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gardening shears

Sheila Doyle Magee ’81

“Wandering” best describes my path back to Swarthmore. Immediately after finishing my graduation requirements (I skipped the ceremony), I headed out on a cross-country road trip and then a plane ride to Hawaii. During a summer internship at the Manomet Bird Observatory in Massachusetts, I met some friends who had done fieldwork censusing native birds. This sounded like exactly what I wanted to do.

I spent six years in Hawaii doing ornithological fieldwork, living in the rainforest of Volcano Village and working in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. I didn’t realize at the time that it was the best job I would ever have. I did know that I liked working outside, being physically active, and doing something different almost every day. It felt good and worthwhile to contribute to the preservation of natural beauty and diversity in the world.

I had my first daughter in Hawaii, and then the situation of being so far from family felt like a drawback. My husband, daughter, and I returned to the East Coast, and I spent many years out of the paid workforce raising my (eventually) two daughters. Unfortunately, when I was ready to return to paid employment, I discovered that fabulous ornithological fieldwork was not as easy to find the second time around. I expanded my interest to plants and gardening, completing a certificate of merit in ornamental horticulture from Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa.

When I moved back to Swarthmore, I began volunteering with the wonderful group of assistants at the Scott Arboretum, and when a gardening job on the College’s grounds crew became available, I applied. Fifteen years later, I’m still at the job learning new things about plants, gardening, and the Swarthmore campus and community. I still get to work outside and be physically active (that’s gotten harder) and do something different almost every day. And it still feels good to be contributing to natural beauty, natural diversity, and natural resource protection in the world.

I’m proud my labors contribute to the enjoyment people experience walking around campus. I like to think that it helps them—students, especially—relieve some stress. The gratifications of beautifying a physical space can be immediate. Completing a new planting, like the gravel culture beds that connect south campus to the Inn at Swarthmore and 101 S. Chester, feels rewarding. We go pretty quickly from a blank slate to an attractive garden, and people notice and compliment our work.

One of the most interesting aspects of my long history with Swarthmore is the intimacy with which I know the place. I have experienced virtually every nook and cranny of the outdoor campus under a wide range of conditions. This has encouraged me to observe details closely, partly to avoid boredom, but mostly to really notice what is happening around me. The campus has changed a lot since my time as a student. There are new buildings with some old ones gone, new gardens, more students, some people (myself included) looking old, and some (parents of students even) looking very young.

I have the pleasure of hiring student workers for the grounds crew, which enables me to ask them many questions about their experiences of Swarthmore these days. It feels engaging and somewhat unusual to have such opportunities to compare and contrast. I guess you could say I have a long institutional memory of Swarthmore. Like most things, that is sometimes good and sometimes not. It has led me to feel affection for the place.

It’s a cliché to say that Swarthmore teaches you how to think; it’s also true. At Swarthmore, I learned how to observe carefully, how to ask questions, how to identify weaknesses in arguments, how to debate, how to defend my point of view, and how to listen to and respect other points of view. Although not always universally appreciated, these are all very useful life skills, no matter what one ends up doing.

Not to diminish the work of people who do, but I personally don’t have the capacity to sit in front of a screen all day. I originated in a time before anyone did that, and I’ve opted not to update myself too much. It means that I get to use my body, and my powers of observation and my mind, to try to improve an already quite beautiful setting. It means that I get to experience the campus from a literal “outside” perspective that informs my awareness of it.


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