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The Naturalist revisits, pays homage to URI’s W. Alton Jones campus

June 21, 2012

Photos by Bruce Fellman

Old nails and other artifacts dug up during the ongoing archeological dig at the W. Alton Jones campus.

While I’m primarily a self-taught naturalist, I did absorb a good deal of formal training during a stint at the University of Rhode Island in the mid-1970s. It was there and then that I tried to become a real biologist, and though I was an abject failure in this endeavor—I never could get a handle on statistics, the lingua franca of science—I did take away something very special from the experience. I fell in love with a 2,300-acre piece of semi-wilderness known as URI’s W. Alton Jones Campus. I spent a fair amount of time there in this stretch of woods, fields, and wetlands just off Route 102 in West Greenwich, and I can remember some of the highlights with the kind of clarity usually reserved for one’s first kiss, marriage, and the birth of children.

In a grassy field at twilight, I marveled at the sky dances of courting woodcock. At a celebrated vernal pool known as Pond A, I watched biologist C. Robert Shoop monitor the breeding activities of spotted salamanders and wood frogs. And in a blooming apple tree, I spotted my first and, so far, only, cerulean warbler.

After various mentors had noted that my “so-called research papers” read like magazine articles—”which should tell you something...”—I took the hint and started down a different path. Still, I kept coming back to Alton Jones, but this time as a science journalist writing about the researchers who were using the place as a natural laboratory.

For various reasons, I hadn’t been there in a while, so when I received an email asking whether I’d be interested in a guided tour, I jumped at the chance to renew an old and dear acquaintance.

It turns out that 2012 is a big year for the Jones campus, which celebrates its 50th anniversary as part of URI. In the cover story of the spring issue of URI alumni magazine Quadrangles, Todd McLeish, a public relations official at the university, an eminent natural history writer, and the author of an upcoming history of the place, notes that “the property was originally a group of farms that were purchased by William and Sophia Louttit, owners of several laundry services in the state, who named their weekend retreat Hianloland Farm. When it became too much for them to maintain, it was put up for sale in 1954 and purchased by oil company executive William Alton Jones, who wanted the property for periodic hunting and fishing weekends.”

A friend of the oil man, some guy by the name of Dwight D. Eisenhower, occasionally came by to fish, hunt ducks, and shoot skeet. (The lake at the campus is named in Eisenhower’s honor.) Tragically, Jones did not have many years to enjoy his retreat; the oil magnate was killed in a plane crash in March 1962.

Jones’s widow decided to donate the property to URI that year, and since then, it has been used for many things: a conference and wedding reception center, a farm, a research laboratory, and—this is probably how most people know the place—an environmental education center (EEC) and a nature-oriented summer camp. The Jones campus is actually not open to casual visitors—it’s a school, a camp, and a place where scientists can investigate a relatively undisturbed natural world—so if you’re not involved in one of the programs it offers, you’re encouraged to “sample” the place by visiting any of the nearby, and ecologically similar, state parks and management areas. (There are a number of upcoming, open-to-the-public events planned for the 50th anniversary celebration; I’ll try to keep you posted, or you can check the official website for more information:

I visited there last month under the tutelage of Matthew Bradywood and Sara Green, two genial and knowledgeable EEC educators. On a sparkling May day, we walked various trails and they talked to me about vital work that goes on at the EEC: exposing school-aged kids from around the state, most of them 10 to 14 year olds, to natural history and human history, and showing their young and mostly enthusiastic students how the two are woven together.

The EEC offers a variety of programs—wetlands, forest, wildlife, and winter ecology, as well as geology, living history, and archeology—of various lengths. Depending on what a school needs to fill holes in the curriculum, these can be everything for a short one-day set of field trips to a residency lasting several days and nights. In any given week throughout the school year, there can be more than 100 kids tromping through the woods, engaged in such pursuits as hooting up owls at night, learning tree identification, or participating in an archeological dig on the grounds of what was once the home of one member of the Madison family, the people who turned a West Greenwich woodland into various farms, and even quarried rock from area ledges.

For many of the students, this is their first trip into the “wilderness,” and some need a fair amount of reassurance that things will turn out OK. This typically starts with team-building activities on a physically challenging course. (It’s not SEAL training, Matt and Sara note.) There’s also a need to calm jangled nerves when some of the more urbanized students, more at home in city jungles than rural forests, confront the ubiquitous signs warning about the presence of ticks. “We have to tell them that that ticks don’t fly or fall out of trees,” said Matt.

And then there’s that modern adjustment problem: electronic separation anxiety. Students check their iPhones, iPods, and other electronic umbilical cords at the door, and while a few have reported being jittery for a short time, all have, so far, survived being unplugged.

In fact, many have quickly begun to enjoy being plugged into another kind of experience. “Nothing piques a kid’s interest like getting your feet wet, your hands dirty, and scooping up a tadpole,” said Matt, a 2011 URI grad who majored in biology and art and attended various summer camp programs at Alton Jones.

“Especially when they can look, up close, at what they’ve caught,” added Sara, a URI elementary education grad who recently returned from a two-year stint with the Peace Corps as a teacher trainer in Africa. “The real thing is so much better than the video.”

To which I can only add, “Amen.”

As the W. Alton Jones campus celebrates its first 50 years, perhaps its most important legacy is inculcating this curiosity about and love of the natural world into new generations.

“A lot of what we teach may not stay with the kids,” Matt admitted. “They may not, for example, remember what ‘crepuscular’ means. But if they take away a positive feeling towards being outside, that we’ve instilled in them that the woods aren’t scary...”

“And that spiders are actually good,” Sara chimed in.

Then, I would say, the Jones campus experience and the superb staff of teacher-naturalists will have done their jobs: building awareness, the necessary foundation of a citizenry committed to conservation. Clearly, the process is in capable hands. I can celebrate—and rest easier.


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