Imagining the prairie landscape that greeted the early settlers of Galesburg and the surrounding communities is difficult for today’s students. The cityscape, while small, is largely concrete with green spaces dotted throughout. The surrounding farms are mainly large agricultural businesses where rows of corn and soybeans outnumber native plants. Drawing in part on the success of the College’s Farm Term, Knox professors created the Green Oaks Term in 2002, the second in a line of rural Midwest experiences that have connected Knox students to the land. The term provides a glimpse back at the prairies while giving students the opportunity to learn not only about the land, but also ways to live in it, communally and sustainably, all the while learning about nature, art, literature, and history.

Green Oaks Terms
Cadence Eischens ’24 and Kevin Cox ’23 work on art projects during the 2022 Green Oaks Term. Photo by Carla Wehmeyer

This year, Knox commemorates the 20th anniversary of the immersive and interdisciplinary trimester spent living, working, and studying on 704 acres, including an area that was formerly strip mined. Biology professors Paul Shepard and George Ward began converting farmland owned by the College to a native prairie in 1955, and the College obtained an adjacent portion of land that had been owned by Alvah Green, an 1890 alumnus and trustee, through his estate in 1958, creating the area now known as Green Oaks.

Peter Schramm, professor of biology, continued the work started by Shepard and Ward and instituted the annual burns in 1965. Today, the prairie burn is a seminal event that is the celebratory and symbolic center of the student experience for those who take part in the Green Oaks Term.

“Prairie ecosystems, like grasslands all around the world, are firedependent ecosystems in which all species—plants, animals, and fungi—are adapted to frequent fires,” explained Stuart Allison, current director of Green Oaks Biological Field Station and Watson Bartlett Professor of Biology and Conservation. “Many of those species depend on fires creating conditions that favor their survival. For the last four or five thousand years, the climate in Illinois has been suitable for the establishment of forests. The fact that prairies exist here is the result of those fires—which for hundreds of years were set by Native Americans as part of their eco-cultural practices and now are set by us.”

Allison has been taking part in the term since its inception. He arrived at Knox in 1997 and has been the director of the Biological Field Station since 1999, three years before the Green Oaks term began. Green Oaks is 20 miles east of the college campus and hosts a number of facilities, including Schurr Hall, a classroom, laboratory, and dormitory, as well as a cabin for the faculty directing the term, the caretaker’s home, and a barn that students, who are known as Oakies, use for projects. Allison is the last remaining original member of the 2002 group that founded the term—Jon Wagner, professor of anthropology, retired in 2015, and Robin Metz, Philip Sidney Post Professor of English, passed away in 2018.

During the first year of term, Wagner lived in the cabin for all 10 weeks of the experience, and Tony Gant, associate professor of art, and Allison have also done so. Usually, the professors involved rotate through their time in residence at Green Oaks, typically swapping out every two weeks, as spending 10 weeks with, in this current year, 13 Knox students as the sole faculty member, can be—well—

Prairie Burn
Stuart Allison, Watson Bartlett Professor of Biology and Conservation and director of the Green Oaks Biological Field Station, explains the process for the prairie burn to students in the spring of 2022. Photo by Carla Wehmeyer

The curriculum of the Green Oaks term has been relatively unchanged since its inception. Wagner’s original Deep Maps of Place course, a sociological tracing on the people and histories of the land, has been taken on and adapted by Katie Adelsberger, professor and chair of environmental studies. Metz’s course in the arts and imagination has been adapted by Gant to focus on visual art, and Allison continues to teach a course that helps students connect to landscape ecosystems of the Midwest, and demonstrate how the region has been shaped and changed by natural processes and human intervention. Jim Mountjoy, associate professor of biology, teaches the natural history course in years when Allison is not involved with the program. Allison explained that the College does a lot to embrace its place-based environmental origins, but it could do more.

“The College as an institution has a great deal of pride in its location in the rural Midwest and the way the landscape and people of the area have helped form it. We embrace our location in programs like Farm Term, the Great River Seminar, and Green Oaks Term. But we need to do more to transform our reflection on the local to a pathway to considering how Knox and its students can engage with the entire world.”

Knox’s effort to replant the native prairie in the 1950s was an important step in regenerating a natural landscape that had been disrupted by the previous 130 years of European settlement and industrialization. Early research into prairie restoration processes was begun at the University of Wisconsin at Madison arboretum in the 1930s. At Green Oaks, Shepard’s work was aligned with the spirit of the work at that time, which aimed to restore the prairie to an estimation of how it was before white settlement. Allison recalls hearing stories of that early effort, which was largely Shepard and students walking the land and scattering seeds. Since that time, the focus to maintain that original composition has served a vital purpose for student research in biology, environmental studies, sociology, history, and the arts. “We’re trying to restore to a target from the past,” Allison said, “but the rapidity of climate change means we have to adapt. We may have to ask, do we need to plant other species here that are likely to flourish in the changed environment?”

The species of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that thrived in Midwestern prairie ecosystems would have necessarily adapted to their changing environment as years went on, Allison said. Thus, he believes, the work ahead of the students and professors at Green Oaks is twofold. First, 70 years of diligent restoration and rebirth, culminating in the annual burn, is an achievement and activity worth continuing in the future. At the same time, there is a dimension of the process that is artificial and does not account for all the variables involved in warmer summers and shorter, wetter winters, the tangible effects of our changing planet. Fortunately, these new efforts square with aspects of the College’s mission, specifically to provide immersive experiences for students and close student-faculty interaction.

This does not mean that study at Green Oaks is focused on this particular landscape to the exclusion of others. In fact both Allison and Adelsberger bring their previous research, on marine and desert ecosystems, respectively, to bear on their work at Green Oaks. In turn, students get the opportunity to see how their work in the field can extend to the different landscapes and different disciplines entirely. Mountjoy with his research on avian life, brings another dimension to the Green Oaks experience. This diverse set of faculty interests is reflected in the students who participate in the term. Graduates of the Green Oaks Term have gone on to pursue careers in public health in India, and in sustainability in Boca Raton, Florida, as well as taken roles as educators, biologists, and environmental scientists. In June, a reunion brought together 40 Oakies, along with friends and family to share and reminisce.

In this close and collaborative environment, the experience can best be summarized by the additional “course” in which all students are enrolled. This is a half-credit course called the Dynamics of Intentional Living, which sounds abstract but is the most tangible of experiences. It allows students to plan, reflect on, and organize their lives in the Green Oaks community, from the basics of who cooks and cleans, to their intentions for their time in the term as well as beyond the term. Essentially, this course is about engaging in a community and the natural world as a citizen, with a focus on the collective good.

What alumni had to say about Green Oaks Term:

“The Green Oaks program, student participants, and all the professors involved played such a pivotal role in my educational and personal development. I would not be in my current career field if it were not for the conversations and experiences I had in the classroom, on the prairie, and around the campfire at Green Oaks. In particular, Jim Mountjoy sparked my passion for birding during a crazy roadside dash to chase a displaying male American woodcock, and Stuart Allison helped foster my interest in conservation biology and applied science through field labs and lessons at Green Oaks.”

Alicia Young Herrera ’03, who currently works as a Rangeland Watershed Initiative Partnership Biologist in California

“The memories that sit in my mind from Green Oaks Term were not from our big trips or classes or adventures, but things like chatting over tea with some Oakies and heading down to make myself a late-night snack. One night, I came down to find another Oakie from my cooking team marinating some chicken for the next night’s dinner. I was struck in that moment with a really profound sense of place and home. The quaintness of our living situation, the joy of sharing that space, and the act of preparing dinner for all our family a whole day before, all while just sharing stories about our lives before entering into this space was, for whatever reason, very impactful and sweet in my mind.”

Finnegan Hautau ’25

“I did Green Oaks Term during my junior year. I had to make a choice between doing it right away during my freshman year or not. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Living on the prairie in a converted barn with people was such a great experience. It gave me a chance to live in nature: nice, simple communal living.”

Zarir DeVitre ’07, a freelance sustainability generalist in Mumbai, India

“Green Oaks gave me a much deeper appreciation for rural Illinois and prairie ecosystems that I have kept and shared with my students, friends, and loved ones. My time at Green Oaks helped me connect better with the idea of developing a sense of place in a location. In retrospect, the freedom we were given to explore our interests (and develop new ones) during the Green Oaks term was very valuable to me and helped set me up for success in subsequent endeavors as a student, Peace Corps volunteer, and advocate for both environmental and social causes. In 2020 I worked as a visiting professor for a study away program based in Oregon. I think the time that I spent during the Green Oaks Term helped make me better contribute to that program as a professor and community member.”

Megan Butler ’08, educator

“Returning to Green Oaks has always felt like coming home. Every time I am there I am flooded with memories of walking the land, of painting landscapes and making sculptures, of connecting with people and nature. Coming back for the 20th anniversary with my 7-year-old daughter Maggie was very special. I was so proud to see her hiking the Shortcut Trail, swimming in the lake, exploring Tony Gant’s massive art installation, square dancing in the barn, and having a singalong with the recent Oakies around the campfire. I was thrilled to teach her about Leopold benches, and I saw a cerulean warbler!”

Meg Huizenga Jedrey ’05, educator

“My boyfriend and I drove a total of 2,500 miles from Albuquerque, N.M., for the reunion. It was incredibly meaningful to return and introduce my boyfriend to such an important place and group of people. The best part was how much it felt like coming home and how easy it was to fall back into an easy community with the other Oakies, not only the Oakies from my term (although it was nice to know I could still rely on Nick Liberko for extra camping gear), but also Oakies from other terms—older Oakies, newer Oakies, even the current Oakies!”

Emily Roberts ’16, library and information professional