It's All in the Roots - Environmental Project Outside Stadium

New life springing forth from our Marianist heritage

This spring, in conjunction with the Marianist Environmental Education Center (MEEC), students volunteered in completing an environmental restoration project just outside of Roger Glass Stadium - Home of the CJ Eagles.

Peter Evans ‘13, who was with MEEC through his volunteer year with Marianist PULSE (Partners in Urban Leadership, Service and Education) coordinated this project. He shared his reflection on the culmination of the project below:

“The misty morning of Wednesday, April 25 blossomed into a sunny, warm afternoon – ideal for a final step in our urban environmental restoration project: sowing prairie grass seeds along the edges of Roger Glass Stadium – Home of the Chaminade Julienne Eagles. Tossing grass seed onto two narrow strips of topsoil may sound ordinary, but it completes an extraordinary story that began with the construction of Interstate 675 in 1985.

Building an interstate is complex, as we travelers encounter through the endless cycle of summer highway repairs. Many properties along the path of I-675 were bisected by this new artery – including another Marianist property, the over 160-acre Mount Saint John (MSJ). Today, the Brother Don Geiger, SM prairie abutting I-675 and other MSJ natural areas are stewarded by the Marianist Environmental Education Center (MEEC) where I’ve volunteered since 8th grade, as have many other CJ students who provide land service. MEEC collaborates with eight other Marianist ministries at MSJ including the Bergamo Center for Lifelong Learning, where many CJ students have attended school retreats.

How did the prairie and MEEC emerge? To provide material for the interstate, 17 acres of the undeveloped eastern side of MSJ now accessible by walking trails were excavated for sand and gravel that had been left behind by the last continental glacier 17,500 years ago. Typically, borrow pits like these are re-planted with the common Kentucky bluegrass we see growing in the mowed areas of highways – a cool-season grass of European origin. It thrives in cool, humid climates of its European homeland, but due to its shallow root system, it struggles in the hot, dry spells that frequent Midwestern summers. Left unwatered, it’s an unattractive brown by August.

Thankfully, visionary plant physiologist Marianist Brother Don Geiger, a 1951 graduate of Chaminade inducted into the CJ Hall of Distinguished Alumni in 2016, knew of native prairie grass species that would not only survive, but also thrive there. Unlike Kentucky bluegrass, whose roots extend only a few inches, prairie grass root systems reach five to seven feet into the soil. These store water soaked up during rain events and can access deep groundwater. And because one-third of the root mass dies back every winter, the grasses also build their own soil rich in organic material that the living roots can draw nutrients from in following years.

These Midwestern prairie grasses, such as big bluestem, Indiangrass, prairie dropseed, and little bluestem, have evolved under our local conditions for tens of thousands of years, and have become very well suited for our soils, weather conditions, and the soil creatures and land animals that have evolved alongside them. These prairie grasses do not falter, but thrive during harsh summer droughts, punishing winters, and even the occasional wildfires that used to briefly blacken the landscape in pre-colonial, pre-agricultural times. 

Bro. Don acquired tremendous quantities of prairie grass seed mixtures to spread with volunteers across the borrow pit early in spring 1986. Thankfully, the seeds established and have grown, thrived and spread to cover most of the prairie borrow pit today. Bro. Don’s vision for rebuilding the landscape inspired the foundation of the Marianist Environmental Education Center (MEEC) at MSJ in 1994, to steward the MSJ land and educate others. MEEC’s mission of restoring communities of land and people by using native plants to transform degraded landscapes back into flourishing ecosystems has grown and diversified through many partnerships and projects – including CJ’s little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) prairie grass along Roger Glass Stadium.

How did the MEEC Prairie seeds get to CJ? This past year, I served as a Marianist PULSE volunteer at MEEC and live in an East Dayton community house. Marianist PULSE is a post-graduate year of service program (similar to AmeriCorps) sponsored by the Marianists. Each volunteer annually commits to living in intentional, continually formed faith communities while each serves at different nonprofit agencies.

As a 2013 CJ alum, I was excited to link CJ and MEEC. In November 2017, I led several CJ groups in collecting little bluestem prairie seeds from the MSJ Bro. Don Geiger Prairie. These included the men’s cross country team, the REACH after-school service groups, and students Aaron Meixner ‘19, James Blackshire ‘19, Noah Jackson ‘19, and Kelsey Wolf ‘19 who partnered with MEEC for their Integrated Social Justice Research Projects (ISJRPs).

After months of cold winter storage, the seeds were ready. Side by side, the CJ students and I worked with Michele Banker, MEEC’s land manager and volunteer coordinator, to disperse the seeds in an almost biblical fashion - we cast them on the good ground of the stadium edges.  There will also be “biblical patience” needed with these special plants. They aren’t designed to instantly burst green like typical lawn grasses. Instead, during their first year, the little bluestem will grow slowly above ground while they invest most energy in establishing long roots. In spring 2019 and thereafter, we’ll see brilliant bunches of aesthetic blue-green foliage that will remain robust even during the worst summer droughts.

Truly, for these prairie plants and the CJ students, it’s all in the roots. During the project students learned about the importance of our local ecosystems, what positive impacts we can have on them, and how this is a rich part of our Catholic faith tradition. We’re living out Pope Francis’ spirit of integral ecology in caring for our common home. It’s also part of the roots of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur part of our CJ-tradition. Sr. Dorothy Stang, SNDdeN ‘49 gave her life to restoring the Brazilian rainforest trees with its dwellers. In working with Marianist Brother Don, MEEC, PULSE and current CJ students, I am so grateful to be continuing the tradition of deepening and extending Marianist roots to serve future generations.

What could have been an ordinary lawn of grass along CJ’s stadium is now a deep-reaching prairie planting that already tells a fascinating story of environmental restoration, student service, and the charisms of our Marianist and Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur heritage alive and flourishing in our community."

Peter Evans ‘13 first met Brother Don Geiger SM when he began volunteering at MEEC with his father, Dan, for his Confirmation service hours as an eighth grader at St. Albert the Great School.  While a CJ-student, he continued volunteering at MEEC and organized groups of CJ students to join with him both in the nature preserve and vegetable garden. Peter continued his service leadership with UD and CJ students while attending University of Dayton as a Biology major, River Steward, Marianist Leadership Scholar, and Marianist Student Community member.  Following graduation in 2017, Peter committed to a year of service with Marianist PULSE and was placed with MEEC.  He has recommitted to a second year with PULSE as a MEEC intern and welcomes CJ and other student and adult volunteers working with him.

Posted August 6, 2018