May 1, 2003

Plantations Offer Respite

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The name Cornell Plantations carries images of serenity and natural beauty. Just minutes east of North Campus, the tranquil location feels worlds away from the hustle and bustle at Ho Plaza.

Many students venture through the Plantations on a sunny day to walk through some of the eight miles of beautiful trails, while others choose to meander through the sculpture garden, and some even decide to stop at Newman Overlook to catch the sunset.

The Cornell Plantations include much more than trails surrounding an arboretum and the fourteen thematic botanical and display gardens.

The Plantations cover natural areas throughout upstate New York totaling approximately 3,400 acres of land, which is “A lot of territory, but an honor to manage,” admits Dan Rakow, the Elizabeth Newman Wilds director of the Cornell Plantations.

The history of the Plantations dates as far back as 1877. The idea of developing an extensive arboretum was first proposed in that year to the Board of Trustees, who rebuffed the suggestion. Six years later the idea of establishing an arboretum — a place where an extensive variety of woody plants are cultivated for scientific, educational and ornamental purposes — was reintroduced by such names as former President A.D. White. The formal idea for a development program was continually rejected, but small efforts were made to expand the arboretum area.

In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, was created, employing out-of-work-men in civil engineering projects. One of the CCC divisions was located at Cornell, and the Corps’ men built stone walls, roadways and patios which are still in use today. The stone wall on the east shore of Beebe Lake is the CCC’s work.

In 1944, Liberty Hyde Bailey, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, made a successful proposal for the first arboretum and suggested the name Cornell Plantations. In those early days, the Plantations included about 1,000 acres of land, few collections and minimal funding, and lacked a full time staff. As a botanist and horticulturist, Bailey saw potential for development and envisioned “a project set up by the friends of things that grow, to unify into one organic whole a series of enterprises based on the land,” according to Elisa Wolfson, communications coordinator, Cornell Plantations.

Up until the early ’70s the growth of the plantations remained stagnant, but from that point forward major initiatives were set into place to promote expansion. In 1974, the oldest botanical garden, the Robison York State Herb Garden, was dedicated, and the main arboretum was expanded in 1981.

Today on Cornell’s campus, the Cornell Plantations operate fourteen botanical gardens, an arboretum with 150,000 acres of land including two large ponds, Cascadilla Creek, Fall Creek and Beebe Lake.

They also manage “twenty-four unique natural areas which include habitats of every type possible in the upstate New York area, which unfortunately exclude man-growth swamps or deserts,” according to Rakow. The different types of habitats house a variety of natural areas including fens, bogs, old growth forests, meadows, thorn thickets and even cattail swamps.

“These ecologically fragile areas are protected for research, education and the enjoyment of informed visitors,” according to the Cornell Plantations website.

The Cornell Plantations cater their activities and educational efforts towards three main audiences: the Cornell academic audience of students and professors, Cornell alumni and the people of New York state. The plantation gardens boast a year-round “‘living museum’ because our exhibits rotate with the seasons,” Wolfson said. Popular activities the Plantations offer include guided tours, classes for credit and noncredit and an educational lecture series.

Rakow feels that the fall educational series is a highlight of the many activities provided by the Plantations.

“The Cornell Plantations offers something to teach everyone no matter [the] discipline. Nature plays a prominent thematic role in writing,” Rakow said.

The lecture series draws examples of nature in literature and looks at the symbolic connection between the two. Rakow is especially looking forward to this year’s fall introductory lecture. It will feature Prof. Alice Fulton, English, who received the 2002 Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry for her 2001 book of poetry, Felt.

Other activities visitors can partake in include independent hiking or jogging, birdwatching, sketching and nature photography. “Connecting all of our efforts is our desire to educate and celebrate the interconnections between people, plants and the environment,” Wolfson said.

The plantations also “offer many opportunities for volunteers, from leading tours, to helping in the gift shop, to assisting with gardening and grounds,” said Kevin Moss, community outreach coordinator for the Plantations. “I would say we probably have 40-50 active volunteers.” Another 50 people are part of the paid staff, some of whom are seasonal.

According to their current annual report, the total operating income for 2002 was approximately $2,428,490. Approximately half of that money was given as investments, a quarter came from gifts, Cornell’s contribution was fifteen percent and the rest was miscellaneous. Their total operating expenses were approximately $2,102,521 with nearly half of that sum going to the botanical collections.

When asked what the purpose of the plantations is, Rakow answered, “They are all about using many different resources to teach about the plantations, natural sciences and all ways that humans are interconnected with the natural world.”

Archived article by Alexis Munoz