Susan Kirt, daughter of COD prairie’s founder, is artist-in-residence this fall to guide students in ecology, photography and architecture.
48 years ago, the College of DuPage was the first community college to have prairies as places of learning. This came about through the efforts of Russell Kirt, who worked to restore the local Illinois prairie land through the reintroduction of native plants. Beginning in the 1980s, COD students cultivated these plants much as prairie ecology students do today.
This fall, these students were visited by the daughter of the Prairie founder, Susan Kirt. On the immersive tours, Susan described how the prairie was created and how practices like controlled prairie burning and seed collection remain critical to the preservation of the landscape. Kirt remembered stories about the prairie from her youth. She used to carry buckets of water to the oak seedlings planted in the 1990s. She explained how the pond was used for irrigation and when it flooded she went into the water to clean it.
It was formative experiences like this that instilled her passion and knowledge for prairie conservation. Now she has one Nature photography website and has collaborated on many conservation initiatives. In her latest project this fall, Susan introduced the wonders of the prairie to ecology, photography and architecture students as artist-in-residence at the College of DuPage.
Jackie Weaver is an Art and Nature class professor and organizer of the Community Artist-in-Residence program. Weaver noted that during the prairie walk, the students learned to see nature as an artist.
“They got up close and personal with the plants and took the time to see things they wouldn’t normally notice and appreciated these natural areas on campus. This is one of the ways art works; Artists learn to be observers of the world around them.”
For digital photography student Shabnam Duzenji, she was pleased to hear Susan share wisdom on a variety of topics during the prairie walk. “She gave us feedback and photography tips, as well as sharing fun facts about the native plants and animals we saw during our walk. The great thing about photography is that it allows us to capture exciting moments in nature.”
A special moment was when the students were given photos of garter snakes resting in a fern plant. Susan explained how lucky they were to find the snakes long enough for the students to take a picture of them.
In her Artist Talk presentation, Susan Kirt showed off one of the professional cameras she uses. It was the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo Lens camera. However, she also reminded students that cell phone photos can be just as useful if they are taken properly.
“My big tip for anyone trying to photograph an animal is to get your eyes sharp,” she advised. “Whether it’s a buffalo, a mouse, or an insect – put yourself on their level. When the eye is in focus, we can ignore the rest of the blur in the image.”
She also gave specific advice for insect photography. “Check out the flowering plants like goldenrod and aster, both of which are popular with insects. Be patient. If you scare away insects, they come back.”
Susan encouraged the students to find workshops and field research opportunities. Grants are often needed to fund work on the prairie. Students can use these things to develop their interests in prairie ecology.
Susan emphasized how this work contributes to the conservation of natural areas.
“On campus we have over 30 acres of restored prairies, ponds and forests. By having this prairie on campus, we can not only enjoy it, but help endangered and endangered species.”
Susan recommended sites like iNaturalist where biologists and amateurs alike can upload their photographs to map the biodiversity of their regions. Another website is bug guide, which entomologists have to identify the insect species. There are also free downloadable guidebooks, such as those from the Field Museum Guide to the Midwest Native Garden that Susan helped create. Using these resources, Susan contributed her photography to create indices of prairie wildlife and raise awareness of endangered species.
Architecture also benefits from prairie research. Students learned how the buildings designed for the Midwestern prairie landscape would house wildlife. During the prairie walk, the class had the opportunity to sketch design ideas.
“I love the design and drawing aspect,” said Jenna Johnston, a sophomore architecture student. “It allows me to be creative and show my ideas.”
Johnston said it’s important to design buildings that prioritize the safety of prairie wildlife.
“You want to find materials that appeal to the place, like birdproof glass. Trees and the nature around them are usually reflected when looking at regular solid glass. Birds don’t see what’s behind, hit the glass and break their necks. Options for birdproof glass would be a screen on top of the glass or a screen hovering over it to minimize reflection.”
Johnston concluded that these eco-friendly designs could protect the migratory birds that pass through the COD prairies.
These students’ unique ideas are inspired by the prairie and are directly reflected in their career aspirations.
Giselle Lopez, another student in the architectural design class, described that her goal is “to design sustainable, energy efficient and environmentally friendly structures. To be a successful architect I believe in delivering designs that fit into the existing environment. Design Studio challenges me to think and approach problems differently to find a variety of solutions.”
For students interested in working with the COD prairie, there is another opportunity in Spring 2023. Pedro Gramaxo, an artist from Portugal, will also work with students in the natural areas on campus. If they are unable to attend the artist-in-residence classes, students can also volunteer Prairie work events. Every student has the opportunity to contribute to the decades-long legacy of prairie conservation at the College of DuPage.