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Seeing a Different Kind of Beauty

Institutions such as SU have a deeper responsibility to model environmental stewardship.

Written by Janice Murphy
October 11, 2016

The pace quickens a bit, the air is crisper and the light changes. It's almost imperceptible; we're so full of the leisure of summer, and then it's autumn. 

There's an exciting feeling about coming back to campus in the fall, even for those of us who haven't been away for the summer. The many comments about the landscape: "everything is so beautiful," "the campus looks better than ever," are energizing and appreciated, but also leave me with a sense that something important is missing. Beauty as a backdrop for our so-important human endeavors does not seem adequate and, indeed, is not what we've been striving to achieve for the last four decades on the campus grounds. The natural beauty of our campus is part of a system, one that is providing the essentials of life for many other species. It also serves as an educational experience for those who may not know, or have the opportunity to know, a wilder world. 

When you become accustomed to seeing the natural cycles of the landscape around you, when you witness flower seed heads being gleaned by chickadees, you may no longer think of those seed heads as "spent" flower stalks to be removed from sight. When you see grasses the color of straw with their foliage bent down to the ground, you might think of the winter home found there by a multitude of insect species instead of a "messy" corner. A paradigm shift in thinking is happening here. Sharing the space we occupy on the planet becomes something that you can practice daily. Cosmetically groomed, static landscapes are not enough, not rich and complex enough, for an institution such as Seattle University, that dares to seek a deeper understanding of matters that affect how our future is shaped. Environmental stewardship is not an abstract concept but one that we can embody right where we live.

Two encounters in the last couple of weeks have helped me to frame my thoughts about this subject. The first was a lecture I attended given by Ari Novy, executive director of the U.S. Botanic Gardens in Washington D.C. He spoke about the loss of species diversity, plant and animal, and the urgent need for addressing and mitigating this trend. He noted that 80 percent of the US population now lives in urban areas and may not feel a significant connection to the natural world. He observed that, although relatively small when compared to wildlands, urban landscapes can play a vital role in providing the habitat that is vanishing rapidly. They may not be large enough to provide an abundance of ecosystems services (cleaning our air and water, recharging ground water, removing CO2 from the atmosphere), but their role is important. He stressed that institutions have a greater responsibility to model and to mimic natural places, as a way to accustom our eye to this different kind of beauty. 

The second encounter was a visit to the campus from Ciscoe Morris, former SU grounds manager. He and his TV crew were here filming a segment for a special he's doing about the urban environment and the importance of green space in the city. Ciscoe is well known for his work at SU, forging the way for more sustainable practices in our landscapes and fighting for acceptance of a different way of seeing natural beauty. He was a pioneer at a time when the word "sustainable" did not have the meaning it does today. I worked with Ciscoe at SU from 1997 to 2002. He introduced me to the concept of providing habitat for beneficial insects and birds as an integral part of organically managed landscapes. "When you eliminate the beneficials, you inherit their work," a quote from Wendell Berry, is a guiding principal in the way of approaching landscape maintenance that Ciscoe taught us. He is still bringing that message to an ever-wider circle of people in our region. It was heartening and so fun to see all the students who recognized him, wanted their picture taken with him, so they could send it to mom or grandma, with whom they have fond memories of watching "Gardening with Ciscoe!" These students will be living with our decisions about how we interact with the natural world, locally and globally. 

So I invite you to open your eyes in a new way this fall, if you haven't done so before. Witness a beauty that speaks of our profound connection to all living beings.

Janice Murphy is integrated pest management coordinator in the Grounds Department. To learn more about SU's sustainable landscaping and grounds practices, visit Grounds.