Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Resilient Tree and the Other Side of Paradise

Christopher Long, Dean of the MSU  College of Arts and Letters, recently drew my attention to the remarkable ‘resilient tree’, still growing, against all odds, along the walkway that connects  the MSU Museum to Linton Hall (the earlier site of the Museum).   As explained by botany professor Frank Telewski in 

this surprisingly long-lived white oak was heavily damaged in a storm in July 2016. Although its inner core was extensively rotted, the exterior zone of the surviving trunk is sufficiently healthy that the organism continues to sprout productive leaves and branches. Dr. Telewski notes that the tree, which may date to the mid-17th century, had been “topped”, or extensively pruned, in the late 1850s or early 1860s, in order to induce a more pleasinghe, bushy appearance among the trees of the old campus. A wound resulting from this harsh “topping” was subsequently covered with a metal sheet metal cap, which Dr. Telewski re-discovered in inspecting the damaged tree after the 2016 storm. The tree’s root system had presumably long suffered by the sidewalk that has run along it for many decades.

It occurs to me the complex history of this tree is an example of a phenomenon I have long been interested in, the ‘underside” of utopian imagery in campus landscape architecture.  In previous work, I have explored traces of submerged histories of slavery in the landscape of Emory College in Georgia, and other U.S. college and university campuses:
https://southernspaces.org/2010/other-side-paradise-glimpsing-slavery-universitys-utopian-landscapes       (This discussion is expanded in Chapter Five of my book The Accidental Slaveowner  

For a millennium, universities have been structured as utopian spaces, permitting their visitors and residents tangible glances of the Eternal. Yet in much of the United States, these physical models of Paradise rested upon the coerced labor of enslaved peoples, who were owned or rented by university administrations.  The long-ignored histories of the enslaved can be, in many instances, gradually teased out if we learn how to listen to the stories that the land and descendant communities have to tell.  As my consultant Emogene Williams puts it, Emory College was a kind of “paradise” for its students and professors; yet the African American community that in slavery and post slavery helped to build and maintain the campus labored and dwelled, in her words,  “on the other side of Paradise.”

Michigan was of course a free state. In contrast to colleges in the South and along the eastern seaboard, the early Michigan Agricultural College (the forerunner of Michigan State University)  did not directly rest upon the labor of enslaved people. (Although one might argue that, in a distant fashion, antebellum commercial agricultural production in the Great Lakes region was partly driven by the growing demand for produce to feed four million enslaved persons in the US South.)   In any event, is there not a sense that the hoped for utopian landscape of the College rested upon another form of subjugation, of a struggle for supremacy over the natural world?  The M.A.C. was built over a previously dense forest. The original oaks appeared overly thin and spindly to the college’s early residents. “Topping” was an effort to produce a rounded, full appearance to the trees dotting the college landscape, more in keeping with the era’s growing pastoral conceptions.  (New York’s Central Park, the epitome of this pastoral aesthetic, was designed by Olmstead and Vaux in the 1850s, the same decade that saw the creation of the M.A.C.).  The urban park movement itself had emerged in part of the suburban pastoral cemetery movement, in which the Dead were afforded permanent rest in a physical simulacrum of their Heavenly reward. Pleasantly rounded trees, in concert with gently rounded hills, were key to this redemptive and soothing window into the Great Beyond.  Such a vision became increasingly important in American campus landscape architecture, in which youth were invited to contemplate the university’s mysteries in equally other worldly, serene environs, which also echoed the mythos of Eden, before Adam and Eve’s loss of innocence and their expulsion from the Garden.

The surviving white oak trunk is justly celebrated on campus for its resilience in the face of storm and calamity. Yet I am equally fascinated by its long term, recently-exposed wound, a product of an effort, over 150 years ago, to reshape this striking natural being into a mythical image of “nature,” in a project to re-create a vision of paradise for campus residents--adjacent to the early residence hall, now known, appropriately, as “Saint’s Rest.”  Universities and museums are all caught up in vital utopian projects, in a mythos that attempts to arrest death and decay, to allow us step outside of the normal flow of events, and contemplate the mysteries of time and the universe from extraordinary vantage points. We should honor and celebrate the precious qualities of that ritual project, which allows us to transcend the everyday and struggle for deeper forms of understanding and creation. Yet, as the resilient oak tree, and its long-hidden wound reminds us, we should also continue to contemplate the concealed histories of domination and  implicit violence, against persons and natural beings, upon which our utopian projects continue to rest.


  1. This is an excellent contribution to our ongoing conversation about the #ResilientTree at MSU. I particularly appreciate the way you emphasize how the white oak now also speaks to the wounds at the heart of our shared history. Your project with the Emory College engages our wounded history in important and provocative ways with respect to the history of slavery.

    Here at MSU, in addition to and perhaps also as an expression of the legacy of the struggle for supremacy over nature, is the history of the subjugation of indigenous peoples who inhabited the land on the banks of the Red Cedar long before it was "granted" to the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan. In fact, according to a MSU Campus Archeology Report (http://campusarch.msu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/North-River-Report.pdf), a 1959 map of campus based on maps from the 19th century depicts a Native American encampment not far from the #ResilientTree, just south of the Red Cedar River, where Spartan Stadium now stands.

    As we consider how best to respond to what the #ResilientTree asks of us, it will be important to engage this history and to consider carefully our responsibilities as inheritors of this legacy of subjugation.

    1. On reading Mark's post and Chris Long's reply, I was immediately reminded of a scene from Shakespeare's Richard II, in which the Gardener instructs his assistant to manage the garden's 'excessive' growth. In this scene, the garden is a metaphor for the realm of England itself, a realm suffering from the neglectful rule of Richard II, who favors sycophants to wise counselors, and who is destroying the commonweal by exploiting the resources of the nation for his own gain. The lesson of the scene is interesting, particularly in the context of nature as a model and metaphor. One of the lessons I take and teach from this scene is the idea that the natural world has no hierarchy or preference. It fosters growth of all kinds indiscriminately, while human intervention is based upon the idea of preservation, alteration, or elimination determined through a constructed aesthetic and practical hierarchy of beneficial or unbeneficial growth – defining some plants as weeds and some as flowers, for example. The scene suggests that proper 'management' of nature is necessary for healthful development and sustained viability, and that such management includes implicit or explicit violence. It also suggests that views of the value and virtue of various aspects of nature are not universal, but are shaped by particular perceptions and agendas. However, the scene most explicitly critiques those who aim for their own benefit over the good of others, such as the weeds that choke out healthful growth (and the reference is metaphorically to Richard himself as well as his favorites). Shakespeare always has something helpful to tell us about the responsibilities that come with authority, that rights and privileges have to be balanced by concern for the general good. But how we define that good, and how we define threats to that good, determines how we function as a society. The wound in the Resilient Tree exemplifies one such choice; immigration and inclusion policies exemplify other such choices. How we engage with and welcome diversity while maintaining shared commitments to inclusion has much to do with how we see 'our' nature as a nation, and how we act on those perceptions to create the built environment of our commonwealth and commonweal. So I agree deeply that there are important issues to connect to this tree and its history.