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The Oberlin Tree Massacre

by Nico Moreta

Staff Writer

art by Ila Astin

[originally published March 11, 2022]


Bear with me because I love trees, but… I believe, crazily enough, that the flora and fauna of this town are easily Oberlin’s greatest treasure. I mean, some of the unique privileges of Oberlin are going on beauty walks, runs or bike rides, exercising outdoors, and exploring the Arb. Over the summer, I had the humble pleasure of taking tree-enthusiast Max Bauder’s TreeCo ExCo. Ironically, this tree-loving coincided with the 1st phase of the Sustainable Infrastructure Program (SIP).

Now, nobody should be opposed to the school’s mission to reach carbon-neutrality by 2025; however, it’s safe to say the element of tree-removal, intrinsic to the plan’s exhibition, was left untransparent. The school has rectified this since with the open discussion about when, where, and how many trees will be scheduled for removal. Yet, the evident arboricide that occurred (and will continue to occur), still deserves to be examined. Personally, I don’t want to read into why the school decided to leave the student body and townspeople out of this decision because there’s ultimately only one answer to carbon-neutrality here now. However, I do think its unfolding process, backward as it is, shows our detachment to the Oberlin environment, an environment that we are all obviously grateful for, albeit misguidedly.

In order to examine our predicament, I’m going to go back into a little bit of Oberlin history, so get on your, um, horses, and trot on over to ‘stumpville’ with me. Yes, stumpville. Do you know the luscious green space that centers Oberlin? Well, presently it's known as Tappan Square, but it’s actually gone through a whole assortment of names and functions. Once upon a time, around 120 years ago, the bulk of Oberlin campus resided within the Square, or, then, just known as…wow: Campus. Now, if you’re not familiar with Oberlin’s founding, then here’s the short:

In 1833, the Presbyterian ministers’ John Shipherd and Philo P. Stewart's search for settlement in the once ever-expanse that we now weirdly know of as Ohio came to a close. Tying their horses to an Elm sapling, they allegedly evaded a meeting with a bear, and took it as a spiritual sign to build Oberlin around this young tree.

Oddly enough, that initial site, which is now Tappan Square, was where “early settlers began removing trees between 1833 and 1836 … in order to create space to build the college.” The space, then donned “‘stumpville’ due to the large number of tree stumps left behind during the clearing” is relevant to us once again, for the Oberlin we’ve seen in the past 8 months (and will continue to see) is certainly a stumpville.

Now, it’s no secret that you need to clear land in order to build, and, in our case, in order to rebuild.”It is not easy to have a good stand of trees and a good lawn at the same time.” (George Jones) However, trees carry history! They carry the history of this town much more than a building ever could. Because Tappan had been so heavily deforested, the Historic Elm, once sapling, of Oberlin was one of two trees left standing by 1846. While I’m not sure how long this deforestation went unchecked, I do know that it was the student body that made the concerted effort at rebeautifying the campus and town: “In 1836, as Tappan Hall came into use, the students occupying it war upon the stumps, and under axe and fire thay rapidly disappeared.” (Andrew Auten) It was the residents of Tappan Hall, the people who had to deal with the deforestation of Tappan to be the ones to clear the stumps of stumpville, and to begin the planting of the over 100 elms that would come to define Oberlin in the coming century.

In 1898, the student body celebrated its first Arbor Day. The task? Well, the then “Ladies’ Grove,” or what’s now known as the Arb had been bought by the school in order to improve the under forested area. After years of empty plans that never came to fruition, the student groups like the arboretum and parkway committee and the botany club would gather willing students in a ritual tree planting effort. Thus, the Arb everyone now enjoys, walks through, and explores is the product of the yearly effort made by the student body to actualize this town’s beauty.

The Oberlin tree planting history doesn’t end there. In 1903, following the lead of the students, the Olmsted Brothers, the children of famous Central Park architect Frederic Law Olmsted, put forth a plan “that called for removing all the buildings from the square to create a green space.” The Olmsted Brothers brought with them the ethos of Oberlin’s newfound foresting conservation efforts, putting the trees before the buildings. It was at this time when the college, after learning the importance of greenery, adopted a professional tree-planting program. The tumult of deforestation, however, reared its ugly head again when a plague of Dutch Elm disease swarmed the town, killing our most precious Historic Elm and many other beloved trees. While the college made its efforts, the impassioned response to this unfortunate tree virus came twenty years later when the college hired landscape architect Edward Thompson. He certainly made the campus more beautiful “than it had ever been before,” but his success to me were in engaging the community.

“Come plant a tree” reads a headline from the now defunct Oberlin Observer. “If you can handle a shovel and a rake, you’re invited to make your mark on Oberlin… a mark that may flourish well into the next century.” You see, within Thompson’s article is the implied understanding that planting trees is a community effort, that the canopy is of concern for everybody because trees are very much alive embodiments of history. Now, I’ve strayed far from the present, but there’s one last historical moment to touch on: John Frederic Oberlin, our school’s namesake, himself was a tree freak! And he made it clear that community and tree-planting were intrinsically tied. I mean, children were “expected to bring a certificate from their parents, that they had planted, in a spot described, two young trees.” He even posed 20 questions to his parishioners on varying subjects of morality, spirituality, and community; number 12 being: “Have you, in order to contribute to the general good, planted upon the common at least twice as many trees as there are heads in your Family?”

Maybe there is some madness in all of this. Oberlin is much more developed than in the 19th century, and tree planting is an entirely new industrial effort, but the truth is Oberlin should offer the community a chance to plant some of these trees that will end up living here for “well into the next century.” Why not continue this practice that is quite literally rooted in this school’s/town’s culture? The ritual tree plantings of Ladies’ Grove and downtown streets by students, faculty, and community members would be a great tradition to revive in some capacity, or at least in this one instance; “we must be engaged in the landscape instead of walking past it on our way to class.” (David Orr) It might be an actual way for us and the community to engage with SIP beyond walking past mud pits and small talk with construction workers. If not, we might see stumpvilles repeated over and over again. Phase two is coming! What about the other five? I mean, it would be a sweet way to make up for Oberlin’s tree blunder of 2021, and I know students would show up. I’ve never planted a tree; I’d love to. I know Reverend Brian K. Wilbert is concerned about this. Did you know that it was Reverend A.D. Barber who planted the infamous Tappan Elm in 1836? How about we even copy the words of Thompson verbatim: “Come plant a tree… If you can handle a shovel and a rake, you’re invited.” Email me if anyone’s interested in actually doing this.

"From a principle of love, you plant trees for the public benefit."

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