- The Culture of Arboretums, or My Adventures with Tree People
What happens when an ecocritic becomes chair of an arboretum board? Theory meets ground; ideology squares off with intuition; hermit scholar battles bureaucracy. This is the story of how trees have taken over my life and what I've learned in the process.
First it must be admitted that I am an unlikely arboretum-board chair. I'm an English professor at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), and although my title is Professor of Literature and Environment there are aspects of the environment that I know very little about. Trees, for example. Nevertheless, I love nature, and when I was nominated to run for chair of the English Department I decided to become so tied up with university-level service that chairing the English Department would be out of the question. I looked around for a committee to join, but felt only dread for committees such as Academic Standards, Bylaws and Code, Video Surveillance, Dismissal Review, and so many others. Ah, but the Arboretum Board! That sounded enticing. And, after having served less than a year on the board, when the long-suffering chair of that committee stepped down, I was elected to the position.
The university arboretum consists of all the trees on campus plus the named gardens. There are approximately 3,300 trees on our 320-acre campus, representing 145 species and 56 cultivars, according to my friend Rod Haulenbeek (a.k.a. the Tree Hunter). In 1985, after more than a decade of effort by the fledgling UNR Arboretum Committee, the Nevada State Legislature passed a bill designating UNR a state arboretum. The entire campus is an arboretum, I found out, and I also learned what I should have already known, that an arboretum is a museum of living plants. The mission of the board, as I ferreted [End Page 267] out from archives in the library's special collections, is to "plan university landscape, conduct research, and educate the public."
As a bioregionalist, I am aware that Reno sits in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains; the city's neon lights brighten a high desert that receives a paltry average of 7″ of annual precipitation. Therefore, when I saw "plan university landscape," I entertained visions of xeriscaping the entire campus, ripping out lawns and planting native species of wildflowers, Great Basin wild rye, sagebrush, rabbitbrush, bitterbrush, Mormon tea, desert peach, and some Utah junipers amidst attractive rock gardens and sparkling beds of decomposed granite. Indeed, as I would learn, parts of campus have in recent years been converted from water-needy to drought-tolerant natives, and each year we enlarge the Biggest Little (native plant) Pollinator Garden, a play on Reno's nickname, the Biggest Little City. But two things interrupted my eco-friendly reverie of a fully xeriscaped, native landscape. First, I witnessed that the UNR campus is an oasis in the desert, whose green quad (modeled on the University of Virginia's campus), encircled by towering, shade-providing elms, is the equivalent of a village town square, a place where people come to meet, hang out, flirt, perambulate, listen to free summer concerts, hear campaign speeches, and attend the plein air commencement ceremony. The verdant quad and those enormous elms are part of the culture of the university, near and dear to the hearts of students, faculty, staff, and many an alum. Relandscaping the quad with a xeriscaped, native "garden" would be like dehydrating a Valentine rosebud, and would significantly hamper recruitment.
Second, the meaning of "museum" struck me. To state the obvious, a museum is a collection of specimens, displayed for the public's enjoyment and education. If the trees of campus were limited to trees native to Reno, our museum would have a grand total of eight species.1 Once the concept of a museum sunk in, I found myself greedy for diversity. Why only 145 tree species? Why not 200? 300?! Filled with the zeal of a collector and at the time confidently completing my second year as chair, I orchestrated the acquisition of a pair of monkey puzzle trees, Araucaria araucana, and I must...