How's Life on the Edge?

Field Notices

Luther College Chips

February 21, 2008

The edginess of Luther is the first element visitors to campus notice and is a quality that keeps people happy here. To get the sweet feel of living on that edge also brings alumni back for one delicious homecoming weekend every few years.

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me remind you that the edginess of the place is now celebrated in the college’s mission statement, which proclaims that we are “a place of intersection. Founded where river, woodland and prairie meet.”

Luther is the meeting place, not only of smart Iowa farm kids and teen refugees from the soulless malls of Maple Grove and Bloomington, but also of field uplands, wooded hills and river floodplain. Luther nestles in the ecotone.

An ecotone is the “narrow and fairly sharply defined transition zone between two or more different communities,” says the Oxford Dictionary of Zoology. It adds, “Such edge communities are typically species rich.”

Luther is the plant and animal equivalent of Miami, Fla. In less than 10 minutes you can move from an open savanna of oaks and turf grass, to a steep hillside of oak and hickory, ending up in the damp transition between a grove of soft maples and basswoods and a water border of poplar and canary grass.

Translate that to terms on your mental Luther map? Walk from the bell green between the Union and the CFL to the trail that cuts across the hillside toward Towers and then down to Lindeman Pond.

And whether you consciously knew it or not, that kind of diversity may be the first quality that caught your eye as you crested the hill on Highway 52 or cruised onto campus from Leif Erikson Drive. It may also be helping you keep sane and happy as you walk back home from classes or point your mountain bike onto the nearest dirt trail.

Subtle differences in climate, geology and soil are behind the mosaic of smaller communities you see on and around campus. Uplands are moderately dry and flat, with moderately deep soil. South and west-facing hills get extremes of heat and shade and have thinner soil. The floodplain is damp with deep soil. Plants and animals live or die on the basis on those nuances.

In broadest ecological terms, this corner of Northeast Iowa straddles the border between Eastern Forest and the Tallgrass Prairie. Rather, it did straddle that border before the tallgrass prairie got converted to rows of corn and beans.

To its great credit Luther has begun to reintroduce prairie to college land that once grew corn. In doing that it is rebuilding a biological community that lived in roadside-ditch exile for 150 years.

The natural forces behind an ecological community get seriously trumped by human activity. A sidewalk, a mowed lawn, a building, a parking lot or a plowed field all disrupt or erase the plant and animal neighborhood in which they are placed.

The most typical result when people improve the landscape is not complete erasure, but thinning. The woods on either side of the trail above the Regents Center are home to gray squirrels, but no flying squirrels. There is grass between the oaks in the savanna areas of campus, but none of it is turkeyfoot, and there is no rattlesnake master on which prairie bobolinks might perch and sing through the hot months of summer.

I hope the college will continue its work of building back diversity into the rich edge area of its landscape.

In our animal hearts of hearts, we like the rich edginess of this place. Life on the edge is good, but it could get even better.