Sitting atop Tree Nine, 15 stories above the college grind, you really realize how lucky you are.
One hundred and fifty feet up the Douglas-fir, located beside College Nine, your eyes ride their way down the soft green sea of trees, finally landing within the sapphire blue of the Monterey Bay. Our campus built into a forest, perched above a bay, is almost unfathomable and easy to forget while running from one class to the next.
But this August, UC Santa Cruz Grounds Services cut the bottom branches off Tree Nine in an attempt to make the Douglas-fir unclimbable. As they destroyed the branches, the administration also destroyed a UCSC rite of passage, a shared experience that made one not just another UC student, but specifically a Banana Slug.
Tree Nine was the perfect climbing tree. All the way up the fir, the trunk is surrounded by sturdy, easily reachable branches.
Physically, almost anyone could climb the tree. It was only the mental challenge of being so far above the ground that made ascending Tree Nine difficult.
Making it to the top meant facing your fears, trusting yourself and taking a leap of faith. And the view from the peak, the experience of sitting above a vast forest, rewarded you tenfold.
On some campuses, freshmen pledge fraternities, shotgun cheap beers and run errands for seniors for initiation. At UCSC, we climbed a tree to become a part of the campus community.
We are a university of life-lovers who take time to enjoy beauty, and Tree Nine was a symbol of that way of life. But due to the administration’s alleged fear of liability, the Tree Nine experience has been stolen from the majority of the campus community.
Director of public information Jim Burns explained the administration’s rationale for cutting the branches.
“Unfortunately, people climbing in or swinging from campus trees can injure themselves,” Burns said in an e-mail to the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “Sometimes quite seriously.”
The administration’s fear is understandable. In our society, avoiding liability is king. Since Stella Liebeck was awarded $2.86 million from McDonald’s after she sued because her coffee was too hot, every large institution has done any and everything to protect itself from frivolous suits.
But the decision to trim the lower branches of Tree Nine was a mistake for two reasons.
Firstly, putting a sign that clearly and visibly defined the risk of climbing a 150-foot Douglas-fir could have protected the university without denying access to a majestic feature of the campus.
Secondly and more importantly, cutting off the Tree Nine’s lower branches will not stop people from climbing — it will only make each climb more difficult.
Students will find a way up Tree Nine, because the experience is too deeply ingrained in campus life for a 20-foot gap to halt climbing. Whether by rope or some other means, students will make it past the missing branches in order to reach the canopy.
And as time passes, Tree Nine will become a part of campus lore, beckoning risk-takers to the fir’s evasive peak. If anything, the trimming of the branches made a once easily climbable tree into a dangerous venture that will attract those looking for danger.
However, the decision to cut the branches will succeed in one thing. It will take a part of the campus that was accessible to almost all students, and make it ascendable only to a limited few. The view from the top will always be as beautiful and should have always been a place where UCSC students could connect to their campus, their city and the nature around them.
Now, because of the university’s actions, access to the awe-inspiring Douglas-fir, 150 feet above the stress of lectures, midterms and late-night study sessions, will be limited to only some adventure-seekers.
And what was once a mental challenge has become a real physical risk.