The natural side of UB

Nature walk

By ROBBY JOHNSON republished from UBNow

Published June 26, 2018

“I think we’ve become so jaded in the way that we look at the environment.”
Sandy Geffner, adjunct professor of environmental studies
Social Sciences Interdisciplinary

It’s a gorgeous, sunny Thursday on the North Campus. Some UB staff members and I gather near Greiner Hall for a nature excursion. We’re taking a break from the work day to see a part of UB that few appreciate or even know much about.

Our guide is Sandy Geffner, a longtime adjunct professor of environmental studies at UB who has spent many years connecting students to the environment around them, with the goal of giving them a newfound appreciation for it.

We head toward Letchworth Woods, the forested area to the east of the Ellicott Complex, but almost immediately Geffner stops the group at a small terrace lodged in the middle of a parking lot.

His passion and superabundant knowledge of the environment is immediately evident as he points to two trees on the terrace — one directly in front of us, and one to the right of us. They are both oak trees, he says, and there’s an easy way to detect which is a white oak and which is a red oak.

As he pauses for us to observe, I quickly look back and forth to each tree. As someone who isn’t well versed in dendrology, nothing incredibly different sticks out to me.

Geffner then directs everyone’s attention to each of the trees’ leaves. He identifies the tree in front of us as a white oak because its leaves are rounded; the other is a red oak, with leaves that have sharp-looking, bristled edges. The difference between the two trees is now as clear as day.

This observation almost immediately increases my awareness of everything around me. It seems like Geffner had dropped this bit of knowledge with a larger intent as he continues the discussion. The white oak has a lower concentration of tannic acid, he says and blue jays are avid acorn transporters.

We eventually reach the edge of Letchworth Woods, and Geffner stops us again to observe seed pods dancing through the breeze. The group is quizzed on which tree the pods are coming from. It’s a detail that’s extremely easy to miss if you’re not paying attention, but there’s only one kind of tree whose leaves are vigorously moving in any direction, while the others sway gently back and forth.

Geffner explains these are poplar trees and their leaves have a defining characteristic that makes them look so chaotic in the wind. The stems are flat, rather than rounded, allowing the leaves to catch any small gust of wind to shake and disperse the seeds.

It’s an observation I wouldn’t have made quickly on my own. On the surface, it appears to be a stand of trees against the skyline, but now the poplars are easily discernible from the rest, almost like the difference between the white and red oak trees.

Geffner shows his plethora of environmental knowledge again after identifying the tree, but he also drops a very interesting point in the middle of it all.

“I think we’ve become so jaded in the way that we look at the environment,” he says.

That point catches my attention because of what I had just experienced with the oak and poplar trees. I do think we experience a disconnect with nature when we’re living in a busy urban environment like the Buffalo area. That was apparent to me when I couldn’t easily wrap myself in the finer details of nature that Geffner showed us in UB’s backyard.

It becomes evident to me that this is one of the larger messages Geffner is trying to convey as we walk through the woods.

By the end of the walk, everyone is more attentive to smaller details, whether it’s observing dogwood flowers lining the edge of the forest, a garter snake’s forked tongue, or spotting a red-tailed hawk.

This side of UB is full of life and has so much more character than when we began the walk. It takes just a little effort to wash away that jaded feeling toward the environment and replace it with one of interest and wonder.

This is a place that more faculty, staff and students should experience, and slow down their busy lives of work and academics. Even if just for a moment.

global goals

Sustainable Development Goals:

14.      Life below water: Conserving and managing the marine resources and oceans to promote sustainable development of our world

15.      Life on land: Managing forests and terrestrial ecosystems, while combating desertification, land degradation and biodiversity loss in a sustainable way