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Researching the genius of place

April 10, 2012

It feels quieter in Dunn’s Woods than on the rest of the Indiana University Bloomington campus. Cooler in the summer. More peaceful on bustling game days or during the change of classes. People who work and study on campus can step from an academic building into the woods in the heart of campus and be transported, momentarily, into a nature preserve, replete with the birds, squirrels, and chipmunks that make their home there.

Two severe summer windstorms hit the woods in 2011, damaging or destroying dozens of trees and killing nestling Cooper’s hawks. Storm damage and cleanup efforts left the woods with large tree canopy gaps and areas of bare ground highly vulnerable to exotic invasive plants that wreak havoc on the natural order of the woods.

To help promote the cultural and natural heritage of the 10-acre woods, an interdisciplinary team of IU Bloomington faculty members, students, and professionals have founded the Dunn’s Woods Project. The group is conducting research in the woods to advance understanding of woodland ecology, learn best management strategies for removing exotic invasive plants, and promote native species.

Heather Reynolds, associate professor in the IU Bloomington Department of Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, said Dunn’s Woods is ecologically and culturally important to campus. In addition to being home to a diversity of trees and other species — among them wildflowers, birds and box turtles — it’s an island of woodland habitat in an otherwise urbanized landscape.

“This biological richness makes it a beautiful, rejuvenating place for a walk or quiet reflection,” Reynolds says. “And the woods provide a host of other ecosystem services — cooling the campus, producing oxygen, purifying air and water and absorbing storm water and greenhouse gases, among many other processes of benefit to us. These woods are part of a largely silent but powerful ‘green infrastructure’ that is the foundation of the human economy.”

Other members of the Dunn’s Woods Project are Roger Hangarter, the Class of 1968 Chancellor’s Professor in the Department of Biology; James Capshew, associate professor with the Department of History and Philosophy of Science; Reynolds’ graduate student Jonathan Bauer; landscape historian Anita Bracalente; landscape architect Mia Williams of the IU Architect’s Office; environmental educator Anthony Minich; and the Monroe County Identify and Reduce Invasive Species task force.

Currently, Dunn’s Woods is threatened by exotic invasive species such as the evergreen groundcover known as purple winter creeper. Invasive species easily spread into natural habitats like Dunn’s Woods, pushing out native species and gradually destroying food sources and habitat.

Hangarter said Dunn’s Woods has been one of his favorite locations on campus since he moved to Bloomington in 1995. He said the increasing threat by invasive plants has been distressing, spurring his involvement with the Dunn’s Wood Project. “It seemed like a hopeless situation,” he says.

The Dunn’s Woods group was awarded an IU Office of Sustainability seed grant to research land-use history and ecology of the woods and ways to combat the invasive plant species problem. In addition, the Dunn’s Woods Project worked with IU alum and award-wining documentary filmmaker Samuel Orr to create a Dunn’s Woods video that the group hopes will interest others and build momentum that helps return native plants to the space.

View the video here:

“Dunn’s Woods is already perceived by many as a special focal point on our campus,” Hangarter says. “By establishing it as a rich native habitat, I am convinced that it would become an even more precious space. Establishing Dunn’s Woods with a healthy diversity of native species will almost certainly result in the woods becoming a destination for people who wish to see wildflower displays and as a place to come and learn about native plants and their value in sustainable ecosystems.”

Reynolds said project participants are also researching the history of the woods, gradually uncovering the story of how it came to be and how people’s perceptions of and relationship with the site have changed over time.

Believed to have been used by the Dunn family for hog and cattle pasture, the open grassland that is now Dunn’s Woods was transformed by an initial scattering of trees more than 100 years ago.

Capshew said that when the IU campus outgrew its original seminary park site and moved to Dunns’s Woods in 1885, President David Starr Jordan became the first to protect its trees, saying “let none be cut down.” Each of his successors upheld the unofficial policy to preserve the forest, Capshew says. As an undergraduate in the 1920s, future IU President Herman B Wells encountered the magic atmosphere of the woodland campus.

“As president from 1937 to 1962, he expanded campus lands more than ten-fold and not only promoted the continuing preservation of Dunn’s Woods but also encouraged the extension of its woodland theme to recently developed areas,” Capshew says.

In tribute to its rich history, the woods and the Old Crescent academic buildings that surround it are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The woods are part of our Indiana natural and cultural heritage, and our project hopes to connect people with the wonderful natural and cultural history inherent in them,” Reynolds says. Another part of the project, Reynolds said, is to teach people about the problems of exotic invasive species and the value of native biodiversity while providing information and skills so people can make sustainable choices in their own lives.

“To that end, we conduct our work with many Indiana University classes, extracurricular groups such as Volunteers in Sustainability, and interested members of the community,” she says. “We hope to promote people’s ‘sense of place’ in Dunn’s Woods.”

“It is entirely appropriate that the Wells Plaza, including the bronze statue of Wells, is at the heart of the 1920s campus, with Dunn’s Woods flanked by the buildings of the Old Crescent,” Capshew says. “Now, nearly a century later, the woods are teaching new generations about biodiversity and human culture. The university community is lucky to have such an instructional resource right here on campus.”

–By Jennifer Piurek, appeared originally in the April 6, 2012 issue of IU Home Pages. Used with permission.

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