On the Avenue

Message from the President

Willam L. Fox '75

It’s long enough to land a small plane. The Avenue of the Elms on the St. Lawrence campus was first planted in the mid-1920s, a quad-ruple row of shade trees nearly a mile long. The telescoped focus of the avenue, east to west, majestically frames the towering spire of Gunnison Memorial Chapel. 

There are moments in the fall I’ve paired this arbor-tunneled view of stone and copper with Claude Monet’s famous paintings in the National Gallery of Art. These are masterpieces of the changing Normandy light against Rouen Cathedral, also with a rooster upon its spire.

The original inspiration for this unusual landscape feature—not found on any other college campus, so far as I know—came from Owen D. and Josephine Edmonds Young. They had admired the elms set in elongated rows and spreading canopies throughout England. When Dutch elm disease struck 40 years ago, Hyde Park in London lost 9,000 of its elm trees, groves arranged in avenues originally planted by Queen Caroline in the era of Jane Austen. Today, our own Avenue of the Elms is, in reality, a second planting of mostly disease-resistant maples, though a few elms survive. 

In very recent years, professors and students at St. Lawrence have mapped about 3,500 trees on the campus and identified 80 different species. The variety of dispersed tree life is a quiet genius that is easily missed, but for the presence and reminder that the Avenue of the Elms punctuates. One expects pine, spruce, fir, cedar, and hemlock. The familiar hardwoods are easy to spot in oak, ash, butternut, birch, and maple. Looking closely, however, there are cottonwood, buckeye, and black cherry. The campus also holds its special surprises, at least at its northern latitude (technically
the same as Tuscany) with its flourishing examples of ginkgo, yew, and linden.

The man who used more gunpowder to create Central Park than was needed in the Battle of Gettysburg, Frederick Law Olmsted, also designed several hundred school and college campuses in America. His influence is everywhere, including indirectly at St. Lawrence. While he never saw Canton, he clearly tried to replicate the mood of the Adirondacks in his best-known work, a theme St. Lawrence never had to copy. 

Olmsted held the opinion that “landscape moves us in a manner more nearly analogous to the action of music than anything else.” I look down the Avenue of the Elms and I hear Ravel, Respighi, and Debussy. Maybe on a misty fall night, a faint moonrise shining through, I hear a Coltrane ballad.

And yet, the genius of place at St. Lawrence is its gateway linear openness through the trees, the sense that it lacks clutter, though bordered by botanical randomness and natural disorder of deep woods and wetlands. The Avenue of the Elms may seem at first a mere decorative expression, a form of outdoor wallpaper. Take a longer look; strong lines lead the eye to an indelible focal point of possible achievement.

I believe it also points us toward the scientific mind and method. The desire for order, the overcoming of the irrational, and the require-ments for organizing complex appearances into reliable knowledge are suggested by a long row of trees and a footpath that never bends. Science must be direct that way, gaining its confidence in discovery by concentrating on the main point, while constantly noting the exception within the existing rules of logic and system.
 
My graduate education was in the humanities, though for a couple of years in that time of my life, I became very well acquainted with a world-famous scientist and proud Bostonian, Richard Evans Schultes, now considered the foremost pioneer of modern ethnobotany. It was a St. Lawrence alumnus who brokered the introduction. 

We had few, if any, intellectual interests or experiences in common. I could differentiate Swedish ivy from English ivy, but plant identification for me was merely household in nature. He knew thousands of species by technical Latin. The gap in our ages was several decades as he was born at the beginning of the First World War.

Dick spent most of the 1940s alone in the Amazon rainforest collecting medicinal, toxic, and edible plants while earning the trust of indigenous people: deeply and humbly respectful of what they knew that he did not. When I first met him, his legendary undergraduate course gave him heroic status, though he was entirely oblivious to it; the famous blowgun demonstration was just one of the attractions.

We seldom talked about his science or even his death-defying adventures. He once described drinking a hot beverage in the Amazon that had the equivalent caffeine strength of 40 cups of coffee in one serving. I also discerned that he was constantly pursued by pharmaceutical companies. The economic value of so many plants he had once discovered held immense curative potential.
Dick’s New England frugality revealed indifference to pharma stock prices: I rarely saw him wear anything but the same charcoal wool suit and red tie. He drove
me around in a worn-out station wagon and only acknowledged his work as a museum keeper and “jungle botanist.” 

As we got to know each other better, I pursued a more complete understanding of his significant academic career. He finally relented and sent me an explanation of his life’s work, which appeared in The New Yorker magazine after he had been presented the gold medal of The Linnaean Society, botany’s Nobel Prize: “the complete registration of the uses of and the concepts about plant life in primitive societies…comprising aspects of botany, anthropology, archaeology, plant chemistry, pharmacology, history, geography, and sundry other fields of the sciences and arts.” 

The Avenue of the Elms ultimately gives us more than dramatic landscape ornamentation. It’s a first awakening to lines drawn among the trees of a university, that there exists “the complete registration” in the uses and concepts of sciences and arts together. —WLF

William L. Fox '75