A guided tour through our garden home

web arboretum
Photo courtesy of Eric Meyers

“We must cultivate our garden.”

The Scott Arboretum is the unacknowledged space that bears the fragrant nectar of Swarthmore College like a rose petal bears a drop of water. Arable space is like poetic space, and the Arboretum that hosts Swarthmore’s 2,000 daily visitors is no different. Ruled by the grammar of sidewalks and the largely unpredictable fashions of lawn-transversing pedestrians too lazy to stay on the paths at their feet, this space suffers under the unsteady focus of a general public for whom it was intentionally grown and manicured. It’s become, unintentionally, unconscious.

Contrary to unconsciousness, the tours held around, through and because of this space, expertly led by the Arboretum’s Director, Claire Sawyers, encourage students to read their local environment(s) as a text. Sawyers points out and distinguishes at every door and courtyard the transition from internal to external space, not unlike how a professor might a sacred theory from its practical limitations, or a student might an ambitious dream from the banalities of its realization. She reads the official names in Latin, the history of the architecture and purpose of plants to her audience. She does this not so much for the sake of appreciation as for an initiation into a sacred rite of balance. When time is money, the balanced narratives of the local spaces we inhabit become a divine, privileged experience of past, present and future, and of balancing internal intellect with external locality. This locality is one in which most students at Swarthmore either fail to invest or fail to recognize as an extension of themselves.

Not unlike how Quaker heritage permeates the mission of the college, a subtle moral impetus permeates and forms the arable space of the Arboretum, a space that most observers may assume at first sight to be amoral, static, and, again, unconscious, like nature. But the Arboretum is not natural. The Dean Bond Rose Garden serves as merely one example: added to the Arboretum in the fifties, the garden is gradually being developed to, as Sawyers put it, “showcase roses that don’t need a lot of pampering.”

The Bond Garden seeks to “blend” the life, color and value of roses into what Sawyers and the Arboretum mission describe as a “home environment” accessible to “people of average means,” in the Phildelphia metro area, just like how the college seeks to blend students from every socioeconomic class with economically stable ones.

If an act of blending were a general moral impetus, then, if anything, it is this very principle which, through the projected ideals of the Arboretum’s and the College’s leaders, allows one to evaluate the potential for both plant and student life to exist and to exist well on campus. Sawyers and the Scott Arboretum staff are confronted, like the college and education in general, with the dangers of what is referred to in horticulture as “monoculture” and in psychology as “groupthink.” Despite coming from very different perspectives and backgrounds, therefore, they seek to compose healthy, value-exchanging diversity out of what might at first sight seem like racial, biological or political discord.

As the means toward an end that is not entirely understood, “diversity for diversity’s sake” also drives college recruiting and marketing policy. Diversity motivates a method of reading a space or a population as something that needs first and foremost to be altered, if not mixed around, changed and balanced, not unlike how the John W. Mason Garden between Hicks and Trotter has been grown to synthesize the extremes of “boldness” and “subtlety” in plant form. The “mix” concept in horticulture evokes what Sawyers refers constantly to on the tour as “drama,” an essential trait of both remarkable Super Bowl commercials and modern day works of art, from invasions of Middle Eastern countries to those of online privacy. Who knew drama was now desirable in suburban backyards and Ivy League-esque courtyards, assumed for so long to be the sanctuaries and greenhouses of America’s (and, increasingly, the world’s) élite?

A tour through the Scott Arboretum may compel an insightful student given to analogies and over-analysis to state overconfidently that Education (with a capital ‘E’ and a $60,000 price tag) is not merely a space, or a greenhouse of sorts, in which human beings are raised and made more profitable members of society for that vague purpose of endowing future civilizations with the fruits of technological innovation. Education, Swarthmore and the Scott Arboretum are also reflections of ideology, artworks of at once moralizing and mortal motion, bold and soft extremes of light shining upon us — in the form of seedlings, bulbs, roots and drought-resistant cacti.

The Arboretum, beneath this light of education, is a channel for human emotion, desire and anxiety. It directs floods of light and rain into productive arrays of abstracted value, like the Science Center’s roof — values that are visible sometimes only to the human beings for and by whom they were initially created. Other values, however, are visible only to the goldfinches and hummingbirds that frequent the Pollinator Garden. While a product of the Arboretum’s need to remain relevant in a society that has written off gardens in its ever-denser housing developments, the nature the Arboretum preserves here at Swarthmore is nonetheless a torch of guidance that one can’t help but think is growing more irrelevant not only to students but to public opinion.

A light is neither defined, however, by the fruit it bears nor by the public opinion that consumes it. Its value is judged by the image and the life it illuminates over time, an image whose extremes lie both in famines and in full harvests, in the black and white narratives of a spectrum, of which this is merely one. This reporter was encouraged to look not for that ‘inspiration’ one hears so much about in nature, but for a reflection of an obscured self in the light, and the ever-changing narrative that lies as the foundation to the Scott Arboretum’s composition.

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