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Seattle University

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Grounded in the mission

Written by Mike Thee
March 8, 2010

Shannon Britton took the reins as SU’s grounds manager last spring, bringing with her decades of experience in gardening, landscaping and management. She went to work right after high school. Then in 2003, after 18 years a gardener for Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland, Britton decided to go back to school. She went on to earn an environmental degree from Western Washington.

She arrived at SU after a stint at Woodland Park Zoo, where she supervised labor staff, helped coordinate special events and established and ran recycling programs, created processes for purchasing green products and optimized energy savings through sustainable lighting purchases. A few months into her SU experience, Britton talked about why she came here, what she’d like to accomplish and what she does in her spare time.

The Commons:  What drew you to this position at SU?

Shannon Britton:  I was searching for work that would allow me to combine landscape management, environmental science and spirituality. When I saw the job posting on the web, I immediately went to the university’s website to see what the mission statement said. After seeing language like social justice and educating the whole person, it didn’t take much more than that to sell me. I was also aware of the inroads for sustainable gardening Ciscoe Morris had created in his time as gardener with the university.

The Commons:  What have your impressions of the university been so far?

Shannon Britton: Seattle University is a gem. It’s a beautiful, beautiful campus. I am very fortunate and grateful to be working here. The grounds staff is professional, committed and experienced. They have been very generous with taking time to help me get up to speed. The university is an ever-changing business environment as well as an award-winning campus for gardens, habitat and sustainability. I sincerely appreciate being part of this winning combination.

The Commons:  How did you choose to get into this line of work in the first place?

Shannon Britton:  I have always been an outdoors range-around, get dirty kid. My life has evolved around that passion. I started working in plant nurseries in 1983 at Sky Nursery. A few years and a few more jobs later I landed a job as a gardener for Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland in 1986 and stayed 18 years. I accumulated an incredible amount of gardening, landscaping and management experience in that time. I was mentored, encouraged and infinitely supported to stretch, experience and grow into unknown territory.

The Commons:  How would you describe your philosophy on gardening and landscaping?

Shannon Britton:  Evolving. We are all in a state of flux on this rapidly changing planet. I feel responsible for the ripple effect of my actions. I have to remain flexible and open to changing garden practices that will allow us for a while longer to tend to and steward beautiful landscapes. Global warming will continue to dramatically impact the way we live our lives including making decisions about how we tend to our gardens.

Regardless of a chosen formula for gardening, institutional landscape maintenance requires neat, tidy, clean edges, functional community spaces, nooks and crannies for privacy, a combination of the dramatic and the quiet, the icon and the humble. It’s important to have a finger tip on the pulse of the institutional community, executive team and our neighbors. But most of all, flexibility and openness to change.

The Commons:  What’s your favorite natural part of SU’s campus and why?

Shannon Britton:  This changes each time I go out for a tour! There are so many beautiful spots.  One thing I usually look for is sit spots in nature where a person can get off the beaten path a little bit and feel enveloped in the trees, the birds, the flowers, the earth and the fresh air, and having all the sensories engaged in that. The grounds staff has created many of these for the benefit of campus community and the surrounding community. 

The Commons:  What do you hope to accomplish here at SU in the years ahead?

Shannon Britton:  I’m looking at continuing to develop the sustainable and conservation-minded landscape design and maintenance. I think gardens that inspire and influence the way we perceive and utilize landscape are going to be critical in how we move forward in the next five to 10 to 20 years. I want to be part of landscapes that help us all transition to more functional plantings that feed us and wildlife in body, mind and spirit. It will become more and more important to integrate the beautiful with the functional. As we come up against more and more drought situations and changing climate, it will heavily influence what we plant here and what will be able to survive in the long run.

Projects I hope to inspire and help create would be vertical gardening—creating gardens that go up rather than spread out, which is really amazing to be working on in such an intensely urban location. Something else I’m really excited about learning more of and participating in is aquaculture, which is closed-loop system of growing food that can take place on a very small size of land. You’re basically creating a pond and some fish and then pumping that water out to plants and it recycles back into the pond. I’m hoping to work with students, faculty and staff to develop this, get the whole community involved. I think it will be a great education piece and a look into the future of how are we going to continue to sustain and feed ourselves. Closed-loop aquaculture is one way to do that and reuse all resources infinitely.

The Commons:  What advice would you have for the amateur weekend gardener out there?

Shannon Britton:  Keep it simple – keep educating ourselves in organic and sustainable gardening practices. Be advocates for sustainability. Take time to consider what you really need in your yard to have a beautiful space while minimizing your impact on your surroundings.

The Commons:  What do you like to do in your spare time?

Shannon Britton:  I really enjoy time off with my partner. I love having long, deep conversations with my cat. It’s very soothing and right-brained and she’s such a great listener. Movies and popcorn at home. I spend a lot of my time off learning and living in the way of the earth people. As I talk just a little bit about this it’s important to protect the sacred and the ancient so I won’t get into a lot of detail about that. But I do participate in ceremonies that help people find their way in lives and create positive change by committing to a period of time of sitting in silence with nature and spirit in a remote regions of wilderness. People come away very changed and enlightened by that.