A Modest Proposal

By Norman Boucher / September / October 2000
October 26th, 2007
One of the jewels of campus is the College Green, whose sturdy elms and carefully maintained grass are the apotheosis of pastoral contemplation. Though the Green has seen its share of raucous demonstrations and howling rock bands, its utility is really as a space liberated from utility. It’s where you go when you’re trying to escape an irritating roommate or to find a quiet place to sit and read.

Such was not the case, apparently, in 1915. The College Green photograph published in the the October BAM of that year depicts not a sward of lounging students but cropland. “MIDDLE CAMPUS SOWN TO BUCKWHEAT” the headline above the photo states. The caption elaborates: “For the purpose of enriching the impoverished soil, the lawns were ploughed in June and a good crop of breakfast cereal was raised.”

That’s all. No more explanation is provided, which probably means that in the opinion of BAM editor Henry Robinson Palmer, class of 1890, no explanation was necessary. It’s as if raising a few bushels of cereal on the Green was an unremarkable and prudent thing to do with land that was more or less going to waste anyway.

It’s fun to imagine President Blumstein ordering today’s Green to be planted with buckwheat. Since Commencement would likely occur after spring planting season, Campus Dance would have to be cancelled, and the Commencement exercises themselves would have to take place somewhere else. Some students, at least, would be delighted by such a commitment to sustainable agriculture, such an embrace of everyone’s favorite citizen, the small farmer.

The buckwheat planting would also mean that the University had decided to forgo the use of herbicides on campus and would now be tending its green spaces organically. After all, as a legume, buckwheat adds nitrogen to the soil instead of depleting it, as most crops do. (The 1915 photo was taken before the chemical-fertilizer boom of midcentury, when soil enrichment had to be done organically.) And think of the news coverage. Stories would emphasize the quirky boldness of it all, while conservative commentators would opine that finally something useful was being produced up there on College Hill.

And what better way to improve the Stephen Robert Initiative for the Study of Values than by putting Brown students in charge of the crop? As any farmer or passionate gardener has learned, seeing acres of plants through a growing season contains enough moral teaching to rival King Lear. There is no more profound source of hope than a springtime field of germinating plants, and no despair greater than a farmer’s while watching crops die from thirst or frost or uncontrollable insect infestation. All of this was well-understood back in 1915. In the June BAM that year, Assistant Professor of Botany Harlan H. York wrote, “The agriculturist may stumble onto facts, but usually only after hard and long years of experience.” In other words, a buckwheat field is a battleground between idealism and reality, and usually reality, in the form of weather and pests, wins.

On second thought, maybe Brown students aren’t ready for that lesson yet.

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Related Issue
September / October 2000