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Blurred Boundaries

sarahj's picture

            I’ve never been very good at wandering or walking without any sort of plan.  Hence the reason a planned to circle the campus out edges and then explore its inner parts.  Of course, like with any sort of plan, it inevitably changed. I began my walk after brunch, around noontime, heading down Erdman Driveway.  In this part of campus, the boundaries were very clear, usually marked by sidewalks or beautifully trimmed bushes.  After deciding that these boundaries were easily identified, I turned my attention toward my surroundings, marveling at the clear sky with perfect clouds and reading license plates.  Eventually my gaze fell upon this little white house right beside the Admissions parking lot.  Here began my true saunter and my plan began to fade away.  I was able to identify the building as the site of Human Resources and continued through the parking lot to take a look at the next never-before-seen sight.  After learning that the gate to Admissions was adorned with lanterns given to the college by the Alumnae Association to celebrate past, present and future Mawrters, I turned the corner onto Yarrow Street and was met with a yet another gateway that presented me with a little bit of a conundrum.

            A little way past the driveway exit from the back of Haffner and Wyndham, there is a break in the hedges to allow for two pillars made of rocks that, together, formed a gate.  On the pillar to my right, the words “Wyndham 179?” were engraved.  If I were to guess, I would say that this gateway marked the boundaries of the Wyndham estate, erected almost 100 years before the college was established.  Suddenly I felt as though I were standing at a point where two timelines—one past and one present -- intersected.  At the same time that these gates were marking the boundary to an estate that no longer exists, it was marking the boundary of Bryn Mawr College as it was part of the guardrail of hedges.  I felt as though, if I were to walk through the gateway, I would appear not in the yard of Haffner, but it the middle of a dirt driveway in the 1790s.  This blurring of boundaries in time really fascinates me.

            I decided it was time to move and, thrilled by discovery, made a point to seek out places I had never been before.  I turned my feet toward Bettwys Y Coed and walked past the door determined to go around the back.  I was deturbed by the sight of two squirrels running back and forth between two trees and jumping on them so I decided to go through the building instead of around.  I felt like a bit of a traitor to the name of Henry Thoreau by wandering inside instead of staying with out, though.  Walking outside, I found a very nice backyard.  My first thought was, “Wow.  The Psych department could throw really nice parties back here”.  I looked around and saw a piece of worn earth that lead toward the back of a building that I presumed belonged to The Shipley School.  I walked through this opening and found myself exactly where I thought I would be.  I remember thinking how interesting it was that Bryn Mawr’s property ran right up on top of Shipley’s and that there was no clear marker.  Or, was it Shipley’s property running up onto Bryn Mawr’s? Did that worn earth belong to anyone? Here, I found yet another boundary that was not as clear cut as they could have been.  The two properties simply merged together.

            There were many instances on my walk where the boundaries blurred.  The President’s House (Pen Y Groes) and the Phoebe Ann Thorne School (West House) and the Child Study Institute were three of these places.  The boundaries blurred for me at these places because, all they belonged to the college, they did not feel like places I was welcome without permission or invitation.  As a student I have always felt like the campus was mine.  I could go where I pleased because I was paying to be here.  However, these three houses represent boundaries within a larger boundary, through which only select people have free reign. I also made may way out to The Graduate School of Social Work where the boundary of campus isn’t so much blurred, but interrupted by the residential house that I had to walk through in order to get there.  After this trek, I returned to my dorm room to take a much needed break as the sun was high and I didn’t bring any water with me.

            After resting a bit and waiting for a lower sun, I ventured out again.  This time, I was on the hunt for the center of campus.  I thought this would be a fairly easy thing to do.  My mind had already decided that the intersection of Senior Row and Canaday Drive was the center.  It seemed to be equidistant from each extreme of campus and, although I can’t throw a party there, it is a place of constant activity.  Students, visitors and cars are constantly moving across and over it.  It is the intersection of Traditions, Academia and Residential Life as three of the four directions you could move from this spot would lead you to a place that represented on of those. However, I am equally as likely to call the cloisters the center of Bryn Mawr.  It is a place of its own with a magic and mystique about it.  It represents everything that I love so much about Bryn Mawr—rigorous academics alongside treasured traditions.  I honestly started to get a bit emotional there as a pondered over the fact that I was a senior, and soon would no longer be able to come and find solace here.  Perhaps, in my mind, there are two centers to Bryn Mawr: one is the literal center and the other is a more spiritual one, where visitors can feel the spirit of Bryn Mawr strongly.

            Finally, I ended my journey by traveling to Arncliffe and Perry House.  Perry House struck me the most.  I walked into the backyard and was greeted by several vibrancy chairs, but what shocked me the most was that, although it had only been three and a half months since the house had been inhabited, these chairs were covered in vines.  Nature began to claim its territory, slowly destroying the boundaries we humans had tried to put up.  Vines had also begun to engulf the cement walls around the garden and had begun to try and close the gap that I used to walk through the wall.  Also in the garden was an old arched gateway that I had never noticed before.  On the other side, there was a small set of stairs that now led into nothing but undergrowth.  It was a boundary but was slowly being destroyed by vines and moss, similar to a rock pathway that I found behind Russian house, barely visible as the plant life slowly erased its presence.  At the end of this path, I looked up and gazed beyond English House into Morris Woods.  Where did Bryn Mawr end and these Woods begin?  How long will it take nature to erase this boundary if there ever really was one?




Anne Dalke's picture

On drawing boundaries

For someone who has "never been very good at wandering," you certainly covered a lot of territory, both material and intellectual, literal and spiritual…

Some of my favorite moments in your walk are these:
"Here began my true saunter and my plan began to fade away."
"…the next never-before-seen sight"
"I felt like a traitor to Thoreau by wandering inside."
"standing at a point where two timelines—one past and one present -- intersected… blurring boundaries in time."

The most striking dimension of your essay--which its title signals-- is its meditations on boundaries. You identify several that are "not as clear cut as they could have been," that lack "clear markers," and you also play with the conceit that all boundaries created by humans are eventually destroyed by Nature; the image of the vine-covered (vibrancy!) chairs outside of Perry house is a very striking figuration of that idea.

The other piece here that I'd like to talk more about is your sense that --though you "have always felt like the campus was yours"--several of the places you visited--the President’s House, the Thorne School and the Child Study Institute in particular, although "they belonged to the college"--"did not feel like places you were welcome without permission or invitation."

Thoreau has a nice passage in Walden in which he recycles a poem that reads "I am monarch of all I survey/My right there is none to dispute." He argues that people who own property have limits to their ownership, while those who don't, don't have to respect such boundaries. So maybe we can interrogate your own sense of ownership, and of being unwelcome; are they reciprocal? Are those boundaries mental ones?

(I also love your commentary about--amidst all this philosophizing-- being asked to draw some boundaries for another visitor to campus!)

sarahj's picture

What a Coincidence??

The best part of my walk was that, as I was walking up the Perry House driveway on my way to English House, I man pulled up beside me and asked if I could tell him where this road went. I told him it stopped at Perry House, but there was another driveway leading to Perry House.  He then asked me what of all the property belonged to Bryn Mawr and what belonged to the house he was looking to buy.  I found it quite funny that, hear I am wandering around thinking about boundaries and here comes someone who wants to ask me all about them.