Universities across the nation tout their own iconic campus features, be it a building or a fountain, but at the University of Mississippi, multiple sources have confirmed that the icons worth noting are the trees.
Thanks to the work of landscapers Jeff McManus and Denise Hill, the Arbor Day Foundation recently named the school a Tree Campus USA.
“Anytime you get anything like this, it’s a recognition of the work that’s already being done,” said McManus, director of landscape services. “A lot of campuses aren’t fortunate enough to have even the awareness we do, so it really helps people become sensitive to the effect trees have on any culture.”
To claim this title, Ole Miss had to meet a set of five specific criteria: 1) establish a tree advisory committee, 2) show evidence of a tree care plan, 3) show proof of dedicated annual expenditures, 4) hold an event in observance of Arbor Day, and 5) give opportunities for tree related service learning projects.
For Denise Hill, superintendent of landscape services, this tree culture sets Ole Miss apart from other schools.
“We have been fortunate enough to visit a lot of different universities and a lot of different campuses, and it’s amazing to go to a campus of a university and see beautiful architecture and beautiful structures, but when they’re devoid of trees, you really don’t notice the architectural aspects of the campus grounds as much,” Hill said. “We’re blessed with having a naturally beautiful campus and we like to keep it that way.”
According to Hill, all of the standards of becoming a Tree Campus USA were methods that the university was already using in order to protect campus trees, a cause for which the landscapers are thankful to have outside support.
“The great thing about working at Ole Miss, as well, is that there’s a deep appreciation from our administration, from our students, and from our alumni to commit to planting trees,” McManus said.
When a campus boasts its trees as much as its structures, particular obstacles arise in the way of balancing natural elements with new construction.
“Anytime you have an urban environment and you have growth, you’re going to experience change,” McManus said. “Sometimes change is painful, not only to us as humans, but it’s painful to anything that’s living, so it’s been painful for some of our trees as well.”
The history of this delicate balance dates back several decades. The state of the university’s natural structures has been progressing alongside the architectural structures since around the time of World War II.
“If you look at some of the old pictures of the campus from the 30s, the 40s, the 50s, the campus doesn’t have a lot of trees on it,” McManus said. “There was a big effort after World War II to plant trees on campus. You can see it in the pictures, and we’re enjoying that now.”
One way that landscape services encourages students to enjoy campus trees is through the Tree Trail, found on the department’s website. The Tree Trail pinpoints the location and gives detailed descriptions of 24 prominent species of trees on campus.
Sophomore Timothy Steenwyk has taken advantage of this resources and first began learning through the Tree Trail in the spring of his freshman year.
“It was mostly out of curiosity at first; I just figured that we have so many trees here, and it was just a matter of me wanting to know more about them,” Steenwyk said. “Thankfully landscaping was really helpful for me to do that.”
Like McManus, Steenwyk too believes in the culture that trees create on campus, citing it as one of his motivations for attending the University of Mississippi.
“I most definitely think that trees have a part in campus culture; really, they persevere more than anything on campus,” Steenwyk said. “I mean you have your bricks and things, but really it’s the organic elements that bring life to a campus. I think without them we lose a lot of the culture.”
Trees bring more than just a general atmosphere, according to the mechanical engineering major. Steenwyk cited the Leyland Cyprus in the Circle, which is annually decked out as a Christmas tree, as well as a particularly shady magnolia outside of the chemistry building as examples of physical assets provided by campus trees.
“This is a bald cyprus, looking particularly bald right now…” Steenwyk said of one of his favorite specimens on the Tree Trail in early December. Recognizing the many differences, he claims to love the experience of the trees in every season.
“I do love the springtime; it’s so lively,” Steenwyk said. “The fall colors are wonderful too though, so I can’t really complain.”
Ole Miss’s campus trees were in the news recently when an anonymous threat to their health was received prior to the Egg Bowl on Nov. 29. An author claiming to be a fan of Mississippi State threatened that many trees and shrubs on campus would be harmed.
To Steenwyk, this event, whether a legitimate threat or an elaborate parody, is unacceptable.
“I was really, really disheartened to hear that news,” Steenwyk said. “I don’t take it at all as something about MSU, but I do believe that the trees are part of something that all of Mississippi can be proud of so just to see that that rivalry, it took it too far.”
McManus also holds trees to a high position of pride, claiming that they tell the story of the university as well as the entire state.
“When you see a healthy, vigorous tree growing, you perceive that it’s a healthy campus, that our community is healthy,” McManus said. “And just the opposite is true that when you see a tree that’s dying or dead you perceive just the opposite.”
Beyond dictating campus atmosphere, the trees make a statement on the southern state as a whole.
“It’s important to have those green pockets of space that give off that right message that this is a growing community,” McManus said. “The university, Oxford, the state of Mississippi is growing and we’re changing.”
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