As an iconic landmark that dates back to the early history of UW–Platteville, the whitewashed “M”, resting upon the southwest slopes of the Platte Mound, is visible to anyone visiting the area.
Those willing to hike to the top of the mound are granted a scenic outlook on the agrarian landscape of the Driftless Area.
Dr. Evan Larson, assistant professor of geography at UW–Platteville, and the students in his 3340 Biogeography course have spent the semester trying to uncover what the landscape of the “M” mound looked like in the past — and how the community can work to restore the native communities of plants and life to the landscape.
The class is working with Amy Seeboth, UW–Platteville campus sustainability coordinator, as their community partner to coordinate the Pioneer Engagement through the Pioneer Academic Center for Community Engagement.
Using aerial photographs from the 1930s, the class has seen that the ecosystem has changed rapidly and seeks to understand why that change occurred. The work focuses on using tree-ring samples taken from trees growing on the “M” mound in order to establish previous climate, canopy density, rate of growth and when and why the trees moved in and flourished.
“Our class is working with tree rings in the applied sense,” said Larson. “It is a study of finding out what is natural, or how is the landscape supposed to look. This project and course is a practical, hands-on approach to addressing the larger questions of our environment and how it came to be that way.”
Students began their work on the project by learning to identify trees in the campus arboretum behind Glenview Commons. They also developed new displays for the arboretum explaining the types of trees hikers can see.
The second stage of the process involved fieldwork on the “M” mound to survey the trees and wildlife currently present as well as collecting tree-ring samples from various plots. Students then took the tree-ring samples back to the lab to process them.
“Right now, we are working on dating the actual samples we collected from the plots,” said Jaime Teutschmann, a biology major with zoology emphasis from Shullsburg. “It’s interesting to see that the core may be really small, but the tree is in fact relatively old.”
In the coming weeks, Teutschmann and her classmates will work on cross-referencing the samples that they have to look for trends in the cores. They will then be able to tell which trees appeared the earliest and which came later.
“Working with PACCE has given students an amazing opportunity to do the sort of hands-on experience that they are looking for,” said Larson. “It sets the framework for moving the data we collect into a much more real and applied product. Our next step will be to work with faculty and the grounds facility to decide the best course of action and develop resources.”
These resources include restoring the landscape of the “M” mound with native communities, such as those that are common for a prairie ecosystem. Prairies flourish by periodic natural wildfires, which are usually contained during human settlement, thus inhibiting growth. Larson would love to see a controlled prairie burn on the “M” mound to help restore the native plant communities found there, but recognizes that a lot of factors must be considered before such an action is implemented.
“A controlled prairie burn would be used to restore the ‘M’ mound to its native community,” said Teutschmann. “This project provides evidence and understanding of what type of trees were originally there in actuality.”
In the final stage of the class, students will complete their work by using their samples and research to put together a presentation that will cover the full project from start to finish.
“My ultimate goal would be for students to understand how dynamic this world is,” said Larson. “We need to learn how to manage our world. Humans have tremendous influence on everything we touch, and we need to figure out how to manage our resources so that our environment can sustain us.”