Arboretum plans come to fruition

About a year ago, shortly after the planting of the Green Roof on the Rensselaer Union, I got an e-mail looking for my support for yet another green project. This one, however, was for a campus arboretum. I was intrigued. What’s an arboretum? Only able to piece together that the “arbor” part implied its relation to trees, I attended the first meeting.

Arriving late due to my confusion with the meeting location (discovering that the H-Building is not the Heffner Alumni house), I walked in to hear a motivated alumnus, G. Stephen Christopher—better known as Chico—discussing his idea for RPI to start a campus arboretum. An arboretum, I then found out, is a tree exhibition. Chico had heard of other campus arboretums and felt that starting one at RPI would foster a stronger connection between the Institute and its surrounding community. Having discussed the possibility with a number of fellow alumni, he found that the financial support was there, making the project feasible. Everyone was quickly on board with the idea and began working to set up the logistics.

Now you may be thinking, “What would this look like?” There are many different ways to set up an arboretum, the simplest of which is to showcase the trees present on campus. For now, the emphasis will be placed on the academic side of campus, where plaques will be made for each tree or group of trees. Trees that have been donated in the past, as well as those donated in the future, will receive special plaques. Maps will be made showing the location of these trees across campus and will be available on an interactive website.

Watching this whole project come together over the past year has been amazing. Approval was received shortly after the delivery of the idea, and plans for identification of campus trees were organized. The tree identification became a day-long event, put together by a biology graduate student, Bianca Pier. About 80 volunteers were taught the basics of tree identification, which was then applied toward identifying over 900 trees on campus. Unfortunately, there was no way to transfer this data onto a map. A standstill in progress followed. However, the interest of alumni was still strong, and a fund was pushed forward through another graduate student, Robyn Marquis, to allow for donations to be made.

Up to this point, I felt as though I had done little to contribute to the project. Realizing that outside help was needed, I took the opportunity to discuss the situation with students who could aid in the more technical side of the project. This is when I found Brian Heller ’12 and Matt O’Brien ’12, information technology and web science majors looking for an independent study project. Excited by the idea of creating a website for the arboretum, they immediately got to work with Scott Litwin, the supervisor of landscape operations who has been the coordinator behind this entire operation.

And so, what was once the idea of an invested alumnus has grown into something real. Come next academic year, there will be visible evidence of the work that alumni, students, and staff members have put forth to make this possible. And when you see a plaque on a campus tree, feel free to investigate further and open your eyes to what may have been a too-familiar area. This project has already brought many people together and I can’t wait to see whose attention is captured next.