From the bright red of the Japanese Maple outside the Emma Willard House, the warm yellow Ginkgos in front of Mead Memorial Chapel, the hot pink Rhododendrons behind Forest Hall or the blazing orange Sugar Maples outside Battell, the campus boasts stunning sights year-round.
For the most part, other than snapping daily nature photos to post or send to family members, you probably pay little attention to the other trees that surround you on campus. With all that has happened over the past year, it’s especially easy to lose the memories of foliage that fill out the edges of the most dramatic turning points and salient traumas. However, even though so much has changed since departing from campus last March, one thing has remained constant: our beloved campus itself.
The Darkest Day
Tuesday, March 10, 2020, 1:08 p.m.
Campus horticulturist Tim Parsons was walking across campus, ready to prune trees, when he suddenly received the text. Ding. “Date Change: Middlebury College will begin spring break this Friday, March 13, after classes end, which is one week earlier than scheduled. This will be a two-week break with classes resuming — remotely — on Monday, March 30. Remain Home After Break: Following spring break, students who can will be expected to remain at home and not return to campus until further notice.”
“I knew from the moment I read the screenshotted email, it was not going to be good,” Parsons said. “It just seemed off. Everything was so up in the air, and nobody knew what to do, or what to say. People get used to predictability, stability and it just felt off.”
Parsons noted that although the reckless acts of vandalism across campus and in town during the last week were apparent, the damage did not seem to have targeted trees as student vandalism often has in the past.
“I mostly saw signs being torn down, not trees that students are often keen to uproot,” he said. “It was yet another thing that felt odd.”
Speaking for the Trees
It is the deeply rooted love for the campus and Middlebury College community that makes Tim Parsons’ job both rewarding and a tall order.
Middlebury’s campus horticulturist since 2006, Parsons’ knowledge of the college’s greenery borders on encyclopedic. A Vermont-certified horticulturist and a certified arborist by the International Society of Arboriculture, Parsons was in the green industry for more than 25 years, running his own landscape design company and a garden center for nearly 10 years. Additionally, Parsons is a past president of Greenworks, The Vermont Nursery and Landscape Association and was chosen in 2003 as the Young Nurseryman of the Year by the New England Nursery Association. Although he grew up in Connecticut, he has lived in Vermont for 22 years and now lives at the base of Snake Mountain in Weybridge, Vermont with his wife, three daughters and “too many gardens.”
At Middlebury, Parsons’ responsibilities include the care and maintenance of the colleges’ robust urban forest, full landscape design and installation measures, and management of the sustainable turfgrass of the athletic fields. Along with caring for the abundance of trees on campus, Parsons has taught a “Trees and the Urban Forest” course several times, led field trips for other courses, and marshals a popular “Campus Tree Tour” each fall during Homecoming. He also writes a blog — appropriately titled “The Middlebury Landscape” — and is a member of multiple college committees such as the Master Plan Implementation Committee, the Emergency Response Team and Community Council. He has also served on the Environmental Council.
“I love everything about my job, but seeing how the college landscape makes people happy is the most rewarding part,” Parsons said.
Phenology — which comes from the greek “phaino,” meaning to show or appear — is the study of recurring life cycles of the living things around us, the seasonal experiences of insects, plants, mammals and the relationship of time to weather and climate. Parsons compares this to the collective experience between the environment and people during the Covid-19 pandemic.
As a landscaper, Parsons observed that the quiet looming over campus relates to the “natural ebb and flow of things.”
“I don’t know the exact class schedules all that well, but people certainly know when classes are out,” he said.
Parsons said after a majority of students left campus mid-March, he would walk to a certain part of campus where there are usually clusters of students studying or socializing, but there was no one there.
“The first week or so it’s nice to ride on those silly Gators and not be in the way of folks, but after that, it just wasn’t the same,” he said. “It was just really sad.”
“I remember the CFA parking lot is filled with crab apples. When those come to bloom they are absolutely spectacular,” Parsons said. “I was actually quite excited to see them this spring because I had never seen them bloom without any cars in the lot, so I made a specific point to walk to campus to see them.” But the crabapples did not bloom.
“Horticulturally, trees and shrubs sort of had their own pandemic too,” Parsons said. “We had a severe drought and it didn’t rain for weeks on end. Lawns turned brown, leaves started to fall early, and wherever I looked, plants looked lifeless, much like how I felt.”
Parsons explained that like people and the pandemic, it can take years for the trees to fully recover from damage.
“I spent the whole summer watering trees, and I don’t remember a year it was this dry for a long time,” he said. “I had hoped that some of the high traffic locations would receive a much-needed break, but the drought was so bad, there wasn’t much of a difference.”
Throughout the summer, Parsons took solo walks around campus, checking in to make sure everything was still okay. He noted that the treasured hot pink Rhododendrons behind Forest Hall did, in fact, bloom as usual, a stark reminder of the loss of spring, and especially graduation. According to Parsons, the bright flowering bushes were planted there to serve as the original ceremony location, with chairs extending out across Battell Beach. After planning for the commencement ceremony all Winter, Memorial Day weekend eventually came that May, and with no students to graduate, Parsons had that weekend off for the first time in 15 years.
“When the students are gone after commencement and before language schools, it’s peaceful and nice, but after a couple of weeks of that, everyone’s ready for the energy to come back,” he said. “The whole point to working at the school is to help the students out, and that’s why we’re here, so it just doesn’t really feel right when campus is empty.”
Known for sharing snapshots of the college’s picturesque landscape, his family, sleeping pets and even an occasional baked good or two, Parsons’ Instagram (@middland) also happens to be a favorite account for many Middlebury students. His captions shared are pure musings that bring Parsons’ love for the small joys in life to the public eye.
On March 13, Parsons wrote, “Adopted a plant today, I named it Riley. Goodbye to all my student friends leaving today, hoping to see you again.” And on a photo of an empty campus, a sarcastic, “Day one at Middlebury College. 9:00, sidewalks filled as students walk to class.”
Parsons continued these logs the rest of the month, updating his followers on the life they abruptly left behind on campus. “Day three at Middlebury College. Cross country trail, missing the runners on the blue sky day.” “Day four. One of my traditions after the students move out is looking for rocks geology students don’t want to bring home and leave in parking lots. Here’s this year’s finds. Anybody want to ID?” “Day five, quiet.”
As warmer weather arrived in Middlebury, Parsons continued to updated his small but mighty fanbase on the still life coming back to campus, highlighting the blossoming of White Siberian squill, serviceberry, daffodils, magnolias, the redbud trees in front of Axinn and the green grass beginning to show on the lawns. And on May 24, a picture of a flowering crabapple tree.
“Today would have been the day I decorated the commencement stage at Middlebury College then waited to see my former students and friends march in. So to them, I say so long, good bye, come back soon. Wish you could be here. #middseniorcelebration.” One student commented, “I miss the campus trees,” to which Parsons replied, “and they miss you!”
Parsons’ consistent updates continued throughout the summer, increasing as the date drew nearer for the August return to campus. He posted photos of the Adirondack chairs in storage, ready to be set outside again for use, renovated outdoor classroom spaces for the new norm of safe, socially distant learning and a shot of the Brobdingnagian tents outside of McCullough wittily captured, “Intense.”
And in October, Parsons called to action his growing fan base to fundraise for financial aid at the college. “As the Middlebury College arborist I’ve learned that the strength and resilience of our urban forest is based upon its diversity,” he commented. “If you can, help the ‘MoveMidd’ effort to help keep Middlebury the inclusive space it is. Link in bio, I figured out how to do that.”
Nearly half of all Middlebury students receive financial aid, and as the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic continues, disproportionately affecting students of color, that number grows and the need for student academic funding rises. “It’s important for everyone to have the opportunity to learn here, regardless of their background,” Parsons said.
Parsons’ fall semester updates petered out in December, ending with a quintessential photo of Mead Memorial Chapel that read, “And, just like that, campus empties out again, and it’s just the cold trees and I. Hopefully students are returning in a couple months, if everyone can get their act together. For everyone that left for the semester, here is today at Middlebury College. We’ll try and keep the snow around for your return.”
The college’s organic garden, The Knoll, holds a founding mission to educate and nourish its community. This came into clear focus when the onset of the pandemic left many staff and community members without a steady source of income.
As the pandemic continued throughout the year, staff concerns related to employment and compensation continued to loom large. A week after students left campus, the college committed to full wage continuity and no layoffs through June 30, a pledge administrators have since tentatively extended to next July in their new 2021 budget. Although the college set up the Covid-19 pay bank to support staff members throughout the pandemic, many staff who cannot work remotely still needed to use their own combined time off (CTO) to cover their days stuck at home. While many staff members have remained at home, others have begun to return to campus on staggered work schedules.
In anticipation of the community’s emergency food needs over the summer and fall, combined with the issues regarding staff employment hours, the college gave The Knoll permission to grow produce to meet community emergency food needs, and granted approval to bring in dining employees for paid full-time work over the summer. Parsons’ wife Nancy, a chef in Atwater Dining, was one of the individuals relocated there.
“I enjoyed getting to work with people I otherwise never would have,” Nancy said.
“Bringing staff members from other departments to work here was necessary,” Megan Brakeley ‘06, The Knoll’s current manager, said. “Even though life on campus stopped, life at The Knoll did not.”
“We missed the students this year because we connect with a lot of them in close quarters through dining, and you just grow to love them,” Nancy said. “With proper social distancing, safety measures and the change in schedules, that has drastically changed.”
Spaces that once connected students and staff don’t exist in the same form these days, and dining staff have taken notice.
“Students aren’t gathering in dining halls anymore, so we’ve completely lost all sense of community that happens in those spaces,” she continued. “It is one of the most drastic changes to campus life, and something not easily recreated in a pandemic-safe manner.”
Returning Where We Left Off
Just as Dining Services prepared for another round of individually packaged meals, the Grounds Department was also busy preparing for students to return to Middlebury for the spring semester, an ominous time that marked a year since the campus was abandoned.
“I’m always amazed at how smart and resilient plants are, and that’s exactly like Middlebury now,” Parsons said.
Before students returned, Parsons said, larger tents were installed across campus and the golf course was groomed for cross country skiing. The carpentry shop got busy building forty new adirondack chairs to add to the fleet to promote outside socializing, and the grounds crew assembled portable fire pits. “Pro tip for students? Bring marshmallows,” Parsons quipped.
“I’m really looking forward to having campus come alive again,” Parsons said that winter. “It’s comforting to know that we’ll all be together once again, and hopefully not have to miss out on another spring here.”
Symbol of Our Strength
From the growth around the pond behind the Mahaney Center for the Arts to the comforting line of trees between Axinn and Davis Library, the ivy-covered walls of Battell Hall to the unexpected diversity of the woods around the Trail Around Middlebury, the greenery of Middlebury College holds an important place on campus and within the hearts of Panthers young and old. And after a long, cold winter away from campus, Middlebury now invites the arrival of warmer weather, the opening of forsythia and the return of lifeo to campus as the harbingers of spring.
Author’s Note: Middlebury College sits on land belonging to the Abenaki Nation, and we have all contributed and been complicit in the brutal colonization of this Indigenous land. The Western Abenaki are the traditional caretakers of this Vermont area Ndakinna, or homeland. We give our gratitude to the Abenaki Elders and Indigenous inhabitants of Turtle Island past and present, and are thankful for the opportunity to share in the bounty and protection of this environment.