Greenways to humility

The Bucknell Greenway as a Living and Learning Laboratory in the Susquehanna Greenway

(presentation at the Susquehanna River Symposium at Bucknell today)

JRR Tolkien wrote

The road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say….
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with wear feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Tolkien’s verse evokes for me the spirit of the greenway as a movement and a term of art in the twenty-first century. A greenway is a corridor of ecological, historical, recreational, and educational renewal. It highlights the relation of the many ways of the earth beyond our ken, our limits, and human community as in the lighted inn in Tolkien’s poetry. It is embedded as poetry in a grim fantasy history of a struggle with evil whose symbol is often interpreted as a nexus of technological power and oppression of nature and human beings appropriate for his era in the mid-20th century, and even more perhaps today. A medieval English poet referred to the greenway to Paradise,  and it reminds us that like Abraham and Sarah we are pilgrims or sojourners on the earth, and as Native cultures teach us as such we should be humble and light in our footprints.

That a greenway should foster renewal in ecology, history, recreation, and education, rather than only or mainly using the term restoration, involves careful diction. Renewal or rebirth is distinct from what we call restoration, which can be a fundamentally reactionary term. There was a restoration in England of the Monarchy in the 1600s, but we can never restore mechanically the original ecosystems and cultures of a region. That was understood as party of the tragedy of human life rather than the sense of unlimited progress that science instituted as central to the global West and what author Paul Kingsnorth calls the age of the Machine. However, we can seek to renew our ecology and cultural life. The philosopher of mind Evan Thompson has noted the etymological relation of the term ecopoiesis both to engineering an ecological restoration and writing poetry or a novel. Ecopoiesis literally from Greek rootes means shaping the hope. That is done through ecopoetics and also through ecopoiesis as an engineering term for moving and shaping the earth in a restorative or renewing way, as in the ecological restoration work nearby at the Montandon marsh. Ecological restoration in this sense is renewal.

I’m here to talk about a new project that has been years in the making, the Bucknell Greenway, which is envisioned to connect with the Susquehanna Greenway, the Captain John Smith Chesapeake Historic Water Trail, and thus with a network of greenways throughout the country and globally. But a greenway potentially is also a fractal of larger Creation, in the sense of being personal as well as connective.

Experience of that fractal nature of greenways started for me growing up in a working-class neighborhood in the city of Chicago, near a place called Indian Boundary Park, and near the place where my grandfather had grown up on a farm in what became the city. My grandfather’s farm was along the edge of Rosehill Cemetery and by a parkway designed as a road across a marsh to the cemetery gates with little sculpted markers. That road, Rosehill Drive, was the scene of Memorial Day parades when I was a child, in which I imagined ancient veterans marching along to bands as Civil War veterans, although that would have been impossible; looking back I think they were a handful of Spanish-American War veterans, which seems enough of a time-travel dimension along Rosehill Drive.

But I knew from my grandfather that that road to the cemetery and the marshland where his farm was nearby also had been a dwelling place of Indians, and later learned more about this from my first Indian mentor Jerry Lewis, a Citizens Potawatomi elder and community college educator, and from Helen Tanner, director of the Darcy McNickle Center at the Newberry Library in Chicago. The road to Rosehill, and the travel down to the neighborhood of my grandfather’s old farm, had become a kind of greenway to me through history and into the natural world still found in old oak groves in the cemetery amid what was then the second largest city in the U.S. This lit my way to becoming first an American history major at Brown, where I had the at-the-time unrecognized privilege of studying unworthily with authors of two of the volumes in the Oxford History of America, Gordon Wood and James Patterson, as well as with the Southern regionalist author Flannery O’Connor’s writer friend John Hawkes, and then on to being a journalist. As urban affairs writer at the Chicago Sun-Times, I spent much time writing about the emerging greenway movement in the Chicago area, and its interrelation to the burgeoning ecological restoration movement in prairie savannah in the region. I continued that interest on in graduate school to working as a writer for Openlands, a conservation group in Chicago, and the Illinois Nature Conservancy, and became involved as a writer with the nation’s first heritage corridor, the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor. When I came to Bucknell I was involved with colleagues and students in the designation by the National Park Service of the portion of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River adjoining our campus as part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake Historic Water Trail. This was done especially through the leadership of Sid Jamieson, a new friend and mentor, an elder of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Involved in that project were the origins of the Environmental Humanities Working Group and Initiative at Bucknell, the Stories of the Susquehanna Valley project, and what is now the Place Studies Program of the Bucknell Center for Sustainability and the Environment (formerly the Environmental Humanities Initiative).

Partly emerging from such past collaborative efforts involving many colleagues and students, Bucknell has designated through the President’s Sustainability Council a four-mile loop of pathway for bicyclists, hikers, walkers, strollers, runners, and those seeking solace in the outdoors and natural world. This is also envisioned to include micro-restoration of bio-habitats, native tree and shrub plantings, public art, public storytelling and historical work, some of which hopefully will be featured online through QR codes and apps. We are in discussions with biologists, historians, public storytellers, psychologists, and most importantly students for this work. We hope that students will help link the greenway to the river and to the downtown and county rail trail, and thus to the regional and national greenways already mentioned. We have students already working on public monuments for the greenway, such as a Native American sculpture, led by the Sid Jamieson Research Fellow Quintina Smith, a student, together with a Bucknell working group of Native Americans, and also the Bucknell in the Civil War and Underground Railroad student working group working, which will help develop an artwork showing the links of Bucknell to the Underground Railroad and the Battle of Gettsyburg. The Susquehanna River is also an historical greenway of the Civil War linking us and Gettysburg, from the Lewisburg Cemetery where the young Bucknell graduate Andrew Tucker is buried (after being fatally wounded fighting for the Union at that battle) and the campus where Charles Bell lived, an escaped slave who traversed the Underground Railroad, down to Gettysburg and beyond. The campus Greenway also passes along the Miller Run watershed and hopefully will help open up the university’s riverfront in the long term.

In Chicago, visionaries such as Jens Jensen, Jane Addams, and Frank Lloyd Wright, and early ecological scientists helped encourage development of a belt of greenways that became the Chicago parkland lakefront, the boulevard system, the Indiana Dunes parkland, and the ring of forest preserves in Chicago’s suburbs, where much ecological restoration has occurred. In the new era of greenways those early 20th-century developments are reborn.

At Bucknell we have a significant legacy of visionary landscape in our campus’ green settings as well as its environs, including the
Lewisburg Cemetery that emerged from the American Arcadian landscape movement of the 19th century, and the boulevard-like drive from the Civil War monument at St. George down past the President’s house and around past the Grove into the heart of campus today. We hope this new greenway project will renew on ecological, historical, educational, and recreational levels that legacy of our beautiful campus. We also hope that it will help renew the liberal arts in our era, by enriching the definition of residential learning at a liberal arts university. The old meaning of the liberal arts back into Byzantine times involved what has been called the Hellenic-Christian synthesis, a synthesis of reason and spirituality. The trivium and quadrivium involved connecting man with the cosmos through signs and symbols, and hopefully the Greenway can help renew that project in an era when the liberal arts seem increasingly in need of renewal, sadly.

The Bucknell Greenway is a community effort that in our divided country and society, whose divisions even enter into our area and campus, hopefully can bring people together. The renewal or rebirth inherent in a greenway project helps overcome binaries, including that of nature and the human mind, and also renews mental and ecological health. I encourage you to come join us in this project of the Ecological Conservation and Restoration Working Group of the President’s Sustainability Council. Please contact me at with your ideas and for ideas on how you can be involved.


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