On Saturday, March 28, a photograph of a single tree stump on Convocation Hill circulated on Facebook, inspiring critical and disappointed comments from students.
“This looks like a scene from The Lorax,” wrote Caroline Stanton ’14.
Erin Murray ’15 commented, “Edna St. Vincent Millay took an amazing photo there that I treasure. I can’t believe this piece of history has been taken [from] us, and with no information!”
The iconic Sugar Maple, which was also the Class of 1939 tree, had been scheduled to come down since early March when an outside arborist from the landscape consulting company SaveATree determined that it was in declining health.
In a March 4 letter to Director of Special Projects at Buildings and Grounds Jeff Horst, the arborist described the central trunk as being “badly decayed,” and stated that “active woodpecker activity confirms the presence of decay in the central limbs.”
However, Horst said the College knew that the tree would have to be removed since 2006.
“At that time, it was assessed as a tree that should be removed due to safety considerations, but we had many that were in far worse condition. We are pretty conscious about that, simply because parents frown on their son or daughter being hit by a tree or branches.”
Because the Sugar Maple was a designated Class Tree, Buildings and Grounds was in contact with the Department of Alumnae Affairs, who notified the members of the affected class about the tree’s removal. The Class of 1939 plaque now sits in Horst’s office, where it will remain until it can be installed by a tree near the new science building.
Now that the tree has been removed, the College also plans to change the path that seniors march along during Convocation. Instead of walking in a straight line down the hill, future seniors will march a lower-grade, serpentine path down the hill, ultimately making it safer and more accessible for chair-bound students.
However, student disappointment was not only directed toward the Sugar Maple’s removal. Over the past few years, a number of trees on campus have been removed due to declining health, including the Cucumber Magnolia that once stood outside the College Center Atrium.
The immediate construction on the Academic Quad, as well as the greater Campus Master Plan have also resulted in the removal of trees, most notably those near the President’s house. The trees that stood where the science building was to be built were also removed, as well as various Norway Maples, an invasive species, that stood along Fonteyn Kill. As a result, a number of students who have grown to love Vassar’s landscape have had to cope with the fact that it is changing.
“I think that it is a strange time to be at Vassar because of the overall Campus Master Planning changes that will be made within the next few years,” wrote Terrace Apartment President Estello Raganit ’14 in an emailed statement.
He added, “As a senior, I know that if I ever come back post graduation, it won’t be the same Vassar that I remember. It’s sad, but I acknowledge that my Vassar is one of change.”
Other students, such as Jeremy Garza ’14, blame the Administration as a whole for failing to prioritize the conservation of the landscape during the construction.
Wrote Garza, “In my opinion, the increase of cut down trees on our campus is just another outcome of a long trend within Cappy’s Presidency where there is no passion to invest and pay attention to the aesthetic details of our campus at large.”
Despite these concerns, Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources and Professor of Chemistry Marianne Begemann ’79 noted that the College made efforts to preserve trees during the construction. Many of the trees on the Academic Quad have been relocated, including the weeping Norway Spruce that stood outside of Mudd Chemistry. The pine tree, which looks like a dejected chemistry student slumping to class, now slumps over the walkway in the Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center’s sculpture garden.
Although the removal of these trees is linked to a conspicuous campus project, Horst noted that the campus’s landscape has never been static.
“Over the course of my career at Vassar, I’ve kept track, and we removed 280 trees…but we planted about 1800 trees. So we certainly have planted far more than we have lost.” Despite this, the unannounced removal or relocation of a favorite tree nevertheless remains a topic of concern for students, faculty and alumnae/i alike.
“I think that the beauty of Vassar’s campus is primarily in the landscape,” said Begemann. “That is my personal opinion: it is not the buildings themselves, but the landscape that really makes Vassar’s campus what it is. So I understand why people are concerned, because they have a sentimental attachment to a specific tree, because it is a tree that they liked to visit or do something near, or because they enjoy the landscape in general.”
“You know, it is hard. You do your best to communicate. Even if you send an email to all, because you know it is a special tree or a tree that’s visible, not everybody sees it. It is tough.”