Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2010

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Tree Keeper

Tree Keeper
“(Jim Luce) teaches students to appreciate that knowledge is not found only in a classroom,” says ethnobotany professor Manual Lizarralde, bottom left.

Grounds Supervisor Jim Luce bans topiary, goes native and revolutionizes the campus landscape

By Leslie Rovetti


Jim Luce remembers the flora at Connecticut College in December 1988, when he started his job as campus grounds supervisor. It was mostly yew hedges, he said, that had been coaxed into tall, rounded shapes.

“Everywhere you went — gumdrops, loaves of bread,” he recalls.

Earning himself the nickname “Slash and Burn,” Luce says he set about taking down the yew hedges, reclaiming the walkways onto which they´d overgrown and banishing gumdrops from campus. He replaced them with plantings of various sizes, shapes and colors, many of which are resistant to bugs and more tolerant of drought.

Among those who supported Luce´s work in transforming the campus was Professor Emeritus of Botany Sally Taylor.
“I used to give him lists of things I´d like to see on campus,” Taylor says.

She says that she and the late William Niering, who was the Lucretia L. Allyn Professor of Botany, were pleased that Luce was so amenable to their ideas on not just what to plant, but on refraining from using pesticides and herbicides on campus.

“Jim was very open to our ecological attitudes,” she says.
Luce, who calls Taylor and Niering mentors, can still point out the campus trees and plants that the two professors recommended.

Now, more than two decades later, the campus is a far cry from that gumdrop-and-bread-loaf landscape. Trees and shrubs are healthy and have a more natural shape, which Taylor attributes partly to Luce´s skill in pruning.

“He really knows how to prune well. That´s the magic secret,” she says. “Jim takes beautiful care of the trees.”

Although Luce takes an obvious pride in the landscape transformation, he is quick to shake off any recognition.
“I don´t want to take credit for anything, because the people who work for me are just so good,” he says.

They may very well be so good. But so is Luce.

He claims he knows every leaf on the 120 acres of the main campus, and anyone who´s taken a walk through campus with him will believe that. He can explain the structure of the compound leaves on the paper bark maple, tell the history of the Franklinia tree and describe the fruit of the kousa dogwood.

“Tastes almost like strawberry banana,” he says.

Luce and his crew are responsible for a long list of important but sometimes invisible jobs, from snow plowing to removing dead animals.

“It´s not just mowing the grass,” he says. “Anything that´s outside. You name it.”

Although it might appear that tending the plants is his favorite part of the job, Luce says he most enjoys the relationships he has with the students. He works with up to a dozen student helpers each year, and says some of them have become friends.

“Sometimes it´s very sad when they leave,” he says.

Some come back to campus to visit him after graduation, he says, and one alumna recently sent him pictures of her new baby.

Although supervising the grounds is enough to keep anyone busy, Luce is also an educator. He gives tours and classes, sometimes in conjunction with the Arboretum, on tree identification, pruning and other horticulture topics. He helps local Boy Scouts obtain their forestry merit badges.

He also assists with a class taught by Manuel Lizarralde, associate professor of ethnobotany, by giving Lizarralde´s students a tour of the campus plant life.

Ethnobotany is the study of “how people relate to the plant world,” Lizarralde explains. It encompasses not just medicinal plants, as many people think, but also how people use plants for tools and other useful items, as well as how human populations fit into their local ecology.

This is where Luce comes in. Because Lizarralde was raised in Venezuela, Luce says the professor is familiar with “the jungle stuff” but not the local flora. So Luce takes the students on a tour of what Lizarralde says is “the rich resource of knowledge” that exists in their own backyard.

“He teaches them to appreciate that knowledge is not found only in a classroom,” says Lizarralde. “It´s also outside.”

Luce says he receives a lot of support from President Leo I. Higdon, Jr., which has resulted in more funding for his department.

“The president is really into how the outside looks,” Luce says.

Higdon jogs around campus, Luce adds, and as a result takes special interest in the grounds.

“It´s always a pleasure to walk through campus and see the results of their hard work,” Higdon says of Luce and his staff. “The campus is always changing. Jim and his team are constantly finding new ways to embody the College´s commitment to a healthy environment.”

Luce notes that Higdon has also emphasized improvements to roads and walkways, but he doesn´t pay much attention to that.

“I´m more interested in the green stuff,” Luce says.
During Luce´s tenure on campus, the grounds have also sprouted with gardens.

“I´m very proud of the gardens, actually, because when I got there, there were no gardens,” he says. There are now seven memorial gardens, funded by alumni, under his care. (There are also 66 memorial trees, he adds.) One of the gardens, a memorial to Sept. 11 victims, was designed with the late Jeff Smith of the Arboretum.

Another garden Luce pointed out was the student-run Sprout! garden. The brainchild of Alaya Morning ´06, the garden is now a club with more than 100 members that provides fresh vegetables for the school´s dining halls and works with Fiddleheads Food Co-op in New London. Luce says he found an unused patch of weeds in 2004 for the students to use.

Although they don´t run the garden like he would — “They like hodgepodge. Maybe it´s weeded, maybe it´s not,” he says — the students have been successful in raising both food and awareness of sustainable agriculture.

Overall, it seems that the position Luce has held for two decades is still fresh and new for him.

“It´s been fun,” he says. “It´s not like my real job. It´s like working in my garden every day.”

Once he´s retired, Luce says, what he´d like most is to bring his grandchildren to campus and have them play on a tree he planted.

“See the tree?” he says he´ll ask. “I planted that tree.”


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