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One tree over a changing campus

<p>José Pablo Fernández García / The Daily Princetonian</p>

José Pablo Fernández García / The Daily Princetonian

There’s a tree so tall and so sprawling that a still-low morning sun produces a shadow so long that it blankets a large swath of Washington Road and even strains to graze the grass before 1879 Hall. The tree sits on the northwest corner of the Princeton Tower Club’s lot. I often enjoy sitting under the tree’s shade on cooler, late summer afternoons and well into autumn before the tree drowns the yard in its leaves. This tree dominates over Prospect Avenue, dwarfing recently planted trees that line the street under its canopy. I know the tree best in its barren state — only its massive trunk and its innumerable branches fragmenting into a mute sky during the core of the academic year. Truthfully, the imposing trunk is what has recently been confronting my imagination most.

I’ve seen many young trees around campus whose trunks I could wrap my hand around. There are countless more I could probably wrap my arms around, even if it were to require my arms stretch to their limit. This one tree, however, might well require many, many friends to form a human chain around it. Even its branches are as thick as other trees’ trunks. It all makes me wonder how many years this tree has spent growing. If I were to somehow get a look at its rings, I can imagine myself losing track as I count them — forever unsure whether I skipped or double-counted some rings. Though, at this tree’s age, a couple years or so are likely an acceptably small margin of error.

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On campus, I always gravitate towards things like this tree — those things are so old that they’ve endured and witnessed the University’s constant evolution. I imagine this tree standing tall back when most of today’s campus was still open fields or barely-touched forest. I wouldn’t be surprised if this tree cast its shadow on Corwin Hall when it was still on the corner of Washington and Prospect — before Corwin was moved back so Robertson Hall could rise in the corner. I imagine the tree watching over the chemists migrating down Washington about a decade ago from the old Frick (now the Julis Romo Rabinowitz building) to the new Frick down the hill. This tree has seen countless iterations of this school, and soon enough, my Princeton will be simply another snapshot in time, an iteration from the past. The rings this tree grows while I walk past it on my way to eat and back are slowly to be buried under newer rings.

These thoughts have all been on my mind recently because I didn’t expect to feel like an old alumnus reminiscing on a Princeton of the past so soon — so soon that I’ve not even walked out of FitzRandolph Gate yet. But somehow, already, the Princeton I applied to and the one I first came to know feel a world apart from the Princeton slowly being built around us. As the campus sprawls largely to the south and west from its historic core, the intimate park-like setting and the strolls between classes, meals, and more are set to give way to many more long, commuting treks to what only very recently seemed to be at the campus’s extremities. Poe Field has gone from a quiet, grassy oasis south of residential life to a bustling center as folks cross to and from dorms that seem more like the cold headquarters of the latest tech company than the warm, cloistered home I’ve known.

The longer I turn over these thoughts, however, the clearer it appears to me that my unease doesn’t really find its source in the physical changes across campus. There are few things I wish for more than to somehow prolong my time here in order to enjoy the new art museum, whose construction currently wakes me up most mornings. I think my unease comes from a discovery or realization of this campus’s rapid memory loss. I was only able to list off the above changes to the campus off the top of my head because I’ve taken the time to dig around histories and other records. But so many of my friends are surprised when I bring up these changes. For example, friends are shocked to learn that when the Rocky-Mathey Dining Hall was first built, long before the introduction of residential colleges, it featured five dining halls: the two still in use today, two more in today’s common rooms, and a fifth now split into a library and private dining room below today’s RoMa. But losses of this sort in our memory are largely fine. At least they’ve left behind a treasure hunt for anyone interested in such a quest.

So, I think what I’m really trying to get at is an amnesia I’ve sensed setting in regarding the last few years. The first few weeks of this semester have made it seem like campus is letting the disruption of the last few years be buried.

Recently, while getting coffee with two sophomores, I mentioned my own time as a sophomore, surviving a year on Zoom. I was met with largely blank faces and comments of how they couldn’t imagine Princeton in those conditions. All I could think in response was of how few students remain on this campus that ever knew anything of life and school before it all froze, suspended and awaiting any return. Now, so many students here know only a Princeton life that has been pieced back together from remnants of before. And still, I can’t help but think that all this is a rather normal — if recently exceptionally accelerated — part of this school’s evolution. In four years, life has had to change more than in previous decades.

But something has still felt off: It feels almost as if the campus has happily jumped ahead to 2026, when the current construction is set to be completed, while some of us still grapple with the past few years. This all hit me most intensely when I requested an official transcript in the process of applying for post-graduate opportunities.

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Under the spring 2020 semester, there’s a note for the “transition to virtual instruction for the second half of the spring 2020 semester” and the adjusted grading policies.

Under the fall 2020 semester, there’s a similar note for those months that “required all instruction to be conducted remotely,” and that maintained exceptional grading policies.

Under the spring 2021 semester, there is nothing.

No note for the continued virtual instruction. No note for the continued suspension of most residential life. No note for the increasing toll on our health — physical and mental. Not even a note for the exceptional grading policies that still remained — the seeming bare minimum for an academic transcript.

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The space below that semester is just as blank as those two sophomores’ faces — really, more blank. At least those sophomores could sympathize through their own memories of that time in a way that this document resolutely refuses to do.

It’s this sort of memory loss — maybe memory refusal — that’s left me so uneasy these weeks. It’s a cold, isolating, institutional choice of amnesia. But then I remember that even deeply buried tree rings are prone to record long-forgotten drought and wildfires and the like.

This has all been on my mind as I’ve continued walking under the shade of that gigantic, majestic tree on the corner of the Tower yard. I think of how much this tree has stood over, and I wonder how much more it will stand over in the years to come. I imagine the years after I’ve walked out FitzRandolph Gate when I return to campus, part of the annual alumni pilgrimage, and I hope the tree will then still stand despite any further campus change. Maybe the tree will still remember something of these years already appearing to be lost.

José Pablo Fernández García is a senior from Loveland, Ohio and Head Prospect Editor at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at jpgarcia@princeton.edu.

Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at prospect@dailyprincetonian.com. 

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