Editor’s note: All opinions pieces published in the Clerk represent only the views and ideas of the author.
One morning after fall break, when the air was getting colder and the leaves were starting to turn, I found myself working at the arboretum with horticulturalist Charles Bone, removing tropical plants from a bed by the fieldhouse to be stored in their greenhouse for winter. Charles can be a quiet guy, but if you get him talking he’s purely wonderful. All of the horticulturalists at Haverford’s arboretum are. Often, I’ll ask them about anything at all plant related, and they’ll explain with a certain patience and quiet enthusiasm which is quite unlike anything else on campus; they have a sort of unspoken dedication about them, unadvertised and largely unknown, but constantly humming away in the college’s background. On that particular morning, I started asking Charles about his future plans, what he liked about his job, how he got here, and somehow we ended up on the topic of legacy. He told me about how he sometimes thought about the work that had come before him, the effort that had created the plants he tended to now. “That’s something I’ve always loved about this campus. If you look around you realize that there have always been caretakers here, since the very beginning.”
Think about planting a tree. You might say that you dig a hole, toss the sapling in, let it go, and voila! You have a tree. Of course this isn’t how the process actually works. You plant a tree, and often it just immediately dies. Sometimes you can dig it up and plant it again, and then it dies again. Maybe the third time’s the charm, and the tree sticks. But now you have to guard the tree. It needs mulch every spring to make sure nobody crushes it while walking. You need to haul water to it in dry times for at least a year, categorize its species for future care, stake it up, protect it from the wind, and then, maybe, the tree will survive. Congratulations: you’re now playing the long game. The adult tree still needs a lot of help. You have to prune and shape the tree, cordon it off during construction, increase the mulch ring to protect its roots, divert foot traffic around it, convince administrators that the tree even deserves to be there – and the kicker is that you have to do all of this constantly for decades, maybe centuries.
Consider the Burr Oak by the library ramp. It’s one of the very few trees left on campus that was planted right at Haverford’s founding, nearly two hundred years ago. When that tree was planted, slavery was booming in America. The Battle of the Alamo hadn’t happened yet. Andrew Jackson was president. And through every event after, through every change that overtook Haverford, someone has cared. Someone watered and pruned and nurtured that tree. Then someone else defended it, mulched around it. And somebody else argued that the library ramp should be built around the tree, that it shouldn’t be knocked down in the name of progress. Now, if you look up into it, you’ll see massive cables stretching the entire breadth of its canopy, placed there and holding it together against the weight of its own enormity. Decade after decade, through every progress and failing of most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, somebody’s kept an eye on that oak you probably walk by every day. Isn’t that kind of beautiful? It’s not ostentatious – that’s the point. It’s a deeply understated accomplishment of this campus, won not in a single salvo of money and prestige and construction, but earned, day after day, person after person, decade after decade. The new library’s beautiful, but I’ll always be marveling more at the tree.
I applied to be the Students’ Council librarian because I want to be a librarian myself, and I like libraries. I had no clue what I was getting into. The Student’s Constitution was pretty messy and out of date; I had to fix it. But it wasn’t the extent of the damage that shocked me. It was the depth of the bedrock that was below it. I read through every word of that Constitution. I met with the past Honor Council Librarian Riley Wheaton ‘20, the present Honor Council Librarian Nicole Haas-Loomis ‘22, chatted with Director of Web Communications Jenn O’Donnell, and consulted Franklyn Cantor ‘12, Special Assistant to the President, as to what I should do. Each and every one of them was absolutely wonderful. They gave me the combined institutional memory of the constitution without hesitation. They cared, on a deep level, that things were fixed. I asked them questions about precedents or formatting, and they each responded with a certain patience and quiet enthusiasm, which struck me as entirely familiar.
Consider the Students’ Association Constitution. It’s a document that had to be created from scratch, and built to last for decades. This isn’t some dead piece of paper – the Constitution and the Honor Code which makes up a large portion of it affects campus life in innumerable ways. But once it was created, it had to be updated. Students had to care about it, at Plenaries stretching back decades and decades, and after reading through Plenary packet after Plenary packet, it became clear to me just how much care lurked beneath the surface of the document. After it survived, it had to be changed, updated or sometimes pruned for its own good. It had to be defended, by students and officers, against the idea that it was anything less than a document with real power. And, of course, the kicker is that you have to do this year after year, with new students bodies – you have to teach them the power that they possess, impress upon them just how much editing and argument and effort has gone into giving them the framework they operate under today. Somebody has to care about these things, and pass on that care again and again, or they’ll die almost immediately.
When tour guides of the college emphasize the Honor Code and Plenary, or remark on how beautiful the curated trees that cover campus are, they are directing prospective students to gaze at the tip of a gargantuan iceberg. Year in, year out, person after person has worked to give us the beautiful, diverse, and entirely unique Haverford that we enjoy today. And they’re still there, working in the background, preparing for change – and it’s an open invitation to join them, to contribute, apply for a committee, write a resolution, demand change…or, simply plant a tree. If you do it right, you’ll be dead before you can ever truly appreciate the investments you’ve made. But you can rest assured that you’ll have made a genuine difference, and joined a legacy that stretches exceptionally far back. I think Charles is right. That’s something to love about this campus. If you look around you realize that there have always been caretakers here, since the very beginning. Perhaps you will be one of them.
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Photographs by Arshiya Bhayana
[Correction: An earlier version of this article misreported Riley Wheaton’s class year. He is in the class of 2020, not 2021.]
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