by Jacob Schmidt
November 17 is a date that Whitworth will not soon forget, as more than 100 of our beloved ponderosas came crashing to the ground. With loop repairs coming along, students and faculty are able to see the new face of their home, but while Whitworth certainly looks different this season need not be a time of despair. I propose that Whitworth find within this loss, an opportunity to make a fresh commitment to sustainable design and experiential learning.
The question of how to rebuild the loop cannot be answered without first understanding what led to the massive destruction of last fall’s windstorm, and the answer lies within the trees themselves. Ponderosa pines, and their distinctively large seed cones, are synonymous with Whitworth for many students and alumni. A brief look through admissions material and alumni newsletters reveals just how prominent the great Pondo’ is in our shared sense of place. This is not inherently a bad thing, as these trees were in residence long before Whitworth moved into the neighborhood. Yet, while Whitworth has maintained a laudable number of the native plants i.e. we have a forest where most schools have either a field or a brick square, we have not maintained the conditions which allowed these trees to thrive in the first place. As every student from the Puget Sound has likely noticed, the inland northwest has a dry climate. This took a while longer for me to realize coming from central Arizona, where relatives visit more often than do clouds. But according to the National Weather Service, Spokane gets 58 percent less rainfall annually than the national average. Spokane is in fact a dry place.
Whitworth is not a dry place. Every inch of Whitworth’s grass receives nearly an hour per night of full coverage from two rotating sprinklers dolling out two gallons of water per minute each. Trust me, I installed many of them last summer. This sort of watering sounds insane, but it is what’s necessary to keep grass green throughout the summer and fall in our dry climate. With this much water available in the soil, the already shallow rooted ponderosa grows lazy and does not grow an extensive root system. Think about how your behavior changes once you allow yourself to start eating in bed, and that is roughly how our ponderosas live. Our enabling of these lazy trees leaves them particularly prone to being pushed over by strong winds. If you don’t believe that overwatering has an effect on toppling trees, just look at how few trees fell in the back 40 compared to the loop. Keeping ponderosas in a well watered field has proven to be an objective hazard. This spring’s replanting represents an ultimatum for Whitworth’s image, either get rid of the grass, or plant different trees.
I am proposing a productive solution to this dilemma: the Whitworth Community Orchard. Before you flip to the sports section, indulge me for just a few sentences to sell you on the merits of this idea. Imagine a swath of the loop planted with apples, pears, plums, and cherries. These need not be in boring rows, but could be intentionally arranged by our own visual art faculty. These trees would be maintained during the school year by a dedicated group of students with hiring preference given to environmental studies minors. Think of the student jobs created, the opportunity for service learning, the reduction of imported produce in Sodexo, the possibility of giving excess produce to local food banks, and the lifelong commitment to environmental responsibility that this program could instil in students. The Whitworth Community Orchard could fundamentally change the Whitworth image for the better, attracting prospective students with a heart for botany or agriculture. American Diversity classes could use the space to give students an empathic connection to migrant agricultural workers. The benefits of such a program just keep piling up. You may be thinking that this plan would never get passed by facilities and administration. Well know this, I first got the idea from a member of the Grounds Department staff who is on good terms with Beck Taylor. If students pushed for a project like this, they would be heard. Think it over, how better might we memorialize last semester’s destruction than this?