Oct 142013
 

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Whenever I think about plant research (I said as if that’s a thing that frequently crosses my mind) I recall an argument I got into with a fellow classmate in 10th grade about Chris McCandless, the protagonist of Into the Wild. My classmate was like, “oh man, that guy was so cool, just giving away his money and living off the land and doing his own thing and not conforming to what society expected of him,” and I was like “no, that kid was an idealistic idiot with no real life experience and he didn’t do his research.” While I stand by what I said as a teenager, as an adult with more life experience than I bargained for, I now understand the allure of being like, “FUCK THIS, I’M OUT,” and dropping everything to go live in a bus in the forest and make the earth your toilet.

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For the record, Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild, wrote this piece for the New Yorker just last month, laying to rest any theories of suicide or foul play surrounding McCandless’s early demise. Krakauer cites an article by Ronald Hamilton, whose research “appears to close the book on the cause of McCandless’s death.” I’ll save you the trouble of reading both articles, and just leave you with Hamilton’s definitive conclusion that McCandless did indeed unwittingly poison himself and that, “it wasn’t arrogance that had killed him, it was ignorance.” Both Krakauer and Hamilton view McCandless’s ignorance with more sympathy and admiration than I do, but I’ve already gone on way too long about this and the point of this post is supposed to be about something only marginally related so let’s get on with it.

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The Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research is still a functioning facility in Ithaca, New York, but its first incarnation is now a skeletal ruin in Yonkers. Half of the property is comprised of beautiful, abandoned greenhouses, and the other half is the bombed out school building, which is a total dump. Also the cops are all over it, for reasons that evade plausible explanation, so I wouldn’t recommend going there.

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The institute was founded in 1924 by copper mining magnate William Boyce Thompson, of the famed Alder Manor, located just across the street from the school. Thompson’s interest in botany began a few years earlier while in Russia, where he witnessed starvation and diseases he believed could be conquered through the science of agriculture. In his own words, Thompson defined his mission as the study of “why and how plants grow, why they languish or thrive, how their diseases may be conquered, how their development may be stimulated by the regulation of the elements which contribute to their life.”

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In a New York Times article regarding the school’s opening in 1924, a time when common language was eloquent yet punctuation undetermined, it was reported, “there will open next Wednesday in Yonkers an institution which aims to be to plant life what the Rockefeller Institute is to human life. Whereas the great institution of medical research on the banks of the East River is concerned primarily with human diseases, the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research…has within its province the improvement in growth of plants and the scientific investigation and solution of their ailments.”

On the left side of the above photo are the greenhouses pictured below:

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Thompson teamed up with Dr. William H. Crocker, director of the institute, to develop a broad method of plant research to be approached as a “coordinated attack.” The institute sought to encourage teamwork and eradicate the frequent “jealousy between experts in different branches,” that inhibited research. By having a place where botanists, chemists, bacteriologists, and other experts could work together under one roof, the two men hoped to solve agricultural, medicinal, social and economic issues through the study of plant life.

Photo c/o the NYT archives

Photo c/o the NYT archives

Today, the current institute in Ithaca states that its research “has the potential to improve important food crops, to demystify plant and human immune systems, and to reveal alternative, sustainable sources of energy.”

Construction of the greenhouses, c/o bti.cornell.edu

Construction of the greenhouses, c/o bti.cornell.edu

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While the greenhouses are quite a site to behold, the inside of the school has been cleaned out, squatted in, graffitied and vandalized. The entire second floor of this wing is gone.

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This stone ball used to be atop the grand entrance to the school, but was knocked off, rolled inside and then pushed down the basement stairs.

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Here’s a terrible iphone photo of the basement. I was stuck in here for awhile, as followers of my instragram might recall, but by my fault of my own. Bleh, the inside sucks, let’s get back to the greenhouses:

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I got kinda obsessed with this green, murky drainage pool, see below:

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Alright, enough of that. Moving on…

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A semi-hidden side entrance to a pathway leading to the greenhouses.

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I suppose that a Little Shop of Horrors joke would not be out of place in this context, however I refuse to make one on account of still being mad about the time my mom wouldn’t let me watch it at a friend’s house in second grade. It was Elaina M.’s birthday slumber party, to which she invited about a dozen girls over for cake, presents, movies, midnight games, a sleepover and pancake breakfast. But when my (then very religious) mother found out the movie to be screened that night was Little Shop of Horrors, she promptly denied me the “slumber” part of the party and instead picked me up after cake and presents -the most boring part of a birthday- demoting me to dork status for the rest of grade school. For the record, my mom is really embarrassed about it and wishes she’d let me stay. But don’t worry, Ma, despite your misguided, overprotective efforts, I still managed to be an impious, alcoholic, drug-addict dirtbag for a substantial portion of my life. XOXO, love you, Ma!

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To see more photos, go to the Boyce Thompson Institute Flickr set.

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 10/14/2013  ALL POSTS, New York, schools

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