A Publication for the faculty, staff, administrators and friends of California State University, Chico
November 11, 2004 Volume 35/Number 3

From the President

We are blessed with a
physical environment that fosters a sense of community and connection with something important that happened here and continues to happen here every day.

Landscape and Memory

For a few days in mid-October, the University hosted Princeton Professor James McPherson, America’s premier Civil War historian. Recipient of the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for his brilliant history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, and named the 2000 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, the most prestigious award of the National Endowment for the Humanities, McPherson was here as part of our President’s Visiting Scholars Program. This program brings extraordinary scholars to the campus to deliver a public address. McPherson’s presentation on “The Global Impact of the American Civil War” was to a large, appreciative audience in Laxson Auditorium on October 14.

Earlier that day, I had the delightful opportunity to sit down with McPherson and to talk with him about the Civil War, his work and career, and history writing more generally. Our conversation was videotaped, and it will be made available to the university community soon, as will subsequent interviews with such visitors of distinction as part of a new series that I have initiated.

Because of mutual interests on the subject, we found our conversation focusing on the relationship between landscape and memory, that is, the power of place in collective social consciousness and how a sense of place is so important to strengthening connections among people both in the present and over time. McPherson’s interest, of course, is in the places of the Civil War, whether they be a grand battlefield, such as Gettysburg or Antietam, or a singular element of those bloody landscapes, like Little Round Top at the former or Burnside’s Bridge at the latter.

We agreed that the principal reason why these places—and other American “shrines” like the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, Lexington and Concord, Yorktown, and the World Trade Center site in New York City—attract millions of visitors each year is because something important happened there and people want to experience and share that sense of importance literally, that is, to touch the walls, stroll the grounds, and imagine the events that occurred there.

A week before McPherson’s visit, I was thinking about landscape and memory in another context. For this was Parents and Alumni Weekend and the campus was alive with new and returning visitors. Several events, like the Golden Grad luncheon for the Class of 1954 and the opening of the time capsules from 1934, 1944, and 1954, played to memories. The dedication of a bench in honor of the founders and distinguished alumni of Lambda Pi fraternity, marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the chapter, evoked a sense of both memory and place. For the bench, installed near the rose garden, now contributes to the physical landscape of the campus.

Whether the Golden Grads or the Lambda Pi brothers, or scores of other alumni whom I met, they shared a common message—the great pride they have in the University and in the campus. And why? Because something important happened here. And as personal and individual as their Chico experiences may have been, they share together, across years and generations, this landscape, this university’s promise, and confidence that important things continue to happen here.

The physical features of our campus and related environs lend themselves to fond recollection. This is a campus of exceptional beauty. Big Chico Creek, Kendall Lawn, the graceful old trees everywhere, the rose garden, the amphitheatre, Trinity Tower, Kendall dome, Laxson’s arches, the shaded pathways and bridges, Bidwell Mansion, Children’s Park, the cherry trees. The appearance of the campus is also a matter of pride. Visitors rarely fail to note how beautiful and clean the campus is. Our recruitment and admissions people know that, if we can get prospective students to visit the campus, we will, more often than not, get them to enroll here. Whether we’re recruiting students or faculty or staff, we know that the campus itself is a powerful factor in the positive image we project, and we should never miss an opportunity to thank our grounds and maintenance people for the work they do.

Just as McPherson’s places of study reflect values, that is, the values and beliefs of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War, our campus conveys important values beyond cleanliness and pride of appearance. We have sought harmony between the natural and built environments. We emphasize a seamless relationship between the campus and the city of Chico, even as we mark our physical boundaries so that people know when they have arrived on the campus. The red brick of our buildings, formed from the earth around us, encourages an awareness of our roots in the region we serve and the history we share. The balance of new and old buildings, especially through incorporating such thematic elements in them as arches and brick, underscores both continuity and change. The borders of our campus with downtown Chico and residential neighborhoods emphasize that we are members of other communities, even as we are a distinctive one ourselves.

The memories in our campus landscape are associational, emotional, and intellectual. We are blessed with a physical environment that fosters a sense of community and connection with something important that happened here and continues to happen here every day. It is called learning. For in a truly distinctive way at Chico State, this is a message grounded as much in the landscape of the campus as it is in the mission of the University.

—Paul J. Zingg

 

 

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