From classroom to lakefront: the story of Onondaga Lake

Students at Syracuse University and SUNY-ESF recount the history of Onondaga Lake through puppets, poetry, music and art.

Geoffrey Navias tends to have a deadpan expression most of the time. But when he dons a mask or works with a puppet, his movements bring the character to life.

“Creative art is a lie,” the artistic director of Open Hand Theater told a room full of Syracuse University and State University of New York Environmental Science and Forestry students on a recent Saturday morning in The Warehouse downtown.  “It’s a lie. It’s not really here. 

"Creative art is a lie. Any symbolic representation like that is a lie that’s getting closer to the truth. That’s your job."

- Geoffrey Navias

“Any symbolic representation like that is a lie that’s getting closer to the truth. That’s your job.”

Students from many majors — civil engineering, economics, international relations, biology, communications — joined together for a one-credit sustainability workshop about Onondaga Lake.  The class was taught by Navias and Rachel May, the coordinator of sustainability education at Syracuse University. 

For two weekends in early April, the class learned about Onondaga Lake, one of the most polluted lakes in the country, and its cultural and ecological history.  Most of the students knew very little about the lake, and were especially surprised at its proximity to SU.

“I feel that it’s important for students to have a sense of place when they’re here,” May said. 

After visiting the lake, the Great Law of Peace Center on the Onondaga Lake Parkway and the Onondaga Lake Visitor Center, which is on the southwestern shore of the lake near Honeywell’s cleanup headquarters, students got to work brainstorming images, sounds and symbols representative of the metamorphosis of the lake.  The idea was to take all that they had learned and create a ritual performance for the lake. 

“Arts and crafts isn’t really found in the engineering department, unless you count circuit building as an art, which it kind of is, but not traditional arts and crafts,” said Philip Geramian, a computer science sophomore.  “It’s fun to take a break from looking at circuits and that stuff, and to just relax and use a different part of your brain.”

Within The Warehouse, just next to the Onondaga Creek Walk in downtown Armory Square, the story of the lake started to come to life.  Students created a water puppet, symbolizing the spirit of the lake.  Garbage men, acted out by students in uniforms and masks, polluted the lake, while gears symbolized the industrialization around it.  Students recited haikus about the lake, and told what their connection was to the place many of them had just discovered. 

A narrator told the story:

“The People of the Hills, the Onondaga, kept the lake at the center of their world.  Tourists circled in and out, drawn by the clear, fresh waters of Onondaga Lake.  Industry came, drawn by the salt brine, the limestone hills and the cool, fresh waters of Onondaga Lake.  Greed and ignorance broke the circle.  The clear, fresh waters of Onondaga Lake became dark and poisonous.  Tourists left.  Industry left.  The eels and salmon left.”

The ritual ended on a hopeful note.  Students carried a canoe across the blue trail billowing behind the water puppet. 

“Come.  Won’t you help?” they said.

Post new comment

* Field must be completed for your comment to appear on The NewsHouse
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.