Arbor for the Trees
The humanities teacher and outdoors lover Christopher Arbor—yes, that’s his quite fitting last name—knows the trees and creeks on campus as well as just about anyone. With help from other faculty and student volunteers, he’s dedicated much of the last six years to organizing a forest management program that ensures future generations will be able to enjoy Asheville School’s grounds. Just one of the group’s initiatives: removing invasive vines and shrubs that threaten native trees. “Our campus is ever more a green oasis, a waystation for migratory birds, a heat sink for climate change, a refuge for wildlife, and a sanctuary for the soul,” he says. “We are increasingly fortunate to have this beautiful space as our backyard.” Here, Arbor shares a little more about his classes, his favorite spots on campus, and how to help people connect to nature. Hint: Move out of the way.
You live on campus with your family—what places on campus are meaningful to you?
I love every inch of this beautiful place—especially the two-hundred acres of woods. I’m particularly captivated by the relics out in our woods: a coal shed, the foundation of a dairy, a giant water pump, and a concrete dock for a lake that was drained decades ago. I can’t help but imagine all that has been before us—all the stories that have been forgotten.
What lesson is your favorite to teach each year?
I’m teaching freshmen for the first time, and tackling The Odyssey with them has been quite rewarding. The broken man who goes on a harrowing journey and passes up on immortality for the sake of coming home to his artist wife? It resonates with me for some reason. [Perhaps because he’s married to Asheville School Visual Art Instructor Casey Arbor.]
What are some of the questions your students have been wrestling with lately in the classroom?
Everything from “How do we shape stories and how do stories shape us?” to “Where do I put commas?” The real stumper for many of my students: “What do cows drink?” Think about it for a minute.
Thinking back on your first year of teaching, how have you changed?
My hair is grayer and my smile lines are deeper. I attribute both to my students.
What are you reading lately?
I’ve returned to Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. It’s my favorite novel, and it’s even more meaningful to me now after reading The Odyssey.
What’s the health status of the Asheville School’s forest?
To be honest? It’s bad but getting better. We currently have too many invasive plants wreaking havoc on our native species. To make matters worse, we still have an abundance of deer that don’t eat the invasives; they only eat the natives, and they’re over-grazing. It’s a negative feedback loop. The good news is that we’re making progress. At this point, we’ve treated about half of our forest. Once we get through the other half, we can move into a maintenance stage. Our biggest success was the planting of two-thousand trees in two years. Faculty, students, and neighbors have all had a hand in it.
Three favorite trees on campus?
This ironwood on the outer loop captures my attention every time I pass it, and that big beautiful willow down in the grasslands makes me smile, but my absolute favorite tree on our campus is a tiny oak that’s only about three years old. A faculty crew went out on our spring break: Karen Cianciulli, the Plaehns, Molly Gronski, Scott Miller, James Pharr, and our beloved Larry Kollath. I don’t know which of them planted that particular tree, but it’s growing beautifully and will still be young when my daughters are old.
Where do you like to take a walk on campus?
Nature Trail Three, which runs down by Ragsdale Creek.
What are some of the ways your interest in the outdoors comes into the classroom?
We’re currently facing a crisis cascade: A global pandemic, climate change, dehumanizing technology, and growing mental health issues—especially in our young people—to name just a few. A step in the right direction for all of those issues? Spend more time outside.
How do you get young people excited about nature?
I just get out of their way. Nature speaks for itself. A few weeks ago, I spearheaded a work detail of students. They arrived grumbling, and when I told them we were going to be splitting firewood, they were less than ecstatic. A half-hour later, they were working mighty hard, having the time of their lives, and joking that they should get in trouble more often. That’s the thing about nature, right? It’s natural. The woods are where we belong. It’s where we feel the most alive, the most at peace, and the most at home.
Invasive Species Explainer
If you put a species in a foreign habitat, it will usually die out immediately because it doesn’t have the normal conditions it depends upon. It’s like putting a fish in a desert. However, in certain circumstances, a foreign species has what it needs and lacks any sort of limitations such as predators or competitors. Those species become invasive, quickly taking over an ecosystem and throwing everything out of balance. In Asheville School’s woods, invasive vines (such as oriental bittersweet and English ivy) are killing mature trees, while other invasive shrubs (such as privet and multiflora rose) are choking out the forest floor, preventing the natural regenerative process. The problem is compounded by an overabundance of deer that don’t eat the invasive species and instead overgraze the depleted natives, allowing the invasives to thrive all the more. —Christopher Arbor