Build it and they will come: Miami University professor Hays Cummins rehabilitates his 32 acres of land

By Arcadia Davies

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Professor Hays Cummins works in his office in Peabody Hall. Cummins has been teaching at Miami University for the past 30 years. When he is not at work, Cummins spends a great deal of time rehabilitating his 32 ½ acres of land. “It’s a spiritual thing to connect with nature,” Cummins said. “The more I can connect with nature, the better I feel with the connection to the universe. And connecting with students, and sharing my enthusiasm — that’s the most important thing.”

OXFORD, Ohio — A house resembling a cabin sits near the bottom of a hill, surrounded by woods and gardens. Solar panels rest on top of its roof, and light streams in through windows that line the walls and ceiling. Outside, a Red-headed woodpecker drums on a tree. Books such as “A Walk in the Woods” and “Bringing Nature Home” rest on the coffee table.

Miami University professor Hays Cummins lounges on the couch in his sunroom, resting after a long day of work at Ruder Preserve.

Cummins, who has been in the process of rehabilitating his own 32 ½ acres of land for the past 14 years, is used to extraneous outdoor work. He is often outside, working on restoration projects and teaching students about ecosystems and positive ecological restoration techniques.

Cummins is 67-years-old and has been teaching at Miami for the past 30 years. Currently, he works in the Western Program, Miami’s individualized studies program, and the geography department. He has an undergraduate and master’s degree in biology, although his thesis was in archeology, and a PhD in oceanography.

“Somehow, I still can’t figure it out; I ended up in Ohio,” he said. “I’m still puzzled by how that happened.”

Cummins grew up in New Orleans, where he first discovered his love of nature.

“I’ve wanted to be a scientist, since I was like eight,” Cummins said. “I was mostly into snakes. Snakes and weather, that’s all I really needed in my life.”

Any chance he could find, Cummins and his friends boarded the public service bus that transported them to the swamps. Some days, they spent from 9 a.m. to dark catching snakes. At one point, he had around 125 snakes in cages in his backyard. He and his friends kept them for a bit and then released them into the wild.

“I was a scientist before I even knew what it was,” he said.

“When I went to college, I wanted to do science, and I wanted to do research, and I wanted to interact with people.”

Cummins’ projects at Edge of the Farm have helped these dreams come true.

Edge of the Farm is 32 ½ acres of land that sit behind his house. What were once expansive farm fields and woods suffocated by honeysuckle, Cummins and his wife, Dr. Donna McCollum, have turned these habitats into prairies, wetlands and de-honeysuckled woods. They have also planted many native species.

Cummins loves to share his passion for nature, learning and teaching with students and peers. He’s always excited to share pictures and videos that he has captured of wildlife on trail cameras. His enthusiasm for nature, especially birds, is contagious.

“He is a good model of a learner, that’s why he is a good teacher,” said Kevin Armitage, a friend of Cummins and a Colleague in the Western Program.
“He is a learner himself.”

The results of Cummins’ work have been rewarding. The wetlands protect nearby creeks from harmful chemicals used by farmers – creeks that eventually lead to rivers that eventually empty into the Gulf of Mexico. The prairies are intended to restore the soil that has been depleted of nutrients by years of monoculture farming.

In the past years, Cummins has watched as birds that weren’t there before return to his land. He has seen Sandhill Cranes and American Bitterns. During some months of the year, a minimum of 300 monarch butterflies have spent the night on his land.

This, he said, “shows that our habitat is worthy. When you get these species that actually utilize the space, there’s nothing finer.”

While Cummins and McCollum have driven all of these projects, Edge of the Farm is really a community effort. Over 1500 students have visited and worked on the land along with Cummins and McCollum. Students and friends have helped to eradicate honeysuckle, remove algae from the wetlands and plant trees, among other projects. They also use his land to camp, host bonfires and hike.

“That was a part of the vision, to have a place that is kind of like a teaching lab,” Cummins said. “Where students could learn about wetlands and prairies and restoration.”

Undergraduates, graduate students and PhD candidates have also used his land to conduct research on biodiversity.

Organizations such as Three Valley Conservation Trust and US Fish and Wildlife have been critical partners in the protection and rehabilitation of the land.

Because of Cummins’ efforts to increase biodiversity and reintroduce native species, he now sees birds, salamanders, mink, raccoons, deer, foxes, turtles, snakes, coyotes and other species on his land.

“It’s sort of like the ‘Field of Dreams’ movie,” he said. “You build it and they will come. It’s just incredible.”

Photo by Arcadia Davies

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