Friday, June 30, 2017

Nature Academy Internship: A Chance to Be the Educator and the Student in One Summer

By Sabrina Mastroianni

As a youth education intern at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum, I spend most of my mornings leading inquiry-based interpretive walks for school groups and engaging youth in various nature topics. These include plant adaptations, plant-animal interactions, ecosystems, and habitat health, among others. On a recent walk we discussed habitat health as we stopped at various points along the Sam Graham Trees trail. It was satisfying to watch my group get excited about nature and make meaningful connections between what they were learning on the trails and how it was important to their daily lives.

After the programs are over, it’s back to the office to continue brainstorming and creating new programs that can be used for future school and summer groups. The youth education team has also been discussing summer programs that are already in place here, such as Wolverine Pathways, Wetland Explorers (coming up July 19), and Trail Treks August 9). With these programs we hope to provide the best possible learning experience for youth.

A page from the Wetland Adventure booklet on our website. 
It’s important for me as a young educator to learn as much new information as I can. I like being able to incorporate that information into the walks and programs we conduct here. At Matthaei Botanical Gardens, the interns are given the opportunity to attend informational tours led by different staff members. On June 1 I attended the peony garden tour led by Matthaei-Nichols Curator David Michener. This fascinating tour gave me the chance to step away from being the educator for a brief time and be the student again.

Matthaei-Nichols student interns and staff at the peony garden tour on June 1.
The tour was led by Arb and Gardens Curator David Michener.
Prior to the tour I’d heard many great things about the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden. Even so, I must admit I'd never seen it before, despite having worked as a florist in a previous job and having seen many peonies in that capacity. I was excited to finally see the garden in full bloom. When I arrived, the sight of the peonies took my breath away. The various shades of pink and white were stunning, and the delicate fragrance that swirled through the air was uplifting.

I immediately understood why this garden was loved so much by staff, interns, and visitors alike. It truly deserves all the credit it gets.

The Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden in bloom this June.
The tour began with the history of the garden and the origin of peonies. It was interesting to learn who Dr. W. E. Upjohn was, and how he created the garden by giving some of his own peonies to the University of Michigan to be planted in the Arb in the early 1920s.

The Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden, circa 1930. Dr. William E. Upjohn, an
alumnus of the University of Michigan and founder of Upjohn Pharmaceutical
Company in Kalamazoo, donated peonies from his own collection to the
University of Michigan in 1922. The garden opened to the public in 1927
and, nearly 100 years later, still attracts thousands of people during
each bloom season.

The tour continued with David explaining the six different types of floral forms. Each form was unique, and everyone was taking pictures to capture their beauty. As we continued to weave in and out of the plots, David explained the history behind some of the names of the peonies, which was another interesting aspect of the tour. Many of the peonies were named after the wives or daughters of the grower, or after famous women.
During peony bloom season we offer a tour of the peony garden called “Famous Ladies.” Florence Nightingale and Sarah Bernhardt are two examples of peonies so named. This information added to the already rich history of the garden.

Peony 'Sarah Bernhardt' is named after the famed actress of stage and silent movies. She is also one of the peonies on the “Famous Ladies” tour of peonies named after celebrated women in history.
As the tour came to a close, I began to think about the days I spent arranging flowers for customers, and how I never gave a second thought to the kind of peony I was holding. I began to wonder about which particular type of peony is used in the floral industry, and how involved the process is from grower to customer. I also began to wonder what impacts the floral industry has on particular cultivars. While this tour may have raised more questions for me, the stories behind the peonies increased my knowledge and appreciation for these beautiful flowers. I will be sure to visit the garden again in the future!

Sabrina Mastroianni is a youth education intern this summer. She is an undergraduate at the University of Michigan-Dearborn studying environmental science with a biology concentration, and she’s pursuing a GIS certificate. Sabrina’s internship is made possible by the Matthaei-Nichols membership program and by gifts from individual donors.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Growing Knowledge

By Connor Kippe

Near the end of the back hallway at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, by the garage-door entry, there exists for staff and volunteers an unassuming piece of furniture called the “free table.” Not long after starting work this summer, in some downtime after lunch (having consumed a meal made with Campus Farm vegetables), several other interns and I stopped by the free table to sort through its contents. Among the assorted plants and donated books I noticed a bin labeled “Cultivating Community.” Inside the bin, along with a few other things, there appeared to be a pile of thank-you cards. Needing some to acknowledge the benefactors who made my internship possible, I reached to grab it. Upon picking it up, however, it fell apart! Or appeared to at least.

It was in part the mysterious messages on cards found at the free table
at Matthaei that inspired me to write this blog post.

To my surprise, it unfolded accordion-style to reveal what must have been someone's art project in the past. The cards were connected, and pasted on them, descending down the length, were these words:

There is a connection between
And everything we do.
We are linked to nature
By what we buy, and what we eat
By what we drive, and how we live.
It is difficult to care about something
If we know little about it and we don’t see the role it plays
In our everyday life.

I took this home (it being free and all) and hung it on the wall so that each morning as I awake I am reminded of this wisdom. While the line “and what we eat” may seem to be most connected to my work as one of the Campus Farm student managers, some of the other lines have recently become more prescient to me.

It is difficult to care about something
If we know little about it and we don’t see the role it plays
In our everyday life.”

The ingredients in a prepared meal may come from
as many as five different countries outside the United States.
The culinary quality of the prepared meal is another subject
In the United States, much of the food system that provides our daily bread is unseen and even hidden from the consumer. Not sure where a lot of your food originates? If you’re trying to guess the provenance of a prepared meal, it could be from as many as five different countries outside the United States, according to a 2007 publication by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Struggling with describing how the food would be grown or who would grow it? Not surprising, with only 3.18 million U.S. farmers, according to the USDA 2012 agriculture census—barely 1% of the country’s population at the time. In fact, the total number of farmers declined 3% from the 2007 census, due in part to our predominantly industrialized form of agriculture.

So these few short lines on the folding cards are perfectly apt in describing our food systems. If you do not know how your food affects the earth, if you do not see the processes that create much of the food we consume, if you do not understand the distance that food has traveled to you, or the people that picked it, how can you be expected to have an informed opinion on any of it?

Urban agriculture is one possible solution on a local scale to many of these questions and problems. The USDA’s National Agricultural Library defines urban agriculture as an activity that “takes the form of backyard, roof-top and balcony gardening, community gardening in vacant lots and parks, roadside urban fringe agriculture and livestock grazing in open space.” It’s one possible solution on a local scale to many of these questions and problems. Urban agriculture brings the food system to you. With the right preparation and planning, you can have a market garden in many different locations within a city. And it’s from U-M students’ efforts in urban agriculture on campus that the Cultivating Community Garden came to be.

The Campus Farm summer intern managers cleaning up the
Cultivating Community garden. L-R: Sydney Fuller,
Connor Kippe (author), Blake Mcwatters, and Haley Kerner.

The Cultivating Community garden was started in 2004 by an assemblage of students interested in food-system issues. The garden is located at the Ginsberg Center for Community Service and Learning on Hill Street near central campus, where it still grows today. It began with the hope of inspiring change to make the university a closed-loop system through large-scale food production and vermicomposting. Occupying a street corner, it obviously would never be able to supply more than a meal or two for all the students who get their meals from MDining locations.  But it inspired the creation of its descendant, the Campus Farm, which is coming close to completing part of this goal as it will begin selling produce to MDining this fall, providing vegetables and leafy greens for many students.

As the Campus Farm grew, however, Cultivating Community began to wither. But not completely. In its place rose a new garden at East Quad student residence hall. The garden was used to grow food for students and even to teach a mini course. With the newfound popularity of a nearby garden, the Campus Farm in collaboration with the larger University of Michigan Sustainable Food Program, decided to bring back the Cultivating Community garden.

Throughout the rest of the summer, a different manager will help out at the Cultivating Community and East Quad campus gardens every week in conjunction with volunteers and a part-time intern. There are plans in the works for the tending of more land as the Campus Farm staff continues to grow. We and our future coworkers look forward to cultivating many things in these gardens such as peppers, kale, squash, and perhaps even a little bit of community.

Connor Kippe is a rising junior from Spring Lake, Mich. studying political science and Program in the Environment. He is working as a Campus Farm manager this summer, which ties in with his concentration in food and water policy. Outside of work and school he is devoted to eating fresh produce from the farm, training for endurance events, writing, and reading. Connor's internship is made possible by the Porter Family Foundation.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Hard Work and Reflection at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum

By Sebastian Kasparian

One thing I’ve come to learn since starting my Nature Academy internship at Matthaei-Nichols this May: it takes a lot of time and effort by many people to keep this place running in tip-top shape. From weeding to welcoming, there’s no shortage of work to be done. I suspect as well that this would take the average person by surprise. I think that for a lot of us, looking in from the outside gives the impression that things that look good stay so on their own. The reality, however, is that mulch doesn’t spread itself, flowers don’t plant themselves, and from lots of personal experience I can tell you that grass doesn’t cut itself either.

A few tools of the trade.
Here's a flavor of some of the projects I've worked on so far: Keeping up the appearance of the gardens and arboretum by trimming grass and weeds; pulling invasives out in the trails and in Horner Woods; laying mulch and gravel around the display gardens; and learning to identify native plants among many others. (Story continues below.)

Invasive garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata)
is a common sight in these parts and one

plant we try to remove whenever and
wherever we see it. We even devote 
all-intern workdays to pulling out
garlic mustard. The University of 
Michigan Herbarium database notes 
that garlic mustard is native to 
Europe and Asia and naturalized 
locally in North America. Its 
spread has been recent, however, 
with the first collection in 
Michigan recorded in 1956 in 
Kent Co.  See: 
An intern workday on the Sam Graham Trail.

After weeks of hard work and preparation, 
Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden   
came to a successful full bloom recently. 
The garden is a good example of a space
that looks like it happens naturally when
in fact there's a huge amount of work
involved to make it shine. The peonies
are staked, and this makes a big difference
in the appearance of the garden. 
Then, as
the individual flowers fade t
hroughout the 
bloom season, interns, staff, and volunteers
remove spent flowers.

I’ve also learned that luckily there’s no shortage of staff members (including us interns!) who are willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears (mostly sweat) that bring life to both Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum. That includes not just us on the farm and field side of things, but those who work in administration, visitor services, education, research, you name it. I personally can’t think of a better way to define a team effort.

Something else I’ve learned since May: interning here is a good reminder of why I applied in the first place. Spending so much time at Matthaei and the Arboretum has rekindled my interest in nature, which had taken a back seat with all the stress involved in simply trying to get through my University of Michigan education in one piece. A personal de-stressing story from my early student days: I remember my first visit to the Arb after only my second week at the University of Michigan, when the transition was making me feel quite overwhelmed. A stroll down the riverfront with a few good friends, however, was all it took to shift the apprehension from the front to the back of my mind. It was a good way to center myself and stay focused on my goals for the rest of the semester, and I'm glad it's something I can always fall back on as a way to stay calm.

I remember first becoming interested in the environment when my family moved from the suburbs to a more rural, forested area back in about 2004. I fully embraced the change, and consequently ended up spending almost all of my time outdoors. Catching frogs, finding snakes, and collecting leaves became my favorite pastimes as a kid.  While I may not spend my time at the gardens bothering frogs or making friends with massasaugas, the enthusiasm is still there. That tells me that I must be in the right place right now, and I can appreciate that little bit of peace of mind. Going forward from here, I’m definitely going to make the time to get out of the city and visit the Arboretum and Matthaei more often when I’m on campus. If nothing else, it might give me that little bit of extra motivation to push through the semester.

Sebastian Kasparian, from Canton, Mich., will be entering his junior year at U-M in fall 2017. He is a recently declared PitE major (Program in the Environment, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts) with an interest in sustainability and environmental policy. Sebastian is working this summer as a landscaping intern. His hobbies include playing instruments, watching films, and visiting new places. Sebastian’s internship is made possible by Matthaei-Nichols membership dollars and individual donors.

Friday, June 23, 2017

A Personal Take: How Visitors See and Remember Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum

Visitor Engagement summer intern Kirsten Neal's inventory of the goings-on at Matthaei-Nichols is a reminder of the complexity of our organization, how visitors may experience us, and just how much is happening here on any given day.

By Kirsten Neal

Something we hear a lot at the front desk at Matthaei is the exclamation “Wow! Don’t you just love working here? It seems like the best place to work.” Because for visitors, we are a million different places, each new interpretation varying from our own. And while I work mostly at Matthaei, I know that many of the same scenarios---with similar visitor questions---take place at Nichols Arboretum.

"What is this plant?" people may
ask. When this "corpse" lily 
(Amorphophallus konjac) blooms,
visitors drive to Matthaei from miles
away to see the flower---and smell
its putrid fragrance.
Some visitors see our spaces as a living museum full of plants they've never heard of before, or maybe ones that they had seen somewhere but never knew the name of until they visited. Others are horticulture enthusiasts who ask us if they can write some labels themselves for areas they deem lacking. And there is the woman who visits weekly to photograph something new every time she visits. Whoever they are, all visitors leave with their own personal take on who we are, depending on what they experience.

There are university classes that meet weekly, even in the summer, dividing their time between one of our classrooms and various points around the gardens.

There are photo shoots. Senior pictures, prom pictures, engagement photos, pregnancy announcements, documented proposals, family shots, yoga studio advertisements, and anything else you could imagine. Though there is a fee, and as one engagement group found out, we do not allow drones.

There are performances in our spaces by students and faculty. Shakespeare in the Arb is one well-known example. Kate Mendeloff, who directs Shakespeare, also brings students in each spring to perform a play in the conservatory.

We host performances by faculty and students in our spaces.
This production of Chekhov's The Seagull took place in the
conservatory at Matthaei in April. Director Kate Mendeloff
(right) addresses the audience before the play begins.
Mendeloff also directs the annual Shakespeare in the Arb

Students from the group UMBees inspect hives near the Campus
Farm at Matthaei.

There are meetings of every kind and of every size imaginable. Some, like the Ann Arbor Backyard Beekeepers, meet monthly in our spaces. Others, such as Michigan Botanical Club, Sierra Club, Ann Arbor Farm and Garden, or Ann Arbor Bonsai Society, meet more, or less, frequently.

Matthaei-Nichols Collections & Natural Areas Specialist
Tom O'Dell (right, in cap), discusses the day's work plan
with volunteers from Ford.
There are volunteers, often dozens of them on a given day, performing work here that directly impacts the visitor experience: docents, ambassadors, orchid and bonsai volunteers, invasive-plant weeders, conductors of school tours, restorers of habitats. The volunteers themselves are visitors who bring their own set of expectations to the Arb and Gardens and who each leave with an individual experience of their time here.

There are field trips where students get to hike, learn, and be guided through the conservatory. Some add to their adventure by buying a small snack from the Garden Store to eat with their picnic lunch.

There are joggers who routinely use the trails as their gym, both in the early hours of the morning and past closing time. (NOTE: Trails open sunrise to sunset!)

Ines Ibanez (right), an associate professor in the
School of Natural Resources & Environment,
is conducting research in the greenhouses at
Matthaei Botanical Gardens. She and her
students are studying the challenges that
forest communities are facing in the context
of global change.
There are faculty and student research projects taking places in our buildings and outdoors. Even though many of these happen behind the scenes, the projects represent a critical aspect of our operations.

There are departmental meetings and retreats, where various groups from throughout the University bring their colleagues in to build teamwork---or terrariums---in a spot with nature as a backdrop, while taking a break from their routine.

There are birthday parties, where kids and their friends also build terrariums, making sure to leave time to open presents, eat their cake, and play outdoors.

There are extravagant dinners for a variety of causes. Where attendees stroll in formal attire through the Gateway Garden as the sun sets over the greenhouses, taking a moment to pause at a bench to enjoy their surroundings.

There's plenty of I do-ing at Matthaei,
especially in the spring and summer.
Couples who get married here often come
back years later and talk about their
experiences tying the knot at the Gardens.
This lucky couple chose the conservatory
as their wedding spot.
There are weddings and wedding receptions, where for months the couple has dreamed of having their ceremony in the conservatory, in the perennial garden, in the Alexandra Hicks Herb Knot Garden, in the gateway garden, or on Willow Pond Island. And if they choose to stay, they enjoy their reception from the auditorium and terrace. The bride even has her final dressing in Room 164 before walking down the aisle. They have their rehearsal here, where they get out some pre-wedding jitters, as well as multiple meetings to finalize all the details.

And there are memorial services, where the families and friends of the deceased gather in a place that reflects the beauty of the person they recently lost.

Did I mention the plant sales? These draw big crowds,
especially at events like the Mother's Day Sale every May.

I know that I have barely skimmed the surface on all the happenings here at the Gardens. I didn't even dive into all of the plant sales and special exhibitions or events that occur all of the time.

Even so, the one green thread that runs through all of our events, weddings, classes, parties, plant sales, and school field trips, is nature itself. It's why people go out of their way to visit. But what's important to understand is that everyone sees the Arb and Gardens differently, and all will remember their experiences here differently than I will remember my own. 

Whether that means letting a family who traveled hours to get here---only to arrive just before closing---peek into the Bonsai Garden as I’m locking the gates, because otherwise they would have missed Magnificent Miniatures, the bonsai azalea exhibition.

Or helping folks in a memorial service find a couple of extra chairs because they had underestimated the number of attendees.

Or just helping someone with directions.

These are crucial moments in their memory. And while they might be small in the scheme of things, they may mean the world to our visitors.

Kirsten Neal is from Brighton, Michigan and recently graduated with a degree in history and museum studies. She doesn't know what she'll do next, but is excited to be a visitor engagement intern this summer! Kirsten’s internship is made possible by the Matthaei-Nichols Membership Fund and by individual donors. 

Summer 2017 Nature Play Pop-Ups at Matthaei Botanical Gardens

The Gaffield Children’s Garden at Matthaei is hosting weekly hands-on Nature Play Pop-ups this summer. On Monday mornings from 10 - 11:30am, through August 28, volunteers will lead interactive, exploratory nature play activities. These lightly guided activities take place in the nature art area of the Gaffield Children’s Garden. Young children will have hands-on fun while taking
a closer look at nature and parents will leave with easy ideas to encourage creative nature play at home.

No registration. First to arrive, first to play. Kids can join in as spaces open during the 10-11:30 Pop-up. Suggested ages 3-7.
NOTE: All materials stay at Gaffield Children’s Garden unless otherwise specified.


June 5: Seashell Dig Digging is satisfying work and we’ve been awarded a prized seashell collection! Use your imagination to pretend you’re on the beach, digging for these beautiful seashells, and wondering about the fantastic creatures who created them. All shells return to the ‘beach’ to be recycled for the next round of diggers.  

June 12: Treasure Dig We are digging again! This time for
buried treasures -- artifacts and natural treasures -- bring your imagination! (Pond Dipping will be rescheduled as our pond allows.)

June 19: Building Wee Fairy Houses
Volunteers will supply a specially curated supply of fairy house building materials. While building, consider the tiny creatures who might find it a suitable home.

June 26: Bubbles!
Marvelous, magical bubbles encourage even the smallestamong us to consider physics and chemistry. Spend some time with our volunteers creating giant and tiny bubbles!


July 3: Nature Painting
Paint a nature scene with soft colors made from naturalmaterials: maybe berries, soil, moss. Children and their caregivers can bring home their paintings today.
July 10: Digging
Digging is always a favorite. Children and their caregiversare invited to join our volunteers on a digging expedition. Maybe seashells,maybe root vegetables, always satisfying.

July 17: Stacked Stone Towers 
Stacked stone towers have acted as wayfinding markersthroughout history. Young children can try building cairns of their own,developing concepts of pre-physics, pre-geology, and exercising tenacity, too. Easy to replicate at home.
July 24: Cutting Garden Bouquets
Curious about the relationship between insects and flowers? Love creating beautiful color combinations? Young children and their adults mayjoin our volunteers in the cutting garden to make a petite bouquet to admire, share, or offer to the fairies in the Fairy & Troll Knoll.

July 31: Insect Clay Play 
Young children and their adults are invited to choose natural artifacts and use them to create insect-themed art. As Chagall once said, "Great art picks up where nature ends."


August 7: Soil Insect Exploration
If it weren’t for the work of soil dwelling insects, ourearth would be covered in detritus. Children and their caregivers are invitedto examine soil inhabitants in a hands-on digging and sorting activity focused on the helpful soil dwellers.
August 14: Leaf Safari
Search for leaves, and make pastel rubbings to highlight the shape and structures of leaf architecture.

August 21: Cutting Garden Bouquets
Curious about the relationship between insects and flowers?Love creating beautiful color combinations? Young children and their adults mayjoin our volunteers in the cutting garden to make a petite bouquet to admire,share, or offer to the fairies in the Fairy & Troll Knoll.

August 28: TBD

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Turning Wonder into Wisdom on the Campus Farm

Blake Mcwatters

I have always had an intense love for the outdoors. Some of my earliest memories include my dad and I going on fishing trips to the local lake and family camping trips. Although I did not know it then, those experiences would shape who I am today. As I grew older, I found myself spending more and more time alone in nature and wondering about how it all worked. I was fascinated by the way in which every organism could provide for itself by what was available in nature, and by watching and pondering, I found myself enthralled with gardening and eventually sustainable agriculture.

Blake Mcwatters (left) remembers how early fishing and
camping trips with his family established a deep love for nature
and the outdoors.
A rustic tent on an organic farm in Sparta, Mich.:
Blake Mcwatters' home for two summers.
The last two years of high school I realized I wanted to learn as much as I could about sustainable agriculture and self-reliance. I secured an internship on a local organic farm, moved out there for two seasons, and dove into the world of sustainable agriculture. Those two summers inspired me to study ecology and biodiversity and how they influenced crop production. I learned how certain carnivorous insects such as ladybugs are beneficial because they eat herbivorous bugs like aphids. Plant interactions, too, I discovered, can benefit each other in an agricultural environment: marigolds and tomatoes, for example, may repel harmful pests. Upon further research I discovered that although marigolds are said to repel certain nematodes and are a common companion plant, it is not confirmed scientifically. Even so, this is a relevant topic and would be an interesting area for future study.

Working on an organic farm in his
last two years of high school, Mcwatters
learned how certain plants such as
marigolds are said to be beneficial in
repelling pests. Even as this effect has
not been confirmed scientifically,
Mcwatters says it's still a good area
to study.

When I heard about the internships available to students at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, especially the ones related to agriculture, I knew I had to take advantage of the opportunity. Now, as an intern on the Campus Farm, I am excited to not only be doing what I love, but to be surrounded by incredibly knowledgeable people that further my understanding of agriculture and the environment.

Not only has my hands-on experience on the farm already taught me a lot, but my interactions with other interns and staff in various other areas of the gardens and Arboretum have taught me more than I could have wished for. The all-intern work days and activities are a great learning and bonding experience that expose me to new places, people, and plants that I would not experience on the farm. 

A native colombine flower. Mcwatters
says he learned about this plant while
participating in an invasive-weed pull
at Matthaei.
For example, interns and staff members went out into the trails of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens for an invasive species pull. That experience yielded insights about harmful invasive plants as well as the opportunity to identify many native wildflowers, several of which I had never seen before. One flower I was particularly fascinated by was the native columbine, which is a beautiful red/pink flower that I later learned was one of the few native wildflowers that is pollinated by hummingbirds. Learning about plants, agricultural or not, is always a pleasure. I cannot wait to see what the rest of the summer has in store.

Blake Mcwatters
Blake Mcwatters is one of the Campus Farm interns this summer. He’s currently undeclared in his major but is planning a double major in Program in the Environment and Evolutionary Biology, Ecology, and Biodiversity. Blake is fascinated with sustainable agriculture and has spent the last two summers living in a tent as an intern on Earthkeeper Farm, an organic farm in Sparta, Michigan. He loves all aspects of sustainable farming, but is particularly fond of tomatoes and fruit trees. In his free time, Blake likes to learn about wild edible plants and forage for what he already knows. During summer you can often find him canning vegetables and jamming fruits for use throughout the year. Alongside plants, Blake loves to hike, cook, and play and listen to music. Blake’s internship is made possible by the Porter Family Foundation, which supports interns who manage the Campus Farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Road More Traveled: When to Take or Change the Paths of Least Resistance

Joél Reyes-Klann

Desire path, as defined by Wikipedia: “a path created as a consequence of erosion caused by human or animal footfall or traffic. The path usually represents the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination. Width and erosion severity can be indicators of how much traffic a path receives. Desire paths emerge as shortcuts where constructed ways take a circuitous route, have gaps, or are nonexistent.”

Nichols Arboretum, the University of Michigan’s local nature temple, is a lush 123-acre landscape filled with wide valleys, rolling hills, and beautiful views, all connected by a network of trails covering more than three miles. In addition, there are countless unofficial “desire paths” created by visitors and animals traversing informal routes. The routes in turn become self-reinforced through continued use. These patterns commonly arise from a tendency of the user to exert minimal effort to get from one place to another.

In some universities and college campuses such as Michigan State and Virginia Tech, and in countries like Finland, shortcuts have been used by landscape planners as heuristic tools for mapping out new paths, citing the idea that people will naturally choose the most efficient path and walk on it anyway. Rather than taking the foolhardy stance of always fighting back against the literal forces of nature, the thinking goes, sometimes accommodating makes more sense. For a contemporary reference that draws parallels to the natural constraints of land-use planning, lyricist Andre 3000 of Outkast says it well in an iconic line from the duo’s 2000’s album Stankonia: “You can plan a pretty picnic, but you can’t predict the weather, Ms. Jackson.”
Above: Images from university campuses clearly show
intended paths and the paths humans decide to take as ways
to bypass the formal travel plans.

Here we see an overhead view of Michigan State University's sidewalk and trail system, which was built over previously established informal paths. Operations managers saw the paths students and community members used, and formalized them.

We tend to think that the trails preserved by Nichols Arboretum are just fine. They’re safe, clean, and ready for use by runners, walkers, wheelchairs, and baby strollers. While we do our best to keep our existing network of trails intact as it is, sometimes our users seek a different way to experience the Arb. Sometimes we adjust accordingly, and allow the inertia of foot traffic a victory, and a new path to traverse. But when one of these paths of utmost convenience present an unreasonable danger to visitors or to our sensitive habitats, we’ve got options for varying contexts that can achieve mixed results, such as signage, fencing, brush-blocking, and re-vegetating paths. Below are some examples of traffic control, with lessons learned, from the Arboretum.

Physical barriers can be more effective than instructional signage. In Nichols Arboretum (left) we placed a sign that proved to be less effective than a pile of brush. Much of the life in the Arb consists of animals who don’t read (including the college students), so traffic control cannot exclusively take the form of linguistic signage.

We successfully blocked a trail using a log and heaping pile of brush (right).

Sometimes we make an attempt to block a path, and it ends up moving a few feet down. And in this case, we just have to continually follow up to mitigate the problem.

An attempt to eliminate this desire path will probably end up with two paths around the tree.

Above: there was continual wear on one side of the hill from repeated use, mostly by runners training. After multiple attempts to block the path, plants were reintroduced to the eroded area, and a fence with signage was put up around to block it. The former path is teeming with plant life.

Joél Reyes-Klann, from Southwest Detroit, Michigan, is a master's candidate at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. Joel’s internship is made possible by the Julie Norris Post Heathdale Collection Endowment. He is interested in community-based development & design, politics & policy, and civic & environmental stewardship in cities. Joél enjoys hip hop & house music, hammocking, trying new beers, philosophizing with his friends, and advancing the cause of social revolution.