Whose Woods These Are: A Public Letter to Our New Chancellor

categories: Cocktail Hour


Dear Chancellor-Elect Miller,

We have not met yet, but I look forward to shaking your hand. You have arrived at a fascinating place, a place that is growing fast in ways it is not always sure of.  Like you, I had no plans to move to Wilmington, North Carolina, until fate decided that that was where I would move. This is my eighth year here and not long ago I almost left and moved my family West.  The decision to stay marked a change in my relationship with this town and school: being thrown randomly into a place I had never heard of before was one thing, but deciding to stay, to commit, and to raise my daughter here was another. For many reasons I have felt confirmed in my decision to stay, including the passion of my students and the friendship of my colleagues on the creative writing hallway.  But I also reaped an unexpected reward in the years since my decision: I discovered our woods. It was a little more than a year ago that I started taking daily walks, frequent bike rides, and occasional picnics with my daughter in the UNCW woods.  Before that I had known the woods were there, but hadn’t expected much from them.  What I found startled me.

“Joy is the symptom by which means of right conduct may be measured,” wrote Joseph Wood Krutch of Thoreau. I think I must have done something right in choosing to commit to UNCW because I feel joy when I roam the acres behind campus.  Back when I was tempted to leave, one of the reasons I wanted to head West was because of the proximity of wild places, places where I could go to feel apart from the stresses and crowdedness of the too-human world. Imagine my surprise when I found the same here. Yes, it is on a smaller scale, a mere scrap of woods really, but enough to briefly leave both campus, and world, behind.  People who have been here longer than I have tell me stories of what the woods were, of various ecosystems already torn up, but I am more interested in what the woods still are. They still are several miles of trails with deep ferned gullies, mazes of blueberry bushes, dead trees rattling with pileated woodpeckers, hidden copses of oaks with sun shafting through, and cedar waxwings (picture a brown cardinal) migrating through to feed from the berried bushes and trees. The wild is closer than we think, and recently, within the course of two short walks, I saw a sharp shinned hawk land its talons in the back of a crow and a group of crows get their species revenge by mobbing a frightened young red tail.  The woods sit like a secret behind the campus. For that we are very lucky.

Unfortunately, it is not a sense of gratitude that prompts this letter. A few weeks ago I was taking a break between classes to walk along one of the trails, my regular route these days, when I suddenly discovered that part of the route was missing. The trail had been chewed up, swallowed by bulldozers.  I suppose I half knew that this would happen soon, had even been expecting it.  I reacted to the sight of my torn-up trail with the usual rage.  I’ve been through this before you see. Most all of us have. We’ve all watched land that we love get “developed.” Some of us respond the way we once did when burned by high school girlfriends or boyfriends: we numb up and walk away. But I’ve never been very good at that approach. Instead I do things like get angry and write letters. Here we go, I thought after I calmed down, you knew this was coming . . . .what did you really expect?

Later in the day, an early draft of this letter already begun, I made a few phone calls and sent out a few e-mails, and realized that I’d misunderstood what I saw. What I had seen was not the end of the woods at all.  All I had witnessed were some small incursions made by the city bike paths, a project I not only understand but support, and a project that only dances along the wood’s edges. But I was glad for my misunderstanding.  It got my blood pumping.  I realized that the whole time I had been falling in love with those woods, I had also been secretly priming myself for what usually comes next, for what always comes next in this restless world: the inevitable development of the places you love.  Unlike some of my colleagues who have been here longer, I couldn’t remember back to when the woods extended to where the dorms and Dunkin’ Donuts are now.  But that day left me with both a healthy fear and a vision of the future, the sight of the dozers feeling like no less than an omen. Of course I’d always known that the woods would be encroached upon, but this moment, though born of a misunderstanding, set me in motion.  It woke me from a slumber.

There were practical results of this waking.  Had I not had my false scare I might not have taken an interest in the future of the woods and would not have begun to carefully study the “Master Plans” that are currently being decided upon. This was a few weeks ago, and I quickly learned that I, in the rush of usual busy-ness, had not known that public forums on this very subject had been taking place at the school. In the time since I have had a chance to carefully study the plans and for the most part I am impressed. I like the idea of having a central campus, and of concentrating parking in decks, and most of the changes make good sense to me.

Except, of course, the changes to the woods.  There was a misleading sentence in the original literature that the architects of the Master Plan have sent out.  They claimed that there had been no major changes made to the woods in these plans.  This simply isn’t true.  If you have eyes you can see that the proposed loop road cuts directly into the first quadrant of woods where most of us enter for our walks. You can also see that that road continues along the woods’ edge, and it goes without saying that it will do all the things a road naturally does. Finally, you will see recreation fields that push the woods back further and that, combined with the proposed storm water lake, pinch the woods, creating a bottleneck squeezing the area that connects the different quadrants.  Eyeing it, and being conservative, I would say that as much as 15% of the woods will be affected.  But that doesn’t get at the true effect for those who love to spend their time inside the woods.  Walking there you already feel as if you are inside a small preserve, and the roads and cars and buildings are always pushing at the edges of that preserve.  These proposed plans will be yet another push, chipping away at what once was a refuge. “It could be much worse,” defenders of the woods might rightfully say, and it could.  But with each incursion the woods become less.  Development tends to go in only one direction.  Once fields and roads are built they stay.  Woods never re-gain what is lost.

Though many of us missed out on them, I commend the administration for holding public forums so that we could give our input into the new plans. But the truth is that if public forums and planners are to be our guide, the woods don’t stand a chance.  Conservation never comes from groupthink, but from vision.  No majority would ever create national parks, for instance. They would choose roads instead, just as our students, understandably, choose parking lots and playing fields.  It isn’t that wildness is low on the list of priorities. It isn’t on the list at all. As Wallace Stegner wrote: “Being an intangible and spiritual resource, it will seem mystical to the practical minded–but then anything that can’t be moved by a bulldozer is likely to seem mystical to them.” One of the “practical” arguments used by those who like to “develop” woods is that only a few people go to these places anyway, and they don’t serve the greater good. You can’t make an economic argument for the value of my colleague and I taking our daughters to play along what they called “the river,” and then tramping through a larger land they know only as “the woods.” But that is exactly the point. Without a place where only a few go, we suffer a great spiritual loss. And that is also true, as Stegner points out, for those who don’t go there but know it exists.

Among other things dooming our woods is nomenclature. They are located on the “back” of campus, back there behind us. I happen to think our campus is a beautiful one, but I have always been puzzled by the decision to have it face a giant strip mall. I think of the way great campuses make use of their resources, the way, for instance, that the entire University of Colorado gazes up at the mountains of the front range.  I feel we have gotten things backwards. Rather than think of these woods as a place “out back” where we toss our butts and build our service buildings and our loop road, why not re-orient and think of them as our pride, particularly in a town where almost all similar coastal woods ecosytems have been stripped for malls. Even the most practical-minded planner would have to see the worth of this. In fifty years, when even less land is left and more of us crowd in, the value of such a place will have increased fifty fold.  Talk about your practical resources.

And if we don’t do this? We become an increasingly urban island campus in what should be a rural setting. We play to our weaknesses rather than our strengths.  I think of a great young writer who had been accepted into our grad program, but decided not to attend before she reached the campus since she came in via College Road. We live in a larger community where woods and beach have always lost out to the dollar, but rather than cave to that and follow the town’s mores, we should, as a university with vision, set a different tone and follow a different vision.  It is part of a university’s mission to not just teach ideas but live by them.

But that cat is way out of the bag.  And, the practical minded would reply, the woods are out of the bag too. It’s too late, buddy, just relax and accept it. The plans have been written up. There’s a budget crisis and much more pressing matters are on our plates. What you suggest, they reply to me, is fantasy. Well, before I end, let’s allow my fantasy to play out for a second.  In that fantasy here is what I see. Someone with vision, with foresight, someone perhaps new to the place who can see it fresh, would save the woods and place them apart, sacrosanct, no longer pie to be gobbled up by the next administrative planner who comes along. Better than that, they would become our school’s pride, a part of its identity, something that also sets us apart, and as that we wouldn’t let anyone touch them, not an inch of them. If we did that, if we made the woods our pride rather than a place out back behind campus, we would re-define ourselves. We would be the campus that thought ahead, that did it right.  The small campus with the big woods. The envy of other places. And as appreciated as that would be now, it would be much more so in our crowded future.

The planners won’t have it of course. Eventually the proposed changes will be made and then, fifteen years or so later, the next plans, and another fifteen, the next.  In this way the woods will be slowly chewed up. The same planners will bring their lights and roads and cite all sorts of practical concerns, and of course time is always pressing. They live in the urgent present, and, their actions justified by a state of constant emergency, the deed gets done, the buildings built, and there is no going back.  It should be noted that if beavers don’t chew constantly their teeth will eventually impale them. But we are humans not beavers. We can restrain ourselves and our teeth won’t kill us. So here’s an idea: What if we did nothing?  How’s that for Master Plan?  We have something unique. Rather than cut it up into pieces, let’s coddle it, brag about it, protect it, show it off.  Let’s boast that we are the greenest campus around.  After all, the stuff of fantasy is not always fantasy. Consider what another visionary leader did before he left office. Teddy Roosevelt saved great swaths of our land, impractical as that was, swaths that have become parks that would no doubt have been gobbled up now were it for his impractical actions. Of course we are not talking about millions of acres here, or about national parks. But we are talking about exactly the same thing, only on a smaller scale.  I know this is not the Grand Canyon. It is a diminished scarp reduced from an already diminished scarp. But for me, and for the others who spend time there, it has been a source of daily wonder. Maybe in this time all most of us have left are patches of limited wild and maybe we must protect these patches as we once did parks.

Though this has been a fanciful letter, let me end on a practical note. When we make any decision we must consider what is lost or gained. So we might as well keep a blunt and honest ledger sheet. What will be gained if we continue to develop the woods? A new road, playing fields, a storm water lake. And what will be lost? Creativity, spirituality, potential, the possibility of something more, the possibility, also, of doing more. And of course: the possibility of going back. Buildings can always be built at a later date. But buildings are never torn down and woods aren’t re-built. Once this is done it is done. It seems to me that even the most practical minded planner, when considering this, would be cautious. Cautious lest he ruin something that can never be retrieved.  Cautious lest a door be shut forever.

But rather than end this note on that bleak note, I would like I would like to offer an invitation.  Come for a walk with me.  Or come for a walk with me, and my colleague, and our daughters.  Either way, come see what the woods are and what they can be.  I think you will be happily surprised.  We might even see a sharp shinned hawk or two.  If you are very lucky these woods may even do for you what they have done for me: resonate with something deep inside.  And you, like me, may begin to suspect that you have made a good decision by coming to live in this special place.



David Gessner

Associate Professor of Creative Writing

  1. Philip Gerard writes:

    This is the sort of writing that makes me proud to have you for my colleague. Every writer who aspires to make a difference must become a champion for a useful truth, and the useful truth here is that nature is not “extra”– it is the heart of the matter, and the heart of the UNCW campus. Remember that “campus” comes from the Latin for “field,” and fields are what you find on the edges of woods, the place where you break out of the cool shade into sunlight, where the deer retreat from at dawn. Without the woods, the field is just barren acreage.

  2. Luba writes:
  3. Deborah Edwards writes:

    My husband and I have been in Wilmington 16 years, we could have moved anywhere because at the time I was working for US Air and so we flew to a few places that we thought would end up being home. Instead, we ended up in Wilmington, NC still torn between living in the mountains or close to the ocean. My husband, David, and I remain very active and often spend time each Spring and Summer hiking parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and camping from the mountains to as close to home as Carolina Beach. This small part of woods is a spiritual place to those of us who love nature and all its beauty. It is also a retreat for some from daily drudgery and the sometimes overwhelming concerns of life; to many of us it is special in ways that cannot be described. I urge you Chancellor-Elect Miller to take Professor Gessner up on his offer, you will not regret it.

  4. Sarah Gagliardo writes:

    Bravo! Thank you for so eloquently putting into words what so many of us feel/felt at our time at UNCW.

    • Dave writes:

      Thanks for all the support on this. They are going to say, “Oh, it’s not that bad…we only took a little away this time.” And so, in this manner, the woods are bit by bit destroyed. It’s really amazing how people don’t get it……

  5. Bill writes:

    My walk at Holy Cross in your hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, was suddenly different in my last year–they’d put a perimeter road through it. But the woods itself was a new thing, having grown up in old farm fields. These had later been used as a ski run for the college. The rope-tow pulleys are still there in the understory as the forest reclaims all that. The rest is all athletic-field drainage. Still, one morning I saw moose prints, alerted the campus PR person to the miracle (I was always sending along nature stories to offer a foil to all the sports and academic stuff). She replied with a forwarded news story–Moose shot and killed by Worcester Police on the highway nearby. The officers were both Caribbean born–must have thought they were facing a monster… I have a modest proposal–let’s get Holy Cross and UNCW together for an initiative–the first campuses to completely close forever and allow themselves to go back to nature. Then again, I suppose that’s going to happen anyway one day, and long, long before the sun explodes in 4.5 billion years.

  6. Kevin D writes:

    Wonderful, beautiful, brilliant, and true letter. There were “woods” where the Dunkin’ Donuts is, I used to walk through there on my way to work in the Education building.

    I hope something can be done to save as much of the trees and beauty of UNCW as possible. I would really hate for it to become just another college campus.

  7. George de Gramont writes:

    Great photo of Hadley. good luck w/this thoughtful/interesting essay. GdG.

  8. Kelley Brown writes:

    A beautiful letter. I would love to see UNCW’s woods stay the way they are, and I hope the new Chancellor agrees. I was particularly struck by this: “We become an increasingly urban island campus in what should be a rural setting. We play to our weaknesses rather than our strengths.” This couldn’t be more true. The UNCW experience is unique for its location, it is not in a giant city area and it probably should not pretend that it is. I could have gone to VCU and walked across eight lanes of traffic to get to my classes if I wanted to go to a “big city” university, but I chose UNCW instead.