One of the best things about the Knox College campus is its trees. Whether simply admired from the ground or put to practical use—hammock support, nut hoarding, impromptu bike storage, hiding place for squirrels—trees are an integral part of life at Knox and in Galesburg. If you disagree with me on this, I don’t understand you and we’ll never get along.
Trees at Knox are essentially upper-middle class trees. They are coddled from an early age, given everything they need to survive by caretakers who have read all the books on the subject and given space to reach their full potential in a society of trees founded on strict principles of beauty, vigor and calculated diversity. They grow wider and more luxuriantly than their wild brothers and sisters and many of life’s hard knocks are dealt with for them or eliminated completely. But there is a dark side: any tree that falters from the ideal, matures poorly or suffers unrecoverable dismemberments is unceremoniously removed. Thus, Knox trees need strong genetics and good luck as well as favorable living conditions to avoid the harsh judgment of the chainsaw.
Occasionally, this rigid world is disrupted from the outside. Look at pictures of Knox and Galesburg from the first half of the 20th century and you will most likely see images of Old Main taken from Simmons Street. Knox’s iconic building is visible at the end of a long, arched tunnel of American elms stretching from Simmons through the Standish Park Arboretum and up to the north entrance. Today, because of the fungal slaughter wrought by Dutch Elm Disease across North America in the past century, all of these trees are gone. One massive American elm remains in Standish Park, directly across from Alumni Hall. Its branches stretch all the way across the street, a reminder of why elms were originally chosen for residential roadsides.
It is hard for the cultivated society of trees to recover from a tragedy of these proportions—imagine if half of the U.S. Senate was lost in a yacht explosion—but at Knox the changes have been weathered and Old Main’s elms have been replaced by punier, disease-resistant varieties. However, if even one week’s lawn mowing is pushed back to save on gas, glimpses of the unstudious chaos of nature will reappear: the grass will get shaggy; maple and tuliptree saplings will pop up under people’s feet; wildflowers will advertise cheap sex and test scores will plummet.