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Gavi Mallory and the Crum’s Identity

in Campus Journal/Let's Give a Damn by

 Gavriela Mallory ’17, known as Gavi, is a long distance runner, a member of the Crum Woods Stewardship Committee, and a Bio and Studio Art double major. She’s one of the few Swatties that can go into the Crum and tell you which species are invasive, tell you what kind of trees are around you and draw what each of the trees’ leaves will look like once spring comes. She’s an avid protector of the area, working hard with the Crum Woods Stewardship Committee and facilities to protect and preserve the Crum.

She’s also chainsaw certified.

As someone who, in freshman year, imagined myself in the Crum more than I actually went, I find it both surprising and sad that the general student body’s engagement with the Crum is so minimal, and that understanding of its history and circumstances is so limited. Myself included.

        “It’s incredibly disappointing every time I hear about someone who’s never even been to the Crum,” Gavi said, “I mean I know seniors who go, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s take a walk in the Crum, I’ve never been’ and … it’s been such a huge part of my experience at Swarthmore it’s just so sad to me.”  

The Crum Woods is around 220 acres of mostly forested land straddling the Crum Creek. There are dozens of classes over a myriad of departments that involve the Crum, and there are often other community events such as cleanups and tree planting. Gavi first started consistently exploring the Crum as a cross-country runner. She has also interacted with the Crum as a biology student and an art student, finding the Crum a source of inspiration for her art work. For Gavi, the Crum serves as a place of rejuvenation and recuperation.

“It was so nice to have thse three hours set aside where I would know that I would be away from everything and be in the woods,” Gavi said ( about an art class). “Tt is an opportunity for me to be present with myself.”

Part of the magic of the Crum for Gavi is how it serves as such a stark juxtaposition to the suburbia that is Swarthmore. She is critical of what neighborhoods such as the Swarthmore Ville represent, for she believes the convenience present in these neighborhoods can easily promote ignorance, especially when it comes to resource use.

“I find that I can just breathe better in the Crum,” Gavi said, “it just makes more sense to me.”

She further explains that the Crum being located next to this neighborhood poses a sort of identity crisis for it.

“It’s hard to know what a forest in the middle of suburbia should look like” Gavi said.

        The Crum has been impacted by many different projects throughout the years, most recently the sewer line restoration and the SEPTA trestle. Gavi explains that the Crum is now past a lot of active intervention and is going through a period of restoration. As I followed her sure-footed trod towards Crumhenge, an open field with a couple of large stones arranged in a circle, she pointed out a tree stump.

“I chopped that,” Gavi said.

She explained to me that she chopped the Norway Maple down because it was an invasive species, which are species that take up the resources in a new area and do not have natural competitors in the area, and thus can often times easily overwhelm the surroundings.

“When we talk about restoration and preservation in the Crum, there are some discussions about restoring it to pre-Colombian era, what it would look like if we weren’t here,” said Gavi, “but that’s absurd and probably counterproductive.”

It’s a strange balance. Any human conservation effort is always riddled with tensions that often don’t have right answers. We walked up the gradual slope towards Crumhenge, and in front of us appeared a hill with an eerie, almost neon green grass under the bridge.

        “That is just so visually invasive for me,” Gavi said. “This all stayed green, so bizarrely green, for way too long.”

        Furthermore, the hill and surrounding areas were scattered with thin plastic tubes to protect new saplings. The plastic is to prevent the deer from trampling or harming the trees, but its visual effect is jarring.

        “Doesn’t it look like a graveyard?” said Gavi.

        A graveyard full of baby trees.

Yet despite the visual strangeness and obvious human intervention, Gavi explains that these are all important strategies to help restore the Crum. The grass is so green because the seeds that were used were covered in fertilizer, and the trees need to be protected from the deer. Gavi let me know that from her research, the best argument and aim for an area such as the Crum is for the woods to be resilient.

“Resilience is the idea that it can bounce back and thrive even if there are some disruptions on the system,” Gavi said, “It won’t ever be able to survive without some human intervention because it’s in the middle of suburbia, and there is constant human impact. But the woods can be far more self-sufficient than it currently is.”

Self-sufficiency would mean that the dominant species in the woods are native species, such as beech-trees, tulips, and several types of oak and maple, and that they are effectively reproducing to fill in their own gap.

“You can see, for example, a large old beech tree, and what it would do is send shoots up the same root system to make sure that when the old tree eventually dies there would be someone to take its place,” Gavi said.

The ideal forest would have trees that cover all age ranges.

“You want to be able to see saplings, awkward teenage trees that are kind of skinny and tall, and then you’ll see slightly larger trees  a little smaller than a Frisbee and then you’ll get bigger older trees that are close to a hundred years old.”

As we walked close to the creek behind the Lang Concert hall, Gavi told me that there is an age group missing

“It’s strange, and we don’t know why this is,” said Gavi, “over-abundant deer probably had some role, but there just aren’t a lot of middle-aged trees, and that’s worrying.”

Despite the many worries concerns, the Crum Woods remains one of the best preserved woods in Delaware County, especially for a free space. Gavi said that many people from the Ville take walks there, and  kids can often be seen biking or playing in the space. Many cross country runners also run through, but other than runners there don’t seem to be many Swarthmore college students just hanging out.

        “I find it difficult to get people [from the college] to come out to the Crum,” said Gavi, “because as with any space, there needs to be a community, a norm, that can help bring people out here.”

        She looks up at a large tree and traces etchings of someone’s initials.

        “See this isn’t good for the trees at all, but you can see love notes dated from the 50’s, how cool is that?,” Gavi said.

        Gavi showed me the different markings and how the etchings are stretched out as more time has passed. She believes that, in the Crum, one can feel connected with something greater than themselves; seeing the trees that have survived so long gives her a sense of larger life. Gavi recognizes that people find recuperation in different ways, but she finds the indifference to space and land astonishing.

        “People don’t ask the question: ‘what is this land that I am on,’ anymore,” said Gavi.

        There is a culture at Swarthmore College that perpetuates the stream-lined I-have-to-use-G-Cal-and-run-from-meeting-to-meeting mindset that makes a walk in the Crum seems almost ridiculous unless it’s on your calendar. But on the other hand, if we know what the Crum should look like, the question that still remains is who the Crum can benefit.

        “As a society I think we have stopped actively trying to understand our place,” said Gavi, “we stop caring about where our resources come from, where they are going to go after we dispose of them, that inherent understanding and value of place and understanding of context and the lack of that is sort of an identity crisis.”

         In the Crum Woods Stewardship Committee there is a lot of discussion about student’s safety in the Crum. One of the fears is that those who did not grow up surrounded by nature might be unsure or scared going into the woods.

        “It’s straight up just land, and although it is obvious to me to spend time there, it isn’t for a lot of people,” Gavi said.

        A good rule of thumb that Gavi shared with me for those worried about entering is, uphill: campus, downhill: water. One of the larger questions for Gavi and for the identity of the Crum is accessibility.

        “This is definitely the best natural area that is accessible to people in Chester, but there really is no relationship between the Crum and the community in Chester and you have to question who has the time and resources to set aside time to be outside and have the capacity to learn about the woods and how to be safe in it,” Gavi said.

Are preserved and accessible lands such as the Crum really just for the rich and liberal elite families who can afford to take time off work to stroll with their kids? A nice idea in the backdrop of a nice neighborhood? It is strange to realize that free and easy access to land such as the Crum is a privilege, for it seems that no one really values land such as the Crum anymore. I admit the idea of the Crum in the backdrop of my college experience is appealing to me, but is that all? Can we re-imagine this space, or are we stuck in this strange liminal space of continual restoration efforts with no idea what the Crum’s identity should be? But the next question is who cares if we don’t know what it should or shouldn’t look like? We should all take advantage of this beautiful land keeping in mind that natural spaces like this have been exploited for far too long, far too vigorously. It should be cherished in its own right, and I hope the Crum can begin to have more meaning to more students at Swarthmore.

Go for a walk.

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