Learning from the Land

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Published on: Oct. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

hiking trails.

John has stately 200-year old white oaks outside his window and bobwhite quail within earshot of his desk. He is itching to get outside, but when asked what drives his work, he is steadfast.

"Our mission," he says, "is to help people feel comfortable in the natural world, to appreciate it and understand its importance."

Shaw Arboretum hosts more than 62,000 visitors a year, including 12,000 children and 4,000 adults who participate in its environmental education programs. The Arboretum is a National Environmental Education Landmark, as designated by the Department of the Interior in 1972, and its curricula is shared throughout the Midwest.

In the last 15 years, the Arboretum has become a national leader in natural community restoration and native plant horticulture. The Arboretum’s success is largely due to the dedication and hard work of the 15 full-time staff and numerous volunteers.

"We all love what we do," says Lydia Toth, manager of Educational Services at the Arboretum. "We work in a beautiful place that we never take for granted." Lydia, like half of the staff and many of the volunteers, has been at the Arboretum for more than 10 years.

"To share it, whether by teaching, planting, building or greeting visitors, is a privilege," she says.

While exploring the Arboretum’s 14 miles of hiking trails through forest, glade, woodland, prairie, wetland and river communities, visitors may stumble upon vestiges of the 1926 plans for formal gardens at the property. These early plans, developed by noted St. Louis landscape architect John Noyes, also involved setting aside tracts for native wildflowers.

As visitors arrive at the Arboretum, they encounter the 55-acre Pinetum, a collection of conifers from around the world and, in spring, thousands of daffodils planted in the 1920s and 1930s. Hikers may discover the elegant brick serpentine wall at a site intended for a boxwood garden or glimpse the old greenhouses that once housed the world’s largest collection of cultivated orchids.

Beginning in 1937, Lou Brenner, then a student at Washington University, helped build the trail system through the wildflower reservation. "I carried a double-bit axe, a scythe, a gallon jug of water and a lunch box," says Lou, "and I worked all day long without seeing another person."

During the next two decades, under the supervision of Lars Peter Jensen and, later, August Bielmann, other parts of the Arboretum were used for agricultural experimentation and demonstrations of land management. Nut and fruit orchards were planted,

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