Thursday, May 14, 2009

Minding walls

...Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence...

- from “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost

Until the late 1800s, farmers built fences to keep cows out. Pastureland was unfenced. Fences protected crops from free-grazing animals. The pastures, while owned, were essentially the commons. Even landless folk could graze a few cows for milk and meat on someone else’s land.

But farmers tired of the burden of erecting fences against cows they didn’t own. They agitated, got laws passed, after which the cattle rather than the crops had to be contained by fences. It was a marvelous event: with the stroke of a pen the meaning of a fence reversed itself, at least as far as the cows were concerned.

I’m curious about the ways space and place, as ideas, lend themselves to ambiguation and contradiction. Think about it: places make us, we are products of the places in which we grow up and live; and yet we make places, for if not us, who?

So the same fence – a place of sorts, as the demarcation of space – means different things depending on which side of it you stand.

I’ve been thinking about the university where I work. It’s a typical sort of college campus, with a central quadrangle, surrounded by buildings – the library at one end, the administration at the other, sciences on one side, the humanities on the other, and lawn and trees in the middle.

The template was created by monasteries of the Middle Ages, which were meant to keep out the riff-raff and in the faithful. Early universities, growing out of the monastic tradition, followed suit.

I suppose the design created an aura of inner spiritual and intellectual purity. It also may have served, like a farm fence, to keep the monks and students from wandering off to greener pastures.

Our campus doesn’t have a surrounding wall. But its landscape has a similar effect. The buildings around the quad constitute a sort of wall. But even more than buildings, the trees that encircle the outer campus, starting with the botanical gardens to the south and extending completely around campus, create a barrier that sets us off from the city.

For as long as I’ve been here – which is ten years – we’ve been talking about improving our relations with Asheville, shaking our heads in wonder that relations aren’t stronger, puzzled that people from the community don’t knock more often on our doors, make use of our facilities, meet with us in our halls.

But it is not surprising at all. It is by design. Our original architects meant to set the university apart. They created a moat of trees and streams and undeveloped fields that, if not a wall, was (and remains) a buffer.

The buffer was left (and cultivated) for a purpose, which I think we like to think of as nature but in fact was probably more political, or at least symbolic. It suggests the sort of academic elitism that has been an aspect of universities since medieval times. We are supposed to be aloof, removed, objective. That is the aura of the university.

And yet as a liberal arts campus we are also in the business of promoting the free expression and exchange of ideas, encouraging conversations among ourselves and between ourselves and the rest of the world.

It is not a contradiction unique to us. But perhaps “contradiction” is too strong.

Let us call it an ambiguity, suggesting, I think, ambivalence. We promote the free exchange of ideas – that’s the “liberal” part of the liberal arts. Yet we also retain control, mastery, method, and rigor. We want the freedom to be exclusive.

What is telling, what is important, what is significant about this in terms of thinking about places is that one place can embody opposing urges. We have written them into the very landscape.

Roads and signs identify the university, allow public access, welcome strangers. Tall trees and fields, the inability from outside to see and know what is here, a maze of streets and pathways – all serve to keep the uninitiated off guard and away.

The capacity of places to say different things about themselves at one or different times, and to say multiple things, such as welcome and stay out, is what I find interesting about places.

A place, the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has reminded us, is a type of object. A place has objective reality. But it is an object about which it is almost impossible to be objective, for its being depends on human interpretation.

On the other hand, a place is a structure, a presence – a fence, a tree line, a wall of meaning, a concentration of value – that structures human relations. We are not entirely free to think what we want about places, for they too shape the way we think.

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