By: Logan Dudley, Bicentennial Intern, Class of 2019, Communication and Culture, Bloomington
Hemmed in by walls of limestone and glass, the smooth gray trunk of the American Beech tree meanders upward, seeking life-giving light. Its base, enclosed by short railing and dotted with the names and initials of generations of college couples, serves as a living monument to the timelessness of young love.
But the higher its trunk extends among the walls of the courtyard, the more isolated the character of the tree becomes. It twists and shrinks, stripped of any sprigs or branches, to avoid invading the foreign space of the structure surrounding it. But yet the tree climbs, finally reaching the summit of its enclosure, beyond which it can stretch its long limbs out wide, canopying the courtyard in a kaleidoscope of light and shadow.
It’s well known that Indiana University has enjoyed a long, romantic relationship with trees. Anyone who has ever walked the 2,000 acre campus can attest that there’s hardly a barren spot. Beyond their sheer quantity, the trees at IU are memorable for the stories and meanings that the community has ascribed to them.
In the case of the American Beech tree described above, its popular reputation as the “Sweetheart Tree” and subsequent preservation in the 1986 remodel of the Chemistry Building were the result of its role in university legend.
According to the tale, the eldest daughter of the Dunn family (from whom the university purchased Dunn’s Woods to serve as its new site in 1883) set a precedent by carving her initials and those of her sweetheart into the tree, leading the Dunn family to mandate that the tree never be cut down if the university wanted the land.
Just as in the case of the “Sweetheart Tree,” much of the university’s relationship to its trees has been popularly understood through myth and legend, and this sort of veiled perception only further imbues Bloomington’s woodland campus with elements of mystery and magic that are markedly absent from most modern institutional spaces.
It is important to note, however, that the fanciful atmosphere of Indiana University is achieved, rather than found, and unbeknownst to most IU patrons, the university’s longtime romance with its trees has required just as much work, if not more, than most romantic commitments.
Chief facilitator in this commitment is IU’s Landscape Services Manager, Mike Girvin, who oversees the grounds maintenance for the entire Bloomington campus.
Not surprisingly, managing 2,000 acres of land is no small task: “We’re just here, there, and everywhere,” Girvin reports. “I have three full-time certified arborists that do work. I typically have two to three hundred trees in front of them, be it a pruning, removal, dead wooding, things like that.”
And on top of the team’s standard workload, they recently partnered with IU’s Office of Sustainability to compile an overall inventory of all the trees on campus and “came up with a little over 14,000, and that does not include the wood lots, like Dunn’s Woods.”
Given his mediating role, Girvin understands better than anyone that their relationship is not exactly an equal partnership. The people who make up the university always have power and precedence over their arboreal counterparts: “Our primary purpose is to ensure the safety of patrons of the IU campus,” Girvin says, “so that’s what we base all our decisions on first and foremost. The next is being preservationists of trees.”
At IU, cutting down a tree is considered sacrilege, going against the fundamental tenets of the institution’s loving philosophy toward its landscape. But as Girvin points out, he and his team are charged with protecting people first and the trees second:
“The number one reason we take down a tree is that that tree would be a primary hazard. And we actually use a whole protocol for taking down those trees. They do an inspection report; they bore inside the tree. We do a lot of different things. We’ll certainly try to save a tree…. we try to do everything we can to preserve.”
As trees age or fall victim to disease, their structural integrity often becomes more and more compromised, making them a potential danger to anyone and anything around them. To avoid potential disaster, Girvin and his team must stay vigilant in identifying, monitoring, and, yes, even removing those trees which could pose a threat. For Girvin and his crew, maintaining the idyllic woodland setting of the campus requires cutting down trees just as surely as it requires planting them.
Even though IU’s trees may technically take a backseat to its human occupants, Girvin is not exaggerating when he claims that he and his team do everything they can to save a tree. Landscape Services manages the health of IU’s trees using a variety of methods and treatments akin to those used on humans, including X-ray scans and nutritional treatments.
They will even go so far as to bring in an outside arborist who specializes in medicinal treatments for trees, an undertaking which, according to Girvin, costs them “between five and ten thousand dollars annually.”
Certainly, molding nature to conform to the expectations of the social institution is never simple or easy, and the ongoing process of crafting and maintaining IU’s woodland aesthetic is no exception. Girvin says that he and his team have had to be increasingly proactive in their maintenance methods in order to contend with a warmer climate.
As Girvin puts it, “Regardless of how you feel about climate change [as a theory], things are changing. This is warmer than it used to be, day-to-day, so already our climatic zone is changing here.” To prevent warmer temperatures from depleting IU’s community of trees, Landscape Services is focusing its efforts on increasing species diversity and tracking the success of their selections over time. Girvin notes,
“You need a mixed diversity, and you need a lot of natives. Your native tree species are very hardy. It’s Oak, Beech, and Maple in this part of the country…But then we plant things like Elephant Magnolias, and Pink Flowering Dogwoods, and London Plain Trees, so what you need to do is see which ones are really surviving the best.”
Clearly, it is the hope of Landscape Services that the woodland aesthetic can be preserved over time through the careful selection of tree species that are able to endure the changing climate.
The possibility alone, however, that the woodland aesthetic may not be sustainable into the future calls immediate attention to the necessity of Landscape Services as an institutional force working to shape the campus environment, first, for the safety of patrons, but also for their aesthetic pleasure.
Without continuous grounds work, not only would the campus be far less safe, but its characteristic woodland allure would certainly be compromised as well.
Despite all of the manpower, resources, and careful thought devoted to them, “Trees do die. You can only do so much,” Girvin confesses. Even the “Sweetheart Tree,” a native American Beech infused with the magic and romance of the university’s cultural history and set aside for preservation, requires careful maintenance to remain within the space allotted for it and to avoid decay.
When asked about how he and his team go about caring for such a massive tree enclosed in four walls, Girvin replied, “Difficultly. We have a problem right now, because about the top 30% is dead…We’re probably going to have to set a steel cable from one side of the roof to the other that my arborists can hook into [to] work on it.”
This image of the arborist, suspended from a cable amidst the foliage of the “Sweetheart Tree” as he carefully prunes the deadwood, serves as a stark reminder that, despite both our mythical musings and our common ability to take spaces for granted, IU Bloomington’s woodland campus is not the result of magic or even simple happenstance.
Instead, it has emerged and continues to emerge out of ongoing negotiations between institutional forces like Landscape Services and natural forces like the trees themselves.
As Girvin says, “Nature’s going to figure out a way to persevere one way or another, with or without us.” It behooves all members of the IU community to work cooperatively with nature, respecting its regular tendencies and limits, to shape an environment that suits us both.
Girvin, Mike. Personal Interview. 13 Feb. 2017.
Deckard, Courtney. Sweetheart Tree. Multimedia Blog. 2010, Indiana Daily Student. Accessed 8 Feb. 2017.