September 11, 2016

SCHULMAN | Botanic Gardens: a Plain, Simple Name

Print More

There’s a spot unique to this campus where I go when Cornell is being especially cruel. It spans about two or three square miles between CALS and North Campus and houses an arboretum, wildflower garden, trails and more. For the past three years I’ve made this place part of my daily routine, running and hiking there most mornings. I still feel rewarded when I climb its hills to see its views. I still get a sense of exploration even though I have already explored most of its twists and turns.

This place has played a key role during the last three years of my life. Climbing its hills, winding through its roads and taking in its scenery relaxes me and has put many of my problems into perspective. I have spent hours there, feeding the donkeys by the entrance with the wild grass that grows on the other side of the road and relaxing by the koi pond in the center, counting frogs, throwing pebbles to lure the sunfish, watching the snapping turtles. I find comfort knowing I can go here regardless of what is going on in my life.

Needless to say, this place is very important to me. Apparently, it’s become important to a lot of people since Cornell announced they would be changing this place’s name. It used to be called “the Cornell Plantations,” an outdated, ugly name. Cornell is finally giving the place a proper name that adequately captures what it is: Cornell Botanic Gardens.

Yet, this decision has been politicized. Critics of the decision argue Liberty Hyde Bailey, the main force behind setting this place aside as a sanctuary (also the guy Bailey Hall is named after), supported civil rights and did not intend to evoke the ugly system of socioeconomic oppression associated with plantation agriculture.

These arguments miss the point. Changing the name isn’t about activism or politics. I happen to sympathize with activists. Remnants of the oppression associated with plantation agriculture are still very much a part of our system. It is alarming when something symbolic gets met with so much pushback. If we can’t take small steps like changing a name  to fix our system, you have to wonder if substantive change will ever happen.

However, the name change isn’t about activism. It didn’t result from some external political struggle. It has been in the works since at least my sophomore year within CALS and the organization that maintains this area. The administration decided it wanted a name that more clearly captured the organization’s mission and vision. The word “plantation” doesn’t evoke the diversity of plants and natural areas that “botanical garden” does.

As someone who feels an intimate connection to this place, I know this is the right move. There is no place in the world where I feel happier or safer than the three square mile expanse between North Campus and the CALS. The pleasure I get from the wildflower gardens, arboretum and trails is plain and simple — certainly uncomplicated with connotations of socioeconomic oppression. It deserves a plain and simple name: “Botanic Gardens” That’s my schtick and I’m sticking to it. Stay tuned for more.

Eric Schulman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at eschulman@cornellsun.com. Schulman’s Schtick appears alternate Mondays this semester.