Summer 1997

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Old-Growth Forests

in Western New York


Thomas D. Cornell

An essay in three parts

Part I

As we were leaving home last summer for a day trip, Terry pulled from our mailbox the new fall catalog of courses offered by the Rochester Museum and Science Center (RMSC). For several years she had been taking a variety of RMSC craft courses—weaving, embroidery, beadworking, quiltmaking, etc. —and from time to time she had also sampled their natural history courses (including rock and mineral identification and tree identification). From our conversations I had been impressed by the general style of these courses: small groups, good teachers, focused projects, low-pressure approaches, and reasonable fees. But I had not taken one myself.

For the first half hour of the trip, Terry talked her way through the new catalog. At first she focused on the additional craft courses she might take. But when she got to the natural history listings, she selected one she thought might interest me and read aloud the following description:

Old Growth Forests of Western New York
We may not have spotted owls, but we do have remnants of old-growth forests, right here in western New York! Learn where these patches are and how they are found and aged. Explore three ancient forest sites in the Rochester area with Jim Battaglia of the Western New York Old Growth Forest Survey, who has spent six years locating and authenticating fragments of ancient forests.

The old-growth survey project was something we had come across before. On an earlier trip we had driven to the Kenan Center in Lockport, New York, to see a traveling embroidery exhibit, entitled "Through the Needle's Eye," and upstairs we had also seen an exhibit of Jim Battaglia's black-and-white photographs, taken as part of the survey. The flier I picked up explained that the survey team had formed in 1989 and that they had begun their field work the following year. Already they had examined nearly a hundred sites, assessing each in light of four defining characteristics of old growth:

First, the forest must consist of long-lived climax species such as sugar maples, American beech, yellow birch, and hemlock. Second, the forest must have an area of 20 or more acres. Third, a significant number of its trees must be aged 150 years or more. Finally, the forest must show minimal signs of human disturbance.

Even before our trip to the Kenan Center, I had clipped from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (18 Feb. 1996, pp. 1A & 6A) a long article about the survey. Among other things, it had listed the specific features the team looked for:

  1. Indicators of advanced age in individual trees, such as great size, senescent bark, buttress rooting and twisted growth of the trunk.
  2. Single, straight trunks with lowest branches 40 to 50 feet from the ground.
  3. Aged specimens of all dominant tree species.
  4. An irregular forest floor marked by pits and mounds.
  5. Presence of snags (standing dead trees) and fallen trees at various stages of decay.
  6. Full range of ages, from seedlings/saplings to mature/senescent.
  7. Crown deformities and irregular or ragged canopy outline.
  8. 8. A flora rich in lichens, fungi, mosses and/or ferns.

Although I was intrigued by the idea that it was possible to visit nearby remnants of old growth, I also knew that I tended to have far more ideas for projects than I was able to undertake. Fortunately, in this case the timing was just right—because during the upcoming fall quarter I was slated for a second sabbatical from my teaching duties at RIT.

Like my first sabbatical, the official project for my second was to continue my history-of-science research. But during my first sabbatical Grandma Cornell had died, so that alongside my history-of-science research I had spent considerable time boxing up her papers and recommitting myself to the writing of local history. With that precedent in mind, I was looking for ways to use my second sabbatical to further my interest in local history—and Terry's suggestion of the RMSC course seemed perfect.

When I got to the RMSC campus at a quarter til 7, on a Monday evening in late September, I joined a steady stream of cars and people. Just inside the classroom building, at the top of a short flight of stairs, a well-dressed young woman was "directing traffic"—helping newcomers like myself find their classrooms. Mine was located in the basement, and already a dozen or so students were seated in folding chairs, lined up in rows between the lab benches. Promptly a 7 the teacher began, by calling the roll and making preliminary remarks. Then she turned over the remainder of our allotted two hours to several members of the survey team—Bruce Kershner, Jim Battaglia, Mike Siuta, and Glen Gelinas—who discussed their project, using 35mm color slides that Bruce had taken on their many field trips.

Even before the slide presentation, the course promised to be a complex experience for me. I was trying out a kind of activity that had become important to Terry; I was pursuing an aspect of my interest in local history, as a sabbatical project; and I was entering the classroom as a student, for the first time since becoming a college teacher. But the slide presentation added yet another dimension, because—quite unexpectedly—it put me into the late 20th-century equivalent of my grandfather's world.

Like some of the survey-team members, George Cornell had been a school teacher, a naturalist, and a photographer whose interest in science stood poised on the divide between "serious amateur" and "part-time professional." He had begun his teaching career at the turn of the century, in various one-room schoolhouses, and between the World Wars he had helped centralize the public schools in Campbell, New York, while teaching high-school math and science. Both Dad and Grandma had told me about how he had studied the region's natural history—especially its wildflowers—and samples of his nature photographs occasionally surfaced in the piles of material throughout Grandma's house:

About a week following Grandma's death, in January 1990, I had gone ahead with my previous plans for a short research trip to Washington, D. C. When I returned to help Uncle John put the house into good order, he showed me the lantern slides he had found. They were positive, black-and-white images on glass, each measuring 4" x 31/4 ". My grandfather, Uncle John explained, had shown these slides to different groups in town. Now, at the first meeting of my RMSC class, I found myself experiencing something similar.

Perhaps the main difference between the two worlds—other than the time that separated them—was the urban base of the old-growth survey. The idea for the project had first arisen at a meeting of the Niagara Frontier Botanical Society. "As naturalists," Jim told us during his portion of the presentation, "we were tired of botanizing the same old places. Even if we didn't identify any old-growth sites, at least we'd have an opportunity to visit new places. "

But success looked to be a good bet. During the 1980s Bruce Kershner had identified as old growth a parcel of woods in a Buffalo suburb. "What is astonishing," he wrote in Secret Places, his 1994 guidebook to "scenic treasures of Western New York and Southern Ontario" (Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co.), "is that the [Reinstein] preserve contains what may be the most valuable piece of natural real estate in Erie County—an 80-acre ancient forest that looks much like it did in prehistoric times" (pp. 3 & 5). Now, during the slide presentation, he described his thinking when the project had first been proposed. "If we have identified old growth this close to a major metropolitan area," he had reasoned, "there must be more."

Indeed there were: in slide after slide we saw scenes from more than a dozen sites, throughout the state's westernmost counties. But none was located in Steuben County. When I asked about this, the team members explained that they had deliberately kept their attention focused on sites closer to Buffalo. Nevertheless, I got the feeling that if promising leads were brought to their attention, the team would be interested in checking them out—which is what first put me in mind of writing about the project for The Crooked Lake Review.

Part II

As an introvert, I usually find new social situations hard to handle. In cases where my own expectations aren't especially high, I try to keep my personal involvement to a minimum and "go with the flow. " But in cases such as the RMSC course—for which my expectations were quite high—I often put my reflective powers to work overtime and generate a variety of possible scenarios. In that way the actual experience becomes a process of hypothesis testing, to see which of the imagined alternatives best fits the events—the assumption being that the events will settle into one scenario or another. But instead of following a single channel, my RMSC course continued to take on additional dimensions.

Where the first session had featured a slide presentation by the survey team, the second featured an informal lecture by the regular teacher. As far as the classroom procedures went, I was on familiar ground: overhead transparencies, writing on the blackboard, small-group discussions, etc. But the content represented new terrain, because the teacher's main goal for the evening was to introduce us to the ecological concepts we needed for our study of old-growth forests.

As a distinctive field of science, ecology examines the complex, mutual interactions of plants and animals—not just with each other but also with the geological and atmospheric conditions of life. In the case of trees, our teacher offered a simplified, three-component model:

Soil                    Vegetation

To encourage us to explore these mutual interactions, she asked us to list some of the changes that humans have caused. Starting with soil, and moving clockwise around the triangle (soil to climate, climate to vegetation, and vegetation to soil): overplowing the Great Plains helped create the Dust Bowl, acid rain (produced by the emissions of coal-burning power plants) has damaged forests, and extensive logging has resulted in soil erosion and increased flooding.

But rather than stopping there, Robin pushed us into the realm of natural change. Natural change, she told us, can be long term, as well as short term. Glaciation would be an example of natural long-term change, while fires and blowdowns would be examples of natural short-term change.

To these various types of natural change, different species of trees have evolved different responses. Some are slow-growing and shade tolerant; they tend to become the canopy trees of old-growth forests. Others grow and reproduce quickly, especially in sunny openings; they tend to become the pioneer trees in areas affected by fires or blowdowns. Still others have adapted to high-stress conditions—involving animal browsing, tree diseases, drought, etc.

All species try to maximize their survival rates. But different species have developed different strategies. Thus, over the vast extent of geological time, forests have developed greater and greater diversity. In other words, old-growth forests have maximized their ability to respond to the greatest possible range of changes. But just how they respond (and, indeed, the full extent of their potential for survival) remains very much a matter for on-going ecological research—so that where the first session of the course had shown me the amateur-professional divide within the scientific community, the second took me deeply into the realm of the professional.

Nor did new dimensions stop surfacing as we began our field trips. For the first such trip we visited Irondequoit Bay Park East. It was a beautiful fall day—partly sunny, but cool enough for jackets. Robin brought us to this particular locale not to show us true old growth but to show us different forest types. Walking across the level high ground, we saw fields being reclaimed by trees. By contrast, the bluffs leading down to the bay were heavily wooded and showed several old-growth characteristics—notably, tree trunks that stretched upward, fifty feet or more, before branching. As the land again leveled out and we approached the bay, the hillside oaks amd maples were replaced by willows and cottonwoods. Finally, after climbing partway back up a north-facing section of the bluff, we entered a hemlock forest.

Throughout all this, we talked. It was our third meeting, and we were turning out to be a congenial group—just as Terry had found. At different times, I conversed with each of my classmates. But I was espcially drawn to the two who worked for the museum. Riding with Connie and Jenn from our rendezvous site (the RMSC parking lot), I listened a while to their "shop talk" about various species of plants and trees. Then I began signaling my own interests, as an historian, which led to further conversation on the hike itself. The upshot was that the field trip became as much an introduction to the museum as it was to the woods.

Several years before, I had heard Connie give a program at the museum—involving her interest in paleobotany and Native-American prehistory—and I now remarked how scientists and historians both work to establish story lines—though each employ different kinds of evidence and different methods of presentation. She replied that she had been discussing with a paleontologist at the museum the different senses of time that geologists and anthropologists have. Arising from these remarks—hers and mine—was an idea for a possible collaborative program. Entitled "Once Upon a Time…," it would feature the different kinds of stories that geologists, anthropologists, and historians tell regarding the same terrain.

The second field trip came a week later, and this time we rendezvoused in the parking lot at Eastview Mall. The temperature was about the same as the previous Saturday, but fall was now showing its other face: dark, low-lying clouds and a steady drizzle. Neither Connie nor Jenn showed up. But instead of trying to find a ride with someone else, I volunteered to serve as one of the drivers for our visit to nearby Bentley Woods (a Nature Conservancy Preserve), where we joined Jim Battaglia for a wet, slippery walk through honest-to-goodness old growth.

Despite the inclement weather—and my introverted tendencies—I was determined to take pictures, and in order to give myself dry space in which to work, I had brought my umbrella. But it's tricky to hold an umbrella and shoot at the same time.

"Your umbrella is in the way," Jim told me as I started to take a picture of him. The strap on the handle was the problem; I fixed it and then tried again.

Jim had stopped at the edge of the woods proper to begin pointing out its old-growth characteristics: numerous mature trees with large girths, long boles, and buttressing at their bases. After that, we began following a path diagonally up the hillside, and Jim drew our attention to the fallen trees on the ground and the young trees in the understory:

Because I was taking pictures, I tended to lag behind. But I did hear Jim make what struck me as a telling comment. As we walked along the hillcrest, he asked us to look down the other side and notice how different it was from the side we had come up: clearly, it had been logged in recent times and wasn't old growth. Then he spoke from his extensive experience. "You often realize you've been in old growth," he told us, "only when you find yourself leaving it. "

Meanwhile, just as had happened the previous week, a conversation with a fellow student transported me out of the forest. But this time instead of the museum world, I found myself entering the world of one of my own courses.

Coming down the hill, Mike asked me what kind of work I do. "I teach at RIT," I answered. What field, he wanted to know. "History," I told him, offering my standard reply: "American history, history of science, history of technology. " The last was what drew his interest, and he asked if I focused on tools in my "History of American Technology" course. "I put tools in the context of technological systems," I said. "For example, instead of just talking about Renaissance navigational instruments, I describe how the sailing ships used in the voyages of exploration involved a set of interrelated components—including the navigational instruments, but also including sail designs, hull designs, cannons, etc. "

Mike then mentioned the writer-artist Eric Sloane, whose books he had been finding on sale tables in bookstores. To this I replied that my course emphasized the visual aspect of technical knowledge. "Technology differs from other kinds of knowledge," I said, "in possessing extensive non-verbal components. Much technical knowledge can't be represented in words or mathematical equations but can be represented visually." All this resonated with Mike, who told me that he tended to have a hard time with words and that in high school he had liked his shop courses best.

We now returned to our cars and drove to a second site, on the outskirts of Pittsford. To reach Hopkins Woods, we walked through a green field of clover, following the edge of a cornfield. Ahead of us was the stand of old growth, with its irregular canopy skyline:

Although the rain was still coming down, I had until then kept basically dry. But the water-laden clover was too much for my boots. Soon my feet were soaked—from leaks, top down, through the lacing.

Fortunately, we didn't stay out much longer. We walked far enough into the woods to see how they were dominated by huge sugar maples. Along the way, I stopped to watch the rain falling on a colony of "puff balls"—with brown "smoke" rising each time a droplet scored a direct hit. Meanwhile, we were joined by Mr. Hopkins. Privately I commented to Robin how amazed I was that here was someone who could say of the trees around us: "These are mine." In making a similar comment later, to the folks in my car, I learned what a sacrifice it must be for farmers on the edges of major metropolitan areas. In addition to forgoing the income they would receive if they cut their trees, they often paid taxes that represented not merely the agricultural potential of their property but also its development potential.

By now the rain was verging on the "driving rain" that had been forecast. Jim decided that enough was enough; we would not try visiting any more sites. As we walked back, I found myself telling a fellow student about a series of hikes that Terry and I had taken the year before—thereby slipping into yet another dimension.

Saturday after Saturday, regardless of the weather, Terry and I had hiked completely around Letchworth. We began at Mt. Morris in September, when we needed little in the way of special clothing or equipment. In short segments, we hiked south along a spur of the Finger Lakes Trail, crossed the river at Portageville, and then followed the Gorge Trail north. As we hit rainy days, then cold days, then snowy days, we did the best we could with whatever gear we had with us. After each hike, however, we would add to it or upgrade it, thereby expanding our system.

Rainy conditions were especially hard on me. Toward the end of wet hikes, the accumulated tiredness of my week's work at RIT would combine with the tiredness of the afternoon's physical effort to fragment my sense of personal control. But Terry's early Girl-Scout experiences, coupled with her adult experiences hiking the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, had provided her with a deep understanding of how to handle such circumstances. She knew almost instinctively when to stop for a rest, when to press forward, and how best to use our gear. As a result, whenever I fell apart, the pieces always remained firmly embedded in the structure she provided.

That experience of allowing myself to exist for a while in a fragmented state, without becoming anxious or depressed, was new to me, and it happened not just once but weekend after weekend, all the way through late November (when we stopped due to the onset of hunting season). As a result, here I was—a year later—on a cold, rainy day, with wet feet, yet not feeling uneasy at all. So I told my classmate about the series of hikes I had taken with Terry. Each one, I said, had been an experiment. If problems arose, that was OK: we just agreed we'd do better the next time.

Part III

Although I had been trying to imagine the different dimensions that my RMSC course might involve, I fully expected the actual experience to develop into a series of steps along one dimension or another. But rather than allowing me to weed out inappropriate alternatives, the various class sessions and field trips were generating more and more:

  1. I was seeing for myself what an RMSC course was like—after hearing so much about them from Terry;
  2. I was using a portion of my sabbatical to pursue a local-history project;
  3. I was returning to the classroom as a student, for the first time in years;
  4. I was entering an updated version of by grandfather's world, which straddled the line between professional and amateur science;
  5. I was being introduced to the scientific field of ecology;
  6. I was interacting with folks who worked at the museum, seeing what their world was like;
  7. I was talking with a classmate about one of the courses I teach regularly at RIT; and
  8. I was returning to the hiker's world I had shared with Terry the year before, thereby finding myself at the edge of what I knew how to handle.

As this list emerged, I began thinking about the whole experience in ecological terms. Precisely because the evening sessions and weekend field trips had not settled into a neat linear progression, I found myself entering a different kind of experiential habitat. Most of my activities were not so richly endowed with species of motives, expectations, and levels of meaning. In fact so great was the diversity of the new ecosystem that I started glimpsing a species rarely seen in my other activities.

Tentatively, at first, a voice within me began making itself heard. As early as the second class session, I had felt a growing impatience with the economic justifications for old growth I was hearing—for example, the prospects of finding new medicines in the plants of tropical rain forests. I raised my hand and spoke, but I was embarrassed by how raw and uncouth my comments turned out to be. "Do you mean 'red flagging'?" asked one of my classmates, trying to be helpful. But that just confused me, so I let the whole matter drop.

The third session gave me something more concrete to work with. In her opening remarks Robin described how she had once visited a major manufacturer of corrugated cardboard. The plant's three shifts and round-the-clock operations generated a non-stop stream of ten-foot diameter rolls. With that picture in mind, I raised my hand and tried again. "Rarely do we get a chance, " I said, "to see how alienated we are from the land. We still live on the land and by the land. Yet industrial processes on a massive scale now stand between us and nature. Our relationship to nature is mediated by facilities like that plant"

This time I had been more articulate. But my fellow students didn't "buy" the point. However much their clothes, cars, food, etc., may have resulted from processes like the one Robin described, their regular, direct contacts with nature kept them from feeling alienated.

So Robin moved on, turning our attention to the evening's main topic, namely, biodiversity—by which she meant the number of species in a given habitat, coupled with the number of individuals in each species. The main question she wanted us to consider was "Why is biodiversity important?" She began by proposing a variety of possible answers: biodiversity is important because it provides inspiration, because it preserves well-functioning habitats, because it offers possibilities for economic development, etc. She then asked each of us to choose the answer that seemed most important—and to transform our acts of choosing into a physical exercise, she put the answers on separate sheets of paper, taped the sheets along the walls, and asked each of us to stand by our preference. Once we had sorted ourselves out, she planned to go from group to group, asking for explanations.

As I went through the process, the unfamiliar voice within me again made its presence known. "I can't think around cornfields," it said, quite clearly. Since none of the explicit answers really fit that view, I selected the sheet for "OTHER" answers.

Robin began with those who had chosen from among the explicit answers. By the time she got around to the "OTHER" category, the period was nearly over. After my fellow "OTHER"s had offered their explanations, I sensed that Robin was ready to wrap things up. Almost as an afterthought, however, she stopped herself and turned to me. I wasn't sure how effective a spokesman I'd be for the unfamiliar voice. But I gave it a shot.

"Our society does its science with language," I opened. "Since language arises from our social experiences, we end up taking to our studies of nature our understanding of how we relate to each other. For example, scientists in the 18th century talked about 'the economy of nature.' They sought to understand the roles that different species play, in the natural world, on the basis of an analogy with the different ways people earn their living. What we are able to see in nature thus reflects (at least in part) what we are able to see in ourselves. In that sense, the world of nature is as complex as we let ourselves be."

"My worry is that we live in a society with strong pressures toward standardization. How can we see diversity in nature, when we have such a hard time seeing diversity in ourselves? Aren't we in danger of remaking nature so that it conforms to our homogeneous view of ourselves? Don't we need to preserve true diversity in nature in order to help us see true diversity in ourselves?"

What my classmates made of these remarks, I'm not sure, for by then our session was more than over, and we quickly went out separate ways. But in the days that followed, my own line of thinking continued, as I began remembering some of my past experiences in the woods.

I recalled a hike I took during the summer of 1974, while visiting my uncle in Plattsburgh, New York. One afternoon I drove the short distance south along I-87 to Poke-O-Moonshine, in the Adirondacks. It was a familiar trail, but on my way up, I saw—as if for the first time—young trees in the understory. Standing there, in the shade of their elders, they could not pick up their roots and move. All they could do was to wait patiently, biding their time, until a place for them opened up. It was a sobering thought, one that lent perspective to the work I was doing on possible career choices for myself.

Another memory was a hike with my family during the summer of 1980. We had all come from our respective homes for a week of camping together in the Smokies, and one of the things we did was to follow the short trail from the parking lot near Clingmans Dome to Andrews Bald. Along the way, I saw—again, as if for the first time—all the dead trees on the ground. In a state of nature, I realized, the organic garbage isn't carted away. The living forest stands awash in the wreckage of its own past. These memories had never before been part of a systematic train of thought. But in the quiet of my sabbatical, during the week between the third and fourth sessions of my RMSC course, the voice that had unexpectedly surfaced began bringing them together.

I had no doubts about it's being a different voice. It certainly wasn't my professorial voice, projecting itself so that even the students in the back of the room could hear. Nor was it the carefully measured voice of my history-of-science research, confining itself to what could be said on the basis of documentary evidence. It wasn't even the voice of my previous writing for The Crooked Lake Review, exploring the different kinds of stories that cover the terrain of the Southern Tier.

To tell the truth, it was scarcely a voice at all. It was more like the muscular impatience of a cat that's been held too long. It was determined to make its presence known. Yet it was wary of words, wiggling vigorously to keep free of verbal confinement. It wasn't really intellectual—at least, not in the usual sense—and it's proclivity for action tended to break my concentration. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it lay at the heart of all my intellectual work, as a potent—if somewhat disruptive—animating force.

The final class session was mostly given over to group discussion. For a while, sparks flew between Jenn and an older man—who had not gone with us on either field trip. Jenn commented on the wasteful packaging we often find in supermarkets and convenience stores, but the older man reminded us that government regulations require certain kinds of packaging. To mediate their exchange, Robin suggested a solution along the lines of "true pricing"—by which she meant pricing that accurately reflects ecological costs as well all the costs of manufacturing and handling.

Somehow Robin's remarks enabled me to serve again as a spokesman for my inner voice. "The true need of our times," I found myself saying, "is for an alternative language to the language of 'commodities. ' Once the commodities concept is invoked, waste is inevitable. Commodities don't exist in nature; they are ideas that we impose on nature. Because nature is so much more complex than the commodities concept, commodities can be extracted only by making waste."

"But there's something else," I continued. "No matter how artificialized a commodity becomes, it retains at least some traces of its natural origins, and—to that degree—it lies beyond the powers of human creativity. Whatever prices we happen to pay, our commodities come to us not through human effort alone but also through natural effort. In other words, every commodity retains at least some value for which money is the wrong measure."

"The right measure," I then proposed, "is gift-giving. No commodity is fully ours until we have also seen how it comes to us as a gift. Our system of economic rationality must be balanced by true reciprocity. Gift-giving must flow in both directions—from people to nature, as well as from nature to people."

"The trouble with our society is that we stand on the verge of blinding ourselves to all measures of value except dollars and cents. That's why I can't think around cornfields—because they are too closely tied to that single-minded system. But the remnants of old growth lie outside the commodities concept. Their continued presence is a palpable—and even subversive—reminder that our economic values are not natural; they are social creations."

"Go to the woods and see for yourself!" the voice within me now said directly.

"No amount of economic thinking can create old-growth," I added, returning to my role as spokesman. "More than that, the world's existing old-growth will continue to exist only if we are able to accept it as a gift. Thus the acreage of remaining old growth becomes a direct measure of our collective willingness to recognize value beyond the strictly economic."

The odd thing about an introvert's talking extemporaneously, at such length, is that he doesn't fully know what he's doing. What little energy he has for extroverting goes into the act of vocalization. The things he says are genuine. But he doesn't have the energy to monitor effectively what he is saying, much less to monitor how others are responding to his words. To hold forth with long speeches is to become deaf to the world.

After I stopped talking, what was it Robin said about my having taken a spiritual approach? And after the session ended, what was it Mike came up to me so eagerly to say—something about how he prefers cherry for his woodworking projects, a preference that has no relationship to the prices he pays for various types of wood? Clearly, my remarks had scored. Yet I was in no position to "take in" the responses.

Although my RMSC course was now over, my sabbatical was still in progress—so I had time for the reflection I needed to regenerate my awareness of the world. But the full significance of the experience didn't come to me until after I had resumed my teaching. As I drove onto campus one day, the voice within me piped up: "There should be a sign here saying 'INTELLECTUAL TREE FARM'!"

Right away I knew what was meant. The only majors RIT offers are species that produce intellectual timber, quickly and uniformly, for immediate commercial use. Through a recent round of downsizing—called "managed attrition" by the administration—RIT's old-growth faculty has been culled, and through a newly-implemented "faculty development" program, deliberate efforts are underway to trim even further the remaining "deadwood."

These ideas weren't wholly new to me; similar thoughts had crossed my mind before. But now I realized where they had been coming from. I carried within me a critic's voice, standing in opposition to the status quo, and my inner critic was very uncomfortable with the lay of the land at RIT. When viewed through contrariant eyes, the place where I work is shaped by bulldozers and bricks, parking lots and playing fields, course syllabi and final exams. It's a habitat designed according to written plans and prior specifications. "Policy" and "management" are its central watchwords.

What my inner critic and I both know is that alternative educational communities still exist. We know, because we've been there. Each June, for several years now, I've been accompanying my father to his high-school alumni dinners, in Campbell. Due to the community's small size, these are all-class reunions, with special recognition going to the fifty-year class and to classes at five-year intervals down to the present. From members of Dad's class, as well as from members of the classes just before and after, I've heard stories about George Cornell. Former students still remember my grandfather's patient explanations and strict discipline. They've also reminded me that the school's honor society continues to bear his name.

Similarly, several members of the Bath Area Writers Group still mention Grandma Cornell. She too was a teacher in area schools, and it was in her company that I first began attending the group's monthly meetings. Like Dad's alumni society, the writers group includes members from high-school age on up. Grandma herself was over ninety when she attended, and from time to time I wonder inwardly how many other organizations offer their members full participation across an age difference of sixty years or more.

Both my grandparents are now deceased. Yet each remains a presence in the old-growth educational communities of Bath and Campbell. There Grandma stands as a barkless snag, providing shelter to various species, and creating opportunities for younger trees to stretch their branches toward the new opening in the canopy. There also my grandfather—whom I never met—is a fallen giant, lying moss-covered in the deep shade.

"Give me the richness of old growth!" the voice within me cries out.

And then I speak in my own voice: "I want access to educational communities where learning remains a way of life. I want access to educational communities where individuals live out the fullness of their lives, stand for a time as snags, and then slowly molder into the forest floor—all the while offering support to up-and-coming generations. I want access to educational communities where wild voices like my inner critic still find the protected spaces they need to survive and thrive."

© 1997, Thomas D. Cornell
To report suspected old growth, readers may call Jim Battaglia (716-759-8855) or Bruce Kershner (716-634-7158) or write Bruce Kershner (353 Fruitwood Terrace, Williamsville, NY 14221).
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