Professor Michael Kowalewski teaches a variety of courses in the English department on nature and “place.” For several years now, he has included an annual fieldtrip to McKnight Prairie with students in his courses on American Nature Writing (236) and The American West (247) and in his freshman seminar, Spirit of Place. The students learn about the history and ecology of McKnight and hike to an overlook, where they hold class in the outdoors, discussing authors such as Aldo Leopold, Willa Cather or Marilynne Robinson.  

“The experience has a big impact on most of the students,” Mike says. “The vistas, the silence, the open skies, looking out over the currents of wind rippling through tall-grass prairie on an autumn afternoon. No classroom experience, no matter how stimulating, can convey such a grounded understanding of why nature and landscape have played such an abiding role in American literature. Students write me years later to say that they have fond memories of these field trips to McKnight.”

Mike also requires students in his American Nature Writing class to do group presentations on local species of flora and fauna found in the Arboretum. Students are randomly assigned species such as American woodcock, pink heelsplitter mussel, or big bluestem grass. They are instructed to research their species in a way that includes but goes beyond science to incorporate history, art, literature or music — anything that helps them imaginatively “inhabit” their species in a fresh, creative way.  

Students go to the Arboretum throughout the term to observe and sketch their species. The presentations at the end of the course are both informative and highly entertaining and have included dramatic vignettes and even interpretive dance. “We are incredibly lucky to have McKnight Prairie and the Arboretum,” Mike says. “They are invaluable teaching resources not only for those in the sciences at Carleton but for those of us in the humanities as well.”