Learning from the Land

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Published on: Oct. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

When Rus Goddard hikes, he carries a pair of clippers or a pruning saw and sometimes takes along a chain saw. As he walks his daily four or five miles along the trails at Shaw Arboretum, he clears brush and downed trees. It’s a typical day’s work for 87-year-old Rus, who’s been volunteering at the Arboretum for 16 years.

"I’ve found my niche in retirement," he says. "I like maintaining the trails for anyone who wants to partake of the beauty of this place."

Rus was introduced to Shaw Arboretum in 1931 by its first manager, Lars Peter Jensen. Since the age of 18, Rus has developed a heartfelt attachment to these 2,450 acres of Ozark foothills in the Meramec River Valley.

"Being here," says Rus, "is like a gift from heaven for me."

I spent my childhood on the grounds of Shaw Arboretum, where my parents Bill and Joyce Davit worked, and I share Rus’s affection for this parcel of land. I know it is special, not just because of its natural beauty, but for its history and the opportunity it provides for visitors to learn from this land.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Shaw Arboretum. Located at the intersection of Interstate 44 and Highway 100 in Gray Summit, it is owned by the Missouri Botanical Garden and named for the founder of the Garden, Henry Shaw. Shaw Arboretum was pieced together from the purchase of five worn-out farms in 1925.

First called "the Gray Summit Extension," this land was intended to display the plant collections of the Garden, which were being threatened by St. Louis air pollution during the city’s soft coal-burning days. Lou Brenner, who worked at Shaw Arboretum in the 1930s and 1940s, grew up in the neighborhood of the Garden.

"You could walk down the sidewalk, stamp your feet and leave sooty footprints," he remembers.

Some years after the purchase of Shaw Arboretum, the air pollution abated, allowing the Garden’s plant collections to remain in St. Louis. Instead of becoming a true arboretum - a formal collection of trees and other plants from around the world - Shaw Arboretum evolved into a showcase of the native plants, wildlife and natural communities of eastern Missouri.

John Behrer, the Arboretum’s director, sighs from behind the paperwork on his desk. Behrer didn’t have administrative chores in mind when he first worked at the Arboretum as a teenager and conducted surveys of white-footed deer mice and built

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