I remember four years ago, when I came to visit Blacksburg for the very first time — it was gorgeous. There were rolling green hills with red barns dispersed throughout, and heavily forested mountains. The drive alone nearly won me over, and the campus and its endless possibilities did the rest. The natural scenery of this area is of vital importance to its students, residents and wildlife.
The natural resources and unique imagery of the New River Valley are currently under threat: With endless development that clear-cuts trees, a proposed fracking pipeline that would run over the steep karst topography and endanger all around it and at a more macro level, there is climate change.
The hotter, longer summer months are already being felt here. The emerald ash borer now lives a more prominent life and these beetles have killed thousands of ash trees in recent years. The New River is flooding like it has hardly been seen before, and the winds and storms here are becoming more vicious.
I don’t believe we can be yet another generation which takes from the environment without thinking of the future — of sustainability. We should increase our stewardship and responsibility for the nature which sustains us.
Last summer, I stayed here in Blacksburg, wanting to hike and enjoy it and possibly try to organize a large-scale event in earnest. The event I had in mind would be called the Big Plant, inspired by Virginia Tech’s Big Event, but it would be dedicated to planting trees on campus and in the area.
I had seen a headline around that time that stated that the Chinese military would plant 5,000 trees to address climate change. I was impressed by their vigorous attitude toward climate action, and figured it would be awesome if Virginia Tech did the same.
Being a recent graduate in finance, I had little understanding of how I would pull this off. I got a job with a local arborist, doing laborious tree work and asking questions whenever I could. The job was outdoors, and being a yuppie of NOVA origin, there was definitely a humorous culture shock.
I had no understanding of how any of their tools worked; I was not used to working with any pace, there were no forms, only a passing respect for bodily safety and we got off based not on a schedule, but when the job was complete.
These facts sometimes caused conflict among us, though none of them were insurmountable.
Some pros were that I got in better shape, and I got to see much of this beautiful area. My boss was skeptical of my being able to pull off this idea, but he advised me nonetheless. When I asked where I could get land to plant on, he told me to talk to John Eustis over at the New River Land Trust.
I met with John and he was of great help; he listed around a dozen leads I could follow at that first meeting. One of these leads was Betty Hahn, the daughter of Virginia Tech’s 11th president, T. Marshall Hahn. She was an avid environmentalist, activist and former professor of Appalachian studies.
When I met her, she very much liked the idea of the Big Plant, and offered space on her land to plant, adding that she would reforest it all if she could. She has been a great supporter and sponsor of this event.
I also got in touch with the Stroubles Creek Coalition, who have been working to restore and conserve Stroubles Creek for years now. The head of the coalition — a young and energetic Virginia Tech alumnus named Tom Saxton — in particular liked the idea. In one of my talks with Tom, I learned a fact which seemed to me like it was out of science fiction. He suggested we do cuttings at Stroubles Creek:
“Cuttings? Why? I want to plant trees.”
“No, cuttings are when you cut branches of certain species like black willow and stick them into the ground — they then grow into trees.”
Finally, I visited with a kind woman named Bernadette, or Berny, who runs the New River Junction — a scenic camping and picnic site located on the bank of the New River, around 20 minutes away from campus. The New River is the second oldest river in the world, behind only the Nile.
The junction used to have many trees for shade, but they have been devastated by the emerald ash borer. She said she could use shade trees, but since I was looking to plant trees in high density, she suggested planting green walls on the perimeters of the site.
I next consulted with a few foresters, including my boss, about which species we should plant. I obtained good lists of native species for all of the sites.
For fundraising, I talked once again with John Eustis, who has experience fundraising for the Land Trust. He allowed me to see their fundraising letter, which I tweaked and then used to great success.
After work, I would frequent many of the charming local businesses with a personalized letter, asking if they would like to be a sponsor of the event. Many of them, including: Eats Natural Foods and their customers, Bollos Cafe, Gillie’s, Baseline Solar, InBalance Yoga, and the New River Land Trust — said yes, and made checks out to my club, the Environmental Coalition at Virginia Tech.
These generous local businesses supported the event when it was still just an idea on a piece of paper. Hopefully, students will in turn show these local businesses the same support.
The university also was a source of funding. We were approved for two Budget Board proposals: one for Stroubles Creek seedlings and one for the purchase of shovels. Student Engagement and Campus Life and the Prospective Gallery also offered funds to pay for art-related needs, thanks to the Gallery’s director, Robin Scully.
Purchases have been made and now the word must be spread. Thankfully, all who hear of the Big Plant seem highly enthusiastic. Many clubs and organizations have committed to volunteering for the event. I hope all who can come out to the Drillfield on Saturday, March 30 at 10:30 a.m., will help us plant thousands of trees and make a statement of our own.
I hope these trees will not only be planted, but maintained. I also hope that in coming years, this event will expand, so we can plant more trees in more places and spread the event to other universities.
There is no time to waste; we must come together and act now — and possibly with music, refreshments and camping as additional perks.