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Prof. McKay Jenkins shows students how to identify and remove some invasive plants from the woods in
White Clay Creek State Park.
in the University of Delawares Introduction to Environmental
Literature class regularly put aside their books and journals and head
out of the classroom to a nearby state park.
There, they pick up such non-literary tools as long-handled loppers,
clippers, shovels and work gloves and set to work attacking some of the
many invasive plants that are damaging the forest.
As they cut, chop and dig to remove
stubborn vines and dense shrubs, the undergraduates are experiencing
firsthand some of the environmental problems theyve been reading and
writing about in class.
After many years of having my students wander White Clay Creek State
Park and journal about their experiences, I started something new this
semester training them to do forest restoration work, said McKay
Jenkins, the Cornelius A. Tilghman Professor of English and a founder of
UDs environmental humanities program.
In partnership with state park rangers, Jenkins and the students have
learned to identify and remove some of the invasive species that can
take over wooded areas, choking out native plants and damaging the
biodiversity that makes for a healthy environment.
On a recent sunny fall day in the woods off Creek Road, just north of
the UD campus, the class literally had its hands full with such
invasives as autumn olive, multiflora rose, Japanese barberry and
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Environmental literature student Melanie Ezrin, majoring in public policy and
environmental science, works to remove invasive plants.
Students struggled to remove vines that had wrapped so tightly around
tree trunks that it was almost impossible to pry and then cut them
loose. They worked in teams to chop away at invasive bushes that had
become thoroughly entangled with native plants.
The class learned that the problem is widespread across the U.S.,
with non-native plants threatening the health of woodlands and depriving
insects and animals of their native food sources.
Once you know about this issue, and once you learn to identify some
of the invasive species, you start to see that non-native plants are
everywhere, said Katey McCarthy, a senior majoring in communication.
Some of them are beautiful, but knowing about the problem really
changes your perception of them.
Like many of her classmates, McCarthy said she appreciated a class in
which she was able to see real examples of what she had been reading
Sophomore English major Henry Wolgast signed up for the class because
of his interest in exploring different writers philosophies about the
natural world. The class provides that, he said, but with the added
benefit of hands-on experience.
Its a great class and a great chance to get more familiar with
environmental issues, he said. Its made me want to get more involved
with these kinds of efforts.
Students head up a slope in the woods to tackle invasive plants.
On this day, the group was joined by Tara Trammell, the John
Bartram Assistant Professor of Urban Forestry in UDs College of
Agriculture and Natural Resources. She shared some of her own research
in the field with the students, describing the complexity involved in
trying to eradicate the wide variety and large number of invasive plants
in any particular area.
There can be so much variability in a species, even on the same
tree, that you really need to see it in person, Trammell said. Looking
at pictures of it in a classroom doesnt show you everything you need
For student Lauren Barczak, a sophomore majoring in wildlife ecology
and conservation, the issue of invasive plants was already a familiar
one, but she said she welcomed the chance to get outdoors and learn more
about the subject. She initially enrolled in the Department of English
class to add a new humanities-based perspective to her scientific field
I thought it would be good to approach my major in a different way,
she said. I wanted to see a different side of ecology and
The class has spent time as a group at the state park about once a
month this semester, but students also work there on their own as class
assignments, recording their visits and activities in a journal.
For Jenkins, who has previously taken environmental journalism
students to volunteer on an organic farm near campus, getting out of the
classroom is nothing new. But, he said, its more than just observing
the natural world up-close that engages students.
The idea is to give them something to do, to show them how people
are taking action, Jenkins said. Once they start learning about these
problems, theyre so eager to do something to help address them.
The Department of English offers a minor in environmental humanities, which draws students from a wide range of majors and colleges across the University.
The program was developed to go beyond the natural sciences and
explore humanistic questions about the environment, focusing on such
subjects as environmental history, literature, ethics and public policy.
The 18-credit minor is designed both for students in the natural
sciences who want to gain a broader understanding and learn how to
better communicate their work, and for those in the humanities who want
to study environmental issues with that type of focus.
Article by Ann Manser; photos by Evan Krape