The waxy, green strands fill in the spaces between your toes and the soft soil beneath your foot cushions the force of your heels striking the ground. Even as you focus your eyes across campus on the buildings or on the cement paths, the hazy green of the grass sits on the edges of your vision. Though its presence feels much outside our own, it closes in around us, touches all of our senses. You take a deep breath, and in enter the particles of their cut bodies as the echo of lawnmower blades sound from across campus. Your friend eats a handful on a dare. Someone’s skin allergy acts up, and they retreat to the safety of the parking lot to relieve their itching. We interact and are a part of grass in this assemblage of Kalamazoo College as much as it is a part of us.
At Kalamazoo College, and through the lens of this course, grass can be analyzed as a visual connector of all parts of this campus and also a site of which provides meaning to our existence at this institution. Grass is a physical manifestation of how value is performed at Kalamazoo College (especially in events such as graduation) and also as a means to perform human control over Nature. Through these examples, I will attempt to explain how grass, as a part of the assemblage of Kalamazoo College, transcends its existence to signify meaning beyond the benign.
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing demonstrates beautifully the ability of the assemblage to interact with meaning and being that allows it to create something more. “Assemblages are open-ended gatherings. They allow us to ask about the communal effects without assuming them. They show us potential histories in the making… Non-human ways of being are emergent effects of encounters… Assemblages don’t just gather lifeways; they make them. Thinking through assemblage urges us to ask: how do gatherings sometimes become “happenings,” that is, greater than the sum of their parts?” (Tsing 2015: 23). At Kalamazoo, grass becomes a lifeway in which provides visual logic to the existence of Kalamazoo College, and further characterizes meaning of which the College attempts to embody.
Using this logic, events such as graduation become happenings that perform value—grass being the means to reach a notion of value. In events like graduation, where a high volume of people is present, grass becomes more than just something that covers the soil, but an indicator of vitality. The bounty of Nature in the space of Kalamazoo College provides onlookers and family members a vision of Kalamazoo College as being an encounter that elicits feelings of wonder and awe. Like Tsing’s description of how smelling affects one’s interaction with the mushroom, the stunning visual panorama of the College’s lush green quad can similarly affect how meaning is created in that moment of contact.
Of course, ideas of this encounter being ‘natural’ can be contested. In the weeks preceding graduation, the Grounds Crew at the College work doubly as hard to create this image of vitality. The lawns are reseeded, the soil bordering the walkways are cordoned off to protect the seedlings from being trampled under the foot of an oblivious student. Workers are out until dusk, weeding, cutting, and mowing lawns. Sprinklers run. Even the manner in which the grass is mowed, to create patterns on the lawns, is a highly controlled form to affect the how meaning is cultivated by onlookers. When graduation day arrives, a complete vision of the assemblage of Kalamazoo College is created, for an instant, for the specific reason of cultivating perfect moments of wonder and awe mentioned before for the spectator. The purpose of this assemblage is to put the onlooker in a position of gleaning meaning from their immediate surroundings and does so effectively with the aid of grass as a part in this assemblage.
Another aspect of grass’s work within the assemblage is its ability to translate and make visible meanings of the assemblage that are unpleasant, if not telling aspects of how the institution exists in a space. Though grass can be seen as a manner in which to convey feelings of vitality and a ‘closeness’ to Nature, it can also be seen as a way to visualize institutional control. To even cut grass, subject it to violence outside of the natural cycles of life and decomposition, is to exact control.
The ability of grass to be controlled by the College is an extremely different process than how the Matsutake mushroom interacts in Tsing’s book, and how those processes and how institutions formed from those processes are closely related to how these Natures thrive. For example, Matsutake’s un-tamable nature and the difficulty one must go through to locate it in an environment shapes how it moves through systems and how community is formed around it. Matsutake is able to create Tsing’s peri-capitalist world, just through being.
In an opposing sense, grass does not have the same freedom or autonomy as Matsutake is portrayed to have. Grass’s nature is to grow wherever it can find place to be seeded, and to grow in abundance. It can be easily introduced to almost any kind of environment and industries have been built on how to keep grass cut and groomed in a particular manner. The relationship that is created between the institution of Kalamazoo College and its environment is one predicated on this idea of control and translates to a community that is also built on similar values (i.e. a control over the commodity it creates). As consequence of grass’ inherent nature, the assemblage of Kalamazoo College is able to design itself in a manner that embraces characteristics of the parts that make it up.
It would be reductionist to allow grass a measured amount of autonomy in this scenario, as it demonstrates a variety of ways of being. For example, grass as a part of the assemblage, is also able to transcend the imagination or embodied ideal that the College aspires to. Grass is extremely adaptable, and, in this way, it shatters the vision of perfection. The ability of grass to crop up among the crevices in the sidewalks, to appear in ‘unnatural’ places, or to not thrive at all, is a way that grass is able to complicate the relationship of meaning that is created in the assemblage, and at the College.
Grass occupies an interesting space at Kalamazoo College and creates many meanings for us to derive. I situate throughout this piece that grass is used by the College as a way to create a façade of vitality, but I also find that even in pursuit of this, there is not a truly uniform way in which grass can convey this message. In spite of the control that is exacted upon it, grass is able to thrive and complicate the relationship of all parts in the assemblage. Grass is a telling example of the messy relationships of meaning making that exist at the College.