Senior living communities are best known for nurturing the residents who call campuses their home, but some of them take great pride in also nurturing the land they inhabit. The Nature Preserve at Oakwood Village on the Oakwood Village University Woods campus in Madison, WI, is one of these beloved places.
In 1941, a local church member acquired, at an auction, a bankrupt rest home that had been owned by a consortium of physicians.
“The forty rolling acres of Normandale were too steep for farming or for housing development, but the oak-covered hillsides were the perfect setting for the rustic cottages and dormitories that made up the rest home,” according to The History of Oakwoodby Faye Marie Getz, Ph.D.
Today, Oakwood Village University Woods is considered by many locals to be a prime location in the heart of the west side of the city, and part of its location boasts a 9-acre conservancy protected from development.
“Policy and activities in the nature preserve are recommendations from the Nature Preserve Committee, which consists of residents, outside experts in forest management, and staff liaisons,” says Robert Greenler, an Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, resident of Oakwood since 2002, and lifelong naturalist. (So treasured is the nature preserve to Greenler that he wrote a book published in 2014, Outside My Window, A Look at the Oakwood Village Nature Preserve.)
The roles and responsibilities of the Nature Preserve Resident Committee include helping to develop short- and long-range planning, volunteer labor for identification and removal of invasive species, and identification of general maintenance needs. The committee members also help identify tree and plant species and lead regular tours of the nature preserve for residents and guests, says Dave Bertsch, campus director of facilities and property management.
The preserve has both paved and wood-chipped trails so there is cost associated with trail maintenance. Twice a year, the preserve is inspected for dead trees and large limbs that may pose falling hazards. If the trees are determined to be a reasonable risk, they are professionally trimmed or removed. Resources are also used for winter snow removal on the paved trails to provide navigable access through the preserve during the winter months. Wood-chipped rustic trails are left to Mother Nature so that in good snow years, residents can snowshoe in the preserve.
The lead horticulturist at Oakwood Village University Woods, Savannah Conradt, coordinates volunteer labor, safety inspections, and plant and tree sourcing to replace dead or removed trees. She is also responsible for providing access to water in the remote locations of the preserve for new plantings, emergency removal of downed or damaged trees, and upkeep and maintenance of signs.
There is a small wetland in the preserve that requires compliance with regulations related to the state’s Ordinary High Water Mark governance, storm water retention/planning, and ensuring compliance to minimize spread of tree-damaging diseases and invasive species, says Bertsch.
The 9 acres in the preserve were once part of the vast oak savannah that covered much of southern Wisconsin’s landscape. The “grandfather oak” is estimated to be about 150 years old. Most of its great, low, spreading branches have fallen off in the last couple of decades, but these remains tell us that when it was a young tree, it grew in an open space rather than surrounded by other trees competing for sunlight.
“Before European settlers moved into this part of the country, periodic fires—started by lightning or sometimes by Native Americans—went through the woods and killed many of the tree seedlings. Oaks were more fire-resistant than other trees, and after they became big enough, they could survive a fire that would kill the other trees. With the fires, the natural state of this area was an oak savannah—a landscape of prairie plants, punctuated by a few oak trees,” according to Greenler in his book.
Over time, the land in the nature preserve at Oakwood Village morphed into something other than an oak savannah. This change occurred when settlers started farming and using controlled fires,, allowing other hardwood trees (maple, elm, cherry, ash, hickory) to sprout, producing a leaf canopy that reduced the amount of sunlight reaching the forest floor. With reduced light, oak seedlings are not able to grow.
“In 50 years, if we continue to interfere with the natural order of things (by keeping fire out of the preserve the last of our oaks will be disappearing from the woods,” worries Greenler. “So, after considerable discussion, we decided that one of the goals of our management plan is to Keep the Oaks in Oakwood.”
Rather than bring back the fires, Oakwood decided to plant half a dozen oaks each year, some in the openings in the leaf canopy created by the demise of old trees; others planted in clearings that were created. The math works like this: If 6, 2-year old oak seedlings are planted each year and 5 of them survive, in about 50 years the preserve will have 250 oaks.
Interestingly, after a dense stand of invasive Norway maples was removed several years ago, the tree canopy opened sufficiently, which allowed the prairie plants of the old oak savannah to once again thrive. So, in addition to planting oak seedlings every year, a prairie is being restored to the preserve.
In spring 2016, 7 Oakwood residents volunteered to be “prairie caretakers.” Their task: Claim an area for which they would take responsibility. Because the new prairie plants were marked with a stake and a label, residents did not have to recognize the prairie plants from the weed; by the end of the summer, this would come naturally. Greenler made scale drawings of the location for each plant in all of the species, taking into account the height of the mature plant and the area required for each species. In the end, 400 potted prairie plants of 40 different species were planted in 10 days. Some of the prairie plants Oakwood is working to establish include Joe Pie Weed, Wild Bergamot, Black-eyed Susan, and Shooting Star.
“If you look with the eye of faith and optimism, you might envision a time, perhaps 3 years from now, when we will see a glorious scene of prairie flowers in beautiful display from July through September,” says Greenler.
The preserve offers a learning laboratory of another sort to nearby Madison College. An instructor of land surveying was looking for a project site that would allow hands-on experience to couple with classroom academics for his students. They began mapping the preserve with a permanent grid system to facilitate the planting of replacement oak seedlings, shrubs, and prairie flowers, as well as precisely locating management sites, individual trees, the vernal pond, and other items of interest. (Vernal ponds are small, short-lived ponds fed by spring rains and snow melt. They usually dry up as summer progresses, but teem with activity during their brief existence and provide feeding and breeding habitat for a variety of animals).
Over the years, volunteers from the Downtown Kiwanis Club have spread wood chips on the trail and provided a substantial part of the volunteer labor that maintains the woods, including cutting and removing considerable amounts of wood from downed trees. This year, their volunteers spread more than 10 truckloads of chips. Their service extends beyond the trails; all 3 of the non-resident members of the 9-member Nature Preserve Committee are Kiwanis. They are active participants in the physical activity of removing invasive plants, planting woodland flowers, and cutting brush. Additionally, the club makes an annual cash contribution.
Many people have enjoyed walking through the preserve over the years: local garden clubs, neighborhood associations, marketing prospects, a master gardening association, and of course, the residents at Oakwood Village.
Perhaps resident Helen Findley says it best: “I think I choose Oakwood Village because I went for a walk in the woods and I said ‘This is it. I’ve got to live here.’”
Beth Johnson is a marketing representative for Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries, Madison, WI.