The Wisdom of Trees

President Katherine Bergeron
Remarks at the 103rd Commencement
May 20, 2021

Members of the Board of Trustees; distinguished guests; faculty, staff, and alumni colleagues; family members and friends; all who are joining in person and from afar; and most especially, every one of you who make up the incomparable Class of 2021: I cannot tell you how meaningful it is to stand here before you and to be able to declare today’s exercises — the 103rd Commencement of Connecticut College — officially open.

What an honor — what a gift! — it is to be with you. Every graduation is momentous but this year, honestly, it feels like a miracle. And so I just have to pause and acknowledge the gratitude I feel right now. Gratitude for parents and guardians who entrusted us with loved ones during a very uncertain time; gratitude for stunning faculty and staff who worked harder than ever in a pandemic to fulfill our educational mission; gratitude for students who showed strength and resilience and compassion as you pursued your goals while managing to keep a virus off our campus; gratitude for every single person who, through months of planning and re-planning, made it possible for us to gather safely today on this beautiful spot.

Dean McKnight acknowledged the land as we began this ceremony. And I have to say, the green we are now sitting on, and the trees that surround us, truly deserve our thanks. This generous expanse of open space is, after all, what sustained us through a year when being outside was the safest way to come together. The old oaks and maples and beeches and larches were welcome companions, providing shade, and solace, and, yes, wisdom. 

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the wisdom of trees. That’s probably because I just finished reading an amazing book, Finding the Mother Tree, by the Canadian ecologist Suzanne Simard, about the wisdom of the forest. And it has got me thinking in new ways about those elders who are right here in our midst. If you look at archival photos, you can see that our College was essentially built on a pasture. A photo from 1930, 15 years after the College opened, reveals the southern area of the campus, where we are now, as a huge open space with virtually no vegetation and just four buildings: Blaustein to the north; Knowlton to the west, and New London Hall and Fanning Hall to the east. Cows are grazing in the field where we now play ultimate Frisbee. The larches at the Ad Astra garden are specks. The giant copper beech at the north corner of Knowlton barely reaches the roof. That means those spectacular specimens have been rooted here since before my own mother was born. It’s hard not to think of them now as mother trees. 

We have a mother tree, too, at the center of the seal you see on the cover of your program, modeled, perhaps, on the gorgeous tulip poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera, that greets you as you drive through the front entrance. The encircling line of Latin is from the first psalm: Tamquam lignum quod plantatum est . . . . and it refers to a tree planted by a river, one that will “bring forth fruit in its season.” The reference certainly resonates as a metaphor for education and growth. But we could also probably take it more literally. Because if you pay closer attention to our history, you will see that one of the important things this College was doing in its early years was, in fact, planting trees — lots of them — in order to return land once cleared for farming to a thriving habitat for native species.

That project starts exactly 90 years ago, in 1931, with the establishment of the Connecticut College Arboretum. You may know that I often like giving one last history lesson on this last day of your Connecticut College education. So, today I’m going to take a moment to tell the story of our Arboretum before returning to Suzanne Simard, in order to reflect on the wisdom of trees and what that means for you and your life beyond Connecticut College.

It was President Katharine Blunt who had the idea in 1931 to transform a 64-acre tract of donated land west of Williams Street into an Arboretum. She hired an inaugural director and retained a prominent New York landscape architect to design the space. The topography included granite outcroppings, sloping valleys, a pine plantation, a small man-made pond, and, as a centerpiece, a magnificent grove of century-old hemlocks. By 1936, the College had raised funds to create a new front entrance; turn the pond into a lake; landscape an amphitheater; and build a lodge — largely with labor supplied by the Works Progress Administration. Most important, the new director established a plant collection to fulfill the Arboretum’s mission of preserving and propagating native species in Connecticut. Within a few years, the nurseries boasted thousands of specimens.

This gets us to 1938, the year of the surprise hurricane that destroyed so much of southern New England. Palmer Auditorium, under construction at the time, took a beating along with much of the campus landscape. But the storm was death to that noble grove of hemlocks, with over 120 trees uprooted or killed from salt damage. Students and faculty spent the next years studying the fallen giants, some with roots tracing back to the 18th century.

Then in 1944, the first director departed, and a Harvard-trained plant morphologist named Richard Goodwin was hired as successor. Goodwin became the ultimate steward, elevating the stature of the Arboretum while also using his position — and the land — as a bulwark against urban encroachment. During his impressive 30-year tenure, he expanded the landholdings to 450 acres; brought on William Niering as an ambitious research partner; created the first liberal arts environmental studies program in the country; and helped found the Nature Conservancy.

One of Goodwin’s first jobs, though, was to plant trees. Shortly after he arrived, he started an 8-year reforestation project, maybe to make up for the loss of those forsaken hemlocks but mostly to rehabilitate the cultivated land. 10,000 evergreen seedlings* were planted between 1945-1953. And you all know what happened next: in the decades that followed, a mature, diverse, mixed-wood forest has grown up. 

There is so much wisdom in that reforestation. And I don’t just mean the more than 60 years of longitudinal research that has been undertaken by students and faculty, or the more than 12,000 tons of CO2 that have by now been removed from the atmosphere. I’m thinking of the wisdom shared by the trees themselves. And here’s where I want to return to Suzanne Simard. Her remarkable book, Finding the Mother Tree, reads like a whodunit of the forest, chronicling more than 30 years of her own research focused on the mystery of how trees, especially elders, exchange knowledge to heal, nourish, and sustain their community. 

The mystery, it turns out, lies just beneath our feet: in a vast communication network of mycorrhizal fungi, entwining roots and connecting trees in a mutually beneficial exchange. But Simard’s decades of experimental data also show something more. The same mycorrhizae that can help a Douglas fir thrive can also support the flourishing of paper birch — the two sharing resources on the same network. Flourishing requires diversity. And that’s why, she says, policies focused on clearcutting and monoculture replanting are doomed to fail. The tree species aren’t competing. They are collaborating — older helping younger, hardwood helping evergreen —through an underground network that allows them to take and give what they need. “The roots didn’t thrive when they grew alone,” she wrote, speaking of her research. “The trees needed one another.”

That research eventually leads Simard toward the concept of the “mother tree,” the elder at the center of the network, helping to ensure the growth of seedlings below, creating the condition for the sustainability of the whole forest. To me, it sounds like the ideal we sometimes like to call full participation: giving individuals the means to reach their potential and flourish, so they, in turn, can contribute to the flourishing of others. It’s this reciprocity that defines the wisdom of the forest. And I have to admit, knowing what I know now about the underground network, I can no longer look at our Arboretum or our campus in the same way.

Of course, I did not have to read a book by an ecologist from western Canada to learn all this. Our own Rachel Spicer, chair of the Botany department, is an internationally known specialist in woody plants; Chad Jones has done compelling longitudinal research on forest regeneration and invasive species; Manuel Lizzaralde has thought deeply about the human ecology of rainforests. And I’m certain that Esteban Melendez, from your great class of 2021, would be more than happy, if given half a chance, to spend whatever time necessary to unpack with me the secrets of mycorrhizae.

There is one more person, too, who I believe could have explained it all: Hans Horst-Martz, to whom we will award a posthumous degree at this commencement. And it’s not just because of the years of research he did here with Professor Jones in our Arboretum. It’s also because, as so many people know, Hans was uncannily sensitive to the ecology of communities and the connectedness of things. A beautiful thing happened, in fact, on Arbor Day, April 30, when we gathered in the Arboretum to remember his spirit. Teachers and friends invoked him in touching tributes, and a mischievous wind kicked up, not exactly disrupting the proceedings but injecting a puckish energy that was pure Hans, as if to remind us that the trees had other work to do. They were having their moment on his behalf.

I will admit that I wanted to talk about trees today because of Hans. But there are at least two other lessons about the wisdom of trees that I believe valuable for all you soon-to-be graduates. The first relates to Suzanne Simard herself. She was your age, after all, just out of college, when she had an important insight about why reforestation projects were failing. The trees were telling her something about collaboration and she felt compelled to follow it through. And while she did the research and presented the data, the policy makers scoffed. But she didn’t quit. She just worked harder. And eventually, she ended up changing the way the government managed the land. So, that’s lesson No.1: don’t be afraid to speak what you believe. And don’t stop when people push back. Just push harder. Keep doing your research and building your allies, because your seed of an idea could just be the next breakthrough. And there can be no breakthrough if you’re not willing to plant something.  

The second lesson has to do with what the trees were telling her. And this is ultimately a lesson about community. As Simard reminds us, “ecosystems are so similar to human societies. They’re built on relationships. The stronger those relationships are, the more resilient the system.” If there is one thing we learned from the past 15 months, it is the power of the complex ecosystem that is the residential experience, the strength we draw from living and working together in community. So that’s lesson No.2: don’t ever take that wisdom for granted. Your job now is not to make it on your own but to build a new forest, by remembering and reproducing the same network of connections that have sustained you here. Like a mother tree.

The 10,000 evergreen seedlings planted by Richard Goodwin in the 1940s and 50s are now the elders, sustaining the wisdom of our arboretum. Here is Simard again: “Seedlings are intermediate nodes between distant Mother trees [that] eventually become mothers themselves. This unbroken line between the old and the young, the links between generations, as with all living things, is the legacy of the forest, the roots of our survival.”

On each of your chairs today is a white pine seedling, a gift given to every graduating class by a generous alumna in a tradition that goes back now three decades — by now, equivalent to 10,000 evergreens. It is given as a physical reminder of both the wisdom are taking from this place and the roots of your resilience: a way for you, like a mother tree, to build a new forest. Class of 2021, we love you, we are proud of you, we know you will carry the wisdom of this place into the world to promote the flourishing of others. Thank you for planting your talent, your passion, and your conviction inside this very special community to make it a better place. We wish you much happiness and success in your life after Connecticut College, and we look forward to seeing you here often and welcoming you home.