Finding history in the outdoors

One of the many beautiful vistas visitors find at EcoLab.

One of the many beautiful vistas visitors find at EcoLab.

One of the fun things about my job is the opportunity to leave the office and explore the state. On May 27, the Performing Arts & Education Department did just that, and visited Marian College’s EcoLab, whose staff has been involved in demonstrations at the museum for the exhibit Footprints: Balancing Nature’s Diversity. Many who are native to Indianapolis, or have lived here for quite a while, may not be aware of this natural treasure inside city limits. What fascinated me was not just its natural beauty, but also the history of the grounds.

The EcoLab is part of what was the Riverdale Estate, owned by one of the founder’s of the Indianapolis 500, James A. Allison. He commissioned Jens Jensen, a well known landscape architect who made native plants the centerpiece of his designs, to design the grounds of the estate. Staff and volunteers of the EcoLab have worked hard since 2000 to try to restore the grounds by bringing in more native plants and fighting invasive species. Parts of Jensen’s designs are still easy to find when touring the grounds: limestone steps leading from campus to the grounds; stone benches scattered through the grounds so one can rest and enjoy the scenery; and even half-moon pools made of stone that collect water from the natural springs.

These canals were created by beavers, one going to the left and the other to right, for easy travel.

These canals were created by beavers, one going to the left and the other to right, for easy travel.

My favorite part was learning about the beaver population that call EcoLab home. Their imprint on the grounds is evident anywhere you see water. There are several locations where the beavers have made homes and they love to challenge EcoLab staff by damming up waterways. But, what fascinated me most was that beavers love to create their own canal channels. By opening up waterways and creating these canals, beavers are able to forage for food more efficiently since they travel better in water than they do on land. Sounds very much like those Hoosiers in the early 1800s who, for a brief period, knew that travel could happen faster on water than on land. That is how the building of a canal system began.

The EcoLab is open to the public and you can enjoy the trails and the scenery from dawn to dusk. Staff also offer weekly tours and educational programs for school groups. If you want to learn more, check out their website at http://wetland.marian.edu/.

Chasin’ Away the Blues

great-blue-heronToday was the third morning I sighted a Great Blue Heron on my drive to work, in the same area as before. About a mile north of T.C. Steele State Historic Site, Salt Creek runs westward on its way to Lake Monroe. The turn-off onto T.C. Steele Road is at the little town of Belmont, about halfway between Nashville (Indiana) and Bloomington. Ahead of me was the bridge that crosses Salt Creek, and over the creek, flying parallel to it, was the heron.

These herons are large birds, deserving of the name great. How you’d describe them further would depend on whether you saw them flying, or ‘at rest’. When they are hunting (for fish, frogs, reptiles and crayfish) they appear to be resting, until they use their spear-like beaks to jab their prey. Blink, and you’ll miss it.

Flying is another matter. If they were walking, they’d be sauntering — with an occasional stagger thrown in. The only bird I know that looks more awkward in flight is the Wild Turkey. I’ve never seen a Great Blue Heron at rest, on the nest, but I hope to someday.

They prefer tall trees, (usually near water) often nesting with other herons in ‘rookeries’. Apparently they don’t watch Home Improvement, but maybe they should. Their nests have been described as piles of sticks, added to over the years without benefit of Planning and Zoning.

This statue represents either a heron or a crane — people often confuse the two.

This statue represents either a heron or a crane — people often confuse the two.

Selma Steele placed this garden sculpture by her lily ponds. Today,  it is stored away — out of sight due to damage. I hope it can be restored soon and returned to its former spot. The Koi swimming in the ponds won’t need to worry about this heron (or crane). I’ll do more research, but meanwhile I’m calling it a Great Blue Heron.

I have learned that Great Blue Herons were more prevalent in the Steele’s day, just as Belmont was more of a town then than it is now. The road that the Steeles took on their way home was much rougher too, but there were compensations. Likely, they saw even more herons than I have and were just as uplifted by the sight, as they began the steep climb to The House of the Singing Winds. It’s hard to have the blues when you’ve just seen a Great Blue Heron.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.