Tour of prairie, poem installation will be offered Saturday afternoon

The beauty of the Ceresco Prairie Conservancy was highlighted during a talk Friday morning as part of Alumni Weekend activities. George “Skip” Wittler, professor of biology, William Harley Barber Distinguished Professor, chair of the department, and director of the conservancy, offered a colorful slideshow of a variety of plants and grasses that are bursting into life across the prairie.

It was a preview of an in-person prairie walk that Wittler will lead on Saturday.

“I interviewed at Ripon College about this time of year 41 years ago,” Wittler said. “It’s been a wonderful experience. I’ve taught about 5,000 students over the years at the College. The students are great here, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

Wittler takes care of about 130 acres of the conservancy, and for the past two decades his students have helped him, done research and collected seeds on the prairie. Many seeds have been donated to various causes.

He showed off many different plants in up-close detail, including goat’s beard, wild indigo, spiderwort, ox eye sunflower, various kinds of milkweed, Queen Anne’s lace, coneflowers, purple prairie clover, compass plant, blazing star and wild cucumber.

Every couple of slides, he’d declare, “This is one of my favorites,” and then, “Oops. Did I say that about six times already?”

Wittler says he loves to talk about plants. “I’m amazed at the symmetry and the architecture of flowers and fruits,” he said. “I’m a botanist, but I’m also an artist. I’ve been involved in creating and maintaining this prairie. It’s not a permanent art. It’s changeable.”

He said this year’s season began with a burn of about 20 acres of the prairie. This helps clear out invasive species and revitalize the plantings that are there. “And most of all, it’s fun!” he said. “Fire is a natural component of most ecosystems. The group gets very dark and absorbs more sunlight, letting oxygen get to the microbes in the soil. Fire stimulates grasses to produce flowering stalks.”

On Saturday, Wittler will lead a walk around the prairie. Children and families are welcome to attend. Meet at 1:30 p.m. at the trailhead behind the J.M. Storzer Athletic Center.

Prior to the walk, there will be an installation and dedication of the poem “Sky’s All the Surprise,” by recently retired Professor of English David Graham.


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