Green Oaks, the biological field station used today by the Knox community for both learning and recreation, has now belonged to the school for 60 years. The area has come a long way to be the natural habitat it is today.
“Lots of Green Oaks was strip mined … they left huge mounds of dirt,” biology department Professor James Mountjoy said.
The area was originally settled by pioneers and used by them as farmland. Afterwards, it was strip mined throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, a period in which there were no requirements for the companies to clean up their leavings, thus allowing the strip mine leavings to pile up, leaving a mark.
“It left kind of an ugly, ravished landscape,” said retired anthropology Professor Jon Wagner.
The land eventually came Knox’s way from alumni Alvah Green, class of 1890, who Green Oaks is named after. Green acted as a friend of the college, often allowing students to visit the area prior to it being endowed to Knox in 1958.
Restoration of Green Oaks was spearheaded by former biology professor Paul Shepard, who envisioned it becoming a prairie habitat. The strip mined areas ended up becoming lakes, hills and forests.
“It seems wild Ð it actually turns out to be a wonderful habitat for plants and animals that are hard to find elsewhere in Illinois,” said Wagner.
Mountjoy said better protections for birds and restrictions on the use of pesticides have helped the area thrive. Mountjoy has found Green Oaks’ value both in his teaching and for research in his areas of interests, such as bird songs.
“It really is a very special place for a lot of the breeding birds,” he said.
Aside from getting to study subjects like the birdsong of indigo buntings, Mountjoy also noted the encounters he’s had with rare species in this region.
“I was driving out of there at night and there was a barn owl in front of me … it just wouldn’t move, it just sat there for a half hour,” he said.
Starting in 2002, students began to receive the opportunity to have an intensive learning experience in the field station through Knox’s Green Oaks Term. Wagner stated that to his knowledge, the term long program where students live out in Green Oaks was the only one of its kind in the country.
Wagner stated the concept for the program began in the mid 1990s, crediting former Knox College Biology Professor Anne Houtmann for pushing the concept forward. Wagner stated he had forgotten about having agreed to work on the idea until she reminded him about it following a commencement ceremony.
“I guess I wanted to stay home and play my banjo, but I said okay sure if I said I’d do that, fine we’ll do it,” he said.
Wagner and Houtmann, along with former creative writing professor Sheryl St. Germain, discussed the course while at a week long conference in Wisconsin.
“So we had a biologist, a poet and me, an anthropologist … the idea of it was that it would be inclusive of not only science but the humanities and the social sciences and it would be centered around the idea of place,” Wagner said.
The idea took years to develop, with Wagner doubting for a time whether it would ever come to fruition due to the difficulty of securing funds. It was eventually developed by donations from groups like the Schurr family.
“In 2002 we taught the program for the first time, and it was I think a roaring success,” Wagner said.
Wagner thought Green Oaks’ importance to Knox drew from past tradition of emphasizing the school’s location, citing seminars at Knox that went back further than the 1940s focused on the school’s historical and geographical connections.
“What I’m saying is … this idea of Knox being a place that sort of celebrates the land and the place where it’s situated, rather than pretend to be an east coast institution,” Wagner said.
Wagner additionally reflected on the change that has come to Green Oaks over the years.
“It’s actually gone, ironically, from being ravished landscape to being a really rich natural habitat,” Wagner said.