“We’re gathered here today this afternoon on Abele Quad, the heart of West Campus, under the generous shade of these towering oak trees that seem as old as time.” These eloquent words conjure up a lucid memory in my mind. The unbearable heat of a Durham summer. The ominous threat of storm clouds, ready to unleash a fury of rain, thunder and lightning at any moment.
This was my Freshman Convocation. The unpredictable weather was emblematic of my turbulent emotions during the first week of college: hope for an exciting adventure grappling with the sadness of what I had left behind. But in that moment, I took solace in one fact: the presence of these majestic oak trees, whom, in the words of President Price, “seem as old as time.” Regardless of the weather that day, whether it was 100 degree or a torrential downpour (turns out it was both), I could find refuge under the oak’s benevolent branches. However, I had no clue that the days of the oaks that “seem as old as time” were numbered. In fact, some of them are gone. Forever.
In the hubbub amidst the renovation of Abele Quad for Duke’s centennial, it seems as if some of the old oaks were lost as collateral. Most prominently, the primordial Willow Oak (Quercus phellos) that gracefully extended its branches over Few Quad is no longer with us. In its place is a scrubby little tree, still recovering from root loss in the wake of transplant shock. Due to these injuries, it will take a while for this scant chap to mature into the glory of its predecessor. Recovering from transplant shock alone can take a tree up to five years.
However, there is still hope. Many of the original impressive oaks that adorn Abele Quad have still not succumbed to the ax and the bulldozer. By emphasizing the cultural significance of trees in Duke’s history, as well as highlighting the ecological and human health benefits that mature trees provide, a flourishing future for these palatial monuments is possible. The oaks have survived the first hundred years of Duke’s turbulent history. Let’s make sure they’ll be around one hundred years from now.
So, why are these trees worth preserving?
Firstly, these trees are a part of Duke’s identity. When President Price spoke about the intrinsic value of the oaks on Abele Quad, he was wearing a medallion embellished with golden maple leaves and acorns. This same medallion is worn by former Duke President Terry Sanford in his official portrait hanging up in the Gothic Reading Room. Similarly, the ceilings of many historic buildings on West Campus are embroidered with the same leaf and acorn pattern. At an institution obsessed with symbolism, the recurring leaf design is no accident. Trees connote knowledge, introspection and resiliency — all values that Duke wants to incorporate into its scholarship.
The political clout of trees is also not to be underestimated. Robert Moses, the man who built New York, found this lesson out the hard way. Moses had enormous political power. Despite evicting an estimated 500,000 New Yorkers over the course of his career, he seldom faced any significant threats to his authority. However, when Moses attempted to cut down a half-acre of trees in Central Park to build a parking lot for a nearby restaurant, he was met with a firestorm of opposition and eventually backed down.
The political significance of these trees did not stem from their comeliness or grandeur but rather was a result of their location. Central Park is perhaps the world’s most famous park and is deemed sacred ground by New Yorkers. In the same way, Abele Quad is Duke’s Central Park. Like Central Park, the most defining aspects of Duke’s history have occurred on Abele Quad.
These old oaks witnessed the student occupation of the Allen Building and subsequent attack by the Durham Police, a turning point in the fight for racial justice at Duke. Under their branches walked civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr. and Stolkey Carmichael. Their leaves have reflected the hues of countless bench burnings, concerts and parties. And their limbs continue to provide generous shade to those fighting for a better world today, whether it be those advocating for divestment from fossil fuels, student unionization or greater employee rights.
Well, weren’t the trees that chopped down dying anyway? Most Oak trees in the Southeast US can live for around 300 years, though oaks in the UK commonly live over 1,000 years. Despite this impressive longevity, it could still be quite possible that the oaks on Abele Quad were dying, whether it was due to disease or impacts from construction.
But that shouldn’t be a reason to cut them down.
Dead oaks are just as ecologically valuable as living ones. A plethora of animals, ranging from birds to salamanders, rely on snags (dead trees that are still standing) for shelter. More than 80 species of birds in North America depend on snags for their survival. The slow decomposition of wood creates a whole new ecosystem of insects, which help restore natural processes in the global carbon cycle. Snags keep their root system, which helps stabilize the soil — something that a transplanted tree who just had most of its roots cut off can’t do.
I understand that saving a few trees on Abele Quad isn’t going to restore global biodiversity. But that’s not the point. Keeping snags would be a living testament to Duke’s commitment to the environment, a teaching tool about the paradoxical realities of ecology. Persuasive storytelling is integral to any environmental initiative, and I cannot think of a more effective storyteller than a tree, communicating Duke’s history through the curve of its trunk, the holes in its bark and the expanse of its canopy.
The centennial is a time when we are supposed to celebrate Duke’s history — not destroy it. Trees symbolize our collective memory, making it appropriate for trees to be at the physical and moral center of an institution designed to expand knowledge.
Trees can be treated as an expendable ornament or an iconic embodiment of ideals — but not both.
Aaron Siegle is a Trinity sophomore. His column typically runs on alternate Fridays.
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