|The Tufts campus is at its loveliest at Commencement time.|
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|
|1915 Tufts baseball team. Source: Tufts Digital Collections & Archives|
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.|
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).