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Reclaiming the legacy of an ecology pioneer

In 1919, biology professor Edith Roberts began building what she called an ecological laboratory on some wetlands in the southwest corner of the Vassar campus. Roberts collected and planted all the trees and plants – more than 600 species -- that were native to the region at the time. Nature and neglect have undone much of what Roberts created nearly a century ago. But this summer, with the help of two Vassar students, biology professor Margaret Ronsheim is continuing her quest to restore this unique 3.5-acre outdoor classroom.

Sanne Järvinen-Cossé’16, left, and Joshua Bruce ’16 planting one of the 600 species in Roberts’ lab.

Sanne Jarvinen-Cosse ’16 and Joshua Bruce ’16 secured paid internships under the auspices of the Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI) to take part in the project this summer. They spent nearly two weeks chopping and uprooting the invasive porcelain berry vines, which can grow up to 15 feet a year, choking and eventually killing many of the trees and plants in their path.  Once some of the vines were cleared away, the students planted dozens of flowers, shrubs and trees that once populated the site.

Ronsheim began the work of reclaiming the site two years ago, bringing her conservation biology class there to do the initial work uprooting the vines. Two URSI students resumed the work last summer, and this year’s conservation biology students did some additional work before Jarvinen-Cosse and Bruce began their URSI project in late May.

Several factors contributed to the site’s deterioration, Ronsheim says. When Raymond Avenue, the main road just outside the campus, was re-built and re-configured in the 1960s, rainwater runoff and silting increased. Meanwhile the invasive vines continued to choke many of the plants and trees.

Jarvinen-Cosse, a biology major from Peoria, IL, says uprooting the vines was hard work but well worth the effort. “Now that we’ve hauled a lot of them out of here, there’s much more light and other plants can grow,” he says, adding that he realizes it will take several more years and the help of many more students to restore the wetlands to a facsimile of what they were in the 1920s. And he says there’s no way of knowing how closely this new project will resemble what Roberts and her students created back then.

“We have a vision of what it might look like,” Jarvinen-Cosse says, “but it’s a fluid and dynamic space, depending on what actually grows and thrives here, so we don’t really know what it will look like 10 or 15 years from now.”

Bruce, a biology major from Philadelphia, says he’s proud to be working on a project that will benefit future Vassar students. “I haven’t taken Professor Ronsheim’s conservation biology course, so I didn’t know a lot about it before I started, but I’m interested in the idea of restoring it,” he says. “It’s a highly managed space, but these are wild plants that are growing here, so you don’t have the kind of control you’d have if you were growing a garden. We’re creating beauty in a natural way, and I look forward to coming back after I graduate, knowing I had a hand in creating something of beauty and ecological importance.”

Once the students finish planting the small trees and plants they obtained for the restoration, they’ll move on to other projects for the balance of the summer. They will conduct some research on the borer infestation of ash trees in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and they’ll be monitoring a major tree-planting undertaken last September on five acres of land at Vassar Farm by volunteers from the college and the Student Conservation Association, a nationwide organization conceived and founded by Elizabeth Cushman Titus Putnam ’55. But Ronsheim says she’s particularly gratified that her URSI students were helping to restore the Edith Roberts site. “We’re making this space matter again,” she says.

Ronsheim says she and other faculty in the biology department talked about re-naming the site but decided against it. “It’s kind of like a garden, but it really isn’t one. It’s an ecology lab. Edith named it well.”

--Larry Hertz

Photos by Karl Rabe