Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The big sting

(My friend Ida Lydiya, a Latvian immigrant who allows me to cut firewood on her property.)

For nearly 30 years I taught a course titled Introductory Field Biology at Cornell.  The course had many field trips to local natural areas where we could find amphibians, bog plants, and other features or organisms of natural history interest.  Near the end of the semester, I would bring the class to my property for our afternoon 3-hour lab.  I would talk about the birds' nests I had found the previous summer, woodlot management, forest ecology, control of invasive woody plants, etc.  But I always told the students when we arrived at the site that the property belonged to a widow who lived there named Ida Lydiya, who, I told them, immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s to escape the Latvian revolution

I explained to the students that Mrs. Lydiya and I had an agreement.  I could cut firewood on her property, but I would give her 1/3 of what I cut for her to use in her wood stove in the winter.  This is a common agreement here in upstate NY, and is referred to as cutting firewood for "shares".  When we visited my property, it was always in October, the time of year when I had numerous piles of cut firewood scattered around my woodlot, often 100-200 yards from the house.  And October is the month I move firewood to the back of the house in preparation for use in November.  So the wood needed to be moved, and it is a huge job for one person, and I was getting older, and my children had left home, and my wife was not interested in this activity, and the wood was not going to move itself.  So I told the students that it would be a nice gesture to Mrs. Lydiya to move her share of the wood behind the house, in payment for letting us visit her property for this field trip.  Every year, the students would dutifully drop their notebooks and backpacks, pick up an armful of wood, and march to the house with their booty.  The class usually had about 40 students, so 3-4 trips per student resulted in a significant amount of work accomplished.  Isn't this the way the Pyramids at Giza were constructed?

When it was nearly time to board the bus for the return to campus, I would stop the wood-moving.  At that point, I explained that the name Ida Lydiya could be pronounced "I'd a lied to ya".  To watch the expressions on their faces at that point was worth every minute I had spent teaching these sophomores and juniors the previous two months.  There was always the danger that they could have become an angry mob at that point and turn on the old man, but they laughed and admitted it was a pretty good joke.  In addition, I opened the garage door at that instant, revealing a table full of donuts and apple cider.  Nothing calms down a 20-year old like the prospect of receiving a slug of sugar.  But the amazing thing was that one class apparently never revealed the secret to students who would take the course the following year.  They were naive about this subterfuge every single year for over a decade.


  1. Nice! I like how you never got tired of the joke either! Did any students ever return to help you move wood?

  2. No Vance. Several said they would like to return to help sometime, but talk is cheap.

  3. The year I took your class Viviana told us the woman's name was Mrs. McFaddin. I totally called her on it when I realized the hall next to my dorm on west campus was McFaddin Hall. But I kept my mouth shut and helped move wood. Hah!

  4. Ida done the donuts and cider in for sure.

  5. This is like the Legal firm Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe. Cute!

  6. Anonymous: good. I never heard that one, although I think I used an attorney from that firm once.