Friday, August 21, 2015

Land Stewardship on Campus and a Holistic View of “Health”

I remember my first visit to a college campus.  Unlike high school where all of my classes were in one building, now I would have to walk across campus to separate buildings for classes in the natural sciences, humanities, social sciences, and physical education. 

Today, many universities still house each major academic discipline in a separate building or at least on a separate floor of the same building.  Given that a university’s mission is generally to integrate the different disciplines of study into a meaningful whole, a physical separation of disciplines may not encourage students to unify the knowledge and understanding they are gaining from a diversity of academic disciplines.  Yet, such integration is essential if students are to acquire a truly “uni-versity” education.

Having taught biology at Cedarville University and having used the natural habitats and “built environments” of SW Ohio as learning laboratories, I have learned the importance of landscapes in acquiring a broad, holistic education. During my final years at Cedarville, some of my students and I considered how the physical structure of the campus landscape and buildings might be managed (stewarded) in a manner consistent with the aim of providing a “uni-versity” education.

Cedar Creek area can be developed for "health & wellness"
The Cedarville College campus of the 1950’s and ‘60’s had expanded onto gently rolling agricultural land on either side of a lazy meandering stream on its way to Massies Creek just downstream from the village of Cedarville, Ohio.  In the early 1970’s, the lazy stream was dammed to create “Cedar Lake” in order to enhance aesthetic beauty and provide a ready source of water in the event of fire.  During most of my tenure at Cedarville, the landscape downstream from Cedar Lake existed as a combination of pastoral landscape with a sheep pasture on gentle slopes surrounding a community of wetland shrubs and trees along the creek.

By 2006, two additional campus buildings, the Engineering-Nursing-Science Building and the Stevens Student Center, had been erected, one at each end of the Cedar Lake dam.  The two buildings were connected by a sidewalk across the dam.  From this sidewalk, pedestrians could look down upon the quiet, pastoral and forested landscape.  At this time, my students and I began a cooperative effort with the administrators of the Physical Plant and the Grounds Department to develop the functionality and aesthetic appeal of the downstream landscape we began to call “Cedar Creek and Wetland.” 

In 2010, as our project began to blossom (literally), excavation began for the construction of a health sciences building on the west slopes above Cedar Creek.  I have outlined some of the progress we made between 2006 and 2011 in a previous Oikonomia, entitled “Land and Water Conservation: Value in the Unseen.”  During this time, the mission of our research effort was as follows:

The Cedar Creek and Wetland Project aims to apply ecological and biblical stewardship principles to manage runoff water on the Cedarville University campus, particularly adjacent to the Stevens Student Center and the new Health Science Building.  This aim will be accomplished through construction of a “basin wetland” surrounded by an upward-sloping landscape to be populated with suitably adapted plant and animal species.  In so doing, we aim to enhance stream water quality, plant and animal biodiversity, and aesthetic beauty while involving students in meaningful research experiences and conveying to the university community and visitors our intent to provide a landscape that models Cedarville University’s commitment to the biblical mandate to exercise good stewardship and care of creation.

Cedar Creek Area can contribute to health sciences mission
In short, we wanted to demonstrate that if land stewards at Cedarville University are intentional about following a biblical “land ethic,” then expanding the “built environment” of the campus should be compatible with conservation of soil, water, and plant-animal biodiversity.  It follows that when a university gives priority to “human health” it can enhance its mission by including the larger context of the “land health” of its campus landscape.   Specifically, efforts to enhance the “health” of Cedar Creek and Wetland surrounding the Health Sciences Building are justified by an understanding that “human health” includes not only medical but also environmental, emotional, and spiritual components that are nurtured by landscapes that reflect aesthetic beauty, health, and functional harmony.

By 2011, several of my research students had gained valuable experience from working on various phases of the development of the Cedar Creek and Wetland ecosystem.  (See “Land and Water Conservation: Value in the Unseen”).  Some of these have completed graduate programs or are completing them; others have been hired into positions involving land stewardship.  Although our efforts were bearing fruit in helping to educate and launch professional “creation stewards,” our efforts to enhance the diversity and “land health” of the Cedar Creek landscape had also taken a direction that was not deemed compatible with the vision of some decision-makers on campus.  Therefore, it was decided that many of the native wetland and prairie plant species we had established should be sacrificed to give way to a more uniform, easily maintained, lawn landscape regularly maintained by mowing.  Although some of us were dismayed, we were thankful for our progress in protection of the riparian zone of Cedar Creek and for the construction of a catch basin to buffer the stream against storm surges.

The direction of land management projects are always governed by the consensus of decision-makers, many of whom must face the realities of budgets and public opinion.  Yet these factors can change and we still hope that there may be a time when the Cedar Creek and Wetland area can be managed in a manner that “speaks” of the integration of “human health” with “land health."

Lemmon and Rice Health and Wellness Garden, Wooster, OH
The landscape of the Cedar Creek area on campus has retained numerous trees and herbaceous plant cover that encourage songbirds and small mammals.  As such, this site has the potential to offer a place of quiet reflection, rest, and renewal from the more bustling portions of the Cedarville campus.  In fact, The Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) campus in Wooster is completing a project that may lead the way for other campuses including Cedarville University.

The OSU will soon showcase the Lemmon and Rice Health and Wellness Garden located in the OARDC’s Secrest Arboretum here in Wooster, OH.  According to Tricia James, assistant director of development, “Growing evidence suggests that the use of wellness gardens can be very therapeutic and improve overall quality of life.”  Interim director of the Secrest Arboretum, Joe Cochran, explained to Karen Skubik, writer for The Bargain Hunter, that “the garden features six pillars of wellness: emotional, environmental, intellectual, physical, social, and spiritual.”  Kevin Rice, who has applied his education in landscape architecture from OSU to lead the wellness garden project, explained that the low-maintenance garden includes woody plants, perennials, ornamental grasses, and sedges.  Bright orange flowers are located in the “social” section, with seating still to be added, while blue-toned flowers provide a more reflective atmosphere for spiritual contemplation.  According to Rice, “A black gum (tree) grove will eventually create an overhead canopy in a more quiet area.”  Interpretive plaques will be installed to explain the theme of the garden as well as the multidimensional and holistic aspects of wellness.

Bright orange flowers are located in the "social section"
In summary, we have noted that a college or university campus landscape plays an important role in the institutional mission.  In this view, the campus is much more than bricks and mortar or ivy-covered walls that appeals to a prospective student’s concept of a home away from home.  Rather, a truly “uni-versity” campus is one in which the “land-scape” itself is managed intentionally in a manner that respects and values the soil, water, trees, and wildlife that characterize this “place” of learning.  For example, on such a campus, students may enter a building to study what it means to be a “healthy person” in mind, body, and spirit.  Then, as they leave the building, their notion of “human health” may be broadened and integrated as they absorb the sights and sounds emanating from a “healthy landscape” surrounding the building. 

How about this?  Have you thought about the importance of intentionally managed landscapes for human health and wellness in the more holistic sense of the term?  Perhaps you have knowingly or unknowingly benefitted from devoting time in certain landscapes and would care to comment on your experiences.  Or, you may wish to share how your walk with God is renewed by your attentiveness to both His written revelation in Scripture as well as His wisdom as revealed in creation.  Do you believe our spiritual, emotional, and physical lives are diminished to the extent that we underestimate the importance of finding time and place to regularly commune with God and feed upon His Word?

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