The Feel of Lake Campus on Main Campus

Of all the maps I looked over, the most striking image was the proposed pond that was initially planned to sit right in front of Chambers.  The front of Chambers is in my opinion one of the more artificial parts of Campus.  It was clearly made to look natural and in some ways it does provide a nice barrier between Main Street and the academic hub on campus. However, the makeup of the lawn feels artificial.  It would have served as a wonderful place to go read a book or do some homework when I lived up the hill.  However,  I never felt like I was escaping the feel of Chambers or the Union like I felt when I went to the Cross Country trails.

A pond or a reflecting pool would have certainly helped this feeling.  The beauty of Lake Norman is often lost when you come on to Davidson’s campus.  There is a distance lack of natural water which is in stark contrast to the are around it.  The pond would have helped that and it would have looked beautiful outside of Chambers.

It it hard to speculate why a pond was never constructed.  Perhaps there was too much of an impact on the environment around it or perhaps it costs to much at the time.  It also may have been seen as a disruptive to the campus or not in the overall vision for the school.  A pond seems rather harmless to the campus now and it would help give Davidson some of the natural beauty that we see around Lake Norman.

Man-made Nature

At first glimpse, Davidson’s campus appears to be a nature-friendly environment built to respect native wildlife and plant life. As an individual who hardly pays attention to environmental surroundings, writing about nature is most obviously different than writing about fashion. I tend to notice people’s outfits more than I notice the number of trees or flowers in bloom. A very recent trip to the college library moved my focus away from people and to the habitat in which these people walk and run.

Davidson’s campus is filled with many large trees, beautiful green grass and a cross country trail that highlights many of nature’s untouched pockets. The trees give the campus a more “natural” feeling. On any given day one can hear the birds chirping and see the many squirrels running from tree to tree. Of course, wildlife adds to Davidson’s atmosphere and appeal. However, after viewing maps from the 1940s and 1980s, one discovers that Davidson is mostly a man-made campus. Up until the twentieth century Davidson had a handful of trees, but not nearly as many as one sees today. While most, if not all, campuses are man-made (buildings and parking lots, etc.), it seems interesting that many of the trees were planted with respect to the buildings and not the other way around. Shouldn’t the buildings have been built in relation to the trees? As stated earlier, during the campus’s early years there were hardly any trees, so the only option was to bring in plant life.

Surprisingly, Davidson’s campus in the early twentieth century lacked many of the large trees one sees today. Maps of the campus from the 1930s and 1940s (available for viewing in the Rare Books Room) show a bare campus without much foliage besides small plants here and there. These maps not only show the building layout but also the specific area in which flowers and bushes were to be planted. A few of the maps are quite intricate and specifically state which types of trees or bushes were to be planted in what area. Apparently, since the mid to late twentieth century, more and more effort has been put into planting trees. In fact, the college campus became a national arboretum in 1980. Most of the large trees seen around the main part of campus are tagged with the tree’s respective name.

With the exception of some naturally occurring plant life, Davidson’s campus plant life is largely human constructed. Humans altered and added plant life to work well with the campus atmosphere and structure rather than the campus working in conjunction with the plant life. It is difficult to think of Davidson as not being “natural.” However, a natural environment is one with weeds and tall grass. If Davidson was truly a natural environment, then many of us would have to walk to class amidst much taller grass. Adding and altering plant life provides stability for surrounding wildlife, even humans. Wildlife and humans have to coexist and sometimes this comes at the cost of changing a natural environment to appear more “natural.”

Davidson College: A Campus of Modification and the Seemingly “Natural”

What would we define as “natural” on Davidson College’s campus? Some students chose the cross-country trail as the most natural place on campus, for it appears untouched, wild, and uncultivated. But even the cross-country trail contains a manmade path through the trees, a bridge at the bottom of a large hill, and signs to designate direction and distance. Some students also chose the college arboretum, but even the trees are tagged and scattered strategically around campus.

When I hear the word “natural,” I think of English country gardens, frontiers rolling with mountains and grasslands, and tropical forests prospering with growth and green. Though beautiful, I would not call Davidson College a “natural” place, for it has been too modified and planned to be so. For example, the “Annual Report of the Faculty to the Trustees” gives us a look into Davidson College in June 1869. The report states,

The Trustees will observe for themselves how much has been done for the improvement of the Campus during the past year. This has been done… by the interest of the students displayed in planting shade trees, and in improving by their personal labor, the parts adjacent to their Halls. It is proposed to make the Campus in its contents represent in time the forest growth of the State, and, if possible, the general botany of the region.

According to the report, students themselves planted the trees and the arboretum appears to be in its propositional phase in 1869. The College proposed that Davidson reflect the tree varieties present in the state of North Carolina, therefore resulting in the importation of tress to various locations around campus. Even the maps of campus in the nineteenth century up until the present day show the planned drawings of trees on the grounds, strategically placed in front of Chambers, the library, and dormitories. Davidson’s careful interference with nature contrasts the photos and maps that depict a more forested campus.

The map that showed the plans for the first Chambers building that would house both classrooms and living spaces also represented a massive interference with nature Davidson intended to develop. Placing such a large structure in the middle of carefully organized landscape demonstrates man’s triumph over nature in this small town in North Carolina woodlands. This central location on the campus could not be called “natural,” not to mention the well-manicured grass and shrubbery that Davidson upholds to such a high aesthetic standard.

Davidson College campus is beautiful, and certainly contains aspects of seemingly natural characteristics. The tampering of college staff and students, however, tampers with the definition of “natural” by intruding upon one of its essential foundations. For something to be deemed truly “natural,” its present and previous state must rely on its lack of human interference and intrusion. The cross-country trail and the arboretum allow the college to maintain the serene presence of nature and add an aesthetic factor to its campus, but I would not go so far as to call it a “natural” campus by definition.

The Lack of Nature at Davidson

When asked to think of what place on Davidson’s campus has the most nature, I first jumped to the cross country trails, but as I was thinking about it I began to realize Davidson is a very artificial campus despite the apparent nature around me.

I have always thought of Davidson as a place full of nature. Coming from New York, I grew up in a concrete jungle surrounded by artifice. I felt that by coming to Davidson I would be leaving the artificial life associated with cities for the nature of the South.

Thinking about Davidson now, it is no less artificial than the man made parks of New York city. Yes, there is grass everywhere and the campus is an arboretum, but it is all carefully created by humans to make Davidson appear like a natural sanctuary.

I’m still struggling with why I feel like the grass and trees of Davidson doesn’t feel nature. Defining nature is tough, as Davidson is full of things that are literally taken from nature, but because of how they have been placed together in such a pristine manner makes me feel like I haven’t escaped the artifice of New York city. This was enforced by looking at the plans outlining the campus in the library, as it emphasized how carefully conceived the environment at Davidson is.

I look forward to still figuring out what defines nature as the semester continues and seeing how it has effected history, specifically with respect to the growth of cities.

The Intersection of Civilization and Savagery

To define wilderness is a very difficult thing to do. On the one hand nature embodies everything that we observe, construct or even destroy. Everything originates from the earth and thus everything originates from nature. On the other hand nature can be construed as wilderness, a space that is absent of human intervention. It is originality and savagery. It has complete freedom to grow and live in an unimpeded manner separate from artificial construction.

While I understand and appreciate the first of these definitions it is the latter that I will use in application to Davidson College. Whenever I encounter visitors to this school the most common response that I receive is just how beautiful and natural the campus looks. While I can immediately agree with the beauty comment can the campus truly be described as natural? While the campus itself possesses many areas of trees and open grass they are artificial for they are constantly manicured and sculpted to look beautiful and pleasing to the eye. Nature is not allowed to run its course. The campus is an organized space that lacks savagery and unlimited potential.

Looking over the maps in the archives room I was struck by how the campus has grown and nature has receded here at Davidson. The maps from the 1960’s showed that the campus was limited to up the hill and everything down the hill was forested area. This area was mostly free from the influence of the grounds keepers and was depicted on the maps simply as swirls of green instead of the carefully drawn trees in the middle of campus. This distinction in how trees are portrayed is a prime example for how untamed the natural is outside of the campus limits. Over time however, the swirls have diminished and greater order has taken over.

One of my favorite areas of campus is the Imacs. These are the sports fields that sit on the backside of campus. Over my four years at Davidson I have spent countless hours out there playing soccer, baseball and other sports. I love nothing more on a Friday afternoon than starting up a pickup game of soccer. The Imacs along with being a place of fun also represent another unique aspect of campus. For me it is the blurred line where the civilization of campus meets the untamed wilderness that lies outside. The Imacs were a natural area that had been artificially altered to serve our purposes yet sometimes a miss cued shot can lead to a brief encounter with the savagery as one would have to forage for the ball amidst the unforgiving thorns hidden behind the almost useless half fence.

While physically the Imacs are the boundary with what can be described as true nature, the playing fields also represent a mental transition from proper interactions to a regression into a savage mindset of aggression. Outdoor sports may be one of the few activities that allow us to both walk the line physically and mentally between civilization and nature. Thus whenever I step onto the pitch for soccer practice I am stepping away from civilization and into a purgatory of sorts that provide me perspectives into the two environments on either side of me.

Nature and Davidson

My daily interactions with Davidson’s campus differ sharply from my experience of viewing the collection of blueprints and maps that the librarians displayed for our class last week. The blueprints and maps demonstrate the way the college has appropriated the environment to suit part of its purpose: to provide a liberal arts education to students in a residential community. Walking across campus necessitates either climbing or descending a hill and seeing trees and lawns, reminders of the natural environment we inhabit. The plans and maps of the campus, meanwhile, present a conflicting understanding of the campus. In this bird’s eye view, the campus acts as an inaccessible, tamed, and unnatural environment compared to the experience of walking across it, which fosters an appreciation of its natural elements. Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City” explores the discontinuity between a city planner’s experience of a city versus a person who walks through the city’s streets. He addresses this in the context of a city, and I have tried to do the same for Davidson’s campus.

The seemingly natural parts of campus—Lake Campus and the Cross Country Trails—were manmade and planted by humans, respectively. Even though humans had a role in these two places and in the campus as a whole, those spaces are still natural environments. The inclusion of trees and lawns (however perfectly manicured) makes the campus a natural space. Human involvement in the process does not preclude a space from being natural, but it does alter the degree to which the space is natural. Old-growth forests and vast, uninhabited plains are certainly wilder and more natural. The college has necessarily tamed the natural environment of the campus but the campus can still be called natural (though not wild).

Despite these efforts at taming nature on campus, nature’s wildness has punctuated Davidson’s history. The librarian mentioned how the 1989 Hurricane Hugo destroyed many of Davidson’s trees, the president’s office corresponded with a landscaping company about the blight affecting the elm trees on campus during the early 1920s, and the green inchworms emerge every spring to threaten the ability of students to walk across campus without having worms attach to their hair. These examples demonstrate how natural events can bring unwelcome wildness to Davidson, acting beyond the ability of the college to control the environment.

The college has controlled the natural environment in the case of water. One of the blueprints showed a plan for a reflecting pool in front of Chambers. The librarian said there used to be a small lake on campus (as a result of a dammed creek). Now, there is a fountain with a small bit of water next to Sloane, but no large bodies of water remain on our main campus. I wonder if our everyday experiences on campus would be significantly different if we had a body of water on our main campus. Maybe it is not so easy to tame compared to trees and lawns.

Davidson Wilderness

After looking over the pictures of the evolution of Davidson’s campus, I was shocked to see the gradual deforestation that has occurred throughout the grounds. Though the years were not listed, years before my time here, the grounds surrounding Chambers and many of the dorms were littered with trees of varying sizes. In my opinion, this created a more natural feel to the campus, as the trees, even if they were planted by humans, represented the ecological side of our ecosystem. Today, though trees remain around chambers, they are not nearly as prevalent, replaced by pristinely kept grass that radiates with an artificial feeling.

Following our class discussion on what part of campus was the most “natural” or “wild” to me, I was left without a clear answer. My initial answer was the cross country trail, but sadly the trees that gave the course its natural feeling were all planted by human hands, stripping it of the natural purity I initially accredited it with. After some thought, I realized that the most natural thing to me on Davidson’s campus are the squirrels.

For those who do not know, Davidson squirrels are a little different than others from around the country. They often run right up to you and do not flee as you walk within feet of them, but continue doing whatever it is they do. For some, they might see this as unnatural, as the squirrels do not fear humans as other squirrels around the land generally do. Yet, for me, I see it as the peak of nature on campus. These animals recognize us as part of their ecosystem, regardless of our biological differences. It appears as though they have learned that we pose no threat to their way of life, so they do not fear us, leaving them to calmly live alongside us on the campus. Though different than most animals, I view their acknowledgement of our place amongst their ecosystem as the epitome of nature on this campus.

If I had to pick one thing on campus that I view as the most unnatural thing, I would have to go with the turf on our football field. Nothing screams unnatural like artificially created grass filled with black little beads that get everywhere. Our insistence on creating a playing surface that is unchanged by natural occurrences reflects our desire to control the world around us and deny the randomness that nature presents. This is a common practice of our culture, especially when it comes to planting gardens/shrubbery, as we are actively shaping nature in the ways we want it, rather than allowing its beauty to blossom through its own design.

Welcome to HIS458

Welcome to the history of American environments, taught at Davidson College in the Spring of 2014.  This space will function in lieu of a Moddle forum – as a place for you to register weekly opinions on the reading, drop in interesting links.  The blog is not indexed with Google, but it is still accessible to any who might stumble upon it.  To that end, if you don’t want your posts to be searchable by your Davidson handle, feel free to change it (users>your profile>nickname) and send me the name you’ll be posting under.