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The Reluctant Environmentalist Blog


Green Tip of the Week 4/21/2010:  “Signify our Significant Trees.”


I interviewed Charlene Wallace, Secretary for Religious Studies, Philosophy, Honors, and Asian Studies.  She coordinates the recycling program in Donnarumma.


Charlene has been inspired by Connecticut College, where natural landscapes are valued and sustainable living is accepted naturally, without fuss.  Among her ideas are these:


(1) Our students and scientists together could make informational plaques for our most special trees.  Name them. Signify them, to help us value them. Place handmade wooden benches around the Hopkins Oak and other trees we most appreciate.


(2) Start a planting program for new trees, exotic trees, specimen trees.  Classes could donate and plaque new trees, and so could other donors.


(3) Compile a natural history of the land where Fairfield University stands.


(4) Plaque Bellarmine Pond.  What wildlife, what plants, what insects can be found there?  What is its ecosystem like?


Interview of Charlene Wallace on April 16, 2010:


Q:  What do you think is Fairfield’s most important green accomplishment so far?


Charlene:  I feel we have a tremendously long way to go, and I couldn’t select one particular thing.  I’ve been involved with the recycling efforts, but for every step forward, it’s three steps backward.  The students roll out, new faculty come in, and I don’t have the time or resources to keep re-educating people. I go around and pick bottles out of pails and put them where they are supposed to go.  I don’t feel a sense of progression.


This year, though, Dr. Downie has worked with the students for them to coordinate all the Earth Week activities.  This is exciting and wonderful.  On the down side, I feel a sense of fracture, with so much going on.


Q:  What further efforts do you think Fairfield should be making?


Charlene:  I have many ideas.  My husband spent a summer up at Connecticut College in New London on an NEH Fellowship.  One thing that impressed him mightily was that the whole campus was heavily wooded.  It’s like an arboretum. Everywhere you go, there are plaques pointing out trees and habitats.  Instead of manicuring everything like we do on this campus, they leave edges and meadows, to foster a sense of a living habitat.  He saw bunnies, dragonflies, and meadowbirds, for example, because they left the environment alone. 


I wish we could see less cutting and less lawns here.  It would be exciting if our scientists worked with students to make plaques, starting with our centennial or champion oaks (many of which were cut down to make the parking lot), and signify them.  Then students, visitors, and audiences for the Quick Center could read the plaque and say, “Oh!  A 200-year-old tree!” Or a magnolia, or a bonsai cherry. Then these trees wouldn’t just blend into the background.  They’d be signified—singled out—as special.  People’s awareness would be increased, and they would value Fairfield’s traditions more. 


I’d also like to see a natural history written of the land where Fairfield University stands – going back to colonial time, the Indians, even the glaciers.  Built in the 1920s, Bellarmine Hall was one of the estate buildings on this property.  Its owners imported trees from China and Australia, and they had specimen plantings in their own special garden.  Of course, they had a team of gardeners.  But why can’t we continue that tradition?  Instead of planting a common little dogwood somewhere, we might plant specimen trees.  Those who want to do something for the university might donate to our planting program—a ironwood tree, for example.  We could put these trees in prominent places and plaque them.  


We could also, for example, plaque the pond, inscribing what kind of wildlife thrives there, and what kind of ecosystem it is.


Q:  That would increase awareness and be educational.


Charlene:  And beautiful, too, don’t you think?  This land has so much potential, yet nobody has really talked about its natural history.  That intrigues me.  Every day I leave the university by way of that little pond over there, Bellarmine Pond.  If you’re aware and alert, and you’re seeing, which my husband has taught me to do, you’ll see when the mallards come back, and when the scotch (black and white) ducks come to float there. As the summer goes on you’ll see wading birds, like herons, and redwing blackbirds, and different insects.  Why not make a plaque at the pond?  There’s s a wildlife preserve in Ohio on Lake Erie, where we visit my sister-in-law.  It’s a large tract of undeveloped land west of Cleveland. They have plaques about a foot square, describing the wildlife you might expect to see there.  These plaques add value--not in the advertising sense, but in the sense of making people aware of what’s worth preserving.  If they for ten seconds, read the plaque, and realize they might see a bird the next time they walk by, they become more sensitive to place.  They’re less likely just to drive by at 50 mph in the car.


Q:  It sounds like recognizing and honoring and remembering.


Charlene:  Yes.  And valuing.


Q:  No one else I’ve interviewed yet has presented this idea.  It’s a remarkable idea. 


Charlene.  The other idea—this is my husband’s idea—is to build wooden benches around special trees.  The Hopkins Oak, that gigantic 200-year-old oak down by Hopkins Pond, could have sectional wooden bench its base.  It could be made of natural materials, as they do in England, instead of plastic.  Maybe our guys on campus could make it.  They could have it fit together in sections, so that the bench could fit together in sections as the tree continues to grow.  That would encourage people to linger, to sit underneath the tree and watch the seasons change.  There would be sunlight and deep shade in the summer, yellow leaves in the fall—this could be beautiful.


Q:  That’s the kind of attention paid to natural sites in the Audubon Society, or in other forests I’ve visited like the Muir Woods in San Francisco.  It lends sacredness to the trees.


Charlene:  That would make it a lot harder to do what they’ve just done, if people across campus were objecting, “What are you doing that for?  We love this tree.  We love this pond.  We love these birds.”


Q: What else is on your thoughtful wish list?


Charlene: I’d like to see more exotic and unusual tree plantings.  Classes often want to donate something to the university, like that clock beside the library path below us.  If an arboreal garden were started here, then each class could donate an exotic tree to that place.  The plaque could include the year of the donating class.


Q:  I'll bet classes would like that.  They’re always looking for ideas.


Charlene:  Wouldn’t that be an interesting, long-lasting gift?  I’d also like to see the main entrance improved.  It’s a severe disappointment, with all the big trees cut down to make that straightaway which is now a raceway.  You can’t even cross it safely on foot.  I’d like to see some giant trees there, with underplantings. 


Q: What kind of trees or plantings would you like to see near the entrance?


Charlene:  Something that’s big, grows fast, throws a lot of shade—something that doesn’t look like an entrance to a shopping mall, with a little spindly tree there and a few foot-high shrubs.  We’re about bigger than that.


Q:  What other suggestions do you have?


Charlene:  As to where Fairfield should go from here, I think we should have an environmental coordinator.  We are at the point where we desperately need somebody to bring all our disparate environmental elements together.  Right now we’re like a shooting star, with many good ideas, many wonderful students and scientists, and yet we’re all doing our thing in our own little corner. 


This year for the first time, all the coordination and efforts are all student-driven, which is wonderful.  But how can we get more people involved?  I’d like to see more opportunity for staff to be involved, because there are so many environmentally conscious people on the staff who would do more if opportunities were put out there.  So far the only stated opportunities are recycling and campus cleanup--which will be next Thursday on Earth Day.  But even if we had a part-time coordinator, someone could be attentive to environmental issues with more promotion, more coordination, and more centralization.  We need a presence, a go-to person, a person archiving the history of all these movements.  Anyone with an idea could go to that person, that coordinator, and they’d be informed, “Oh, you can go here,” or “This student on campus is working on that project,” or “Did you know we have a grant for that?” or “I heard about a grant for that.”


Q:  Do you see this person as reaching out to segments of the university, rather than just cataloguing?  So that it won’t be fractured?


Charlene:  Oh, that’s essential.  We need to promote more—and not in the horn-tooting way that they’re always promoting the Co-Gen plant.  Yes, it’s great, they won awards for it, it was forward-thinking, and it works well, and it saves energy.  But it would be great to promote some of the little things, the grassroots things, the everyday actions it takes to live a more sustainable life.  If everybody on campus were jazzed about the way we live here, people would care more.  We need a coordinator full of ideas and creativity and energy and excitement, somebody who can bridge generations—that would be wonderful.


Q:  Somebody who is a public presence.


Charlene: Yes.


Q:  There is a Campus Sustainability Committee, and Dave Frassinelli chairs it as Director of Facilities Management, so in a way he is coordinating environmental advances.  It meets about three times a year.  What would your suggestion add to that?  


Charlene:  I went to a couple of those meetings, but they weren’t satisfying to me.  They were information-heavy, but I did not feel that driving energy that asks what we can do next, who we can pull in.  Maybe we could have, if not a monthly project, a quarterly project.  I want to see energy; I want to see excitement.


Q:  It sounds you would like, rather than top-down information, the action  of pulling other people in, and making them excited about the environment.


Charlene:  Yes.  Make people who participate in grassroots environmentalism feel like they’re not a lone voice crying in the wilderness.  At Conn College, I was so impressed. They had one building that was the environmental house, and 8 or 10 women lived there.  Everything they did was mindful of what they were consuming, what they were eating, what they were buying or not buying, where their studies were going to take them, how they could live and practice, and what they were learning.  The energy was so inspiring.  In the dining hall they had no paper napkins and no disposables.  We’re catching up now to where they were five years ago.  Instead of trays, each person had a small ceramic plate, with refills possible.  There were cloth napkins, if you wanted one.  People bussed their own tables.  People just lived that way.  I would like to see that same heightened awareness at every level, here.  This would be my ultimate wish—that we don’t think of ourselves as unusual, or tree-huggers, or wackos who wear only hemp clothes and non-leather shoes.  Instead, sustainability is just the way we live at Fairfield.


Q:  The new student environmental living-learning community, which will be in the refurbished Jesuit residence—would that fit with what you have in mind?  They’re going to have a garden.


Charlene:  I think it’s a great idea.  But then again, those efforts always require sustainability.  It’s in the nature of our institution that students roll out when they graduate every year.  Who’s going to pick it up and keep the thing going? Who’s going to do the garden?   That’s the biggest challenge. I do think that there’s tremendous room for improvement there.  I just want to see a sense of vitality about all this.  I want to see people who are on fire with what I’m on fire with.  I want us all to be on fire!


Q:  That’s great.