The gorge

This weekend I went to visit some relatives in Ithaca, NY. Ithaca was raked into deep gorges by the receding ice sheets twenty or thirty thousand years ago, leaving behind impressive valleys and waterfalls.

As we were eating lunch after a hike, there was a knock on the door. It was a colleague of my great-uncle Dick’s from Cornell, where he taught statistics before his retirement. The colleague was returning a package of documents that he had asked for to research a book on the history of the area, including my great-aunt Betsy’s contribution to the preservation of the natural areas owned by Cornell.

In the late Eighties, when walking through the gorge was her regular commute to work, Betsy noticed some stakes in the ground. She assumed they were going to be building a new walkway, and called Cornell, who owns the land, to learn more. What she learned was that it wasn’t a walkway or enhancement to the natural area: it was an eight-story supercomputer research centre that was going to plunge right into the gorge.

“I told her, Betsy, the stakes are already in the ground. There’s no way you can stop this building,” said Dick. But there was a way: the federal funding for the building required public consultation. The building was a rush job, and the public hearing hadn’t happened yet. All summer Betsy set up a table on the footbridge in the gorge with information about the land and the planned building. She gathered thousands of signatures on a petition and finally, after a public hearing which went long into the night with residents voicing their opposition, Cornell scrapped the plans for the building to extend into the gorge and redesigned it to stand back from the edge of the valley.

“What’s funny,” said Betsy, “Is that a lot of the people who were in favour of the building at first actually thanked me after. The people who worked in the building hadn’t gotten to be part of the planning of the original design, and they said later that the redesign was much better for them.”

“Before that,” said Dick, “She was Dick Darlington’s wife. After, I was Betsy Darlington’s husband.”

His Second-Last Bow