October 5, 2005

Profs Recount Stories of Struggle to Save Redbud Woods

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The Redbud Woods protesters were an unavoidable sight last spring. But many members of the University community were not on campus this past summer to witness the final struggle between administrators and protesters. Several faculty members involved with the protests recently spoke with The Sun to share their stories and opinions of this summer’s events.

Prof. Elizabeth Sanders, government, slept on the damp forest ground and nearly got eaten alive by mosquitoes and fire ants as a Redbud Woods protester in July.

“This summer, I did things I never did even when I was 20,” she said. “I got arrested [for criminal trespassing] – before the protest I had never even had a moving violation or a traffic ticket.”

Having grown up in Alabama, Sanders was naturally drawn to the woods because of her “love of green things.” She wanted to preserve the Redbud Woods to ensure that students from cities could know what it felt like to be among nature.

Sanders said that she knows the importance of exposing people to nature at a young age; her son’s love of nature stems from his childhood in Houston, where she often took him to play in an overgrown lot.

“I have wonderful images of him walking among the scraggly trees with a stick in his hand,” she said. “Having access to nature at that age influenced his love of entomology and biology.”

Because of her personal love of nature and desire for others to feel the same way, becoming deeply involved in the Redbud protests seemed a natural choice.

Cornell lost more than just trees from its decision to “pave paradise,” Sanders said.

“The University lost the chance to take advantage of a wonderful, positive energy. I’ve never seen the faculty so mobilized to do something good, with no personal or professional reward. We wanted to put Cornell on the map for environmental protection and sustainability.”

Sanders said some members of the faculty talked of establishing new ecology courses and programs, where students could learn amongst the woods. But Cornell lost this energy when it destroyed the trees, she said. “Many faculty are disillusioned with the administration. [Keeping the trees] could have produced a very creative and cooperative climate at Cornell. We would have been in a situation to attracted the best students and faculty. The University has lost the good will and respect of many faculty because of their intransigence.”

Prof. Jean Marie Law, Japanese religions, is proud that she was arrested for criminal trespassing while protesting against the destruction of Redbud Woods this summer.

“I know there are two sides to everything, but I’m positive that [protesting] was the right thing to do,” she said. “Whenever I go into town, everyone says, ‘You’re Jean Marie Law and I want to thank you for what you tried to do.’ It’s moving [that] people haven’t forgotten.”

Although Law had participated in protests before and considered herself active in environmental conservation, she took a special interest in Redbud Woods.

“I spent a lot of time inside the woods and they were deeply beautiful,” she said.

Law said the most emotional part of her experience was the night before the Redbud Working Group and the Cornell administration reached an agreement to end the occupation of the woods.

“That last night I got the sense it was a life and death struggle,” she said. That night, Law spent several hours in the woods with other protesters and wrote an essay about them.

“I saw the woods as an incredible gift,” she said. “It was a beautiful space where you could see the lake and the crescent moon.” Law said although she didn’t think she could watch the bulldozers knock the trees down, she knew she had to witness it.

“It was just so traumatic,” she said. “They brought in these forest movers and it was all over in 10 minutes.”

Knocking over a pencil holder with her a flick of her hand to demonstrate the effect of the construction equipment on the trees, she said, “They cut down these beautiful, old trees just like that.” Although Law says her role in the protests may have damaged her career, she has no qualms about her actions.

“I can sleep at night knowing I have clear principles,” she said. “I have thought, ‘I may lose my job but I don’t want to have a price tag on my ethics.'”

Describing town-gown relations as strained due to the Redbud protests, Law said many community residents are upset and some want to boycott the University.

“Many working class people with real jobs joined us in the protest versus ‘Cornell Incorporated,'” she said. “I love this University, I love my job, I’m so proud I work for this University – but I feel like Cornell raped our city. Nothing they say can make it right.”

While Prof. Martin Hatch, music, did not camp out in the woods or risk arrest, he still contributed to the Redbud Woods effort this summer by raising money pledged for the creation of an “urban woodland.” Hatch also wrote letters to save the woods and met with Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III.

He was drawn to the mission in 2001, when the University first proposed building a parking lot.

“I had two kids in college at the time, neither of whom had cars on campus, and they valued being able to walk around,” he said. “I looked at the woods and realized it’s not an expendable resource.” Hatch was also discouraged that there weren’t more actions to amend the transportation system and decrease the number of cars on campus.

He said Cornell needs to figure out how to handle traffic and parking at a lower cost to the environment.

But no matter what measures Cornell takes, he said, “that wound on University and Stewart Avenue is still an open one and I don’t know if that will ever turn into a scar.”

Archived article by Olivia Oran
Sun Staff Writer