280 acres for bonfires, snowshoeing and walks with dogs on train tracks

By Charlie White

In the Twin Cities, people interact with countless fellow museum visitors and restaurant diners, coffee shop customers and laptop toting students while rushing around with to-do lists and bus passes, with the background of buildings and cement. But biology lab instructor Mike Anderson has a slightly different day to day story. Anderson wakes up every morning in his home to a natural landscape with no honking cars or trendy coffee shops. He lives just outside the town of Inver Grove Heights, about 17 miles from campus, in a Macalester owned facility located in the Katharine Ordway Natural History Study Area. Ordway consists of about 280 acres of diverse and healthy land, mainly used for biology research. There are no yuppies, soccer moms, or taxis in Ordway – just prairie, woods, lakes, Anderson, and his family.

“For me, the best part of this life is the isolation,” said Anderson, while trying to keep Daisy, his golden retriever, from jumping up on him. “It’s great to wake up and see trees.”

Anderson came to work for Macalester in late July 2004 from Vancouver, WA. “Coming from an apartment complex and town where people are very closely packed, the aesthetics out here are just great,” he said.

In the same building Anderson calls his home, there is a biology lab classroom set up for Anderson to teach lab sessions. Specimens of life found at Ordway over the years line the walls of the room, along with old cabinets full of beakers and books, and photographs of students who have long been graduated. The feel of the classroom is quite retro and the differences between a class there now and a class in 1973 would be hard to come by.

Also found in the basement of the same building is some space to house students. Although the dorms are just used for storage this year, in the past, some students used to spend their nights far from the Macalester campus in old wooden bunk beds, and could look at their windows and see stars undistorted by light pollution. The rooms are currently uninhabited, and dust builds on the rustic desks once used for writing and studying.

Most of the work and research done at Ordway involves the wildlife, mainly plants and animals. As an example, Anderson explained that ecology classes did work studying how the plant community was changing at Ordway. Work is also done in ornithology and studying the effects of the deer population on the land. Now that’s it’s late fall, most of the leaves have fallen from the trees and turned brown on the ground, mingling with the dry prairie grass. However, Anderson easilly assured me that walking through Ordway in other seasons is more than a little different. “Every year there’s a different patch of flowers,” he said. “Walking through here in spring or fall is just gorgeous.”

While I was led through Ordway’s trails by Daisy Anderson (perhaps the luckiest dog on the face of the earth, and a wonderful tour guide) and walked over the hills and across some railroad tracks, the most refreshing aspect was the air. It didn’t smell of Thai food or exhaust from old pickups; it was simply crisp and clean, of moist leaves and pine. Sitting on a fallen tree by the lake and watching Daisy splash into the water was perhaps the most at peace I had been for weeks. There were no smashed beer cans and no decaying and unrecognizable pieces of trash, just the outdoors at its purest, complete with aspens, ponds and an enormous sky.

Since the Ordway Research Area was established in 1967, there have been several other Macalester faculty members living on the grounds. Perhaps the most famous was Richard Christman, who lived alone at Ordway during the 70s and 80s, served as a resident naturalist for over 15 years. Anderson mentioned that he was such a naturalist, he would actually allow wasp nests to build up in his home, and then simply live among the wasps. This modern day Thoreau also hosted hundreds of visiting groups per year, and worked extensively with bird banding – he successfully recorded over 40,000 individual birds.

Despite its intriguing past, beautiful landscape, and isolation, there hasn’t been much focus on Ordway recently. Anderson thinks it’s because a lot of students not involved with biology just don’t know about the place. He made it clear that the grounds are open to anyone with a desire to explore them. “Anybody is welcome to come out here,” he said. “Just give me a call and tell me what you want to do.”

Anderson also mentioned that the grounds aren’t strictly for research purposes – they can be used for recreation as well. He even mentioned 20 pairs of snowshoes that are available for student use. His theory is that even when students go out there just to camp and spend time with friends, they’re still learning simply by their exposure to such natural surroundings. “When you spend any time in nature at all, it’s not purely recreational,” he said. “It’s very educational, and you learn simply by coming out and looking around, and thinking about questions like Why is this here?' orWhy does this look like that?'”

Although designed for the biology department, Anderson said that there were all sorts of opportunities at Ordway for other departments that could be taken advantage of. Among the possibilities he mentioned are weekend writing retreats in English classes, with the hope that the beautiful surroundings could inspire poetry and other literature, or Geography students coming out to map the different vegetation found at Ordway.

In addition to just going out and enjoying the wilderness away from the Twin Cities, there are volunteer opportunities available at Ordway. Anderson says that they’re mostly for help restoring trails and keeping the place up, although because its use has been minimal recently, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done.

The Ordway Study Area has the potential to be an incredibly beneficial facility for the Macalester community, but Anderson is worried that as of late, it isn’t being taken advantage of. Perhaps there hasn’t been enough promoting of opportunities available out there this year, or maybe students have just been too busy. Anderson said that it’s up to the students to bring out the best of Ordway. “There’s a lot of potential percolating beneath the surface, but nothing has materialized,” he said.

By going out to Ordway for research or recreation, its potential can become reality. It’s up to us to expose it and enjoy it, and we’ll probably learn something or other along the way. Even those of us who couldn’t stand high school biology or could care less about our ecosystem can benefit from it, and can help the cause. “It’d be really great to see some more student use,” Anderson said. “It’s such a great resource. There’s so much that can be done.