Bridging college and community life with Wood’s Earth Living Classroom

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Tompkins Weekly 3/18/2013

By Sophie Griswold

Surrounded by furniture, books old and new, cookware begging for skilled home chefs, and yellow, welcoming walls, my first visit to the Finger Lakes Reuse center was not what I expected; less an arena of Space Age recycling than a re-homing center for kitchen sundries, FLR seemed composed of many homes in one.

SOS 3-18-13 Pic 1 Further surprises awaited me in a back room, spacious as a warehouse and filled with the deconstructed skeletons of many houses, where a small group of Ithaca teens, with a bit of guidance, were selecting planks of varying lengths and widths with which to construct a shed for a local community garden and school food farm, Wood’s Earth. As an intern with Wood’s Earth and a Cornell student, my assistance was in earnest, though I felt somewhat out of place. This group of teenagers, students of the Ithaca school system, seemed worlds apart from myself; bridging the gap from university to town seemed such a broad leap.

Being a Cornell student can be deceptively isolating; many undergraduate Cornellians strongly partake in the college community without ever stepping foot off The Hill, or even realizing that there is anything that the greater Town of Ithaca has to offer them. Participating in life at Cornell and the Ithaca community seem mutually exclusive to many students; one is either a Cornellian or an Ithacan, and never both. Of course, this is an overly simplistic view; many Cornell undergrads (myself included) endeavor to make themselves both a part of the university and the town that they inhabit, though this species of student often seems troublingly rare, when casually mentioning the Co-op downtown or an event on the commons elicits blank stares from my peers in a seminar. As a Junior Biology & Society major, I feel that it is just as important to connect with community (or society, as per my major) as it is to study what makes ecosystems function and plants grow; sometimes finding like minded students seems like a challenge.

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Working with Wood’s Earth Living Classroom, a recently established community gardens and farm that offers individual plots and endeavors to bring fresh, healthy food to Ithaca schools, has made me rethink this Ithaca-Cornell divide. Following a chance to meet with one of Wood’s Earth’s founders at the onset of the spring semester, I began to work as an intern, an endeavor that has demonstrated the porousness of the border between Collegetown and The Ithaca Commons. In drumming up garden plot subscriptions, community donations, and camaraderie both on campus and off, I have become acutely aware of the care that so many Ithaca natives – both students and non-students – have for the wider community. Such endeavors have introduced me to like-minded students who have transcended the tempting isolation of being “up on the hill” to try and better both school and town. One student project creates crosstalk between local CSAs and students, improving business for the former and bringing healthy, local food to the latter. Another teaches students in dorms how to compost and recycle, thus reducing the waste stream and landfill waste of the larger community. I am inspired by these projects as bridges from one community to another.


My work with Wood’s Earth has certainly made me such a conduit, and has done much more to elucidate the connections in my community and its dedication to a more sustainable, verdant future than anything else in recent memory. More times than I can count, I have casually mentioned my involvement with the garden to an acquaintance or friend who has then enthusiastically informed me that they have a garden plot with Wood’s Earth or another local garden. Likewise, tabling for and simply talking about the garden with locals has introduced me to a veritable green army, armed with trowels, compost, and farmers almanacs to coax life from the ground and make Ithaca aSOS 3-18-13 Pic 3 little brighter, a little tastier, and much more food secure.

More and more, I have realized that my work with Wood’s Earth means more than just a few more plot subscriptions and dollars in the coffers. It has meant having important conversations, creating lines of communication, and making assertions as a community. My fundraising and tabling endeavors have served as much to raise awareness of the garden as to create a forum in which I have seen Ithacans and Cornellians assert what is important to them and collectively bring their world into line with a more just and verdant ideal. And perhaps just as importantly, it has blurred – if not erased – the false distinction between a university student and a Ithaca community member.


Sophie Griswald is an intern with Wood’s Earth Living Classroom and a Junior Biology & Society major at Cornell University. She has worked with The Food Project in Boston and is enjoying a lab in soil science this semester. Sophie receives credit for her internship as coursework through ALS 4770 – Campus Environmental Stewardship.

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