An Arb for All Seasons

By Teresa Scalzo | Photographs by Tom Roster

The Arb is a perfect place to study, rest, or play any time of year.

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The Cowling Arboretum and McKnight Prairie are arguably third on the list of Carleton’s crowning glories—after our outstanding students and stellar faculty, of course.

Established in the 1920s by President Donald J. Cowling, biology professor Harvey Stork, and grounds superintendent D. Blake “Stewsie” Stewart, the Arb has grown to encompass roughly 800 acres of oak savanna, native prairie, and woods, which are home to numerous and sometimes rare species of birds, turtles, butterflies, and insects, along with other animals.

The Carleton and Northfield communities use the Arb for many types of recreation, including cross-country skiing, running, hiking, and fishing. But it is also an invaluable academic resource for Carleton and St. Olaf students, as well as students from Northfield-area schools.

Last year, we asked Northfield photographer Tom Roster to capture the beauty and diversity of the Arb over four seasons. Here are some of our favorite images from that assignment. Arb director Nancy Braker ’81 provided the captions.

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Cannon River
Biology professor Gary Wagenbach and some of his students have taken inventory of the mussels in the Cannon River and found some very unusual and rare species.

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Winter Scene
Winter brings a noticeable quiet to the Arboretum, experienced by those who ski and snowshoe there. While many native animals have migrated or gone undercover, signs of life are still evident. In the far reaches of the Arb, visitors may see the tracks of weasel, mouse, vole, deer, and turkey. Great horned owls and barred owls find shelter in the pine plantations, and bald eagles can be seen soaring over the Cannon River.

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Arb Burns
Management burns in the prairie and oak savanna are a common restoration technique. Student crews assist staff members with the burns, which take place in spring and fall. Fire is a natural occurrence on the prairie, reducing encroachment by trees and shrubs and rejuvenating the native vegetation. (Pictured: Amy Alstad ’09)

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Cottonwood in Lower Arb
As far as we know, this native forest in the floodplain along the Cannon River has never been disturbed. This tree might be 150 years old. Cottonwoods need bare soil to get established, so they are found along rivers where there is natural flooding to scour out other plants.

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Best Woods
Best Woods is the Arb’s highest-quality example of native forest, because previous owners of the land had a minimal impact. Carleton professors use this area extensively in their classes to compare natural forests with replanted forests, examining the composition and presence of both plants and animals. It’s also a lovely place  to enjoy the spring wildflowers.

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Iron bridge across the Cannon River
Built in 1909, the iron bridge is being replaced in the coming year. The new bridge will be slightly upstream from the existing one, which will remain in place for recreational use.

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Oak savanna restoration in the lower Arb
Oak savanna is an exceptionally rare plant community that was heavily affected by agricultural and other land development beginning when this area was settled in the mid-1800s. Carleton is restoring this rare ecosystem to provide habitat for the plants and animals that were found here before it was developed. Many plants and animals will find their way back; others will have to be reintroduced.

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White Wild Indigo
The pea-like white wild indigo, Baptisia alba, is one of the more striking plants in the prairie.  Flowering in midsummer, this plant originally was found in small numbers throughout much of eastern North America. It was used as a dye by early settlers, although the dye is inferior in quality to that produced by the Old World’s indigo plant.

Several butterflies feed on the wild indigo’s foliage. A small weevil, Apion rostrum, feeds on its seeds as an immature beetle and on its leaves as an adult. While we purposefully planted this beautiful flower in our restorations, the weevil has found its way to the Arb on its own.

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