Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Bur Oak Guy

Yesterday, my friend Margit sent me this photograph she had taken of the bur oak that stands on the knoll southwest of the Carleton Recreation Center. She reminded me that ten years ago, in April 1997, I stood up at a packed meeting in Skinner Chapel and pleaded for this oak tree to be spared from the chainsaw. Carleton had recently unveiled its plans for the rec center, which originally sited the massive building further to the southwest, adjacent to Goodhue Hall. The architect, ignorant of local landscape history, had gone out of his way to to preserve "a fine stand of pines" near the site, but his plans spelled doom for that old bur oak. At the meeting, I pointed out that the oak, not the stand of pines, was native, and had probably stood on that land long before Carleton College existed. I said, with the intact idealism of a father of a preschooler and a kindergartner: "I'm trying to teach my boys that they belong to a larger biotic community, and I'm encouraging them to develop an ethical system based on an understanding of community that's bioinclusive rather than anthropocentric. I want them to belong to this place, and to develop a sense of meaningful and sustained relationships that arises from true belonging. This is why the bur oaks and trout lilies are important—because they belong to this place, because they are part of the biological and historical context that makes this place, instead of any other, home."

My little speech received a standing ovation from the Carleton crowd; but more importantly, the plans were changed, the siting was moved, and the oak tree was spared. For several years, Carleton students who were at that meeting greeted me with, "Aren't you that townie...?" Margit started calling me Bur Oak Guy.

A more important issue that emerged during the rec center discussion was the impact the rec center would have on the biological corridor connecting the Upper and Lower Arboretums. The corridor discussion introduced me to David Quammen's brilliant book, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions, which discusses in grippingly readable prose the related problems of habitat fragmentation and extinction.

In the end, of course, the recreation center was built. In the intervening years, Carleton has become much more concerned about becoming a green campus. There's been a greater use of native species in campus landscaping, and efforts are being made to incorporate green elements in the design of new campus buildings. Coincidentally, on the same day that Margit reminded me of my oak tree campaign, I picked up The Carletonian (the student newspaper) and read that the college is considering the west side of Lyman Lakes, next to Goodhue, as a possible site for a new dormitory. I'll be watching this development with interest. I'm still prepared to chain myself to that bur oak tree.


Jim H. said...

In the little town where I grew up, there was a street named Burr Oak. I guess they couldn't decide whether to name it for Aaron or the tree, so they did both.

Anonymous said...

In England we would refer to you as a 'tree hugger' ;)

Keep up the good work!

Christopher Tassava said...

Great post, Rob. I wish I'd read it earlier. I had no idea about the backstory to the Rec Center - maybe you could write up something on the struggle? I'm going to go look at that beautiful oak today. And as a new Northfielder who loves the oaks, I thank you for your part in saving them for us!

(Incidentally, a while back I arranged a site visit to campus for a donor which included a half-hour meeting with the president while sitting on the bench just east of Boliou. She ended up giving the college a good sum, so perhaps mere trees do pay off in the end?)

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .