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Emerson Would Hate the Divinity School Renovation

HDS Tree
Administrators plan to fell a century-old red oak tree on the Divinity School's campus as part of planned renovations to Andover Hall. Some students are outraged.

You can’t be at Harvard Divinity School long before someone mentions the “Divinity School Address,” a graduation speech delivered in 1838 by renegade Unitarian Universalist minister and American Transcendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson’s Address is routinely name-dropped as part of the school’s own autohagiography — the chapel in Divinity Hall is even called “Emerson Chapel” now. However, the Address caused controversy in its time.

Emerson is, to put it mildly, critical of much of Christianity, which “aims at what is usual, and not what is necessary and eternal,” which has led to “a decaying church and a wasting unbelief.”

I couldn’t help recalling Emerson’s Address as I sat through community meetings regarding the renovation of the Divinity School’s Andover Hall.

In order to “fully modernize” Andover Hall, the Divinity School has decided to turn part of Andover’s inner courtyard into a glass pavilion, and it will house a hip cafe at ground floor and a big ol’ corporate-style conference center above. To do this, they’ll have to remove the massive, beautiful red oak tree that has been growing alongside the school for over a century.

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They would be wise to listen to Emerson. At the Address’s turning point, he describes sitting in a church on a winter day as a “formalist” preached “thoughtless clamour.” “A snow storm was falling around us,” the poet states. “The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain."

Did members of the Harvard faculty feel personally repudiated by this description? Quite possibly. But what, instead, does Emerson say religion should strive to do? “The faith should blend with the light of rising and of setting suns, with the flying cloud, the singing bird, and the breath of flowers.”

To many of us at the Divinity School, the decision to kill a living being older than any of us for a new cafeteria feels like a betrayal of the School’s goals, one of which is, “To commit to ecological sustainability and good environmental stewardship.” If we cannot defer to the sanctity of life here on our small campus, how can we purport to do so in the world?

Trees are not inanimate. Trees talk to one another. Trees have social networks and relationships. Last year, I interviewed Eduardo Kohn for the Divinity School about his book “How Forests Think.” Kohn says we can talk to forests and forests can talk back. None of this is metaphorical.

Other Divinity School students and I who value beings other than humans have raised multiple objections to the killing of this tree, but each have been shot down without much evident consideration. Administrators tried to justify this decision by saying the tree is “in a downward and irreversible trend,” but the same issues they raised could be said of any urban tree. Trees, like people, were not meant for city life, and therefore most trees (and people) in the city are not in optimal health. We’ve gotten the distinct impression that the decision to kill the tree was already made, perhaps months or years ago, and there was no intention to gather or integrate real feedback.

The school says it’s necessary to kill the tree for the future of the Divinity School. They talk about sacrificing the tree as if it offered itself. Let this be clear, the tree did not consent to be killed.

The Divinity School wants so badly to be a truly interfaith institution, but trees are honored in too many religions to enumerate here. In fact, Comparative and Historical Study of Religion professor Kimberley C. Patton taught a year-long course on the cross-traditional sacrality of trees called “The Tree at the Center of the World.” The coalition of students who are against cutting the tree includes, by my own observations, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, and Pagans. Just this fall, Hindu students painted the tree with a symbol representing Durga amma to celebrate the holiday of Navratri. I’ve seen Buddhist students meditating beneath it, and altars and other rituals surrounding it, marking it as holy. Some pagan students have told me they connect to trees similar to how they connect to human relatives, and I’ve watched them be gutted by this decision. These people have paid tuition to an institution that claims to value their spiritual traditions, yet this action shows those claims to be hollow.

We don’t know how old the tree is, but I’ve heard some say it could be as old as 200 years. If that’s true, it would have been here when Emerson gave his address. It may have witnessed those in power at the school at the time huff aghast at the audacity of this Bostonian punk poet.

“And it is my duty to say to you,” said Emerson in his Address, “that the need was never greater of new revelation than now. From the views I have already expressed, you will infer the sad conviction, which I share, I believe, with numbers, of the universal decay and now almost death of faith in society. The soul is not preached. The Church seems to totter to its fall, almost all life extinct.”

A glass and concrete conference center that looks like the Smith Campus Center is not new revelation. Respect and reverence for the lives of others is. I pray that the Divinity School will reconsider and find a way to preserve this life. May we still develop a faith that blends “with the light of rising and of setting suns, with the flying cloud, the singing bird, and the breath of flowers.” May we see the truth of the snow storm outside so we may not live in vain. May we feed this new revelation before all life and hope is extinct.

Jade R. Sylvan is a second-year master’s student at Harvard Divinity School.

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