By Josh Wagner
If you ever walk toward the Anderson Collection from the Main Quad, right past the Sapp Center, you’ll come across a tree. A yucca that Jane Stanford transplanted there in 1894 to mark the boundary of what would become the Cantor Arts Center. As a place, Stanford is populated with such distinctive trees — the junipers at Landau, the ficus at Encina, the gold wattles on Mayfield. Trees haunt the campus.
Where I saw it
Then it moved a fraction
To the left and then twice that
Distance again further and further
In this unpublished poem, Michael Snow notices the quivering way in which trees grow. Initially, any changes are barely noticeable, but over time, a landscape can change so dramatically as to become unrecognizable. The nascent stages of a tree’s life cycle are hidden in its fully developed form. Yet, that development defines its present form. In “Two Ages,” Søren Kierkegaard describes a malfunctioning grandfather clock which strikes at uniform intervals throughout the day. Each chime marks the passage of time, but not in regular time intervals like a clock is usually expected to. Neither broken nor fixed, this clock time refuses to break entirely. By submitting to a new control, the clock measures a different kind of time, alien to our 24-hour conception. The transformation of clock and tree alike depend on a latent past that is always just out of grasp.
In my first opinion article, I suggested that students be permitted to “live with” art in their dorm rooms. While no such policy has been established, we are allowed to live among ghosts of the past: buildings, trees and even animals from the previous century. Stanford as a place is a sedimented archive of multigenerational organisms co-existing. The physicality of Stanford belies a series of decisions and histories that are occluded from its present form. On a biological level, the origins of these trees are unknown and, further, such information is beyond the care of students who have a set of other everyday concerns: who decided to move the Cactus Garden, why is there a slice of a thousand year old redwood in the Hoover basement, why did David Starr Jordan plant a titoki tree on Campus Drive?
Having lived on this campus for the better part of four years, I have become intimately familiar with the nature of its trees. The feel of the birch cutting into asphalt outside of Dink, the drooping ash behind Tresidder, the three species of redwood along the Main Quad. And that psycho-geography has defined the shape of my thinking; my many term papers on rhythm and repetition grow out of the campus trees. The repetition of each indistinguishable footfall I take seeps into my body, yet is paradoxically distinct.
Ecologically, Stanford serves as the site of a flourishing biosphere. That is, the campus is a thriving ecosystem which allows for billions of bacteria cells to thrive. In a thousand years, what will survive of our University is not the classes, the buildings, nor the people, but rather the organisms that have always lived here. The University serves as a storehouse of life. And, for me, Stanford has functioned best outside of its alleged function. It is a machine which authenticates its patrons with knowledge and degrees, but my experience of school lies beyond this normative capacity. In moments when such normativity falls away, when I lose track of time, I feel that Stanford, as an educational institution, works best. Even Stanford’s landscape — physically and affectively — is mechanical. It exists to validate, smooth over, provide a metric for others to judge. And yet, such drab functions serve as the condition of possibility for an experience.
In his 14-book “Prelude,” Wordsworth notes: “There are in our existence spots of time, / That with distinct pre-eminence retain.” The straightforwardness of his phrasing suggests a simplicity to time. It simply is — there is nothing more to be said about it. The past percolates through the present just as trees peep through Stanford’s landscape, subtly defining it.
The trees serve as a means of maintaining Stanford. The campus’s trees permeate the University’s purpose, serving as static representatives of halcyon eras. The trees quietly preserve that history, while also providing a means of recovering it. As Alfred North Whitehead notes, “The art of free society consists first in the maintenance of the symbolic code and secondly in fearlessness of revision, to secure that the code serves those purposes which satisfy an enlightened reason.” Art exists to elucidate a set of values, beliefs and assumptions and provides a means of destabilizing those narratives. If the trees represent such an “art,” they serve to obscurely preserve a semblance of order. They hide their specific histories while presenting a flat, smooth surface — pretending that their current form is their eternal form. Stanford, too, is such a cosmetic remainder of a latent history — one is hard pressed to find historical plaques lining University Avenue or remnants of 1960s protests.
Through my time as an undergraduate, as my academic and social obligations melted away each evening, I was able to become such a tree which unknowingly embalms Stanford’s history. Letting go of those obligations, I have explored the Stanford campus like hundreds before me: losing myself in the locked stacks at Green, confronting a racoon on the roof of McMurtry, meandering down the poorly-lit faculty housing on Mayfield. In these solitary moments, I become a part of the landscape, preserving a geographic history that I can’t quite fully understand. The trees record a set of possibilities which are activated by the echoes of the past in the present, accessible only at a remove. There, I embrace a rootedness that comprises my Stanford experience, where “infinitesimal traces permit the comprehension of a deeper, otherwise unattainable reality.”
If ghosts symbolize the belief in and reverence for the accumulated past, there are no ghosts at Stanford, only the revitalizing skeletons of hiding trees.
A previous version of this article implied that Wagner is currently the deputy editor of the Daily. This has been removed. The Daily regrets this error.
Contact Josh Wagner at jwganer4 ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Josh Wagner ’20 was Executive Editor of Volume 254.
The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to eic ‘at’ stanforddaily.com and op-ed submissions to opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.