The arborists have spoken. And they have decided that a red oak tree, greeting visitors to Andover Hall for over a century, is in “irreversible decline” and a threat to campus safety. The decision bodes well for the Divinity School administration, which has sought since the fall to remove the tree in order to expand the school’s main building. Students, however, many of whom share a spiritual bond with the tree or just appreciate its friendly umbrage, have protested the school’s decision. And so a red oak, which before November I doubt many outside the Divinity School had ever taken serious note of, has become at once Harvard’s and perhaps the greater Boston area’s most controversial and most beloved tree.
But the University plows on as it so often does, dead set on a project the community seems to have increasingly little interest in: a café, a conference center, a multi-faith chapel (as spiritually meaningful as the last of these certainly is). These are certainly valuable goals for the institution, but at what cost? And is the language of cost really the one we should be using here? Or is that sort of language, that paradigm of institutional reasoning, precisely the problem?
Cambridge may be losing 31 acres of tree coverage per year due in part to construction, but surely this oak is not statistically significant in the struggle against environmental collapse. After all, the school has promised to plant more trees – healthier, younger, better-located trees – in place of this one. True, some students may express a sacred bond with this tree. But a multi-faith space is a far more important resource for these students, especially if they are feeling marginalized as pagans. The multi-faith chapel, moreover, serves as a clearly defined step toward a more inclusive future for an institution steeped in the history of religious elitism. Students, no doubt, will learn to value these new spaces, leaning into their educational utility, and the potential they provide for a tighter-knit community.
These are the undeniably noble aims of a 21st-century educational institution committed to diversity and inclusion, environmental change, and a strong community. It would seem then that the oak impedes the institutional progress of the Divinity School. But there is a greater symbolic value to the tree, and it shocks me that one of the world’s preeminent institutions of semiotic thought seems so unable to grasp it.
The battle between American institutional expansion and locally rooted spiritual practice has for centuries been waged over national landmarks. The debate came to a head when protestors blocked the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline not merely for environmental reasons but for the sake of the Native American sacred sites it threatened. We should not forget that trees have often been at the heart of these confrontations. In 2015, for example, the U.S. Forest Service cut down a small grove of eastern red cedars in Shawnee National Park, named for a local tribal group which has long considered this cedar the “Tree of Life.” While the Forest Service had intended to improve the trail for visitors, opening up a magnificent vista, they were in fact cutting down the very trees which had drawn the sites first visitors.
The red oak is perhaps symbolic of Harvard’s illiteracy in the history of this destruction. Who knows how truly sacred this tree is? But that’s not really the point. Rather, the crux of the matter is that the oak is just another instance of institutions like Harvard prioritizing one set of collective interests over a smaller, more fragile, less heard, but still meaningful cluster of human experiences. The way the tree over many years has built itself into the sacred landscape of the Divinity School is beyond beautiful; the school should want to protect that for as long as it can.
Trees have long stood at the forefront of student and youth protests to protect the environment. Tree sitting is a well-established practice of civil disobedience, in which protestors occupy a tree in order to prevent its removal. In the summer of 1990, dubbed “Redwood Summer,” students and activists occupied redwoods in order to prevent loggers from cutting them down. Forty-four were arrested.
However many trees the school promises to erect in its stead, the red oak should remind us of the many trees to which students have been so literally attached. Environmentalism is not merely about planting more trees, but rather about respecting the place of existing ones. After all, the root of our environmental irresponsibility has always been the insidious notion that somehow our environment is replaceable, that four trees are better than one.
Like so many universities, Harvard continues to struggle with its relationship with student interests, often claiming a paternalistic position of knowing what is best for students over and against the spoken desires of students themselves. I wrote an op-ed at the beginning of this month describing the University’s planned removal of the HOCice, a nearly one-hundred-year-old student office space, which has served as a social safe haven for generations of students. Like the U.S. Forest Service at Shawnee, the University has a list of very good reasons to remove the office, not least house renovation and the elimination of locked-door social spaces. But that’s not what students want, and it’s certainly not what fills them with a sense of belonging.
The red oak is no different. As students rally around this tree, the University lists off the reasons why it must go, why in fact cutting it down will serve everybody better in the long run: more new trees, more multi-faith spaces, the general safety of passersby.
Ultimately, I wonder if they’ve really heard these students at all. Students don’t love the tree for its added value; they don’t really love it for anything at all. Students love the tree just for the sake of loving. And that should be enough.
Isaac O. Longobardi ’21, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Social Anthropology concentrator in Eliot House.