Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Looking under the lawn

The Tufts campus is at its loveliest at Commencement time.
This past weekend was Commencement at Tufts University, always an inspiring rite of passage and a chance to reflect a bit after the intensity of the academic year.  It's particularly reflective for me this year, after a spring spent gathering information and ideas about the campus as a former, current, and perhaps future site of food production.  My "New Food Activism: Roots and Visions" class was devoted, in part, to reenvisioning the landscape around Tufts' Medford campus through the lens of its agricultural history, and my sense of the place has been shifting as a result.  In particular, I've been rethinking the lawns.

Like other traditional schools, Tufts spends an immense amount of time grooming its lawns and gardens, which are always at their freshest and most beautiful during the spring Commencement celebration.  As soon as the snow melts, the leaf-blowing, tree-trimming, mowing, patching of bare spots, and mulching begin.  The result is a lovely landscape that dovetails nicely with most people's idealized image of a New England college campus:  red brick buildings surrounding a leafy quad, green swaths of athletic fields, blossoming trees lining the walkways.  It's bucolic, inviting, and wholly constructed, despite its seemingly "natural" appearance.

I knew all of this, of course, but my spring class helped me to see it much more clearly in relation to the specific histories of this piece of land.  This clearer look started in conversations with Susanne Belovari at the Tufts Digital Collections & Archives, who has been gathering materials relating to changing land uses on what was known in colonial days as Walnut Hill.  Susanne pointed out that the early colonists cut down the walnut trees that gave the hill its name, leaving a bare knob (actually a glacial drumlin, like many of the neatly-defined hills around Boston).  When the soil eroded as a result of this deforestation, the hill became an agriculturally marginal place for grazing sheep and growing apples.

The Tufts campus in 1877.  Source: Tufts Digital Collections & Archives
In the words of college chronicler Edwin Rollins, by the time Charles Tufts donated this parcel of land to the newly-formed college in the early 1850s, Walnut Hill "was not a smoothly rounded hilltop covered with grass and stately trees, but a barren and uneven bit of pasture: twenty acres largely enclosed in fieldstone walls... [with] little to recommend it beyond the marvelous view."  Early administrators and classes set about planting trees and re-greening the hill, a project that continued well into the 20th century and arguably isn't over yet.  (The agricultural lineage of the early campus, as well as the early tree-planting efforts on the hill, can be seen in the 1877 view above.)

1915 Tufts baseball team.  Source: Tufts Digital Collections & Archives
My initial focus in the course was on bringing those older agricultural uses into greater visibility, but my students nudged me in some new and more complex directions.  During an afternoon that the class spent in the archives, one student was repeatedly struck by how unkempt the lawns and playing fields looked in the early 20th century, judging by today's standards.  Reading into photos that weren't actually about the landscape (like this one of the 1915 baseball team standing in ankle-high grass at the edge of the playing fields), he started to piece together a history of meaning-making through landscape reconstruction, tracing some of the aesthetic and technological changes that have led to today's neatly-mowed and manicured grounds. 

Another student repeatedly reminded us, whenever my own focus on farming came to the fore, that European agriculture itself was a violent imposition on the subsistence landscapes of indigenous inhabitants.  Of course I knew that too, but it's amazing how difficult it can be to see it through the layers of subsequent uses.  The old photographs help give us a much more vivid sense of the 19th and 20th century layers, but they also paradoxically help to obscure what went before, in the same way that the manicured lawns obscure the farmland.  Bearing that longer timeline in mind is going to be a crucial task as I continue to work on this project with future classes.

Lawn next to Anderson Hall, Tufts University.
The students' main assignment in this spring's class was to propose ways that the histories of cultivation of this particular piece of land could be brought into greater visibility and linked with the contemporary "food movement."  One proposal--which I'll say more about in a future post--was to reinstate the position of campus farmer, a job that existed until about the time of the First World War and was then absorbed into the groundskeeping functions of the Facilities Department. At precisely this time, the new President of Tufts College, John Cousens, was calling on the school to make "the Hill a Garden"--but not a food-producing garden.  The continued transformation of the campus reflected the increasingly long distances between New Englanders and their food supply, and the way that institutions like Tufts were taking on new roles in the long shift toward a more knowledge- and service-based economy in the region.

What strikes me now about the campus farmer proposal is that Tufts is actually still cultivating this landscape.  But the primary crop is now turf grass--and that actually puts us squarely in the mainstream in terms of what Americans grow these days.  When Tufts graduate Ted Steinberg wrote American Green:  The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn in 2007, there were 25-40 million acres of lawn in the U.S. (p. 4), making it by far the largest crop in the country.  To recover any sense of Tufts as a food-producing landscape, let alone to make it productive in that way again, we're first going to have to get underneath all that lawn and ahead of the small army of groundskeepers that maintains it (as Biology Professor George Ellmore tries to do in this short video). 

No comments:

Post a Comment