Vassar students get down and dirty, inspired by the Lorax

Environmental stewardship is a common attribute across Vassar’s student body. To engage students in small acts of ecological restoration, the Environmental Cooperative hosted a community tree planting on a sunny fall afternoon. Courtesy of Grace Rousell

Thanks to Dr. Seuss’ famous children’s book The Lorax, many people grow up believing that planting trees is a conscious act of doing good. Perhaps this lasting impact of The Lorax is cemented by the quote that he chose to end with: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” This quote presents human impact on the environment with a duality of pessimism and hope, similar to The Lorax’s critical yet inspiring call to action. Simply put, it creates a sense of environmental stewardship in children across the world.

In response to that universal childhood message, Vassar students are upholding environmental stewardship on campus and doing so on both the collective and individual scale, at a time when sustaining human and ecological populations is the demanding issue of the century.

This past Saturday, Sept. 28, the Environmental Cooperative at Vassar Barns hosted a community tree planting event from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. near Kenyon Bridge, located at a Casperkill stream site at the northeast corner of campus. On this sunny day in early autumn, about 40 Vassar students offered their helpful hands to designate homes for young trees. Planting one tree requires an elaborate process of preparation, potting and then protection. Volunteers were mainly comprised of returning Environmental Cooperative workers, experienced tree-planters and environmental studies majors, but many were also first-timers when it came to planting trees. Martin Burstein ’23, for example, never planted trees before. By volunteering this past Saturday, he shared how he not only learned how to create safe and secure homes for trees, but also grew his environmental network as a first-year at Vassar.

Burstein commented on the broader necessity of tree planting: “We should plant more trees because they’re getting cut down at a much faster rate.” He also pointed to the key roles that trees play in our ecosystem, including carbon sequestration, soil compaction, erosion control and mixed land use.

His new friend and tree planting partner, Lucy Brown ’22, environmental studies major and Co-President of Vassar Greens, also remarked on the importance of tree planting. “We need a lot of monumental change in how we use energy and put out carbon emissions, but I do think that planting trees is a good thing that everybody can do,” Brown said. “A really big part of environmentalism is actually being outside and seeing how things change as a result of human interference and human aid.”

In the Essentials of Environmental Science course Brown is currently taking, students are conducting field research in the local Casperkill and Fonteynkill streams, which run from the north to south ends of campus. Students in the class are studying the drinkability, biodiversity and overall quality of water at each respective source on Vassar’s campus. According to the students in the course, one concept they learn is that trees act as one of the best buffers and water purifiers, providing Vassar with a healthier, cleaner and more inhabitable Sunset Lake to enjoy.

However, Vassar did not always have courses devoted to environmentalism in this fashion. While the college boasts an extensive arboretum and ecological preserve, fewer campus residents notice aspects of our ecosystem such as water quality. In fact, Vassar is situated in proximity to multiple bodies of water: the Hudson River, Sunset Lake and Vassar Lake. Although these water bodies seem separate from each other, they are like organs connected by tissues and veins; water is constantly flowing its various bodies, and anything that impacts an upper part of the stream that leads to Sunset Lake, for instance, will also affect the downstream area.

One of the main streams linking bodies of water throughout Vassar’s campus is the Casperkill stream. For instance, the 1932 closing of a brick plant near Casperkill created a pit in the stream, which became a site for the dumping of garbage and ashes (Vassar College Environmental Research Institute, “Health of the Casperkill, Dutchess County, New York,” February 2009). Although such violations of the Clean Water Act are now prohibited, the water quality of streams running through campus continue to be damaged, with the culprits ranging from motor oil runoff to the increased release of organic nutrients into the water.

Scientific research and community action have prioritized the recovery of Sunset Lake and the Casperkill stream. Small actions such as planting trees along streams—like what Vassar volunteers did this past Saturday—contribute to the purification of water quality and the revival of native ecosystems. “There are things that we can do to repair the damage that we have done,” Brown echoed.

Returning to The Lorax, people may have grown up to believe that planting trees is a good deed, and therefore they do it. But this naturally raises the question: Why do people really do it? Is it simply an obligatory action, or something to gratify people with a sense of relief from the guilt of anthropogenic impact on the environment? Or is it truly because people feel intrinsically connected to our environment and believe that what affects it also affects them? These are questions that can help people assess the extent of our own environmental stewardship and sense of ecological responsibility. Often, the answer is a mixture of both.


  1. How the Casperkill received its Name. . . . .[read the whole think to catch the drift]
    Poughkeepsie “The Origin and Meaning of the Word ”
    by Helen Wilkinson Reynolds
    Collections of the Dutchess County Historical Society
    Volume 1 – Published 1924 – Poughkeepsie NY Page 25+

    The third valid Title for land within the modern township of Poughkeepsie was acquired June 2, 1688, by Peter Schuyler of Albany, one of the outstanding figures of his day in the Province of New York. He was a man well-to-do materially, efficient in public office, and who earned a well
    merited distinction as a negotiator with the Indians and as an interpreter between them and the settlers. His purchase of land in Dutchess was a speculation and he ultimately sold off his patent in three, nearly equal, major divisions. But these three (and later) transactions under his title
    are of essential, local importance inasmuch as they afford the key to the explanation of the name “Poughkeepsie.”

    Colonel Schuyler’s patent, filed at Albany, secured to him two tracts in Dutchess County, one opposite to Magdalen Island (with which these pages are not concerned) and the other described as:

    “All that Tract or Parcell of land, Scituate, Lyeing and being on the East side of Hudson’s River, aforesaid, in the said County, at a Certaine Place called LONG REACH;

    Bounded on the South and East by a Certaine Creek (that Runns into Hudsons River on the North side of a Certaine House now in the Possession and Occupacon of Pieter, the Brewer); the said Creek being called by the Indians where it runs into the River THANACKKONEK &, where it Runns further up into the Woods, PIETAWICKQUASSEICK;

    Bounded on the North by the Lands of Robert Sanders and Myndert Harmense; and on the East (west) by Hudsons River aforesaid.”

    This description indicates the area of the Schuyler Patent very clearly. The land was bounded west by the Hudson, north by the Minisinck Patent and on the east and south by “a Certaine Creek,” known to-day as JAN CASPER’s KILL.

    The source of JAN CASPER’s KILL is to be found in a wet, spring-fed meadow, which lies on the north side of the Bedell Road (a cross-road, south of VanWagner’s Station, that connects Salt Point Turnpike with the Back Road).

    The KIL flows southward, its course taking it through the brickyards near Arlington, across a part of the campus of VASSAR COLLEGE and past CLIFFDALE; then it bends southwest, crosses the SPECKEN KILL ROAD and reaches the POST ROAD at the point where the highway and the trolley-line make a temporary fort. From thence, with a broadening and deepening bed and a gathering current it passes, in still UNMARRED PRIMEVAL BEAUTY, to the HUDSON.

    At the mouth of this stream, there is an extensive marsh and, back of the marsh, a belt of woods. The patent give the Indian name for the stream near the river as THANKACKKONEK (spelled Thanakanok on the map of the township in 1798), a Dutch rendering of the works Tanniken ick, place of nut trees, a phrase then literally descriptive in all probability, as handsome chestnuts have grown there within late years. “Farther up into the woods” the Indians referred to the stream as PIETAWICKQUASSEICK, that is: Poota (boggy), wick (the end of), Kussuhkohke (high lands) or “the high lands at the end of the bog.” This again is a literal description of conditions and is directly applicable to JAN CASPER’s KILL between the POST ROAD and the HUDSON.

    Put into English the Schuyler Patent would thus read: “the creek, called by the Indians where it runs into the river the place-of-nut-trees and, where it runs further up into the woods, the high-lands-at-the-end-of-the-bog.”

    “Pieter, the Brewer,” whose house the patent refers to, was Pieter LASSEN. His house was immediately south of the stream that bounded the Schuyler Patent, and through him, the stream obtained the name by which the early
    deeds say it was “known to the Christians.” Lassen’s wife, Catrina Hofmeyer, had a half-brother, JAN CASPERSE HALLENBECK of Albany County, who never lived in Poughkeepsie, yet whose name has been familiar in the township in the common speech of its citizens for more than two centuries and a quarter.

    POOR JAN CASPER! Remembered and forgotten at one and the same time. So often is his name spoken in passing but no one stops to ask who he was or where he lived or why his KIL was called for him.

  2. I wish I had known about the Lorax. Unlike the Lorax, no story has ever been written about the Species’ Forest. People don’t care about the natural landscape. A species’ forest, grassland, desert, river or mountain is of, by and for all the OTHER native plants, animals, fungi and soil microbes occupying those places. — from the Deep Woods of the Species’ Forest, Conway, Massachusetts.

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