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The Humanities Conference 2003

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Presentation Details

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Prairie Education through the Humanities: 19th Century American Literature as a Catalyst for Change in the 21st Century

Mary Stark, Dr Stephen R. Johnson.

As a professor of environmental literature, I soon discovered that I knew little about the once tallgrass prairie environment of Pella, Iowa. Working with an ecologist whose Ph.D. is in plant ecophysiology provided factual information and natural history background for the literature. By presenting scientific information from the Konza Prairie LTER site in Kansas, we show the vastness and diversity in the prairie landscape as described by William Cullen Bryant in “The Prairies” and Washington Irving in the “Tour of the Prairies.” These authors described vistas and diversity that are often unknown to many contemporary audiences. We include student responses before and after the prairie presentations. These responses suggest a beginning awareness of place and understanding of metaphors such as Walt Whitman’s idea of American democracy as “leaves of grass.” Our presentation includes examples of promoting prairie and the significance of prairie education for understanding the roots of national symbols. Interdisciplinary collaboration infuses more ecological literacy into literature and history classes and explores some of the literal and figurative meanings of metaphors used by nineteenth century authors. Perhaps the humanities also give us the desire for more restoration of prairies and more awareness of natural history and ecology.


Mary Stark  (United States)
Chair, Department of English

Central College

Dr Stephen R. Johnson  (United States)
Assistant Professor
Division of Biology
William Penn University

Stephen is Professor of Animal and Plant Ecology with a speciality in herpetology. He also serves as field editor for Wildflower Magazine.

  • Ecological Literacy
  • Science and Humanities
  • Interdiscipinary
  • Tallgrass prairie

(Virtual Presentation, English)