Madison Monday: The Daryl R. Karns Natural History Trails at Hanover College

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For many of us in the academic world, today was the first day back to classes. The first day back on campus. Does this seem infinitely harder to do in the middle of winter than it did back in September, when you could convince yourself that summer was not quite over? When you could ride the coattails of freedom into the semester and tell yourself that with the right attitude, summer didn’t really have to end? I think so.

My schedule last semester left me with only an hour between any given class on the days when I was teaching, and so no time for much more than gulping down some lunch and preparing for the next class. This semester, I have two hours between classes and so decided to incorporate a little moving around in that window. One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to walk the same trail in Clifty Falls State Park at least once a month, so I considered heading in that direction. But as I wrote before, the trails in Clifty are a little rugged, especially for those of us dressed in teacherly-type clothes. I decided to walk instead around campus, which is scenic enough in its own right, located as we are on a beautiful bluff overlooking the Ohio River, as any of our recruitment brochures would tell you.

Here’s a confession I have to make. I have known for a long time about the trail system on Hanover’s campus. I sat on an committee that talked endlessly about the repair, marking, and maintenance of these trails. I’d heard people roughly describe where these trails were and how you got to them. But I, myself, had never set foot on any of these trails. And I had no real intention of doing so this afternoon. But as I was meandering down the paved drive, I actually spotted the handrail and stairs that lead to one of the trailheads. And so I thought I might as well check it out.

The trails at Hanover are now named the Daryl R. Karns Natural History Trails in honor of a dear colleague in the biology department whom we lost last year to a sudden heart attack. I didn’t know Daryl as well as I wished I could have, but I know he was kind, and thoughtful, and could always be depended upon to be the voice of reason in a world full of hyperbole and drama. Perhaps all work environments are like this, but sometimes working with other academics feels distinctly like you’ve landed in the middle of a monkey farm; duck to avoid the occasional air-born poo. Daryl was ever the grown-up in the middle of this fray.

The small part of the trail system I sampled today are perfectly named for Daryl; they are an oasis of calm in the middle of the bustle that is a college campus. Head down these stairs and you can peer up at some of the academic buildings looming above you, but also see the river and its valley laid out in front of you. Finding these stairs and this trail feels like it must be something out of a children’s book, like a gateway to another world just waiting for you at the back of the closet. The part of the trail I was on heads down into the river valley through a path cut into the side of the hill with exposed rock formations all around. Other parts of the trail take you to waterfalls or along ridges above the river valley.

This semester I’m teaching environmental sociology, and one of the things we explore in this class is our relationship to nature. What is nature? Are humans a part of nature or separate from it? Can we ever see nature for what it truly is, or are we always peering through the particular cultural lens of our time and place? And what are the implications of the ways in which we think about nature?

Daryl was a biologist who was specifically interested in snakes, but more importantly, he was an advocate of the liberal arts. During my very first year at Hanover, when I was just getting my feet wet and feeling out what it meant to be here, Daryl gave the speech at our opening convocation. It was about rivers as a metaphor for the liberal arts, in the way rivers can tie together people and places and moments in time. Daryl used the trails at Hanover for his biology classes, but he would want everyone to use them. Take from your walk what you will. Today I needed a quite place to be in the middle of my day. I suspect students have much more creative uses for the trails. But what a gift for us to be able to enter that other world with such ease in the middle of campus. And what a gift for anyone else who happens to be passing by.

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