Publication Date

January 30, 2023

Perspectives Section

Everything Has a History


  • United States


Cultural, Environmental

College campuses can be kind of funny about their trees. Somewhere along the line, a sylvan setting became part of the image of American higher education. College brochures often feature “three and a tree”—meaning students from three different ethnic backgrounds with a tree—to represent the ideal college campus. Even outside marketing, you’ll often find trees at the heart of campus, both physically and metaphorically. Vanderbilt has a web page for their noteworthy trees, as does Swarthmore, and Texas A&M has a page for a single tree, the Century Tree (pictured here).

A large sprawling tree extending over a sidewalk on a college campus

Ed Schipul/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Students, faculty, and staff become very emotionally attached to campus trees, and the loss of one can provoke a response like Werther’s in Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther: “Oh it drives me mad, Wilhelm, that people can exist and have no sense or feeling for what few things on earth still matter. You remember the walnut trees. . . . How sweet and cool they made the forecourt of the manse, how splendid the branches were, and the memory reaching back to the honest clergymen who planted them years ago. . . . Chopped down! I shall go mad with rage.” Indeed, in 2010, an Alabama fan intuited that he could best attack rival Auburn University by poisoning its favorite trees. Campus trees are part of a university’s identity; they represent a union between past and present, a symbol shared across generations of students.

The attachment to campus trees goes beyond familiarity and tradition. In a fourth-season episode of the TV show Northern Exposure, radio DJ Chris Stevens reflects, “What is it about genus arboretum that socks us in the figurative solar plexus? We see a logging truck go cruising down the road stacked with a bunch of those fresh-cut giants, we feel like we lost a brother.” We live our lives surrounded by wood—floors, tables, bars. As Chris suggests, trees “carry a set of luggage from the mythical baggage carousel. Tree of life, tree of knowledge, family tree, Buddha’s bodhi tree. . . . Adam and Eve, they’re kicking back in the Garden of Eden, and boom, they get an eviction notice. Why is that? ‘Lest they should take also from the tree of life, eat and live forever.’” The trees on campus may recall these many traditions.

We might interpret the shade of campus trees in many ways. Campus trees may reflect student desires for knowledge and enlightenment. Perhaps our students will alter the future of science, as Isaac Newton did after sitting under an apple tree. The shelter of a tree may represent college as a time protected for inquiry and discovery, a respite on the path to the wider world. Or perhaps campus trees simply contribute the benefits of being around plants. For various reasons, universities have positive associations with trees, and especially with their trees.

For historians, the many trees of knowledge on campus are not simply cultural and institutional practices—they reinforce the significance of our discipline. The best loved trees are old, with deep roots. What students love about them is not their biology but their history. The affection for them represents a veneration of the past and a desire for a relationship of some kind with the past. A better understanding and a way to make sense of our relationship to the past is precisely what the discipline of history offers. Historians who appreciate the appeal of campus trees may think about how to better demonstrate the appeal of the discipline. The love of ancient trees testifies to untapped potential for a love of history among students, one that we can cultivate.

Elizabeth Stice is an associate professor of history and assistant director of the honors program at Palm Beach Atlantic University.

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