April 2008 | Home
Do you love the Diag, with its criss-cross paths and canopy of trees? If so, you have one man to thank. The story of Andrew White, who nurtured intellects and seedlings alike.
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Professor White's trees
April 15, 2008
Andrew Dickson White first saw Ann Arbor when he stepped off the train in October 1857, the time of year when Michigan's leaves are aflame in yellow and red. Just appointed by President Henry Tappan to teach history and law, White was the youngest member of the faculty, and he looked even younger than his 24 years—so young, in fact, that a student at the depot mistook him for an entering freshman and showed him all the way into town before realizing the newcomer was a professor.
White, a native of western New York, found the little town on the Huron "a beautiful place," as he later recalled. But when he got to the campus, then 20 years old, he found himself "greatly disappointed." East of State Street, he saw 40 flat, open acres, "unkempt and wretched," with little more to break the monotony of the landscape than a scattering of still-raw classroom buildings and professors' houses. Except for one majestic native oak, already at least a century old, a few deciduous stragglers and some evergreens, the native forest had been cleared away. A sagging wood fence ran around the perimeter of the 40-acre square. Students trudged to class along shadeless, muddy paths and "unsightly plank walks." Andrew White, accustomed to the "glorious elms" of Yale, was appalled by the shortage of trees.
He plunged into his assigned work and liked it. He found the students "worth teaching—hardy, vigorous, shrewd, broad, with faith in the greatness of the country and enthusiasm regarding the nation's future. It may be granted that there was, in many of them, a lack of elegance, but there was neither languor nor cynicism. One seemed, among them, to breathe a purer, stronger air."
But in this place named for a copse of trees, the dearth of foliage on the campus gnawed at White's sense of aesthetics. He asked around: Why so few trees? Well, people said, it wasn't that nobody had tried. In the early '50s, Dr. Edmund Andrews, who doubled as professor of anatomy and superintendent of grounds, had rounded up citizens and students for a program to plant a thousand trees. But most of the seedlings had died. The ground was too hard and dry for good trees, people said. But that didn't make sense. In town, White saw plenty of "fine large trees, and among them elms" growing in "the little inclosures about the pretty cottages." And you only had to look at the virgin woods nearby to know the soil was suited to trees. White decided the problem couldn't be soil. It was proper care. So, with neither permission nor funding, he took matters into his own hands.
First, he observed the human geography—the paths that students had created simply by walking between buildings. No doubt he had in mind the same principle voiced some years later by President James Burrill Angell, who told students that "one of the finest examples of the value of precedent that I have ever seen is one of the paths which you fellows make across the grass of the Campus. We take that as clear proof that a walk should be there, and set about building one."
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The fashion in landscape design was to create outdoor corridors shrouded in green canopies. This was the effect White wanted. So he marked off "several avenues"—including, apparently, the basic X of the Diag. Then, "choosing my trees with care," he planted young elms on either side of these lanes.
For two years, working between lectures that ranged across centuries of human history—White was, in fact, a pioneer of the lecture method of teaching—"I preached practically the doctrine of adorning the campus." He cared for his seedlings, making sure they got enough water through the hot summers. Students began to join him, going out to the woods and returning with more seedlings. Two nurserymen from New York sent a gift of 60 trees that were planted in a grove near the northern edge of the central grounds. The class of 1858 placed 50 little maples in concentric circles around that one great native oak. White added more maples along one side of the western fence that bordered State Street; the literary faculty donated 42 elms for the other side. Finally, the Regents named White the new superintendent of grounds and supplemented his annual salary with a stipend of $75.
White left Ann Arbor in 1864. He became one of the most distinguished American historians of his generation and the founding president of Cornell University. But those trees in Ann Arbor remained "to me as my own children."
Whenever he returned to Michigan, he visited them "to see how they prosper, and especially how certain peculiar examples are flourishing." In the spring of 1911, he boarded a train from Cornell to Ann Arbor on a sudden whim, bringing an old map of the University. On the Diag, a student recognized him and asked what he was doing. "Yesterday," he said, "while sitting in my library at Ithaca I happened to think that fifty years ago today the class of 1861 planted these trees under my direction. I had among my papers a plot of the ground, the location of each tree and the name of the student who planted it." He gestured at the trees, tears in his eyes. "There are more trees alive than boys."
In 1912, at ceremonies commemorating the 75th anniversary of the university's establishment in Ann Arbor, White returned once more at the age of 80. It was a busy day; he was much in demand, and one of the speakers. But late that night, recalled then-President Harry Burns Hutchins, "I understand that he procured a lantern and made his tour of inspection in the darkness, being unwilling to leave the city without assuring himself that his trees continued to flourish."
That massive native oak, long predating even White's era, still stands just to the west of the Hatcher Graduate Library. Since 1858 it has been called the Tappan Oak, to honor the president who hired Andrew Dickson White and launched the modern university.
In the 1960s, Dutch Elm disease crept through the campus and felled White's green canopies along the Diag's walkways. But Jane Immonen, a U-M forestry specialist, can still spot a few old elms that likely date to the Civil War—the last of Professor White's trees. There's only one sure way to judge their age, she said, and that's to cut them down. No one has any plans to do that.
is an author and historian. His most recent book is To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight.