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Nature restoration project brings together community, arts, and science

Kayla Wakulich takes a break from planting signs and pulling invasive weeds at the Missouri Flat Creek restoration site.

In a narrow patch of land beside Missouri Flat Creek near downtown Pullman and the Washington State University campus, a new set of creatively designed signs celebrates a decade of ecological restoration efforts and a unique town–gown partnership combining environmental science and the arts.

WSU students, faculty, and staff recently joined city employees and other local residents to “plant” a series of 24 interpretive signs between the creek and a paved path just east of the intersection at north Grand Avenue and Ritchie Street. Four large signs explain the collaborative restoration project and the rest identify native plants growing there, artistically enhanced with illustrations and poetry.

Now dog-walkers, joggers, and bicyclists who frequent the trail can stop to learn about the return-to-nature project, the area’s history, and a variety of beneficial plants, while also taking in some visual and literary arts. QR codes on the signs provide links to further information. 

“Intriguing, educational, and beautiful—they are at the interface of art and science,” said Kayla Wakulich, a doctoral candidate in WSU’s School of the Environment (SoE) and staff assistant for the WSU Center for Civic Engagement. “To see them installed reaffirms that it was worth the wait—and the work.”

Wakulich has been deeply involved in the restoration for seven years and led development of the interpretive signs, collaborating with city workers, students and faculty of an introductory SoE course, local artist Kaleb Bass, and budding poets in WSU English professor Linda Russo’s spring 2021 creative writing class and EcoArts on the Palouse project.

Funded by an environmental education grant from the Palouse Conservation District, the signs describe the roots and success of the broader project—a service-learning partnership begun in 2011 between the City of Pullman Stormwater Services Department and students in SoE 110, “The Environment, Human Life, and Sustainability.” Course instructors Allyson Beall-King and Kara Whitman, along with Stormwater Services program manager Shilo Sprouse, spearheaded the project to re-vegetate the stream banks after the city widened the waterway in 2009 to prevent flooding.

Over the years, more than 5,000 SoE 110 students have contributed upwards of 15,000 individual hours by planting native grasses and other beneficial vegetation, removing invasive plant species, monitoring water quality and wildlife, and checking for stream bank migration. The ongoing project has grown to include volunteers from local civic groups, such as the Phoenix Conservancy, Pioneer Explorers and Pullman Civic Trust, as well as four summer interns, three landscape architecture courses, two creative writing courses, and a visual arts course.

One of the signs installed for the EcoArts on the Palouse project.

“The signs recognize the many years of hard work by students and other volunteers and the importance of native Palouse prairie plants to the community,” Wakulich said.

Redosier dogwood, blue elderberry, choke cherry, Ponderosa pine, coyote willow, camas, and golden current are among the native and beneficial plant species honored in illustration and poetic verse.

Bass created intricate line drawings of the plants and Russo’s students together composed poetic descriptions that highlight each species’ distinctive features and function within the ecosystem while underscoring their cultural significance. The poems are cleverly written in mesostic style, with an additional word or phrase highlighted vertically through the horizontal lines of text.   

Working during the pandemic, the student writers met via Zoom to discuss the philosophy of ecospheric care work and indigenous concepts such as kinship and reciprocity, Russo said. 

“We got to know the 20 native species by researching their botanical aspects and place in the biotic community. We imagined each plant as part of the indigenous knowledge and cultures of this land called the Palouse, the homelands of the Pelúuc and Nimíipuu people,” she said. 

“Kaleb’s inspired drawings and the creative work of Dr. Russo and her students are meant to invoke a personal connection to the Palouse prairie plants, their beauty and intrigue,” Wakulich said, “and to detail just a fraction of their abilities and function in the wider ecosystem.”

Watch a video of the project:

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