Groundskeeper

(This column was first published in the October 26, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    Question: What do Bill Marshall and the average homeowner have in common? Answer: they are both responsible for yard maintenance, for the care of gardens, trees, shrubs -- and mostly lawn.

    Many homeowners do spend time working in their yards, but that answer represents a stretch: Marshall's "yard" is almost exactly 10,000 times as large as, for example, my own. His is the University at Buffalo land including both the Amherst and Main Street Campuses.

    As the university's grounds construction supervisor, Marshall oversees more than two square miles of property. His fiefdom includes not only the vast lawns and gardens surrounding classroom buildings and dormitories but also the roadways and athletic fields that fill campus maps with lines and oddly shaped polygons.

    Of course, Marshall has assistance. The senior members of his staff of 36 are Gary Nielsen and Ken Wolf. Nielsen has special responsibility for care of the athletic fields, those greenswards that often start a rainy autumn afternoon looking like putting greens and end the day like well-plowed muck fields.

    Earlier this fall I spent a pleasant morning with Marshall touring the Amherst campus and talking about his work. I found him open, friendly and deeply committed to this property. He clearly takes personal pride in the grounds but he goes out of his way to credit his co-workers for their contributions. One of those is Virginia Colarusso, who planted and cares for the lovely flowers that adorn campus road medians. Marshall has been with the university for almost a quarter century and his staff members also have lengthy service records -- they average over 15 years.

    As we toured we talked about those standard problems that beset gardeners: the expected and unexpected insect invasions, the many mammal and bird residents, the plantings that don't take, the various penalties imposed by weather. But I was particularly interested in how well the university is moving toward its Environmental Task Force goals for the year 2025. In its summary the task force calls for "the University to transform its land into a more energy efficient, diverse community of ecosystems that will require minimal care in the long term."

    Marshall had ready answers. He took me to several places posted with signs proclaiming, "UB Natural Regeneration Area." These are unmown sections, some already dotted with invading wild shrubs, others with planted seedlings including larch, sumac, poplar, cedar, birch, pine, spruce and various dogwoods. Already 270 acres are largely self-sustaining and beginning natural succession and additional areas are being added each year. It is clear, however, that the signs are necessary. If they were not posted, campus administrators would be plagued with complaints; with them, the response to these natural areas has been uniformly positive.

    This program will bring to the campus many benefits. Hours of effort will be turned to other duties and the natural areas will serve as windbreaks, will bring more animals and birds to the area, will reduce energy emissions and absorb carbon dioxide and will enhance the campus' appearance.

    Unfortunately, one task force recommendation is not yet implemented. It calls for student involvement. Today, Marshall told me, six staff members each spend two hours every day picking up trash around North Campus dormitories; an equal number patrols the academic spine; still more hours are devoted to the Main Street campus. Like too many of us today, some students are fouling their own nest.

    I commend Bill Marshall and his staff for maintaining these increasingly attractive grounds. They richly deserve the support they receive from the university administration. I only hope that students will soon join their team as well.