Columns / Discourse / January 15, 2009

Knox ecology

Knox College is an interesting place. Kids come here for four years and experiment in any number of sanctioned and unsanctioned ways: relationships ranging from the banal to the bizarre are formed and broken, stuff gets burned, things are eaten, objects thrown. You don’t need me to tell you it’s interesting: just look in the mirror, ya weirdo!

But this column is not about the crackling social and personal life here at Knox, it’s about the place itself. More specifically, it’s about the 82 acres of land that make up our campus and the various forms of life that call it home. That’s not to say that humans don’t enter into the picture at all, of course. We are the dominant species here, and all other wildlife on campus must adapt to our explicit presence (our bodies and vehicles) and implicit presence (the stuff we build, the things we plant, the solid, liquid and gaseous wastes we produce, and the layout of all these elements in the plan of the campus). Knox as a habitat would not be what it is if we didn’t live and interact with each other and our environment here. So I might give Homo sapiens short shrift, but I won’t eliminate them from the picture just for kicks.

Even though we designed and constructed the campus for our own utility and comfort, we probably get the least bang for our buck compared to the other creatures who call it home. This is the same story all over the place, not just at Knox, obviously. The college is situated in a city, which in turn is situated in a rural area, and both of these types of land are to a large extent designed by humans. Other creatures have to adapt to our presence and transformations of nature or else get out (or die). “Real” nature, in the sense of a pristine ecosystem unmolested by humans, probably does not exist anywhere near here. Even many of the nearby state parks and forests are on land that was reclaimed from strip mining and clear cuts or are used sparingly as sources of timber. For example, in Big River State Forest, due west from here on the Mississippi River, scrub hardwoods were removed from many areas and replaced with fast-growing pine plantations. Knox College’s own biological reserve, Green Oaks, was itself reclaimed in the ‘50s and ‘60s from an old strip mining operation.

But so what? The urban habitat is just as valid a place to look at nature as Yellowstone, especially since it is more likely to make us come to terms with our everyday relationship with it. And we’re all here anyway, so why not? Plus, there are actually some interesting things going on outside while we’re in class or asleep or otherwise incapacitated.

Knox College is made up of two types of human development, the first of which is technological and built-up. It’s characterized by hard surfaces and corners, sheer walls, round tubes, doorways, sidewalks, geometry, processed building materials, vending machines—all the finer things. The second type is aesthetically arranged “natural” settings. The interior of the campus is made of grass, trees, some shrubs, and even a small prairie, but it’s all selected, arranged and maintained by humans. Even the prairie plot has some taller plants excluded from it to keep people from “hiding” in there. Mixed together, these two types of habitat complement each other in interesting ways, resulting in wildlife and relationships between them that wouldn’t occur if they were standing alone. This column will look at some parts of the interesting natural world here at Knox, from the howling despair of winter to the sickening heat of summer.

Sam Bouman

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