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ISSUE 119 VOL 18 PUBLISHED 4/28/2006

Learning from the land

By Various Contributors
Contributing Writer

Friday, April 28, 2006

If the St. Olaf community were to build a classroom on our natural grasslands, the building’s air and water would be warmed by the sun. Its electricity would be generated on site. Its roof would be prairie sod and the building itself, invulnerable to prairie conditions – in particular, a cycle of fire and regrowth.

Its materials would either be locally extracted or reused from locally deconstructed buildings. It would be beautiful enough to inspire those who learn in it and from it. It would be invisible to those who love natural lands, serving only to respect their nature.

But isn’t a gigantic monument to sustainability already on the way, a building that already borders Norway Valley’s forest? The new Science Complex has been designed by its very existence to teach students how to be both beautiful and invisible. It is a brilliant, streamlined structure which will easily inspire pride in future generations of Oles. Due to numerous eco-features, hopes run high that power usage on the St. Olaf grid might actually lessen after its construction.

The new Science Complex might be undetectable on the electrical grid and as pretty as a building can be, but is it as beautiful and invisible as it could be? It will focus little attention either on the forest that grows behind it or on the ecosystems across campus. It will glorify its forest boundary with a parking lot and loading docks. Its best face will address the campus, instead promoting the sustainability of our human community above the soon-to-be-invisible forest.

In response to our new monument to the human community then, we propose its counterpart: a small one-classroom building on the natural lands, all but invisible to the unguided eye, to honor our greater biotic community.

Complementing nature with artifice is a tricky dance, as audienced by the “woulds” we have already demanded of our future building. Several steps yet need to be learned. Who would use it? We hope a classroom would invite courses and individuals outside of the biology major to briefly inhabit and appreciate our natural lands.

What would it be used for? The space would be used both for environmental education and education within an inspiring environment.

How would the people who should know about it learn about it? After a time, we hope, the prairie classroom (perhaps abbreviated “PC” on the class and lab list) would become as widely known as Old Main (“OM”).

Finally, why disturb the natural lands when they are apparently being natural perfectly well? Appearances can be deceptive. They need us for their maintenance as much as we need them for ours.

Ask the natural lands curator, Professor of Biology Eugene Bakko, how much invasive canary grass he and his students removed last year. Ask any Ole if a pond of chirping frogs might make the coming exam time a little easier to stomach. A prairie classroom, by strengthening the connection between the St. Olaf human and non-human communities, stands also to strengthen us – all of us.

Contributing Writers J. Berit Bolstad, Mary Coffey and Jonathan Geurts are seniors from Omaha, Neb., Chapell, Neb., and Missoula, Mont. They major in environmental studies. Bolstad also majors in English.

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