It’s that time of year again. The leaves have turned golden and crisp and are cascading gently down to the chilled ground below. The smells of autumn – damp earth and smoke from wood-burning fireplaces – fill the air. And on the campus where I teach, it’s time to get out those high powered blowers so the grounds crew can blast the leaves out of the trees onto waiting tarps and haul them away. Mother nature is apparently too slow for us.
The word “landscaped” does not begin to accurately describe my college campus. Rather, it is manicured, exfoliated, and lacquered. Leaf blowers abound. Three times a year, thousands of flowering plants – in full bloom – are ripped from their beds to be replaced with the next season’s offerings. Wide cement walkways stretch out at perfectly straight angles between the buildings. There are a few remaining patches of grass, but even these are neatly-trimmed pristine carpets, frequently cordoned off with little ropes and signs that say “please keep off the grass.” Sure it’s impressive, and practical and tidy this way. And I’ve heard the argument that that this continual pruning and primping gives jobs to hundreds of students in need of income. But really it’s all quite depressing and in my humble, please-don’t-fire-me-for-lambasting-our-sacred-lawns opinion, very un-natural.
Call me crazy and buy me a pair of Birkenstocks, but I prefer the un-tamed
University Park campus of Penn State. Many years worth of students have formed dirt paths between the buildings – paths that have worn through grass and branched off in random places and skirted the roots of tremendous sycamore trees. Perhaps I have a romanticized view of my visits there as a graduate student, but I remember seeing squirrels slide down from trunks to dart across the steps of the library.
I have never seen a squirrel on my current campus. The occasional guide dog, maybe. But no pot guts or chipmunks, and now that I think of it, very few birds. Oh I take it back – there are some ducks in the botany pond. But I’m sad about the sterilized feel of campus. And I’m sad that when they finished the new Humanities building 2 years ago, they didn’t even bother with the pretense of the grass-that-must-not-be-walked-upon. They filled the whole quad in front with concrete pavers.
My well-groomed campus reminds me a bit of the trees in Rococo paintings. The trees are always lush, excessively detailed, and incredibly beautiful. But they are also highly artificial and defy all laws of nature, including gravity. In Fragonard’s Swing for example, the leaves form elegant, billowing clusters that perfectly frame the action below. The branches twist their way out of the pale green puffs – perfectly formed, but just scraggly enough to be picturesque and knobby enough to hold the rope to the swing. It’s all quite pretty and idyllic. And *sigh* fake.