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Mercy Campus Respects Integrity of the Land

August 15, 2011

By Sister Mary B.

When you drive onto the Georgian Court University campus this summer you will see the familiar Mercy Core Values printed on signs along the new entrance road. You will not see, in some areas, the usual manicured green lawns typical of most university campuses, especially ones located on turn-of-the-century Georgian estates. And that is intentional, an attempt to live with integrity in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.

Before the land belonged to the Sisters of Mercy, George Gould, son of Jay Gould, railroad tycoon from New York, transformed these “barren” acres into a lavish winter vacation spot for his family. Prior to human settlement, mostly pine trees and oaks grew here. On the ground, amid the native, grass-like Pennsylvania sedge, the sandy, acid soils supported lady slipper orchids and blueberries, trailing arbutus, pussytoes, wild lily-of-the-valley, partridgeberry, spotted wintergreen, Indian pipe, toadflax, blue-eyed grass. Gould had to import thousands of tons of topsoil from another area and employ 70 gardeners to create his Georgian world.

When the Sisters of Mercy moved into Georgian Court, their first instinct was to preserve the historic estate. This entailed projects such as restoring gold-leaf-embellished ceilings in the Mansion, repairing statuary, maintaining the Japanese and formal European gardens, and coaxing monoculture lawns from sand.

More recently, the university, in keeping with the fifth Mercy Core Value, Service, has been deepening its vital relationship with Earth. Relaxing its insistence on a campus of uniformly lush green turf and allowing native species to reappear is a very visible place to experiment.

One of the popular assumptions GCU challenges by this experiment involves our sense of beauty. Could we put aside artificial pictures of perfection, learned mostly from commercial advertising, and evolve aesthetically to see that what is beautiful is a healthy, diverse landscape: vegetation native to place? What is the ecological and monetary cost of trying to keep up inappropriate appearances? We are learning that local wildlife like birds and essential pollinators suffer when native vegetation is disturbed. When the integrity of one ecosystem is compromised, the whole bioregion is affected and consequently the entire biological fabric weakens.

In 2007 GCU President Rosemary Jefferies, RSM, signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Change Commitment, launching major projects and programs to reduce GCU’s carbon footprint and bring awareness to the urgency of working toward sustainability. In 2010 GCU built the Wellness Center with a green roof and other eco-sustainable features, achieving LEED Certification Gold. In 2009 GCU purchased green, e-certified renewable energy certificates for wind energy equivalent to its annual electrical power usage. A 385 KW solar panel array was installed in 2010, and will be supplemented by additional panels this fall. (You can read more about some of GCU’s many energy conservation measures and about other efforts to become a more “green” campus.)

Georgian Court is also taking leadership in addressing problems caused by soil compaction on both its lawns and athletic fields. Through changes in turf-grass management throughout the campus, GCU will be able to reduce the amount of water and fertilizer it uses to maintain healthy turf, which in turn contributes to the health of the surrounding watershed. Mulching mowers, reel mowers, and manual landscape techniques (weed-pulling versus weed-whacking, raking versus use of leaf blowers, etc.) are being phased in. GCU is working to develop the volunteer “GCU Green Force” to assist in these more sustainable but time-consuming practices. This summer GCU installed the first of an array of rain barrels to collect rain water from roof runoff for use in watering gardens, trees and shrubs, while reducing storm-water pulses that can cause flooding in riverside communities. In addition, the first of a series of rain gardens is being constructed this summer to reduce storm-water pulses and filter nutrients out of storm water before it enters rivers and streams.

In 2012 Georgian Court will partner with New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and Rutgers University in the construction of a series of gravel wetlands to test different designs for storm water treatment basins. The results of these tests will be shared with local construction companies and municipal and state agencies with the goal of developing the best management practices in compliance with the requirements of new NJ legislation concerning the construction of storm water basins that exit into coastal areas.

Each of these actions demonstrates significant steps toward reducing GCU’s carbon footprint and moves it closer to becoming ecologically sustainable. In the spirit of the Direction Statement of the Sisters of Mercy, GCU continues to deepen its commitment to “live in harmony” with this unique Pine Barrens ecosystem entrusted to its care.

It is through education that a society grows into the wisdom of its time; so much is still to be discovered about the way the natural world works! GCU is willing to take risks as we embrace bold guiding principles created by our understanding of how our GCU land works as a living system. Acknowledging the essential nature of a true partnership with this land, we consider what it needs to continue evolving toward greater health and productivity, and what role it asks us to play in that evolution.

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