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Missouri Nature Garden Brings Generations Together

July 25, 2006

Students from Mike Collins' botany class at Reeds Spring High School have been working with Joe and Cathy Wolven to turn 18 acres of Ozark forest into a peaceful haven for people and native plants. Gatewood Gardens, located near Galena, is a place for youngsters to build lifetime knowledge, skills and friendships. (Missouri Dept. of Conservation photo)
Students in Mike Collins' botany class learn about much more than plants.

REEDS SPRING, Mo.-Everyone remembers one class in high school that captured their imagination. In most cases, a remarkable teacher turned an otherwise dry subject into a life-changing experience. Botany students at Reeds Spring High School are fortunate to have not one such positive influence, but three. Together, they are creating a legacy for future generations of southwest Missouri residents.

Mike Collins' botany classes have a history of achievement. Each fall they grow poinsettias for a Christmas fundraiser. In the dead of winter, they begin growing thousands of plants that will decorate the pathways at Silver Dollar City. But the program took a quantum leap in interest when one of the botany students mentioned that her grandparents, who had recently retired, were working on a gardening project of their own.

Joe Wolven was a pastor for 50 years. "When Cathy and I decided it was time to retire from active ministry," he said, "we had this 18 acres near Galena, and we said, 'Let's go build a quiet place.'"

Both master gardeners, they envisioned a peaceful retreat in the Ozark hills, somewhere families could come for picnics, nature walks, family reunions or weddings. Being the caretakers of such a natural haven was their dream.

The dream included building trails, erecting bridges over creeks, clearing underbrush and returning their piece of the Ozark hills to a condition at once natural and park-like. It turned out to be a big job. Then their granddaughter mentioned their vision to Collins. Besides the end result, he saw an unparalleled opportunity for education, service and emotional fulfillment.

The Wolvens created a nonprofit organization to pursue their goals, and Collins' botany students adopted the project as their own. The combination of vision and energy produced Gatewood Gardens. At the center of it is the Wolven's rustic home with a sprawling enclosed porch.

The first order of business was to discover what already was there. Classes of 30 or so botany students combed the area in the springtime, identifying liverwort, bloodroot, trillium and a host of other wild native plants. Then they began blazing trails along the steep, rocky hillsides and valleys. In some places, structural solutions were needed to make foot traffic practical or prevent excessive disturbance. That caused the project to spill over into other parts of Reeds Spring High School

Computer-assisted design (CAD) students used their skills to design bridges. The vocational-technical department drew up materials lists for bridges and boardwalks, and those who did the actual construction had to apply math skills for their part of the project. English and art classes even got in on the action, editing copy and designing an area brochure.

Now Reeds Spring High School students make as many as 50 forays a year to Gatewood Gardens, sometimes for planting, sometimes for building, sometimes for botanical inventories and sometimes just for fun.

"It's unending what you can teach out here," said Collins. "We start out talking about plants and botany and then switch over to ethnobotany. From there you get into herbal medicines, Ozark culture and then history, all the way back to native Americans. It all becomes very intriguing to the kids. You can't begin to match the interest we generate out here if you keep them inside of four walls all the time and cram facts into them without ever showing them how it's useful."

The Wolvens could hardly be more pleased with the results. "We had the vision, we had the dream, but there's no way it could have turned out like this without the kids," exulted Joe.

Cathy notes a different kind of building going on. She points out youngsters sporting all kinds of fashion, from low-slung pants to the black leather and stainless steel accoutrements of "Goth" culture and gives a little commentary on each. One was withdrawn and ready to see disapproval when she first began visiting the Wolven's haven. Another had no confidence in his carpentry skills. Each has blossomed in Gatewood Gardens' atmosphere of acceptance and accomplishment. Now when they arrive, shouts of greeting ring out, as if all were at their grandparents' house for a visit.

Collins was pleased when one of his students decided to become a landscape architect. However, he said his ambition is not to turn out dozens of botanists each year. He simply wants to give his students an appreciation and sense of responsibility for their natural surroundings.

"How many botanists will we have out of this class? Probably not many," said Collins. "But I'll tell you what we will have. They will all have some land at one time or another that they rent or buy, and they will want to take care of it. That is our economy here in the Ozarks. It is what people came here for 150 years ago, and it is still why people want to come here. Of all the things we can do, teaching natural resources conservation is among the most important."

Their involvement with Gatewood Gardens also gives Collins' botany students a sense of home. "These kids keep coming back," he said. "When they come home from college for holidays or whatever, they come out here to see the Wolvens and see what has been done in the garden. This has deepened their sense of home."

-Jim Low-

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