The Wonder of Trees

There are so many wonderful elements to the experience of working on a college or university campus. One aspect is the campus itself. Places to walk or to sit. Places to read or chat. Even a campus that can’t afford a lot in the way of landscaping is likely to have a couple of trees worth sitting under. Older campuses have amazing, soaring trees. And then there are those who have created campuses full of enough trees both in number and in variety to be designated arboretums. We can take our trees for granted sometimes, but they are a critical part of the campus experience for many of us.

Then there are all the people we have a chance to work with and on most campuses there are the artists, speakers and performers invited to teach and to enrich the experiences of students, faculty and staff, and members of the community. They may be there as commencement speakers. (I was seated behind Admiral McRaven when he gave his instantly famous commencement speech at UT Austin.)

They may be there to commemorate special occasions, for lectureships designed to engage the entire community, or for one-off visits sponsored by a college, academic department (how I met our current Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy), or another unit such as Student Affairs. The latter is how I got to meet George Takei. The list of amazing people I had a chance to meet is fun, but the number of amazing moments is even more remarkable.

In 2014, the LBJ Presidential Library on the UT Austin campus held a week-long symposium to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Throughout the week, all of the living presidents spoke, but the highlight was the final speech by President Obama. I pulled a bit of rank and told our Dean of Students I was willing to work as part of their security team. This meant I was on call as a first intervenor if there was a disruption, but it got me a ticket to the event. Hearing President Obama speak was incredible, but before he spoke, Mavis Staples sang “We Shall Overcome.” That was simply extraordinary. Still gives me goose bumps.

And Mavis Staples leads us to the trees mentioned in the title. Former journalist Dan Rather has a newsletter called Steady and on Saturdays he shares “A Reason to Smile”. Each of these newsletters at the end of January and first of February shared a work of art about trees. One was a performance by Mavis Staples which of course is the connection that started this off. But the other two were by artists I’ve never heard of. All three are wonderful and have led me to learn more about each of them. All three performances have a tree as the central metaphor.

Judging by the number of pictures on my computer, I’m fascinated by trees. Their shape and size, their bark, silhouettes against the sky and the way they slowly, often imperceptibly change. Each tree is amazing in its own right whether we take pictures of them or even notice them in our busy day. In the same way, every college I’ve been part of has offered marquee events but there are also day-to-day individual opportunities to hear from amazing speakers and artists – many of whom are the students we interact with everyday. I have often known a student well and then at an honors event learn that they are not only a campus leader, but an amazing scholar. Or I’ve heard them sing or seen them perform and realize I only knew a few of their many facets.

Below I’ve included links to all three performances. I hope you’ll find them as inspiring as I do and I hope they will each in their own way remind you to stand strong as we face the elements, to celebrate our own individual talents, and to work to celebrate the different shapes and promises of the trees we see each day and also of the many lives around us that are strong and amazing each in their own unique way.

Take care,


“Crooked Tree”
Mollie Tuttle and Golden Highway

“I Shall Not Be Moved”
Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi

“We Shall Not Be Moved”
Mavis Staples

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