In Mourning

Reflecting on the fate of Barnard’s beloved magnolia tree
by Geneva Hutchenson

In the late summer rain, Maggie’s branches hang, skeletal. Blue tape tethers her to the ground and a square border of wooden posts and more blue tape cuts her off from Lehman Lawn. There are no late flowers on her branches—nor on the ground, but some carcassed leaf buds tremble, tenuously, in the crooks of her boughs. The ground below her—normally covered by a mosaic carpet of fuschia leaves—is now a barren expanse.

 

This June, Barnard students received a construction update with the news that beloved magnolia tree Maggie may be on her last limb. A feature of the campus for sixty years, she was moved in November to accommodate the new Teaching and Learning Center. With Maggie’s death imminent, decades of alumni are mourning the loss of the symbolic tree. Barnard’s campus and students’ Instagrams will never look the same again.

 

Last year, before a team of poorly-trained arborists tore Maggie’s roots from the ground, sacrificing her delicate root hairs in favor of speed, a professor, who requested to remain anonymous, commented, “She’s going to die soon anyway. The soil has compacted over her roots. She was only a Home Depot magnolia.” And, though we love Maggie, she is “only a Home Depot magnolia.”

 

Another faculty member says that though Maggie will almost certainly die from the traumatic move (if she would not have already died from her suffocated roots), “this is a good opportunity to replace Maggie with something special.”

 

Maggie the Magnolia represents a rare moment of respite in our stressful lives. Yes, our constant trampling and sitting on her roots nearly killed her, but like the velveteen rabbit, she was loved to pieces. Maggie’s blossoms in spring indicated a movement towards summer, that the dark of the long winter hours in Butler had ended, and that reprieve had begun to approach.

 

Breaking open a leaf bud, I find that though they had not come to fruition, the buds were not nearly as dry as I had suspected. A thin layer of green tissue flourished deep in the capsules. So, perhaps there is hope for Maggie. If Maggie can survive through the summer heat and into winter without the benefit of her root system, she may bloom again some spring. And if Maggie passes, a possibility for which we must be prepared, with our love, she will have far outlived the life expected of a “Home Depot magnolia.”

 

The careless treatment of Maggie suggests a greater change in the university: a movement towards the new and modern and a slight edging away from tradition. Though the university has necessarily changed throughout its history, between the new Barnard Library (which will really be a technology center with a glass facade), the Manhattanville cam- pus, and the Global Centers, Columbia has become increasingly focused on the external world rather than our own self-involved traditions.

 

Perhaps lost amidst the varied commentary on Maggie’s move and predictions of her death is Maggie’s own voice. She offers a wry and lucid take on her Twitter account @BCMagnoliaTree, from which she live tweeted her move: “the crane represents the phallus, penetrating the female space of Nature while spectators perform a scopophilic act akin to the male gaze.”