Halloween in Gambier — hundreds of first years shuffle into Rosse Hall, clutching their programs for Founder’s Day as the Community Choir serenades them from the balcony. Many arrive in full costume: One student, dressed as Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle, must unstrap his pair of massive wings to give those sitting behind him a better view of the stage, where President Sean Decatur and a handful of faculty sit in their academic regalia. The ceremony’s annual address, given this year by Charles P. McIlvaine Professor of English Adele Davidson ’75, centers around a cache of letters that Davidson recently purchased. They are written by Philander Chase and recount his experience building Kenyon College. “A great work was in the works,” Davidson says, clutching the podium and reading off a sheet of paper, “a center of learning in the wilderness, set apart in the loveliness of autumn leaves.”
“Wilderness” might be an understatement. At the time of Kenyon’s founding, Ohio was the edge of the country, purchased by the U.S. only 18 years prior, and the “loveliness of autumn leaves” that Davidson described was everywhere. It’s often said that before the first Europeans set foot in what was to become the United States, the land was so densely forested that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without ever touching the ground. Although this saying is somewhat hyperbolic, it contains a grain of truth: The thick forests of central Ohio were a constant obstacle to settlers. In the early 19th century, speculator Richard Roberts called Mount Vernon the “last spot on God’s earth a man would have picked to make a county seat.” He wrote that “main Street is full of stumps, log heaps and trees, and the road up the street is a poor crooked path winding round amongst the stumps and logs.”
Trees were such an obstruction to Mount Vernon’s development that some residents took to blowing them up for entertainment. The first county history states that during the celebrations that took place after the city was named the seat of Knox County “bonfires were kindled, stews made and drank, and live trees split with gunpowder.” As the county and state’s population grew, early residents got to work felling trees en masse, removing Ohio’s forest almost entirely: By 1900, forest coverage in the state had dropped from 95 to 10 percent, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR).
Since that time, trees have become much more than just an obstacle. To close out Founder’s Day each year, first years march to a spot on campus and plant a tree dedicated to their class. According to the College’s website, this practice is meant to symbolize “not only growth and continuity but also, as the interests of the student body evolve to reflect current issues and global concerns, the importance of preserving the campus environment for future generations.” This year, however, heavy rain forced the planting to be put off for a later date.
These abrupt and violent bursts of rain were commonplace in central Ohio this past summer, drenching the region in the early summer months only to be followed by a searing dry season. According to Grounds Manager Steve Vaden, the unpredictable weather was a shock to several campus trees, meaning maintenance workers were required to drive a “water truck” — a golf cart with a hose attached to a large tank of water — hand watering campus trees in danger.
One of these trucks drove by a climate teach-in led by professor of English Sarah Heidt and hosted by her senior seminar. At the teach-in, Heidt’s students read passages from Richard Powers’ The Overstory — a novel centering around the lives of giant redwoods — and performed a series of writing exercises based on prompts written by peers. As students followed Dan Nolan’s ’20 prompt to sit under a tree and write down what they heard on the front lawn of the Church of the Holy Spirit, a maintenance employee pumped water into the roots of a withered sapling.
Kenyon and the surrounding village have built a mythology around their trees, one that comes from over 200 years of careful preservation. In 2015, three Kenyon trees were named “champion trees” by the ODNR based on their age, height, and circumference, a sign of the College’s continued stewardship of its tree species.
Kenyon and Gambier are both partners of the Arbor Day Foundation, which has certified them as a Tree Campus and Tree City, USA respectively. In order to qualify for the certification, both college and village must allocate a certain amount of funds to tree maintenance, keep a standing “tree committee,” and hold an annual celebration of Arbor Day.
The chair of Gambier’s tree committee, Jerry Kelly ’96, has the shaved head and steady demeanor of a Zen monk. For the past month, Kelly has been walking the streets of Gambier, identifying “street trees” — trees on private property standing within ten feet of a public road — and documenting their species, height, circumference, and health in the hopes that the data he collects will be used in the future to inform decisions on which trees to protect and which to cut down.
Several years ago, Kelly worked on the same project, mapping each tree out by hand, but now, with the help of intern Isak Davis ’21, they upload all the information they gather onto a digital mapping database. When Davis and Kelley find a tree that qualifies, the first step is to identify the tree’s species. Although the pair typically does this through a tree identification app, Davis turns the process into a game, guessing each tree’s species before letting the app do its work and seeing how close he can get. “What is this one, hemlock?” Davis asked as he and Kelly walked along Kokosing Drive, staring up at the top branches of a particularly tall specimen. “Bingo!” Kelly said, pumping his fist as if he’d just won big at a slot machine.
As the chair of the committee, Kelly has a lot of sway on decisions regarding trees in the village, but he can only make suggestions to the College on what to do with the trees on its campus. He recounted a particular incident regarding a 200-year-old white oak that was cut down in order to make room for the new English cottages. “When the cutters came to take it down,” Kelly said, “I said to them, ‘What are you going to do with this wood?’ They said, ‘Oh, burn it.’ So I said, ‘Fuck that! Give me that main stalk, I’ll take the whole thing.’” Kelly stropped, sectioned, and seasoned the wood, making a deal with a local Amish millwright to have the tree cut into one-to-three-inch slabs which are currently drying in his yard. Although Kelly has largely been responsible for the management of this rare lumber, the wood is still property of the College. He hopes that with Kenyon’s bicentennial next year, administration might be interested in making furniture or trinkets out of wood from a tree that was born at the same time as the College.
In recent years, both the village and the College have been forced to reconsider their relationship to campus trees and the surrounding forest. Kenyon’s tree problems began with the emerald ash borer — a bright green, iridescent beetle about the size of a thumb drive which most likely came to the United States burrowed in wooden shipping crates sent from Asia. Although practically harmless as an adult, in their larval stage, ash borers burrow into ash trees, eating away at the fragile arterial layer between the wood and the bark, eventually killing the tree. In the past five years, ash trees have become a rarity in the area because of the beetle.
On the 500 acres of the Brown Family Environmental Center (BFEC) in Gambier, the ash borer is a persistent problem. “All of our ash trees are dead,” BFEC Manager Noelle Jordan said. “All of them. If they’re not actually dead at the moment, they will be very soon.” Because the BFEC is used to educate students and community members about the local ecosystem, there is little interference by staff in the growth and death of plant species, meaning the land is dotted with large patches of fallen ash trees. “When they’re a nationwide problem like that — and the problem is as intense as it is — there’s no action that we could take that would save any of the trees on our property,” Jordan said. “So it ends up being very reactive.”
Grounds management on campus has developed a similar philosophy, attempting to compensate for lost ash trees by planting five different species of oak in a long-running game of catchup. Although the current ash borer infestation in the U.S. is more the result of globalization than climate change, scientists predict that as average temperatures rise, ash borers will be able to thrive farther north and for longer periods.
Managing trees on the city level poses a unique set of challenges, especially when Gambier’s interest in protecting their “urban forest” comes into conflict with residents’ desire to protect their private property. One of the more prominent controversies came in the summer of 2018, when local government attempted to implement policies to limit “tree poaching” in the area — a practice in which loggers pay residents for the permission to fell valuable trees on their property and resell them for a profit. Oftentimes, property owners do not understand how rare or valuable their trees really are, and by working with “poachers,” they unwittingly contribute to the destruction of prize trees in the area, on top of being cheated out of the potential financial gain of harvesting and selling that wood themselves.
The position of the Mayor’s Office on the issue garnered immediate pushback from the village council, which stated that “homeowners should be able to decide what they do with the trees on their property.” At a Fourth of July event, in the midst of the controversy, Mayor Kachen Kimmell delivered a speech in an attempt to ease tensions. She described Gambier’s trees as “gentle giants” that require our protection. “Oh boy, did I get complaints about the tree speech,” Kimmell said in reflection. “That’s just where we live, isn’t it?… The intent of my speech was to try to have us all come together.”
The increased focus on preserving Gambier’s trees has forced those in charge of this urban forest to ask difficult questions about the area’s future: What will Ohio’s ecosystem look like in 30, 40, 50 years? What species of trees could be planted to anticipate those changes? Over the past five years, climate change has become a major factor in these decisions. In his considerations of which trees would improve Gambier’s streets, Kelly has begun to look southward, following the example of other towns and villages in the Great Lakes region. “In [certain] communities, they’re planting trees that normally wouldn’t be planted there, but would be native 200 miles to the South,” Kelly said. “They’re starting to kind of migrate those species northward in anticipation of temperatures changing.”
Similarly, Jordan has seen a shift in priorities at the BFEC as the need to ensure the forest’s survival outstrips the desire to cultivate native species. “It’s hard to see the future,” Jordan said. “Maybe we’ll determine that the biomass and the ability to sequester carbon is more important right now than having a native species mix.” The question around species selection becomes especially relevant when the BFEC is asked to plant memorial trees in honor of someone who has passed away.
Although it is not a cure-all, tree planting and reforestation can help to sequester carbon and alleviate the effects of climate change. The level of reforestation that the village and College are able to implement may seem inconsequential, but small, local actions can accumulate and have a lasting effect. “On this level in local government, we can make choices that, as small as they are, can make a difference,” Kimmell said. “What’s your one thing that you’re doing for climate change? Because we’re all overwhelmed, and nobody can do everything. What’s our one thing? Well we’ve got more than one thing at local government: we got solar on the roof, we’ve got a charging station, and we have trees. Trees and trees and trees.”