from the president

Sacred wood

It was like stepping over a battlefield strewn with the corpses of fallen warriors. On that first morning after December’s harrowing windstorm, the same breathtaking walk I take every day—from the president’s house, through the president’s woods, beside the library, and out into the central quad to my office—took my breath away for a new reason. So many of the Douglas firs that make our campus a lovely arboretum were down. Their great root systems, normally secure and invisible underground, were upended and exposed to the air. Their pointed green crowns, which once scraped the sky and played in the wind, now lay prostrate on the same earth they emerged from when they were planted 75 years ago. One trunk leaned up against the library where it pierced the roof and broke off a large limestone pediment, now on the ground beneath it like a toppled gravestone.

When Scottish botanist David Douglas observed on his first trip to the Northwest in 1825 the tree that would later be named for him, he wrote in his journal: “Tree remarkably tall, unusually straight, having the pyramid form … one of the most striking and truly graceful objects in Nature.” These great fir trees are icons of the Puget Sound campus. They appear prominently on the official college seal, framing the image of the mountain. They appear just as prominently in our imaginations when we conjure up a picture of campus from afar. It’s easy to summon the minty smell of their needles perfuming the air or the sound of song birds that float down from their boughs above. Though we lost many of them that day, the many more that remain now seem even more beautiful and noble.

The battlefield is largely cleaned up by this time, and only a few signs of the storm remain. The woods look magnificent again, though not nearly as dense, more broadly penetrated by shafts of the occasional winter sun. And if you look carefully around campus, you can see, here and there, the flat disk of a fallen tree trunk sliced close to the ground. You can trace in its concentric rings the tales of years. Some tell how a marshy huckleberry patch in the 1920s grew up over the span of a century to become one of America’s truly inspiring college campuses, to produce Rhodes Scholars and Fulbrights, award-winning scholars and teachers, and, by 2007, more Peace Corps volunteers than any other college its size.

Some tell of other fallen giants who walked beside them. We remembered one on campus last month. Professor Bob Albertson’s memorial service packed Kilworth Chapel, bringing admiring graduates from around the country to honor a remarkable career that began in the religion department, grew into Puget Sound’s humanities and Asian studies programs, and gave birth to the unparalleled Pacific Rim program. Bob inspired hundreds of students, joined the lives of some in matrimony, introduced others to the mysteries of Asian culture and the adventure of living abroad, changing forever the course of lives and destinies. Like many of his colleagues, Professor Albertson left a more enduring mark than even those great Douglas firs, a legacy not subject to the winds of time and nature.

Spring is coming, and we have been interviewing impressive new faculty for tenure lines in fields like environmental economics and philosophy of mind, ethnomusicology and Chinese history. The candidates are so bright, so full of promise, so taken with the learning environment they see here. Spring is coming, and we are also developing plans for filling in the gaps in the new shafts of light that pierce the president’s woods. Some days, I really do believe we live in a sacred wood.