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Saying Goodbye

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The summer I was eleven I got a hand-me-down dress from my cousin. The dress was perfect. It was pale green with little orange flowers and it fit exactly right. It wasn’t frilly. It was simple and wonderful. Wearing it made me feel quietly special, like Mary Lennox and Anne Shirley and Laura Ingalls all rolled into one. I wore my green dress often that summer and into the fall, while the leaves were still on the trees and most days were warm. But the next June it didn’t fit right anymore. It pinched my shoulders and didn’t even reach the top of my knees. I was devastated. I wasn’t ready to give up that quiet specialness.

When I run through the Crum there’s a particular spot that makes me feel like I’m wearing that dress again. Past the water tower there is a trail where spicebush and witch-hazel flank either side of the path and bend towards each other, creating an archway. When leaves are just starting to appear on the trees the entire trail turns a pale yellow-green. There is never anyone there at 5:00 in the afternoon and it’s as if it exists for me alone. Shadows dance on the ground ahead of me as I run through my own light-filled tunnel—quietly special.

More often than not, goodbyes have been something that have happened to me and not something I have chosen for myself. In some ways graduation is no exception. I have been working towards graduation for four years now, and also its imminent approach is beyond my control.

There are undoubtedly aspects of Swarthmore I will not miss. I will not miss the stress of living in a community that uses overwork as its predominant coping mechanism. I will not miss the mentality that academia is the be-all-end-all of knowing. I will not miss the desperation of  trying to simultaneously understand a scientific paper and comfort a panicked friend at 2 am.

And there are many things at Swarthmore that I don’t feel quite ready to leave behind — my professors, my friends, the Crum. The lesson in that dress though, I think, is that saying goodbye is nuanced. I am saying goodbye to the Swarthmore community and to the Crum Woods. But I’m not saying goodbye to how these things have made me feel. I am not saying goodbye to stress, or desperation, or awe, or gratitude.

The summer I was twelve, when I finally did concede defeat and put my green dress in the pile of clothes that no longer fit, I had no idea that seven years down the road a trail in a small Pennsylvanian woods would make me feel just as quietly special. I’m trying to hold onto that now as we take on our last week of classes as undergraduates, tumbling closer to the inevitable end that is graduation. I am going to feel stress and desperation and gratitude and awe again, in new communities and new relationships and in many situations I would never expect to feel them. For me, there is comfort in knowing that I found quiet specialness both in a well-worn dress and years later on an early-spring woods trail. It means this is probably not the last time I will find it.  

Mushrooms, Mushrooms, Mushrooms!

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On Saturday, January 28th, one of my more strange – yet important – dreams came true!  I taught a class called MUSHROOMS, MUSHROOMS, MUSHROOMS! at Peripeteia Weekend.  My opening slide quoted well-known Mycologist Paul Stamets. It read: “Fungi are the grand molecular disassemblers of nature.  They are the interface organisms between life and death.  They generate soil … The entire food web of nature is based on these fungal filaments.  The mycelial network that infuses all land masses in the world is a supportive membrane upon which life proliferates and further diversifies.”  This is true, of course, but fungi and the study of mycology have been largely ignored by scientists, the public, and the media.

It seems as though fungi and the Crum Woods are similar in that they both have so much to offer but have been largely ignored.  On Saturday, however, there were nearly forty people in the woods all gathered around the same, fallen red oak tree.  That’s quite a lot of attention for one lowly log!  This log, however, I know very well as it has been the source of numerous edible species of mushrooms and I just had to share it with the class.  Afterward, several students asked me questions related to the Crum Woods, including how they could get involved.  To my own surprise, I did not have a good answer.  How can Swarthmore students get involved in caring for our forest?

The Grounds and Horticultural Department and the Scott Arboretum have always cared for the Crum Woods, but the threats to ecosystem stability are daunting, and we are in need of more resources to be better stewards of our land.  Balancing the various uses of the Crum Woods also provides unique challenges. Over fifty species of invasive plants and an overabundant deer population have been degrading the health of the forest for decades. Sewer line repairs in 2011 and the replacement of the railroad Trestle from 2015 to 2016 have left us with over twenty acres to restore and manage. Additionally, stormwater surges have eroded land and polluted the Crum Creek and its tributaries.

We are fortunate that the Crum Woods Stewardship Committee has made great strides in the past fifteen years, including the creation of trail maps, the installation of signs at entrances to the forest, the new tradition of the annual fall student tree planting, and the implementation of a deer population management program which involves archery, culling, and long-term monitoring of ecosystem responses.  We are also fortunate that there are three students in the President’s Sustainability Research Fellowship program who are working on important projects related to the Crum Woods Stewardship.  I also have two Grounds crew student workers who work with me in the Woods each week to remove weeds, build brush-bars, and care for the trees we have planted.

Student involvement will be a crucial component for the proper management of the Crum Woods going forward.  There are various ways that students can engage with the Woods, but other than the annual creek clean-up, scheduled for April 21, there is no established framework for students to work in the Woods.   Dozens of courses utilize the forest and I urge readers to consider how special it is to have a nearly 200-acre forest as part of this campus.  I also ask students to consider the Crum Woods when they are choosing research topics or volunteer projects.

I also realize that there are many students and other members of our community who may have never been in a forest before or who have traveled great distances to be here.  The Crum Woods offers us natural history and a sense of place.  It is a place for exercising and relaxing, and a place to learn and develop a stronger relationship with nature and your surroundings. We should get to know it better!

Here are some ways that students can learn about the Crum Woods or be more actively involved in its stewardship: Attending the creek clean-up on Friday, April 21. Attending Scott Arboretum tours of the Crum Woods, which leave from the Amphitheater at noon on March 12, April 12, and May 4. Volunteering to serve on the Crum Woods Stewardship Committee. Applying for the President’s Sustainability Research Fellowship. Talking to your classmates and professors. Pursuing research on topics that can aid in stewardship of the forest. Attending Bird Club walks in the Crum. Attend the annual fall student tree planting in October. Being a good steward in your own way – respect the forest, walk on trails, pick up litter if need be, and take ownership of and pride in the Crum Woods.  Feel free to contact me, Mike Rolli, the Crum Woods Restoration Assistant, with any questions at mrolli1@swarthmore.edu.

A secret garden in the Crum, along with a rich history

in Campus Journal by
Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda

Sweating, mosquito-bitten, and exhausted by my first few weeks at Swarthmore, I had just given up on a run in the Crum when I noticed something strange on the bank of the creek: a crumbling stone staircase emerging from beneath the brush. The stairs’ end was obscured in summer leaves — I had to follow it. With a burst of adrenaline, I leaned into the steep hill and headed upward. The sense of mystery thickened with the dusk, and I climbed faster and faster. Breathless, I finally arrived at the top of the stairs.

Whether you’re a runner or just a wanderer, you’ve probably come across the arcing walls and scalloped edges of the so-called Crum Ruins. Even if you’ve only seen it in pictures, the place has an undeniable allure, however mutilated by cigarette butts and graffiti.  “Sick Boy,” slurs and several pentagrams are sprayed onto the stonework, and yet, when I first discovered it, its mystery was so strong that I felt like I was its first visitor in centuries.

But just 40 years ago, the Ruins were part of someone’s backyard.

Ward Hinkson was a college man, born in 1895 in nearby Ridley Park to a family with deep roots in the area. In 1764, his family settled at what is now called Hinkson’s Corners in Nether Providence. Generations later, Ward studied at the University of Pennsylvania, and went on to pursue a law degree at Harvard. He served in the army and advanced to captain before returning to his home to join the Delaware County Bar. After passing the bar, Hinkson bought a large house and its bare gardens, renaming it Oak Knoll.

The house was set on a long driveway behind a stone pillared gate. Ornately carved blocks of grey stone parted to three floors of tall windows and a high, peaked roof. Photos show a dark wood staircase rising from the red carpet in the entry hall. With your hand trailing on a carved banister, you might walk up the stairs to the overhanging indoor balcony, where floor to ceiling windows draped in chiffon cast light onto a crystal chandelier.

Pulling aside the curtains, you could see the whole property unfolding below. Azalea, magnolia, boxwood — with the help of his gardener, Ward Hinkson had transformed the property. The gardens bloomed. The fountains glowed with underwater light. Symmetrical hedges swirled in classical shapes like pastries, opening to a birdbath at the center of the maze. Two pines loomed over the yard, their shadows stretching over the hedges to graze the edge of the bright swimming pool, beyond which a long green lawn sloped down the bank of the Crum Creek.

Just below the lawn, the Italian Water Garden was nestled into the bank of the creek. This is the spot we know today as the Ruins. The lacy foundation in the center of the garden was then a low fountain, with a tall, graceful statue on a pedestal in the center. Rendered in dark metal, a girl stood on tiptoe, pouring water over herself into the scalloped base. Today, the summer foliage almost completely obscures the foundation. Pulling aside tangled vines, it’s difficult to imagine the original form of the fountain.

In a domed space in the now charcoal-blackened statuary, another figure stood in the shade, pouring water into the small pool below. The raucous ivy that has now taken over half the garden then climbed only just to the top of the wall. Lighting ran along the sides of the lush green lawn and through the fountain, casting a gentle evening glow. In the spring, the magnolia that still hangs over the garden today would have dropped its petals into the pool.

Rhododendrons, daffodils, tulips and roses. Despite a flourishing law career, Ward’s real passion was for flowers, especially orchids. After marrying his wife Edith, a young pianist from Boston’s North Shore, the two began construction on their first greenhouse, which connected to the corner of the mansion on the border of the formal gardens. They began cultivating orchids, eventually expanding to five greenhouses producing flowers for commercial sale.

As the couple grew older, the orchids began to take over the corners of their lives. They focused on a special variety, with miniature blossoms that grew close to the stem. Edith would select these tiny orchids from the greenhouses and float them in fingerbowls at their frequent summer dinner parties. On her tour of the Americas, Princess Cristina of Sweden visited the Hinkson home, likely dipping her fingers in the fragrant bowls as she walked through the luxurious space.

Shortly after Edith’s children went off to college at Dickinson and the University of Pennsylvania, she fell ill. She died in the fall of 1957, holding her son’s hand in her armchair.

Grieving the loss of his wife, Ward continued practicing law and redoubled his commitment to the flowers. Eventually, people from all over the state bought his orchids. They were advertised as gifts for Mother’s Day and as decor for special occasions. The Delaware County Daily Times predicted that “thousands of June brides will walk down the aisle carrying bouquets of his white Phaiaen orchids.” The flowers he grew were in the hands and homes of families throughout the county.

That was in 1965. Just a few years later, the family was forced to leave the property. By the 1980s, the home and the greenhouses were gone, replaced with the construction of a four-lane highway, today known as the Blue Route. Ward Hinkson was still living in the home when the government informed him that the home would be razed.

Hinkson fought bitterly to save the estate, employing all his professional and community influence to reroute the controversial highway away from his home. But in the end, the property was destroyed. Ward stood by with his young granddaughter, Jane, as wrecking crews tore down the home and the gardens.

“It was heartbreaking,” she said.

Ward died a few years later in a home a few blocks away.

Today, wandering up the warped staircase in the woods, you might catch the scent of the cherries and magnolias that shade the garden. And you might notice the dark blooms of chocolate vine climbing wild up the walls. But you will not find any orchids. You will not hear the sound of water trickling. Most likely, you will hear only the buzz of the highway rushing a hundred feet away.

The Crum Ruins are best accessed by following the Leiper-Smedley trail, which begins just beyond Mary Lyon. Follow the paved trail until you see a row of cinder blocks on the wooded side of the trail.

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