The Orr Years: Gentle on the Land

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Warren Wilson College was green before its time. Cradled by the Swannanoa Valley and surrounded by peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the College evokes a sense of place and a respect for those who once dwelled in the place. The Warren Wilson archeological site shows evidence of Native American occupation from as early as 5000 B.C. and includes the remnants of a village belonging to ancestors of the Cherokee.

During his fifteen-year tenure as President of Warren Wilson, Doug Orr has often used the Tree of Life motif, the Cherokee symbol for connectedness, to illustrate the intimate relationship between this college and its setting. He has said, “We are blessed with our special place, and we can share this creative wellspring of the earth adventure, linked together in a rich but fragile network of life.”

When Doug Orr arrived on campus in 1991, he took on a two-pronged challenge: to continue preserving the College’s 1,100 acres—“our special place”—while growing Warren Wilson into a financially healthy institution. Fortunately, this president not only revered land, he knew land. At the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he was Vice Chancellor for Development and Public Service, he had also been a professor of geography and a principal planner for University City, a mixed-use planned community that received the Award for Innovation from the Association of American State Colleges and Universities.

To say that Doug Orr knows land like a book is not a proverbial statement. While at UNC-Charlotte and later at Warren Wilson, he was co-editor of a series of North Carolina atlases that detailed the many landscapes and natural environments of the state as well as the human impact on these environments. The latest book in the series, North Carolina Atlas: Portrait for a New Century, can be found in every public library in North Carolina.

As a geographer and land planner, President Orr had mastered the mix of preservation and innovation well before coming to Warren Wilson. Once here, he kept his feet firmly on the land; simultaneously, he kept his eye on the horizon and a vision of how the College might grow. In 1996, he led the creation of a Long Range Land Use Plan, which went hand-in-hand with the development of pattern language, a collection of principles and best practices for enhancing the College environment. That environment was, and remains, complex: not just roads and buildings but also a 700-acre forest, early 3000 acres of garden and farm, and 5,000 feet of contiguous riverbank.

“The environmental challenge is considerable,” President Orr said, “but our community is dedicated to leading by example, and we are a committed work in progress.”

A report by the Campus Greening Committee appointed by President Orr revealed over 50 projects falling within the five main categories: protecting and restoring natural resources, sustainable land practices, recycling/waste reduction, energy conservation, and green construction.

The Land Use Plan also addressed the campus hardscape—buildings—and President Orr set the scene for thinking outside the traditional brick box. The EcoDorm, for instance, models optimal environmental building design, with features such as sustainable building materials, daylighting, gray water recycling, solar water preheating, and photovoltaic technology.

The most recent example of eco-design on campus is the Admission/College Relations building, which uses 50 percent less energy than a conventional building of the same size. Constructed with stone from nearby mountains and wood siding and trim from the College forests, the new building also exemplifies the natural-materials philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement. Making this style a campus standard has been a particular passion for President Orr's wife, Darcy, whose talent for art and design has graced a number of college projects.

In 2003, when President Orr led the revision of the College mission to include environmental responsibility and international experience, the triad program began to look more like a star. The new shape of things allowed even more connections between the classroom and hands-on work, creating living laboratories that are models of the sustainability effort. For example, biology professor Lou Weber and farm manager John Pilson joined forces to create a haven for birds, frogs, fish, and turtles from a dank spot of farm land. John bartered with a local contractor for the excavation work, and the College's Natural Resources crew planted native grasses and trees. The resulting wildlife pond, which is a popular spot for student science projects, has also attracted visitors for further afield. On one Arbor Day weekend, it was the setting for the centennial celebration of the National Society of American Foresters, whose members planted wildlife pines donated by the North Carolina Forest Service.

Part of President Orr’s vision was to extend the good work of the College into the surrounding community, the nation, and the world. In 1996, when the Park Foundation offered its support for sustainability programs engaging the naton's youth, Warren Wilson became home to the Environmental Leadership Center. John Huie, who had been executive director of the North Carolina Outward Bound School for 18 years, was appointed head of the ELC. With President Orr’s enthusiastic blessing, he initiated rograms that inspire caring citizens, especially young people, to become responsible caretakers of the earth.

The ELC has also become a key outreach arm of the College, stretching beyond the boundaries of academia as it seeks systemic change. Partnering with the North Carolina Office of Environmental Defense, the ELC developed forums to involve business and civic leaders in challenges presented in Horizon 2100, a report on the healthiest environment that North Carolina could have in 100 years. In April 2005, Warren Wilson College was the site of one of the regional gatherings, with President Orr as host.

Forging partnerships has been high on President Orr’s list of priorities. During his tenure these have included the USDA Forest Service, the Rocky Mountain National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Jane Goodall Institute, and, appropriately, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, whose careful footfalls upon the land this community emulates.

And no one has tread with more intentional care than the fifth President of Warren Wilson College, Doug Orr.

— Elizabeth Lutyens
WWC MFA Writing Program Graduate

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