By Claire Greening
My dad has always loved trees. His favorite, a redbud, flowers for about a week in early to mid May and has a distinct pinkish purple flower. The roots of the tree help it to build the nutrients up all year just so it can bloom (in Michigan at least) for one week. He tells me about redbuds every single year and sends me a flood of photos during that week. I’ve discovered that there are several on campus at Kalamazoo College through telling my closest friends the facts and wisdom that he gave to me. But for Kalamazoo College’s assemblage, I wanted to talk about all tree roots, not just the ones that are important to the Greening family assemblage. The roots that run underneath the quad and through the hallways tie us together as an institution, at least temporarily. I want to explore the value of these roots, beyond just the physical space they take up, but how they affect the experiences of students, the pipes that run underneath the school, and their importance as a disturbance of constant growth.
I chose roots in part because of what they mean to me, but also because of what they mean to Kalamazoo College. When we walked onto the quad and disturbed the ground, grass, and sticks around us, I found myself sitting upon a cluster of roots at one point. It felt the strongest, the most secure from being too disturbed. I was still considering the disturbances from people as Tsing claims of humanists “not used to thinking with disturbance, connect the term with damage” (160). The roots were not safe from disturbance as I had thought but a piece of a deeper assemblage, tying my body in with the tangles of roots running underneath the feet of students, staff, squirrels, ants, and many other actants. Roots themselves have a multitude of different purposes from stabilizing, bringing nutrients, creating pathways so that the soil is not too compacted, and many others. This led me back to thinking about Kalamazoo College as an assemblage, with different people taking different roles and constantly disturbing the composition of the assemblage.
This constant change is an appealing idea as it is reminiscent of the ideas that Tsing presents early in the book of precariousness and that “there might not be a collective happy ending” (21). Kalamazoo College is not a constantly progressing institution, they have flaws and make mistakes on large scales. The release of employees W2 forms to a phishing email comes to mind as a campus-wide disturbance that was not progressing the campus forward. But to think of this school as an assemblage of constantly moving parts situated in a precarious situation, that dilemma is more understandable. The roots of Kalamazoo College are always changing, moving, and disturbing the campus as well. Consider the pipes underneath campus for watering the grass, moving water to residential halls, transporting waste, etc. Those pipes are co-existing with roots and interacting with their growth and change, sometimes through the roots growing into the pipes or bursting them. The conceptualization of Kalamazoo as precariously situated as an assemblage does not forget what is underground, locating vital technology alongside species with destructive power.
In thinking about the existence of Kalamazoo College as a precarious assemblage, it is important to consider roots through the lense of collaborative survival as integral. For example, the grounding of trees through their roots on this campus makes it possible to build structures along these hills as they help create a more stable foundation than dirt. Roots are not the only piece of the puzzle for this but they collaborate with the people who build the structures and work towards a survival of this campus. Roots are part of an assemblage on this campus that is constantly changing and moving as a collaboration with all other elements of Kalamazoo College so that, as an institution living quite literally on the edge of a hill, our precarious existence can survive.
One memorable disturbance on campus occurred my sophomore year, the 2016-2017 academic year. There was a tree that was quite large along the center pathway of the quad towards Hicks Center which was precariously perched inches from the sidewalk and one of the only large trees in the center of the quad. That tree was cut down but the roots remained. In fact for the rest of fall quarter after the tree was cut down, through winter and part of spring the stump of the tree and all of the roots (some visible, some not) remained sitting centrally on the quad. I have several photos of myself standing atop the roots on the flat surface of the stump and I remember how I felt for all of them. The disturbance that occurred so centrally to campus became a memorable spot for me to take pictures with my friends, whether it was snowing, raining, or sunny. This location on campus had changed and I had changed with it, along with the rest of the Kalamazoo College assemblage.
But alas, another disturbance occurred when early in spring quarter, the stump and roots were almost completely removed. The constant movement of pieces on campus continued to change the structure around Kalamazoo College as any assemblage does. I heard rumors that the tree had been cut down because it was too close to the pathway and blocked potential viewpoints for commencement ceremonies, although they were never confirmed. The grass continued to grow over a patch where only dirt was until commencement, when there was no sign of the existence of the roots that were too small to remove which either decomposed and became part of the dirt or are still attempting to make new sprouts. The constant change of the campus wide assemblage that is constantly being created and disturbed can be seen in the simplest of alterations. To create better sight lines for graduation, there was a disturbance that created ripple effects across campus but also was forgotten quickly after it occurred as the assemblage adapted.
Roots were important for me to consider in a metaphorical sense as well in what people are bringing to an assemblage and how that changes on a regular basis. The movement of people to different homes is a regular disturbance for a college and what types of roots they put down in a certain space is valuable to think about. I personally think about my family on the Eastern side of Michigan and how their influences encourage me to interact with actants in the Kalamazoo College assemblage in certain ways. Additionally, when I arrived to Kalamazoo College, my sister was still a student here as well so I was already connected to the campus in certain ways. The constant change in the student population brings different types of roots together to form a new variation of the institution here. The roots of Kalamazoo College grow and entwine and change on a daily basis, creating a mess of actants who disturb the assemblage regularly. Certain clubs, thoughts, and organizations are dependant on those who brought their interests with them based on other places they have established roots in order to survive.
By thinking through the roots of Kalamazoo College to understand more fundamentally how our assemblage on this campus exists and changes, we can see the way in which the constant growth, change, and precariousness of everything. The smallest actions have a huge impact throughout the assemblage that is created, recreated, adapted, disturbed, and mimicked every single minute. To conclude, I should mention that my father partook in the Kalamazoo College assemblage for his undergraduate experience and led me to have certain roots here since I was born. I have a photo from his graduation at red square which I initially valued so highly that I wanted to recreate it, knowing full well the mass scale of disturbances that have happened since then. But the photos of myself standing on tree roots or in front of a redbud mean more to me now than I think that photo would. I have created my own space within this assemblage, new and always changing, and taken my own photos to represent that.