently,” Braude said. Trees work on a different timescale than we do – this is the difficulty in visualizing landscaping. It takes decades or even centuries for them to ripen.
“We look long-term, we look like 10, 20, 50 years if we plant these things,” said Anderson. Cody Azotea, who leads the Focal Pointe contractors on campus, the Landscape Team, was also very much recognized. They are very familiar with each specimen and the unique care it takes.
Wash. U. a level 2 accredited arboretum that has cataloged 120 different tree species on campus – and these are just the registered ones. The focus is on “native adaptive trees”, trees that come from comparable climatic zones and can thrive here. This category includes over 70% of all campus trees, no small feat.
Well worth doing the Arbor Tour, a self-guided walking tour of the Campus Arboretum. Students who don’t have time to complete the full tour can check the online tree map to see which trees are near their classes. The entire campus is littered with these huge, complex organisms, but many students pass them every day without looking at them again. If you learn just a little about them, your perspective can change radically.
Braude lets his students “learn to describe the trees” in order to deepen their understanding: “There is the principle that … if you have a name for things, words for things that enable you to think about them.” With With some observation and research, you can tell a tree’s health by its bark or when a bud is about to bloom. Trees speak through their anatomy if you can listen.
The diversity on campus speaks for itself – it’s proof of great landscaping that you don’t notice all of the work and planning that has gone into the campus. However, the design behind the campus landscape and its hidden mechanisms are just as impressive as the results.
Anderson described the philosophy behind the Wash landscape. U. as a “balance between history and progress” – they preserve historical elements of the university and integrate modern techniques for sustainability and diversity. He explained the mantra “right plant, right place” and understanding the purpose in the landscape.
Perhaps the most sensible purpose of landscaping is for sustainability and the ability of a man-made landscape to respond to circumstances beyond human control. The right sedges, soils and gardens in the right places can absorb and use rainwater – beautify the campus and improve drainage (right plant, right place). Native adaptive plants improve the campus’ long-term botanical health, while preserving endangered trees provides a seed bank for future generations.
The forest is still growing and fast; At least 500 trees are planted each spring to meet the target of 34% canopy by 2034. Anderson said we are on the right track to achieve this goal.
Even if you don’t care about the planet, it is still relevant to you. As Ladd said, “recent direct studies show that human mortality is directly related to the ability to interact with nature.” So this is where you heard it first – even if you hate the outdoors, you should spend some time there. Your life could depend on it.
For the wash. U. forest has a long future ahead of us. The bur oaks, those trees on campus with the huge acorns, can easily live to be 500 years old. Climate change was also taken into account in his planning.
“In 50 years’ time, while many things that are currently growing in St. Louis may not be able to make it,” Braude said, “we are deliberately planting things that will make it in the changing climate – wash. U. should be proud that we are smart. “