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Those Rocks Outside the Science Center

By Michelle I. Gao
Michelle I. Gao ’21, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Government concentrator in Adams House.

Last week I finally got around to finding the answer to a question I’ve been asking of Harvard since freshman year. What are those rocks outside the Science Center and why are they always being watered?

I’ve long found them completely ridiculous. Isn’t this a waste of water? Do other people find these mossy rocks pleasant to look at? And most of all: Why do they smell so bad?

I can’t pinpoint exactly why I decided to look them up last week, as opposed to any day in the past two years, but it was a pivotal moment. When I found the answer, which was not at all what I’d expected, I ran around telling all my blockmates and still had so much leftover feeling that I sat down to write an op-ed.

By starting on Google, naturally, I learned that those smelly wet rocks in between the Science Center building and plaza actually comprise a sculpture called Tanner Fountain.

Tanner Fountain is no ordinary fountain — it is an award-winning, innovative pioneer of the “Landscape as Art” movement. When it won the 2008 Landmark Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the jury described the fountain as: “Transformational. It lives in your memory.”

Commissioned in the 1980s by then University President Derek C. Bok, Tanner Fountain sprays mist for three seasons of the year and emits steam in the winter. It consists of 32 nozzles surrounded by 159 boulders arranged in concentric but irregular rings. These boulders, cleared from regional farms, are a testament to the trials and tribulations of the first settlers to New England. Tanner’s design is a technical innovation because it is a fountain without a basin — it relies on natural gradation to allow water drainage and thus minimizes maintenance hassles, a problem Bok had found with other campus fountains.

It appears many people love that Tanner was “designed to be inhabited” and to “invit[e] human participation,” as its creators intended. The emanating water creates a “seasonal contemplative landscape,” according to the Cultural Landscape Foundation. Its simplicity “draw[s] passerby into its inner circle,” according to Garden Design magazine. The American Society of Landscape Architect’s guide to Boston argues that it may appear “enigmatic among these dignified landmarks” at first, but is then recognized as what it really is, a “relaxed oasis in the midst of august historic surroundings.”

The sculpture may have even more symbolic meaning at Harvard. Tanner’s designer argued, “The fountain is a minimal piece full of contradictions…the materials, their perception and their various meanings are brought into conflict and into question. This artistic statement may be apropos to the questioning stance of students and the intellectual inquiry of the university.”

Why am I writing about this? When I first headed down the rabbit hole, I thought I’d find a funny story about yet another example of Harvard eccentricity and mild ineptitude. I knew those rocks had to be put there by someone, and it felt reasonable enough that Harvard would have done the unreasonable thing of dumping some rocks there for some sort of decoration.

On one hand, my confusion and fascination have only grown. I barely recognized the sculpture as art, and I have never felt the slightest inclination to “participate” in it (despite the many provided examples of student activities, which range from the banal, like reading and conversing, to the less plausible, at least for me, including meditating and flirting).

But my overwhelming feeling is one of regret: For all the disproportionate amount of time I’ve spent thinking and talking about these rocks, why didn’t I look up their origin earlier?

I suppose I didn’t think I’d find an answer, but I’m disappointed for letting that discourage me for two years. We schedule a lot of our learning in weekly blocks. Going to my scheduled learning is the main reason I’ve found myself walking past the rocks to begin with. Despite all that scheduled time, however, it feels like a shame to miss out on learning for learning’s sake.

This feeling of time being divided into before and after you learned something, of you being divided in the person before and after you learned that thing — it’s all too easy to wax poetic about this feeling in interviews on demand. An unfortunately important thing one happens to learn in college, though not in those scheduled learning blocks, is to craft neat narratives about the project, the class, the job that creates a eureka moment, suddenly making clear one’s future calling.

And so I appreciated the inadvertent reminder I gave myself that this type of eureka moment is much more satisfying when it comes from silly little personal quests. I do not know if anyone else cares about these rocks in the slightest, nor will I do anything useful in a concrete sense with the information I’ve learned, but that is both irrelevant and the entire point.

Michelle I. Gao ’21, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Government concentrator in Adams House.

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