Nature, the Environment, and the University

By Christopher Camuto

Bob Taylor told me about the tundra swans when I came to interview at Bucknell in the winter of 2004.

“They come up the Susquehanna by the thousands in late February. Snow geese, too. And big flocks of Canadas.”

We were at dinner at what used to be an Italian place across the river. He shook his head.

“I can’t describe it. It’s something to see.”

Bob, who retired in 2005, is the finest writer to ever teach at Bucknell, and I’m sure he could have described those heart-breaking flights of waterfowl wavering north toward nesting grounds in the low arctic, using as they have for thousands of years the main stem of the Susquehanna River as a vector.

I’ve since learned that half the time you hear them before you see them. The tundras call a single, low note on a beat like that of a coxswain’s urging during the middle 1,000 meters of a race. The snow geese, which gleam black and white when sunlight hits them, sound like barking dogs. The Canadas, well, the Canadas honk the way they do, seeming to lack originality compared to their more exotic cousins.

Bob and I were well beyond the usual professional conversation that dominates an interview visit. But we weren’t making small talk. Bob knew me as a writer of place — a nature writer if I must be labeled — with a strong attachment to the southern Appalachians and for the coast of Maine. He knew that those migrating swans and geese, and that the big, shallow Susquehanna itself — frozen dramatically that winter — are an important part of Bucknell’s credentials. He knew that Bucknell enjoys an extraordinary place in the American landscape, and that as an institution, it has a striking creative and intellectual vantage, no matter what discipline you teach or what you come here to study.

For years, central Pennsylvania had merely been a place through which to drive as I shuttled between Virginia and Maine, writing books about one venue or the other. But every time I crossed the river at Harrisburg, I slowed down as much as one can on I-81 to check out how the bass boats were working the islands and channels of the Susquehanna and to admire the Marysville Bridge. The river looked good, and as I dogged my way across, I used to wonder what was up stream.

Bucknell, it turns out, was upstream.

Bucknell had been practicing the liberal arts above the confluence of the two major branches of one of North America’s great, if unsung, rivers for 160 years. Its campus oversaw a rich crossroads of nature and history overseen in turn by those great flights of migrating waterfowl. Bucknell was poised between the struggling world of coal country to the east — where the underground fires of Centralia burned — and the fertile farmland that lies, ploughed into neat furrows, between the modest ridges of the Alleghenies to the west, those curving wisps of mountains bending the landscape along an old arc of orogeny and erosion lathered more than once by glacial till. The site of Bucknell lay in the path of John Bartram’s journey to the Iroquois nation in 1743, a peace-making mission by the famous botanist through an area destined to be a zone of complex cultural contact between European settlers and Native Americans.

Bucknell was upstream of the once-great freight yards of Northumberland, the hub of an old transportation technology waiting to be rediscovered, and downstream of Williamsport, where some of the largest timber booms in the east had been assembled in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, old growth forest going to market. Bucknell wasn’t far, in time and space, from the steel-making at Danville and the buggy manufacturing in Mifflinburg and it lay right smack under a fabulous night sky — especially if you got out into the country. Bucknell was an hour away from the best wild trout water on Penns Creek and other streams but downwind of the acid deposition and polluted air that drifts from the Ohio Valley and Pittsburgh. Bucknell was surrounded by fine natural places, wetlands and woodlands rich with biological diversity, but also within reach of areas plagued by acid mine runoff and other forms of ground-water pollution.

At this rich intersection of culture and nature, full of promise and contradiction, Bucknell was studying the classics and dance, deep time and deep space, engineering and business, reading Dickinson and Dickey, Darwin and Thoreau, E. O. Wilson and Gary Snyder amid the still unsolved social and economic problems of small-town, rural-rustbelt America while the challenges of the burgeoning global village multiplied rapidly.
Bucknell was upstream, perfectly situated between the beauties of nature — that great given celebrated in literature and art since classical antiquity — and the problems of what we now call “the environment.” Hard to say whether those tundra swans that pass solemnly overhead every winter are calling out an encouragement or a warning, but Bucknell University was, in the middle of nowhere, perfectly situated at the center of everything that needs to be studied and taught in the 21st century.

In October of 2004, about 60 faculty, staff and students gathered in McDonnell Hall to measure the group interest and define their individual stake in a permanent university environmental center, an idea that had stalled several times in the past. That meeting was an imperfect storm of personal and professional enthusiasm for something no one could quite define, a way of pursuing overlapping interdisciplinary interests without creating a bureaucracy that got in the way or duplicated efforts.

In the room that evening was a stimulating — and potentially chaotic — range of interest in what philosophers call “nature” and scientists, “the environment.” In addition to the stalwarts from Bucknell’s long-successful Environmental Studies program, there was predictably strong representation from the earth and life sciences — geology, geography, ecology, biology, animal behavior, environmental chemistry, as well as from civil and environmental engineering and the health sciences. But there were also gunslingers from art, the classics, history, philosophy, religion, literature and creative writing — what latter became the “environmental humanities.” And there were strong voices from business, economics, and management.

How to proceed was not clear that evening, and would not be for a year. But there was strong interest in specific environmental issues — with global climate change casting a large shadow — and in cultural and philosophical questions about the status of nature in an increasingly manufactured and now partially virtual world. There also was a strong collective desire to put the full range of academic disciplines to work on behalf of those issues. Many present wanted Bucknell University not only to take a stronger role in local and regional environmental matters but to seek a national leadership role in forging new, interdisciplinary connections between environmental problem-solving in the 21st century and undergraduate education.

The Bucknell University Environmental Center formally came into existence in early 2005 and proceeded through its infancy driven by a combination of grassroots enthusiasm, the broad guidance of an 18-member steering committee of faculty, staff and students, and the leadership of two prime movers — co-directors Craig Kochel of the geology department and Peter Wilshusen of environmental studies. The interest and support of Jim Rice, associate provost and Dennis Hawley, associate vice-president for facilities, was also critical. Within a year, the Center’s far-flung ambitions had become three well-defined start-up initiatives — the Susquehanna River Initiative, the Environmental Humanities Initiative, and the Campus Greening Initiative.

From 2005 to 2008, the Center’s Susquehanna River Initiative — now directed by Ben Hayes — focused on local and regional watershed issues. The watershed, of course, is the fundamental geophysical unit for environmental research, teaching and management, every watershed being a definable ecological and cultural system within its boundaries (though subject to inputs from other watersheds). Bucknell students and professors had more than enough watershed in which to muddy their boots and waders: The West Branch drains 7,000 square miles of the Susquehanna’s 27,500 square-mile watershed which represents 43 percent of the 64,000 square mile Chesapeake Bay drainage.

The Center dug in with hydrologic monitoring, long-term environmental assessment, stream restoration workshops, a wetland restoration project for Montandon Marsh. Annual conferences on the river have been held, one with a focus on acid mine drainage and, this coming fall, another on agriculture. The Center established the Roaring Creek Field Station, which will become a nationally significant center for watershed science akin to Hubbard Brook in Massachusetts and Coweeta in North Carolina.

Interdisciplinary courses on watersheds systems science and stream restoration are being developed on the back of all this exciting field work, and this aggressive scientific outreach into the Susquehanna river basin has fueled more than a few theses and summer research projects, under the McKenna Grants and the Kalman summer undergraduate research program. Even more interesting work awaits — on ongoing state-of-the river assessment, a study of historical land-use impacts, study of Pleistocene flood history of the river basin. Work on environmental epidemiology will connect information on river ecology to issues of public health related to work being done at Geisinger in environmental epidemiology. Acid-mine drainage, agricultural run off, and impacts from development and road building all need continued study.

A unique feature of the Bucknell University Environmental Center has been its attention to the humanities. From the very first meeting, there has been agreement that environmental problems are related to cultural causes and attitudes and that the humanities have an important role to play in shedding light on solutions. The Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHI), spearheaded by Alf Siewers, has created the groundwork for programs aimed at bringing the research methods of the humanities to bear on the history of the environment of the Susquehanna region. This includes the Cultures at the Confluence project, which fosters interdisciplinary study of the human history (indigenous, colonial, early industrial) of the region. Patterns of human use of and attitudes toward nature have changed dramatically in the past 500 years, as have patterns of land use. Understanding these interactions and their evolution is necessarily an interdisciplinary undertaking; faculty research and student work under the EHI have the exciting intellectual advantage of new modes of scholarship and interpretation.

A good deal of this study takes place through student summer internship projects and senior and honors theses on subject like Native American novelist Linda Hogan, Susan and James Fennimore Cooper, medieval philosophy and ecology, early Irish literature, Islamic literature, Friedrich Nietzsche and J. R. R. Tolkien — all demonstrating exciting new ways of exploring what is now called the deep ecology of the relation of the human and the natural. Students have interned at The Daily Item, specializing in environmental subjects, and helped develop on-line walking tours of historical sites in Sunbury. The EHI has also forged strong links with the Susquehanna River Heartland Humanities Council, the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and a wide range of local arts, historical and community development organizations.

The Campus Greening Initiative has been central to the BUEC’s mission from the start. A program coordinated by Dina El-Mogazi since 2006 has been working to reduce the University’s ecological footprint, to raise the environmental literacy of the student body, to influence the environmental awareness of the University’s emerging Campus Master Plan, and to demonstrate institutional ways of practicing sustainability through recycling, solar power, green landscaping, green building, and other new ideas and new technologies. This initiative recognizes that you can’t preach sustainability without practicing it, and its programs help to demonstrate the emerging ethos of sustainable living.

This initiative has sponsored a Campus Environmental Assessment, conducts an ongoing sustainability assessment of the university, helped organized the hugely successful Focus the Nation teach-in at the end of January 2008, created a Campus Greening Council to aid campus planning, interacts with the Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium, and has co-sponsored two regional conferences, on energy savings and storm-water management, that — like the other two initiatives, connects Bucknell University firmly to watershed stewardship. Students have been extraordinarily active in this initiative — through the solar scholars program, re-energized recycling efforts, organic gardening, native plant landscaping, environmental literacy and environmental leadership training.

Now, approaching the beginning of the 2008–09 academic year, the BUEC stands ready to enter a seven-year second phase of growth in and consolidation of its programs and ambitions. In addition to dozens of successful programs on the ground, the Center’s first three years of program development were impressive enough to attract a $450,000 Henry Luce Foundation grant and $195,000 of federal appropriations. The growing confidence of private and public funding sources in the long-term vision and day-to-day operations of the BUEC makes it a worthy candidate for seeking a larger, permanent endowment under the umbrella of Bucknell’s next capital plan.

A university is not a museum of ideas. It must stimulate practice in the arts and sciences, in business and in engineering. Intellectually, it ought to be a first responder to the demands of its historical moment. The twin problems of environmental sustainability and of cultural blindness toward what can only be called the nature of nature confront us at every turn. Mounting evidence of global climate change suggests that nature and the environment are not optional interests but rather the context within which all other interests must be considered. As universities teach every day across the curriculum, in disciplines far outside any common definition of environmental awareness, we ignore its laws, processes, and limits at our peril. The new initiatives around environmental knowledge at Bucknell, however, explore how human endeavors can grow in synch with the excellence of nature. They promise a new vision at the core of a Bucknell education, to add cutting-edge value to the Bucknell degree, and to contribute to the international pursuit of just, peaceful, sustainable living on this beleaguered planet.

Chris Camuto is the author of four books of nonfiction, A Fly Fisherman’s Blue Ridge, Another Country: Journeying Toward the Cherokee Mountains, Hunting from Home: A Year Afield in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Time & Tide in Acadia: Seasons on Mount Desert Island, due out from W. W. Norton in May of 2009. An active environmentalist for 20 years, he has written numerous essays on nature and the environment for a wide range of national publications. He is working to restore the native ecology of a 78-acre woodland property in western Union County, the subject of a work-in-progress tentatively titled Works & Days: Redeeming Nature. He joined Bucknell’s English Department in 2004.

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