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Jared’s Musings

Experienced consumers of this blog will know by now that we completed the roof. Given the rather mercurial weather this week, and the repetitive tarping such climatic lunacy entailed, the completion of the roof was a satisfying and relieving achievement. The adobe is still finding its way from the pools to the walls, and sometime next week, the porch will come up. Oh, and our open house is scheduled for the Sunday of Memorial Weekend!

As we start to bring the class to its conclusion (10 days left!), I’ve been contemplating how our work fits in to the broader place and vision of the Biological Station, and the University of Michigan itself. To that end, please consider the UMBS mission statement:

The core mission of the University of Michigan Biological Station is to advance environmental field research, engage students in scientific discovery using ecosystems and their organismal constituents as objects of study, and provide information needed to better understand and sustain natural systems at local through global scales.”

What strikes me about this statement is that the scientific inquiry of nature does not exhaust the purpose of the UMBS. Though the UMBS is a satellite of one of the finest research universities around, to pursue only research is deemed a wanting goal. Rather, there is a compelling connection between how research of the natural world can and ought to inform how we manage landscapes.

A rather straightforward proposition: we discover about an ecosystem and its attendant organisms can help us be better stewards of those systems. That is, after all, why I’m going into ecological restoration. But another, and very interesting proposition, is lurking in there, and that is where our Strawbale house is hiding. I mean, isn’t it revealing that economics and ecology have the same root word? Ecology comes from the Greek oikos+logos, the study of the home.  Economics comes from oikos+nomy, the management of the home.  Hmm.

Knowledge of nature cannot not be critical to how we humans live our lives. Consider something like island biogeography theory.  Here, we have a standard piece of ecological knowledge, something which could be taken as merely an academic token.  But island biogeography tells us about the migration of species and the quality of habitats. This, then, tells us about how energy and nutrients are flowing across the landscape. Guess what? The sustainability of the whole agricultural system depends on the flow of energy and nutrients across the landscape. See what I’m getting at?

So consider our Strawbale building. What makes it more sustainable than a conventional building is that the embedded energy is far less than a conventional building. That is, construction of a strawbale house is far less dependent on the fossil fuel chain to be constructed than a conventional house. (Assuming you have a group of 22 (23?) energetic undergrads to pitch in!)  And anything built that takes less energy than its alternatives is likely better for the environment.  So when we have a goal in mind about sustaining natural systems across scales, being able to design our structures and landscapes based off a low-energy relationship with the local ecosystem is critical. And the fact that a premier research university is providing students the chance to experience how such buildings are constructed, indicates an understanding that research and practice are not wholly distinct pursuits of knowledge. That is an important part of what this project has meant to me: our discovery of nature is part and parcel with our healthful participation in it. It is in this sense that I could not think of a better site for our adobe’d abode, than the UMBS.

 

-Jared Aslakson

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