When Alex Congelosi landed in Dr. Elizabeth Lacey's conservation biology class, the first-year graduate student realized she was in for something different. And something that would endure long after she earned her master's degree and moved on.
Lacey isn't your garden-variety teacher. Instead of assigning her students a research paper to write, she divided the class in half and asked each group to create a proposal to establish a Piedmont Prairie at UNCG a once-common ecosystem around these parts that has all but disappeared because of urban and agricultural development. Whichever proposal emerged as the strongest would then be presented to the Peabody Park Preservation Committee in hopes of securing a grant to pay for it.
Congelosi's group won the competition and the grant. Last spring she and some of her classmates, now in their third year of grad school, gathered by the creek in Peabody Park and watched their proposal go up in smoke.
Just as they'd planned.
Two men, wearing fireproof shirts and gloves and carrying drip torches filled with flammable liquid, set fire to the dead vegetation along the small swath of land near West Market Street. Nearby, police and firefighters stood at the ready should anything go awry.
Dr. Ken Bridle, the president of the N.C Prescribed Fire Council who is certified to carry out controlled burns like the one in Peabody Park, oversaw the burn without incident with the exception of running off a few golfers on the putting green nearby when plumes of smoke crossed the creek and wafted their way. It lasted all of 30 minutes.
As Lacey walked the perimeter of the burn site, snapping photos to document it all, she marveled that this moment had finally arrived: We've been working on developing this project since fall of 2011, so it's very exciting to see this progress.
A Piedmont prairie, she explained, is a fire-adapted ecosystem that once was home to many now-extinct or endangered plant species. A few weeks after the burn, grounds workers sowed the seeds that Lacey and her students had chosen.
All of the plants are fire-adapted natives, Lacey said. Grasses will be tall and adapted to burn every year. The burning creates nutrients needed to feed the seeds we are planting.
Bridle said one of the reasons he got involved in the project is to educate the public about the ecological benefits of fire.
Fire is kind of like rain and storms and droughts, and all the other things that Mother Nature is adapted to. If you take any of those out of the equation, the ecology is changed, he explained. In North Carolina, about two-thirds of our rare and endangered species are rare and endangered because of a lack of fire in our environment, and other things are taking over things like kudzu.
Later in the spring, the patch of burned land bloomed into a flowering meadow filled with Little Bluestem, Winter Bentgrass, Appalachian Blazing Star and other endangered species, which in turn will attract a diversity of birds and insects.
One thing that Congelosi appreciates about her experience at UNCG is the hands-on education she has received from professors like Lacey.
We are trying to recreate this basically extinct ecological system here in the Piedmont, she explained, because this is where it originally was. In a very few counties, they have actually brought them back in Charlotte and Chapel Hill. It's a really cool project.
As for Congelosi and her classmates, they won't see the finished product before they graduate. As they learned from Lacey, it will take several years to establish a proper Piedmont prairie.
I would definitely like to come back and see it in its full glory, Congelosi said. I've seen others. It reminds you of Africa, but it is in North Carolina. It is very peaceful and serene to see. The wind comes in and blows the grass. And then you realize how unique the plants are. It really makes you feel that you are a part of something unique.