How Much Symbolism Should One Tree Hold? (2 Responses)

In December I spoke at length with WBUR reporter Barbara Moran about the debate over the proposed removal of a 150-year-old oak tree that stands in the way of a planned addition to Andover Hall at Harvard Divinity School. Her segment aired on January 4, and I am quoted in the companion story online (“At Harvard, the Divinity Tree stands between eco-driven arguments”).

Barbara had first heard my perspective when I spoke at a December 6 campus meeting on the renovation project during which the architects tried hard to avoid mentioning the tree. If a tree can be an elephant in the room the magnificent red oak was one, its trunk the girth of an elephant (11″ in circumference) and its canopy spanning the size of a small circus ring. Efforts to ignore the tree produced palpable tension between a student vocally opposed to the plan and the school’s impatient director of operations. The architects seemed rattled. The controversy has been simmering for months. One faculty member confided to me that many students remain opposed to the decision to remove the tree but are “heartbroken” and feel further protests are futile, and that faculty and staff in the opposition camp may feel that further resistance could compromise their professional relationships. Divinity scholars are prone to question man’s place in the physical world and to embrace difference, and yet apparently some in this small community feel silenced and shut down. For many people inside and outside Harvard, the “Divinity Tree” (which has its own Facebook page) has come to symbolize the eternal existential conflict, heightened this century by the climate crisis, between material and spiritual values.

Residents of the Agassiz neighborhood near the Divinity School echoed many of the same concerns about plan to remove the tree at a subsequent community meeting with Harvard just before Christmas. The neighborhood will continue the debate as the tree is on the agenda of the Agassiz Neighborhood Council’s January 8 meeting. And thousands of Cambridge residents recently found a newsprint tabloid in their mailboxes with the headline: “TREE CANOPY COLLAPSING.” 

On January 2 my fellow Councillor and Health and Environment Committee Co-chair Councillor Quinton Zondervan and I met with the dean of the Divinity School and two other senior Harvard officials. This was a long-scheduled meeting to follow up on the letter we sent Harvard in November in which we wrote:

“In reading online the description of the Andover Hall renovation project, we were impressed by the commitment to environmental sustainability. While we recognize that on rare occasions it may be necessary to remove a healthy tree, we would like to better understand this choice and to discuss whether there might be other options that would spare this thriving, majestic tree (which appears to be one of a pair planted at the same time) and that would better align with your and the community’s broader climate goals.”

Last week’s meeting in the dean’s office, which took place two days before the WBUR story aired, was cordial, and there was a frank exchange of perspectives. Quinton and I stressed that we fully support the school’s overarching goals to make Andover Hall (built in 1911 for what what was then Andover Theological Seminary and is Harvard’s only neo-Gothic style building) much more energy efficient, fully ADA accessible and better suited to the academic needs of the school’s 350-400 students. We recognize that divinity schools everywhere are having to diversify and adapt their programs to continue to recruit students and to remain financially viable, and even one with the Harvard brand name is feeling pressure to stay relevant. Harvard sets “every tub on its own bottom” and the Divinity School raised $77 million for the Andover Hall modernization project, impressively racing past its campaign goal by $27 million. Most of the project cost is to update and reconfigure the existing building; a relatively recent addition to one wing will be replaced and enlarged with a two-story glass box that will house a large, light-filled meeting space, a new public entrance and a relocated cafeteria. The net gain in new space is less than 4,000 square feet, but the administration insists that they can’t create that space anywhere except where the tree has stood in the elbow of the building’s courtyard, planted before Harvard even owned the building. We asked what other designs or locations they’d considered, but it didn’t seem as if there was ever a serious Plan B. They were receptive to our suggestion to consult a landscape architect about whether the tree could be moved, but I sensed they were doubtful about it. They assured us that more trees will be planted, and they noted that the oak tree is advanced in years, though it does not appear to be diseased or structurally compromised. It could live another 50 years or lightning could strike and it could be gone in a flash. The same could be said of every living thing.

I said that we want this project to be a win for the school as well as a win from a public relations standpoint — the Divinity School of all Harvard’s “tubs” has the opportunity, even the obligation, to model a new values paradigm. I also said that I do not want to “throw stones” at Harvard when the City often fails to be a good trustee of its own trees and other dwindling natural resources. We don’t yet have municipal laws that adequately protect significant trees on private property, and we don’t have any legal jurisdiction over this particular tree. I hope that will change once the Urban Forest Master Plan Task Force completes its work this spring. At an environmental committee hearing we held in early December the staff presentation included a graph that showed Cambridge would need to plant as many as 2,500 trees a year for the next 50 years to maintain the level our current, already diminished, canopy cover. Many of our priorities will need to change, and quickly. As an interim measure the Ordinance Committee will meet on January 9 to consider a modest amendment to the Tree Ordinance that would require every property owner to apply for a permit from the city arborist before removing a significant tree as well as to document the reason and provide other information. Harvard would be subject to this.

I will close with a link to a sermon entitled “Failing Nature’s Trust” by Rev. Douglas Olds of First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo (CA). He delivered it on December 30 and it struck a chord with me, especially this passage: “We must transition from subordinating nature to human utilitarian and economic interests to instead affirm and value all natural creatures as bearers of God’s love and agents of God’s praise—they no less than humanity. Nature is intrinsically valuable as God’s creation, and its species have a right to flourish beyond their use to humankind.”

And as a postscript I call your attention to a series of three posts that @HarvardDivinity tweeted this morning, linking to this provocative article in Vox, “Intellectual Humility: The Importance of Knowing When You Might be Wrong.” Could it be a sign that our pleas to spare and honor the Divinity Tree were heard? Living and serving in a city with an unusually well-educated and highly opinionated population, I am constantly aware of the limits of my own knowledge and experience. The article refers to a social science study called The Loss of Confidence Project, where researchers are invited to publicly admit past mistakes, and not stigmatized for doing so. Politics can be an unforgiving endeavor, a series of “gotcha” moments, and candidates for office are expected to take strong stands and to fight passionately for their convictions. Confidence is rewarded in the political arena, except if you happen to be female, and then it makes you unlikeable. As I begin my fourth year on the council I will continue to ask, “What am I missing here?” and try to forgive myself for not knowing all the answers. Only Harvard can decide what the right decision is here, but I know the outcome I hope for.



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    Jan Devereux
    City Councillor
    Cambridge, MA