If a tree falls on Bowdoin's campus, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Judging from the student body's response to the removal of two massive spruces that flanked the front of Hubbard Hall over winter break, apparently not.
A few of the more environmentally minded students may have noted the absence, but among the vast majority of us, there was only a disinterested silence. Not even the whisper of a pine could be heard.
The campus reaction, or lack thereof, to the trees' removal points to the complex and contradictory place that trees hold in our collective psyche. On one hand, Bowdoin's trees exist in the background of daily life, a landscape feature that we can ignore until we are in need of shade or a metaphor for changing seasons in Orient articles. On the other hand, the Hubbard spruces were arguably two of the most iconic and photographed trees on a campus that elevates pines as icons.
At the very center of the symbolism surrounding the Bowdoin pines lies the notion that they are our living history, silent sentinels that have watched over the College since the campus was but a "sandy plain...covered with blueberries and pines," in the words of historian Louis Hatch. The pines evoked the vast virgin wilderness that gave Maine its nickname and attracted rugged individuals from the Popham Colony through Thoreau.
Even in the early days of the College, students were drawn to the heritage that the pines represented. In 1806, Bowdoin's first literary society voted to change its name from the Philomathian Society to the Peucinian Society, from the Greek word for pine-covered. They also took as their motto a Latin phrase from Virgil meaning "we always have the whispering pines." As one early Peucinian president argued, "all academies of note have had some particular ornament...Cambridge in England has its willows, Oxford its osiers and we have our pines." According to Hatch's history of Bowdoin, the Peucinians even used a pine bough in their initiation, having new members grasp one and recite an oath with the Society's secretary. No mention was made of whether the administration considered this hazing.
The trouble with living history, of course, is that it is alive, and therefore destined to die in one way or another. Although the area around Brunswick was always at least partly wooded, the idea that the pines are a remnant of some storied pre-colonial forest has always been more romantic notion than fact. Since the College's birth, keeping the campus pine-covered has always been more a question of landscaping than forestry. Although the Bowdoin website suggests that the pines are "among the last remaining 'mast pines,' those used for ships' masts, in Maine," it is unlikely that any of the trees from that era remain, thanks in no small part to the very shipbuilding industry that long thrived in Brunswick. "To the men who established Bowdoin," writes historian Charles Calhoun, "pines were an exploitable resource, a quick source of cash." As a result, writes Hatch, the original College Quad was "not only bare but small," such that students were let out of class on "tree days" to help replant the campus.
What we now see as the most ancient trees on campus, the grove of white pines to the north and east of the quad, were mostly the product of the actions of one Bowdoin alumnus over 100 years after the school was founded. An article in the May 12, 1897 edition of the Orient reported that under the direction of a "Mr. Austin Cary, '87...a new growth of young pines is being started, which in a few years will take the place of the old dilapidated trees which are fast becoming anything but an ornament to the grounds." What we think of "the Bowdoin Pines" today is but the remainder of that 1897 stand, out of which Whittier Field, Moore Hall, Sills Drive, Dudley Coe, Morrell Gymnasium and Smith Union were all carved. Among this grove is found what is thought to be the oldest tree on campus, the Kellogg pine behind Kanbar Hall, which is estimated to have been planted as early as the Civil War.
That estimate came from Tim Carr, who continues Cary's project to this day as Bowdoin's resident arborist and grounds specialist. Carr, who began working at the College when many of Bowdoin's current seniors were still in diapers, says that "if it's green and it's living" on campus, it falls under his responsibility. As an arborist (the title requires a state license), he bears the special task of keeping Bowdoin's living symbol alive, and he has more than 1,600 trees to be concerned with. Much like the College he now works for, Carr set out with idealized notions of the great outdoors.
When he was studying forestry at the University of Maine, Carr said "my original thought was that I would work in the woods and help manage a forest." Although his jurisdiction includes the Bowdoin Pines adjacent to Federal Street, which he says are currently being treated as "more of a natural ecosystem," most of his work is focused on maintaining the main campus, which he calls "more or less an urban environment."
If you see Carr or his associates on one of their regular walks around campus, they will probably look like grey-haired versions of shy students, always staring up into the sky or down at the ground. Where we avoid the eye contact of former acquaintances, Carr is looking for signs of disease and decay in the color and size of the twigs and needles, and in the cones and leaves that fall to the ground. As for the two spruces in front of Hubbard Hall, Carr explained that they had gradually been besieged by a needle cast fungus (the same fungus that caused a spruce in front of Searles Hall to be removed two years ago), and that "one of them was almost dead and the other one was starting to fail."
Rather than wait and risk one falling, Carr elected to remove them, but promised that they would be replaced this spring, stating that with "every tree that we cut down on the quad we try to put a tree back in the same spot."
Perhaps it is that trust in the College's stewardship of its most evergreen, ever-present icon that set the campus' mind at ease when the Hubbard spruces disappeared this winter.
The image of the pines has been sold to us since the first time we visited Bowdoin, and though they are not the virgins we may have imagined them to be (who is these days?), they are among the oldest elements on a campus that seems to devour tradition even as it reveres it. It isn't that we do not care about our trees; rather, we agree with Austin Cary that "Bowdoin would hardly be Bowdoin without her pines," and so can hardly visualize the campus without them. We cannot see the trees because they have always been there.