Thinking About W&M Community Ahead of Earth Day

By Tracy Melton '85

Over the last five years, I’ve become much more involved in environmental issues. By more involved, I mean from almost completely uninvolved to hiring myself as a part-time, volunteer worker, sweating under the Williamsburg summer sun as I chase wisteria vines and other invasive plants over hill and dale. And writing about environmental issues like I’m doing here.

In recent months, a few projects to promote awareness of the “stealth catastrophe” of invasive plant species, on which I’ve been working, and an upcoming Earth Day author event at Swem Library, have gotten me thinking about how the W&M community has shaped my journey toward greater environmental awareness and involvement.

As a W&M undergrad in the 1980s, I had very little academic engagement with environmental issues. I was an economics and government double major and recall few lectures or readings about environmental costs or policies. Climate change was only a far-off, slow-moving blip on my mental radar screen, if that.

book covers and photos of each author
Michael Branch '85 (top) and Dean King who will be speaking at an Earth Day panel discussion at Swem Library on April 22.

Generally speaking, environmental problems seemed more specific than systemic. Smog and acid rain were addressable if we could reduce vehicular and industrial emissions. A recent Superfund law would encourage rehabilitation of the most toxic industrial and mine sites. We could stop dumping kepone into the James River. How hard could it be to keep the Cuyahoga River from catching fire again? It’s not a secret that the words pesticide and herbicide are rooted in the Latin for kill. Couldn’t we limit those? Wasn’t it obvious that littering made our world uglier?

That undergraduate education, though, provided me a couple of things that would prepare me for my future path. I grew up in modest, somewhat uncurious circumstances. W&M provided me an infinite world of knowledge and ideas and gave me some sharpened tools to express myself. I don’t mean that sentence in a clichéd way but in the most precise, truest way possible.

It gave me incredible lifetime friends who have vastly expanded my understanding of everything. Most relevantly, my freshman DuPont hallmate and Madison roommate Michael Branch ‘85, then a student of Transcendentalism and subsequently a legendary professor at the University of Nevada (Reno), a founder of the field of environmental literature, and a popular and esteemed western writer and humorist. A curious person could hardly fail to learn from friends like that.

My wife Pam Krulitz ’86 and I moved to Williamsburg in 2017. Somehow the town always felt like home to both of us. I became a member of the W&M Libraries Board and started to walk often on campus when students were away. Both in the woods adjacent to our house and on campus, I started to notice vines strangling trees but did not know what they were or anything else about them. On campus, my greatest concern was that significant damage to the remaining wooded areas would diminish its beauty, resulting in a detrimental impact on the institution and the experience of those working and studying and visiting there.

W&M to the rescue! Fortuitously, Sara Holtz, an alum, often posts about invasive plant species on the social media page for our former neighborhood in Oakton. She is working diligently to rehabilitate the adjacent Difficult Run Stream woodlands and to inform neighbors on the topic. Several invasive species that she shared were the same ones that I was seeing. That gave me a foothold. I tentatively started to remove invasives around our house and then some Japanese honeysuckle vines on campus.

I emailed Calandra Waters Lake, W&M’s first director of sustainability, about getting permission to do the work. She put me in touch with Geology Prof. Linda Morse, who heads the student Virginia Master Naturalist chapter on campus. I started working with her students and other master naturalists, including Keith Navia ’78. Those connections have resulted in some very significant invasive plant removal on campus. They spurred me to become a master naturalist, and I’ve learned an incredible amount through the whole process.

Students walking along a path landscaped with native plants next to the Sunken Gardens

I’ve developed a broader perspective. The campus aesthetic is important and the narrowing woods all the more crucial to maintaining its appealing vistas and quiet, shady spots. Think of the trees across the Sunken Garden from the Wren Building and walking through the Wildflower Refuge.

More important is the transformation of our natural spaces by the spread of invasive plants. All life is interconnected. Right now, life is facing the challenges of climate change, habitat loss, chemical pollution, material pollution, and the ongoing replacement of native species with nonnative ones.

Native plant/animal relationships have evolved over long periods. These stresses are coming fast and hard. Invasive species alone are an existential challenge. When trees of heaven replace pines, hickories, and oaks, the caterpillars and other insects and small critters who rely on the latter are harmed, as are the birds and larger critters who rely on them. As are we. A forest of autumn olives, like the one across the street from my neighborhood, means few caterpillars and few birds. Like many, I’m grappling with thoughts about what we can do.

On April 22, Michael Branch ("On the Trail of the Jackalope") will participate in an Earth Day Panel Discussion with prominent Virginia writer Dean King ("Guardians of the Valley: John Muir and the Friendship That Saved Yosemite") in the Ford Classroom, Swem Library, 4-6 p.m. I’m looking forward to attending the event with college friends, sort of a circle coming around on itself, and another fine example of the W&M community at work.

I also highly recommend the event to everyone. I’m sure that it will be a thoughtful and engaging discussion on a day made for pausing to think about what we can all do to protect this wafer-thin place that life inhabits. Besides, based on what I know about these writers, it’s going to be pretty darn fun and freewheeling. I mean, after all, it’s a prime opportunity for the W&M community (and beyond) to hear and engage with people who’ve thought deeply about the environment and our connection to it, including a DuPont hallmate turned legendary Nevada professor, who is also expert on "How to Cuss in Western."