A 5-foot, 2-inch, 100-pound retired professor and naturalist at the University of South Carolina on Thursday won one of the state’s premier environmental awards for creating a unique seven-acre teaching arboretum in the middle of Columbia.
Pat DeCoursey, who has led a six-year effort to restore the university’s Belser Arboretum in the Sherwood Forest subdivision off Kilbourne Road, received the state’s Environmental Awareness Award, given for major conservation work. The award commemorated not only her work on the Belser tract but with numerous small gardens around USC.
“Every year we consider nominations for the award that range from nationally known environmental leaders all the way down to elementary school classes that are doing amazing things right at their schools,” S.C. Forestry Commission environmental program manager Guy Sabin said Thursday.
Sabin chaired the multistate agency committee whose members chose DeCoursey. Other state agencies represented were the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the S.C. Sea Consortium.
“This year, we had an amazing pool of applicants, but Dr. DeCoursey really stood apart – for her leadership and organizing the work of many, many others,” Sabin said.
Since 2006, DeCoursey has spent thousands of hours and organized hundreds of volunteers to revitalize the once-neglected Belser woodlands tract. She has helped turn the land she calls a “micro-urban forest” into a showcase and outdoor classroom not only for USC science students but for humanities students as well.
Because its hills and low-lying sections are at sharply different elevations, DeCoursey was able to create 10 ecosystems at Belser that mimic South Carolina regions from the coast to the Upstate. An outdoor classroom offers stumps for seats and a roughly half-mile looping trail features numerous plant exhibits along the way. Hundreds of students attend classes there each year.
“We just feel life is overflowing there,” DeCoursey said. The arboretum has hundreds, if not thousands of kinds of plants and trees, and numerous kinds of wildlife, from blue-tail skinks to turtles to Carolina wrens.
DeCoursey, who once played violin with the S.C. Philharmonic before work and family demands became too much, has been known to wield a chainsaw to cut branches from Belser’s fallen trees.
She spoke at the awards ceremony and explained how she got her start in beautifying places around her.
When she was a small child, she said, her father’s job as a physician took the family to remote wilderness places, from the Dakotas to Canada. In those places, she said, she fell in love with the outdoors.
“The evening calls of the wolf packs, their beautiful harmonies on the ridgetops, were my lullabies,” DeCoursey said. “I was much more familiar with birds and plants and animals than I was with people.”
Determined to spend her life studying the outdoors, she studied at Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin – both known for their environmental departments – and became a specialist in the field of chronobiology, the study of time-keeping mechanisms in animals’ brains.
In 1966, she came to USC and 10 years later became a professor in the science department. In ensuing years, she was one of the activists who worked to create what is now the Congaree National Park, 15 miles south of Columbia.
Through that and other work, she said, she became convinced that people who want to preserve nature should not only raise others’ awareness but also take direct action – whether on a small scale for a garden or a large scale.
DeCoursey, who will only concede her age is “somewhere north of 65,” made it clear that she did not accomplish the work at Belser on her own. Not only did hundreds of student volunteers help her, she said, but 10 or more colleagues at USC also donated either time, labor or expertise that made the arboretum’s revival possible.
“There’s no way we could have done it without their help,” she said.
The answer to preserving natural places in the future lies in nurturing a love for nature in small children, she said. “If they latch onto that with enthusiasm at 5, 6, 7 years old, many will become advocates for the rest of their lives.”
John Grimball, 68, the grandson of the late Gordon Belser, the lawyer and developer who deeded the property to USC in 1958 to be preserved, said his nature-loving grandfather would be “delighted” at what DeCoursey has done.
“His vision and her vision mesh completely,” Grimball said. “We are in Dr. DeCoursey’s debt.”
Columbia Green president Ann Holtschlag called DeCoursey a “visionary” who has an encyclopedic knowledge of nature.
“People need to know about her. She knows so many things, and she’s so engaging when she talks about them,” Holtschlag said. “You may think you are going to walk the arboretum with Pat for an hour, but you look at your watch and you have only gone, like, 27 feet.”
The award, created by the S.C. General Assembly, has been given since 1992. Past winners include those whose work has saved thousands of acres of natural area, such as S.C. Coastal Conservation League director Dana Beach as well as educator Rudy Mancke, a naturalist with a statewide following.