By Rachel Ohrenschall
Stressed out by midterms back in October, this author felt a Thoreauesque need to be one with nature. As such, I stumbled across Bryn Mawr’s own special oasis – the Morris woods. Only one step in and my friend and I spotted two deer, immediately recognizing this as a special enclosure of nature.
This enclosure of woods is actually a newer addition to the Bryn Mawr campus. In 1958 the college purchased the Vaux estate, including what is now the Morris woods, as well as what are now English and Russian houses. A memorial tablet placed halfway through the woods bears a quote of William James’s as well as a dedication of the woods to two Bryn Mawr alumnae, Evelyn Flower Morris Cope ’03 and Jacqueline Pascal Morris Evans ’08, though they weren’t the original owners of the property.
According to the Lower Merion Historical Society, Richard Harrison purchased the Harriton estate from Rowland Ellis in 1719, and from then on the land was in the hands of members of the Harrison family: the McClenachan line, the Morris line, the Vaux line and the Maier line. On a Lower Merion Historical Society township map from 1851 made by John Levering, the land opposite Gulph Road was named the Harriton property. At the time the land was owned by Levi Morris, a descendant of Richard Harrison.
Also included on the map, and a curiosity to anyone who has ever explored the Morris woods, lies the Harriton cemetery, established in 1719 when the land was purchased. According to the Lower Merion Historical Society’s website, “Burials in the cemetery are principally those of Richard Harrison’s immediate family and descendants. Family tradition tells us of those buried in the burial ground through the 18th century, as graves are unmarked for the most part. Common field stones are found poking up throughout the cemetery, as graves were unmarked as memorials in good 18th century Quaker fashion. The field stones were not memorial markers of any kind, they simply marked the spot of the last dug grave. Over the years, these simple stones have been moved, pulled up as weeding was done, knocked over, etc.”
The Morris woods and the history it holds could be viewed as an amalgamation of early American history: an old Pennsylvania Quaker family that owned the land for over 200 years before it was sold to the college, with a long and interesting family tree including the husband, Charles Thompson, of one of Richard Harrison’s daughter, Hannah, who served as the first secretary to the continental congress. The family cemetery portrays the cultural mores of the time, containing the remains of family members, friends of the family and, most startlingly different from our time, the remains of Harrison’s house slaves.
The Morris Woods is unique not only in its history but in its ecology as well, according to Wilfred Franklin, lab coordinator of the Bryn Mawr Biology department. During the last quarter of the Introductory Biology class, Franklin takes students out to the woods several times. The first time they walk through the woods to gain a better understanding of the area and the plants, but the second time they do an ecological survey to understand the landscape. According to Franklin they “think about how it varies, what’s going on, and why landscapes look the way they do.”
Though the Morris woods may seem untouched compared to the carefully manicured flower beds on campus, the results of the student surveys show these woods are far from pristine, and the idea of pristine forests is hard to find on the east coast. According to Franklin, much of the land here is highly disturbed; in the Morris woods one can find two distinct areas, one area that is more disturbed and one that is less disturbed. In the most disturbed areas around the edge of the woods one would be most likely to find invasive species such as Norway Maple, and English Ivy. But in the inner part of the woods, one can find more native species such as May Apple and three species of trillium. Some edible native plants can be found in the Morris woods as well; Spice Bush, a plant that can be made into a tea, used by the local natives as well as Native Garlic Grass, similar to chive.
But the bigger picture for Franklin and his students is that the Morris woods provide a perfect environment to support a discussion about environmentalism, as Franklin notes, “the point of going out [to the Morris woods] is to have a bigger conversation of sustainability.” As students and humans on this planet we should strive to appreciate the value of what we have in the Morris woods, not only as a place to learn about biology or take a relaxing walk during midterms, but as a place that is vital to our survival as a species on this planet. Plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and by sequestering it into their wood and wetlands naturally filter water. As Franklin said, we need to learn to interact with the woods “in a mutually beneficial way.” In the end our survival as a species depends on this. Walking up through the woods to the Harriton cemetery, the old Quaker graves serve as a reminder of this. Such modest stone markers, not taking over their area in prominence like the large grave markers of today, but sitting quietly observing the years go by, provide an image of balance between humans and our environment that we may hope to accomplish someday.