Green Space Letter

mr. holcolmb
September 5, 2016

     Among the files in my classroom I keep a variety of high-quality writing by PEA students. Many are models of descriptive prose.  Some date from early in my career here, about a decade ago, when I first asked students to describe small scenes on our campus.  One was written by Dr. Goddard’s daughter Brooke; it describes the ivy and other vines hanging from the brick walls of Merrill.  (“Where the vines diverge into leaves, pale green berries perch, cooled by the shade cast upon them by the thick vegetation.  But none of this can be seen in the densest regions, where the leaves overlap like fish scales, all light caught in their waxy sheen.”)  I’m looking out toward Merrill now, at the same flat red brick walls found everywhere on campus.  No green to be seen.

     I was told, when all those vines were ripped down, that they damage the mortar of buildings.  Hmm.  So why do Harvard and Yale and many other institutions allow ivy to grow on their buildings?  Maybe because they’re the Ivy League?  Or maybe because they value green spaces more than we do.  

      The destruction of plant life on this campus in recent years is distressing, and widespread enough to concern a wide swath of PEA residents and employees.  The addition of new buildings and parking lots is part of that despoliation.  But there has been a huge diminishment of greenery even where the soil hasn’t yet been paved over.  

     I am toying with the idea of offering a tour entitled “The Stumps of Exeter.”  We could walk around and visit all the stumps where a tree once stood; the tour would take hours.  Of course, some of those trees were diseased, and would die eventually.  But many healthy ones have been chainsawed because they stood near a house or academic building; I was told they could damage it, or made it hard to paint.  Some groves have been cut back because “a predator could hide in them.”  I’m not making this up.  By these standards, all of Nature is a menace, the trees vandals, the bushes an obstacle to Progress, the ivy a drain on the endowment.  

     Trees are slaughtered every time a building is renovated – two gorgeous, century-old maples behind Dunbar, so it would be easier to install new windows; various species during Webster and Lamont renovations; grand Red Oaks and American Elms near the science building.  

     This latter clear-cutting is not the call of our grounds team.  Who does make these decisions?  That’s not clear – and part of the problem.  There are many reasons, good and bad, to take out a tree, and only one reason to keep it.  In thinking of whoever does make these choices I’m reminded of an old adage: “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  That’s what the Stumps of Exeter look like to me now – nails pounded deep into the ground, never to rise again.

    Our Biology teachers once used the trees around the science building as a living lab, pointing out the characteristics of various species that grew and blossomed and prospered there.  Those trees have been destroyed – Carolina hemlock and sugar maple, oak, larch, redwood – at first singly, the rest at a fell swoop because they stood near the Music building addition.  The “wetland” by the footbridge was once raucously wild, deliciously tangled and shaded; now it’s a hole in the ground littered with empty soda cans.  A parking lot squats in place of the large grove that grew near Lamont.  

     I have compiled a lengthy list of faculty members who have complained about the culling of trees and bushes around their homes.  Recently the Academy took down three trees that weren’t even on our property!  One aggrieved homeowner on Hillyard Circle is advising his neighbors not to sell their land to PEA because, he says, “they don’t take care of it.”

     Even our lawns are in terrible shape.  The once-lovely Wetherell quad is now an embarrassment to our school.  Look behind Dunbar, Wentworth, and other dorms where groves have been cut back, and grass grows only in spots.  Have you seen the varsity baseball field?  Our hard-working groundspeople joke that they are going to spraypaint it.  They note that, when they mow our lawns, they’re covered, not in grass clippings, but in dust.  And where flowers once bloomed along the sides of paths we gaze on piles of mulch.

     This is not the campus I fell in love with twelve years ago.  The head of grounds at that time worked hard to cultivate our flora.  He took a new job at a university in Washington State four or five years ago, and recently won an award for the cultivation of that campus’s green spaces.  Ouch.  

     This distressing situation isn’t the fault of any one person, and can’t be remedied by one; it’s up to us, as students, staff, administration, and faculty, to address it.  Our new Sustainability coordinator Jason BreMiller is looking at ways we can open lines of communication, so the decisions to develop or cull our diminishing green spaces are arrived at transparently.  And our grounds administrators do have plans to restore greenery on the campus.  Perhaps in the meantime we could halt the destruction of existing vegetation.  

     I taught descriptive prose to Lowers this fall, and shared Brooke Goddard’s piece on the ivy.  After reading it one of the girls in my class remarked, “Gosh, that sounds like it was so beautiful.”  

     It was, my friend.  It really was.