This week, I attended a lecture by Writer-in-Residence Jane Brox on imagining place. She discussed the delicate interplay of time, space and memory that goes on in our minds as we develop a sense of place. Brox's topic seemed poignant to me in light of the juncture we find ourselves at. As spring returns to Maine, we rediscover our feeling of space as we reinhabit the campus and the town.
No longer does physical distance isolate us, as during the winter months. We all begin to sound and act like transcendentalist poets, wanting only to lay in the sun and converse with the whispering pines. We linger on the quad, not wanting to leave a perfect moment. We take long walks at dusk. Among friends, we can speak of nothing but the weather.
These are the building blocks of our conception of Bowdoin as a place: the obligating force of a tree-lined path or a country road, pulling us ever forward, or the splendid somnolence of an afternoon on the sunny Quad. Each year, we revisit these moments, deepening their symbolic weight. When we say that Bowdoin students appreciate the spring more than students elsewhere, place is implicit in our minds. What do we appreciate if not the space that spring opens up to us? What is the spring if we are not out in it?
This is the mysterious power that place wields over our minds. Without any conscious effort on our part, the way we see the world begins to change, to be laden with meaning.
One year ago, the apartment I now live in was just an anonymous door in an unfamiliar corner of campus. Three years ago, these paths, these buildings, everything that I now think of as some kind of home, seemed less like a real place and more like the continuation of a dream I had while napping in the reclined passenger seat of a rental car.
When I reach back into my memory, groping for snippets of that first tour of campus, I can hardly believe that the place I visited that day is the same place I now live and study. Maine Street seemed much longer, Hubbard older, Smith Union vaster, every dimension just a degree off. And yet, it was physically the same. The more I attempt to quantify this feeling, to categorize the Bowdoins I have known, the more the concrete surfaces and the raw materials seem the recede in importance when compared the things that have happened here, and the people I share this space with.
Unlike the vast majority of the student population, I remained at Bowdoin for Spring Break this year, along with a skittish pack of seniors on thesis lockdown, a collection of transplants from far-strewn locales like Europe and Montana, and one girl whose family went to Indonesia without her. I was mentally prepared for the isolation, but the unfamiliarity of a Quad without people, of an empty Smith Union, this took me somewhat by surprise.
As I biked through the campus, or down the streets of Brunswick each night, I felt uncoupled from the bonds of affiliation and habitation I felt with this place. Without the community of Bowdoin present, I felt more like a tourist than a resident. Bowdoin may be a vessel that we fill, but it is one that changes in the filling, warping and stretching to fit the form of its contents. In dwelling in this place, we make it what it is.
Imagine you had never heard of a place called Bowdoin. Imagine driving through Brunswick one night, in the middle of a long journey from dark someplace to dark someplace. Imagine turning down Maine Street, looking for gas and perhaps a cup of coffee. What would these buildings mean to you?
We see this campus, this city, in a way few else ever have or ever will, because it has been the arena for so much change in all of us. The raw materials of this campus are beautiful, yes, but what makes them truly magnificent is the shared way we look at them. Bowdoin is our communal vision.
Carlo Davis is a member of the Class of 2012.