By AIDAN FITZSIMONS
For my third tree article, I’m gonna go a bit sappier.
Now that the leaves are falling, and the trees are revealing their bare truth as fortresses of cold, reaching tendrils of bark, it is a good time to think about trees in a new light. When we were monkeys, and trees were our evolutionary domain, our earliest vocalizations would be screeched from one high branch to another. Of course, we’ve done awesome things down here on the ground since (shoutout couches), but there is still something inherently social about trees, these shared homes for chattering squirrels and chirping birds.
So, today I’m going to talk about the most social trees around— the small trees that dot Tercentenary Theater. Most of these trees are unclimbable, because Harvard has pruned them conscientiously to prevent them from being anything more to us than mere props. Of course, this doesn’t stop squirrels from doing their thing, but without low branches, we’re pretty much grounded. (By the way, if you happen to spot the black squirrel that’s been scurrying about lately, make sure to grab a Snap; he’s rarer than the Harvard Turkeys.)
Despite Harvard’s best efforts, there are at least three or four trees in front of Sever and Memorial Church which are pretty easy to climb. Now, these trees all provide rather limited options for upward mobility once safely up in them— in that way, they’re a lot like academia. However, they still provide a significant change in perspective over the ground. The value of these trees is not in climbing, but perching.
Each of these trees has a main crux of division, where the trunk splits into the various primary branches of the tree, which themselves branch further. It is here, around the very seat of the tree, that one may perch. A good perch position has to be comfortable, and this is hard to accomplish for us humans who have grown accustomed to comfy seats crafted for our bodies. But it is quite possible to perch in each of these trees after spending a few minutes figuring out the most comfortable way to do so. Some allow you to sit on a single branch; most require a degree of weight to be held by your wedged feet as you sit back against one of the main diagonal branches, possibly while nestling your upper body against a further split of that main branch. While this may not sound super comfortable, it allows one to comfortably remain in the tree for a good half hour to an hour before discomfort forces you down. It helps to be wearing a comfy coat, especially in this weather, although spring perching is always a more pleasant experience.
Last spring, I would frequently perch myself in one of these trees along the walkway towards Sever’s door. Sometimes, I would relax with a good book, and enjoy the pure aesthetic of it all while also getting some reading done between classes. Other times, I would simply people-watch. There’s always a lot going on in Tercentenary Theater with tourists, and in the ebb and flow times around a period change, the traffic increases dramatically with the movement of students. You are almost always certain to see a good friend heading to class, and it is greatly satisfying to call to a friend from a tree. They look around, and then look up, and smile, because what the hell are you doing up there, you wacko? Then they stop and you talk for a bit, and the whole scene is hilarious for both parties simply by virtue of latitudinal staging. You may judge me for this performativity, but it is sincere; one of my favorite parts of perching is the reaction it gets from those who notice. It’s even more fun than observing people unnoticed.
You can make a lot of friends from a tree. People walk by, and if they notice you, then all of a sudden you have this unique connection, a connection that doesn’t require shared classes or shared extracurriculars or shared clubs or any other form of organized friendship that forms the bread and butter of Harvard social life. They appreciate the novelty of you being somewhere you’re not expected to be; you appreciate that they noticed. You both talk because you’re interested in talking, interested in each other, and no system colonizes the pure connection of understanding that then takes place in Habermas’ lifeworld. Many times, I’ve had conversations from my perch with some perceptive passerby, and then hopped down from the tree in order to walk somewhere with this new friend. I’ve thrown my phone down from trees so that new friends can add their phone numbers. I’ve met tourists who asked if they could take pictures. I’ve met alumni who are interested in what I think about Thoreau. But most of all, I’ve just met interesting people who are interested in other interesting people.
When I first came to Harvard, I was disillusioned by how socially stunted the general culture seemed to be, how dependent everyone was on existing connections and systemic justifications for friendship, how people needed excuses just to act human, how empty most conversations were between these minds which had been brought together in order to evolve the world of ideas through dialogue and synthesis. After I went mad, and started doing what I really wanted to do for sheer joy and principle, I was able to substitute my own illusion for the one I had lost. When I see a Harvard student doing something novel, something they aren’t supposed to do, like stopping to appreciate a sunset or going out of their way to really get to know someone else, that’s when I feel hope for the future, and believe in Harvard again. If you’re an interesting Harvard student, then do interesting things— I have my eyes open, and I can’t wait to meet you.
Aidan Fitzsimons ([email protected]) would love to talk with you about everything that excites you