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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Native plants helping to restore communities

Over looking Brother Don Geiger Prairie.
Rene Wilde
/
WYSO
Over looking Brother Don Geiger Prairie filled with various plant-life.

The trail from the parking lot at the Mount Saint John’s campus winds through a wooded area, before emerging into an open clearing where a ridge overlooks native grasses dotted by orange butterfly weed. The noise from the adjacent interstate is a constant backdrop to the sounds of birds and the occasional dragonfly. This is the Brother Don Geiger Prairie, which has spurred a home-grown ecological movement that now reaches far beyond this 100 acre nature preserve.

When the Interstate 675 bypass was completed in the late ‘80s, it left huge scars on the land in the wake of its construction. Father Don, who lived at the Marianist community in Greene County, saw that environmental degradation as an opportunity to restore both the land and communities.

Grey-headed coneflower for sale.
Renee Wilde
/
WYSO
Grey-headed coneflower for sale.

It all started when the State of Ohio removed 14 hectares of sand and gravel during construction of the interstate while Brother Don was working on a project in Africa. “He came home and found this pit at the back of the property that had been dug in his absence,” explains Tara Pohling, program coordinator for the Marianist Environmental Education Center.

The plan was that the State was going to sow highway seed on the barren landscape. “And I guess we were supposed to mow this 40 foot pit every year,” Pohling explains. But, Brother Don had a different idea. “He said, I think we can do better than that,” Pohling adds.

The prairie is located at the Marianist men's religious community, which sponsors the University of Dayton and Chaminade-Julienne High School. We’ve done a lot programmatically over the years,” Pohling said. “We've done energy policy work, we’ve done lots of things with the Catholic Climate Covenant, other faith groups - but this is really what we excel at. We’re plant nerds and we’re bug nerds.”

Butterfly weed with bumble bees in prairie
Renee Wilde
/
WYSO
Bumble bees are attracted to the butterfly weed in the prairie.

Ecological restoration didn’t exist as an academic discipline in the 1980s, and there were no native plant nurseries in the area for Brother Don to go to. “So he had to find the seed, first of all,” Pohling recounted. “He went west, and he stayed within the prevailing wind patterns where there could be genetic drift.”

He identified and gathered seeds from native plant species within a 50 mile radius. “It was important for him to identify local genotypes of all these plants, because those are the ones that the insects are best co-evolved with, and those are really important relationships for our environment,” Pohling explained. “ Which is why we sell the plants that we do. We’re not selling plants, we’re selling bug nurseries. These are bird feeders. These are feeding everything in the ecosystem via the bugs that have evolved with them.”

Brother Don started the first native plant nursery in the area, which has operated for the past 35 years through the Marianist Environmental Education Center. Pohling said. “People came to us and asked for plants, and about 10 or 15 years ago we finally held our first public sale and it's gotten bigger every year and it’s just exploding, it’s just fantastic.”

Down on the main campus of Mount Saint John's the annual plant sale is underway. The organization grew 115 different native plant species for this year's sale. First year seedlings are in paper cones, and second year plants are in gallon containers. Kate Anderson is pulling a red wagon filled with a variety of native plants. “I’ve got Green-headed coneflowers, Culver's-root, queen-of-the-prairie, that’s a favorite, woodland thimbleweed,” she said looking over her purchases. “ We live on a farm so you just get more and more connected to the land, and start learning more about it and wanting to take better care of it.”

MEEC native plant sale.
Renee Wilde
/
WYSO
MEEC native plant sale.

“I have a butterfly weed, great blue lobelia, golden Alexander, and then this is an anemone that’s going to be like a ground cover,” another shopper, Suzane, said peering into her green metal wagon. Suzane is just getting into native plants and is excited to try out these new species. “I live in Oakwood,” she said. “Our houses are close together, and so I have little areas to garden. I really like the idea of native plants to attract the bees and butterflies and just do my little part to help.”

Elizabeth Rothschild is walking through the crowd helping shoppers with questions.I’ve been volunteering here since the first plant sale,” she said. The fact that we’re losing our insects is a huge one, and most people would say, well, what’s the big deal with that? I don’t like insects. But basically, if they die, we die. I mean that’s really what it comes down to. They’re the big drivers of our eco-systems.”

MEEC has an urban pollinator fund and the sale partially funds that. “We put pollinator gardens in underserved communities,” Pohling said. “Another thing I did during covid, we built a huge database of characteristics for all these plants and how to propagate, and put it on line for people.”

Kate Anderson with native plants.
Renee Wilde
/
WYSO
Kate Anderson with native plants.

All this work to restore communities around native plants is happening in an area that was part of the ancestral homelands of the Kaskaskia, Shawnee, Myaamia and Osage Peoples, and ceded in the 1795 Treaty of Greenville. “We struggle with how to do justice on stolen land, it’s a significant concern,” Pohling said thoughtfully. “One of the new staff members for the Marianist Social Justice Collaborative is married to a Native woman and I had just read about bringing in non-native plants as a form of colonialism. So I checked in with her. She said absolutely, filling the land with non-native plants is a form of colonialism.”

“So this isn’t undoing all the sins of the past,” Pohling adds. “We’re not claiming it is. But, by working on projects like this my hope is that we can also gain a greater appreciation for the communities that already knew how to live in concert with those plants, which we’ve lost.”

The Mount Saint John’s Nature Preserve covers more than 100 acres, featuring an oak-hickory woodland, wetlands, an eastern tall-grass prairie and meadow. The preserve is open to the public during daylight hours.

Renee Wilde was part of the 2013 Community Voices class, allowing her to combine a passion for storytelling and love of public radio. She started out as a volunteer at the radio station, creating the weekly WYSO Community Calendar and co-producing Women’s Voices from the Dayton Correctional Institution - winner of the 2017 PRINDI award for best long-form documentary. She also had the top two highest ranked stories on the WYSO website in one year with Why So Curious features. Renee produced WYSO’s series County Lines which takes listeners down back roads and into small towns throughout southwestern Ohio, and created Agraria’s Grounded Hope podcast exploring the past, present and future of agriculture in Ohio through a regenerative lens. Her stories have been featured on NPR, Harvest Public Media and Indiana Public Radio.