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Monday, May 29, 2023

Science Spotlight: Tree Vandalism on Campus

It was almost comical. One of the custodial staff was in the Battell bathroom as I brushed my teeth early one morning during winter term. “You haven’t seen a tree, have you?” she asked, peering into the shower stalls. “No, I haven’t,” I replied, both puzzled and bemused. Coincidentally, I had an interview with Tim Parsons, the College’s landscape horticulturalist later that day to discuss his “Trees in the Urban Forest” class, so I filed the encounter away to mention to him.

It turned out that the tree in question, a small oak sapling that had been pulled out of the ground on the night of Jan. 15 in the small quad between Battell and Carr Hall, was not the only victim that night. A nearby lilac had also been uprooted. But this was not an isolated event, either. When I asked Parsons about it, he told me that it was one in a long line of vandalism incidents that began to noticeably increase in number in the fall of 2009.

Parsons has compiled a list of all the events since 2009. In that time frame, there have been at least 31 weekends when vandalism occurred and over 50 different vandalism events in that time frame.

“Most of the damage seems to be in the fall and winter term. If you look at all these dates, there never seems to be all that much in the spring,” said Parsons in an interview last week. “[Apart from those] two trees pulled up out of the ground [midweek] during winter term this year, almost all the [vandalism occurs] on the weekend. And of course, I don’t know if it’s Friday night, Saturday night, or Sunday night. But there have been times when it’s so bad, Monday morning first thing, I cruise the campus looking specifically for tree vandalism.”

The damage ranges from cosmetic to fatal. The list Parsons has compiled documents snapped branches, savaged shrubs and whole saplings that have been uprooted.

“The vandalism is for the most part located around Atwater, Allen, Battell and along the road behind Proctor Dining Hall and the tennis courts,” said Parsons. “It would be hard to quantify the impact on the urban forest as a whole, but certainly there’s an entire row of trees that all have been broken in the last four or five years, and now they have big wounds on the side, they’re misshapen. From a tree’s perspective, they now have these big wounds that they have to work out how to cope with. Their growth will be affected. And really, from a landscaping perspective, it doesn’t look very good.”

Brian Marland ’15 took “Trees in the Urban Forest,” the winter term class taught by Parsons, this past January and ended up writing his final paper on tree vandalism on campus. He noticed the trend of weekend incidents and was curious to examine a possible correlation with weekend alcohol consumption. “I found a lot of psychological evidence that suggested that alcohol increases aggression. Perhaps tree vandalism is an outlet for that pent-up aggression,” said Marland in an interview last week.

“Almost all of the tree vandalism on Middlebury’s campus occurs late at night on weekends when students frequently drink alcohol and walk across campus in large numbers to parties in other buildings,” Marland wrote in his final paper for

“Trees of the Urban Forest.” He connects it to vandalism incidents that occur in urban settings around bars and nightclubs. He cites a Seattle example given by Marvin Black in The Journal of Arboriculture: “Most vandalized Seattle street trees are broken by males aged 17 to 25, mostly in connection with drunkenness or drug trips, and our major vandalism time is right after taverns close at 2 a.m., and for the next three hours’… On a residential campus such as Middlebury’s, dorm rooms are often the location of alcohol consumption and take the place of taverns from Black’s example.”

Parsons brought the issue of tree vandalism to the attention of the Community Council in 2010 with a formal presentation. He was frustrated by his inability to stop it. “It came up around the same time as conversations about dorm damage."

"The problem with the vandalism that I have is that I can’t bill students for broken branches,” said Parsons.But what bothers him more than anything is not the cost. “It’s the violence that concerns me,” he said. “I mean, I can’t emphasize enough, some of the damage that I’ve seen done, it took some pretty good brute strength that kind of frightens me in a way, especially down in the Atwater suites. It seems like that’s an area prone to dark corners and parties in back rooms. To have this [kind of violence] taking place as well … it doesn’t seem like a good mix. There’s been talk that the social scene on campus needs help. Well, I think this is some proof right here.”

“The most effective solutions seemed to be education and public awareness,” Marland noted. “I feel like at this school where there’s such an ethical consciousness around divestment and the environment, it makes sense to build a student consciousness around our own landscape.”

It is an issue of community, on multiple levels. On one level, tree vandalism impacts the ecological community of the urban forest. On another level, a vandalized campus impacts the ethos of the College’s community. And finally, it impacts the community of people who dedicate their livelihoods to maintaining this campus.

“The guys in our shop take great pride in the way they take care of this place,” Parsons observed. “They come up to a tree and they see a branch with a big rip in the bark right down the middle, or a sapling they’ve planted ripped out of the ground, and it just breaks their heart.”