Restoration at Rudolf Steiner High School

By Erica Choberka and Celia Larsen

The Rudolf Steiner High School sits on a beautiful and ecologically diverse, 6-acre campus on Pontiac Trail in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The property is contiguous with the Black Pond Woods Nature Area, the headquarters for Ann Arbor’s Natural Area Preservation Group (NAP). Our school, which is a Waldorf school, aims to provide a comprehensive and balanced academic, artistic, and practical education that prepares our students for the challenges of the rapidly changing world.

In order to support this education, we infuse the natural world into our curriculum. We use our land in the teaching of science, humanities, math, and the arts. In the sciences, our first task is to foster an interest and delight in the world. Students regularly walk, observe, and perform experiments in our woods and prairie during their chemistry, physics, and life and earth science courses. Just this week, for example, we began Goethean* observations of plants in our Botany class.

When we purchased our property in 2001, we knew it had great restoration potential, considering it contains approximately 1 acre of mature oak forest and an adjacent old field. There was one large problem: the forest was choked with buckthorn, and the field was full of non-native species. I remember taking classes out to the woods and there were barely any plants growing on the forest floor. The buckthorn was so thick it was difficult to walk through the forest. When we followed the path to the adjacent Black Pond Woods, the forest dramatically changed into a healthy and balanced ecosystem.

Since our land plays such an integral role in our teaching, I feel we must expose and calibrate the senses of our students to healthy functioning ecosystems and biodiversity. The students quickly caught on that their forest wasn’t healthy, and they wanted to do something about it. This was the first step, and in my opinion, the most important step in the restoration process. Without getting the students and larger community interested in creating healthy, beautiful ecosystems, the work falls solely on the few individuals with the vision.

In the fall of 2004, a student decided she was going to seed the field with native prairie grasses as a class project for the ecology block. The following year the senior ecology class wrote a management plan for the forest and prairie complex, based on their new understanding of ecological processes and healthy ecosystems. In order to write this plan, they researched restoration techniques, met with staff from NAP, and worked with me, their life science teacher. This plan provided background information about oak forest- prairie systems. It documented the condition of our forest and prairie, and it included a current species list. It also included a year-by-year plan to restore this habitat.

This plan was presented to the faculty, staff, student body, and building and grounds committee. Once it was approved, the school got serious. A team of students, our physics teacher, and I took up the mission to cut down all of the buckthorn in the forest. This was no small task. This consumed the entire high school student body for a year.

The following winter (2005), Celia Larsen, a botanist in the parent body and a Wild Ones member – Ann Arbor (MI) Chapter, prepared grant applications to allow us to purchase plants to increase biodiversity and soften the transition between the prairie and forest. In addition to relying on her past grant-writing experience, she consulted with a Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI) botanist, a NAP botanist, and me (also a former MNFI botanist) to develop the grant. She incorporated the students’ management plan into the grant. In addition, she researched where to purchase the plants, and developed a specific site plan and budget for the project. Wild Ones, through their Lorrie Otto Seeds for Education Fund, and the Wildflower Association of Michigan Glassen Educational Fund both awarded us grants totaling $1,100 to purchase plants and seeds for our restoration project.

This spring, the 11th-grade garden class is planting the plants purchased using the grant money, and pulling new buckthorn seedlings. We have noticed that the spring ephemeral wildflowers have really flourished with the removal of the buckthorn. The students are creating a path through the forest, rescuing any plants that fall within the new path boundaries. Fifth graders at our Lower School (K-8), only a few miles away, will transplant the rescued wild geranium, Pennsylvania sedge, meadow rue, and Solomon’s seal into their forest, which is also under restoration. Families have committed to watering our new plants over the summer. And NAP has agreed to burn our woods and prairie in the fall of 2006.

The restoration process will continue for many years to come – we are responsible for the stewardship of our land. The commitment of the school, community, and organizations like Wild Ones and the Wildflower Association of Michigan, makes projects like ours a success. We are very grateful to everyone who has made this possible. I am thrilled that the students who attend our school will be able to observe a healthy, balanced ecosystem rather than a degraded, invasive-ridden landscape.

We look forward to being docents for the Lower School students when they visit our campus and Black Pond Woods for field trips. We hope to share what we have learned and accomplished by hosting a local Wild Ones meeting on our campus. We continue to foster our relationship with NAP – for example, we plan to share the data we collect from our weather station, and they have agreed to burn our woods and prairie. Thank you to Wild Ones for helping us create a beautiful, Michigan woodland that gracefully transitions into a pocket of native prairie.

Every project is unique, but here are some points to keep in mind if you plan to apply for a Lorrie Otto Seeds for Education Grant:

Really get to know all your land, and steward what you already have. Many schools have “forgotten” land around the edges that may have treasures hidden behind buckthorn or veiled by garlic mustard. Inventory your trees, shrubs, and ground layer throughout a full growing season. What seems to be a dry field in September may actually be a seasonally wet meadow. Begin caring for what you have – you don’t need a grant to remove invasive plants or water trees during dry spells.

Alert your entire community to your intentions. This includes not only parents, teachers, staff, and administration, but should also include neighbors and local conservation clubs like Wild Ones and watershed protection groups. You may find an ecologist or grant-writer that is happy to help. Be clear about your goals, but remember the process is as important as the end product.

Make your team as big and diverse as possible. Include science teachers, art teachers, parents, students, anyone who shares your passion for making your land more beautiful, health-giving and balanced, while teaching young folks the importance and joy of stewardship. Always include custodial staff, as they are responsible for the day-to-day care of the property and are usually very knowledgeable.

Explore your options for grants and apply to as many as possible. You can often submit the same project description, with minimal editing, to more than one grant source. Mothers clubs, garden clubs, government agencies, and local businesses may offer grants for outdoor education projects. You may get funding for tools from one source (e.g., American Gardening Association), books from another (e.g., your local mothers club), and plants and seeds from a third source (e.g., Wild Ones).

Take lots of pictures, before, during and after. A picture can speak a thousand words.

Don’t get discouraged if you don’t get the grants. So much can be done with very little money. You could get plants by participating in a Wild Ones plant rescue. You could outright ask the parent body for donations to purchase plants. And as mentioned above, take care of what you already have. Also, you can reapply for the grants with an updated, improved application.

Ed Note: Goethean science is science based on the approach of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, author of Faust, and who is most generally known for his poetry and literature. Goethe saw his principle contributions to culture as being in the area of science. He authored many works on science, notably The Metamorphosis of Plants and his Theory of Color. Goethe stressed that one had to start with the actual phenomenon, and that it impossible to divorce oneself from participation in nature, contrary to the method of contemporary science.

For further information:
Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor
Association of Waldorf Schools of North America

Erica Choberka, Ann Arbor (MI) Chapter. Erica teaches sciences at Rudolf Steiner High School.

Celia Larsen, Ann Arbor (MI) Chapter. Celia is a contributing editor of the Wild Ones Journal.

This article appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of the Wild Ones Journal.