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Where are We Happiest?

Anne Dalke's picture

Having followed these instructions for exploring Bryn Mawr...introduce yourself here and and answer the survey questions: where are you happiest, and why? Where do you think plants are happiest, and why? What similarities and differences are there between what plants and humans find most comfortable? (While you are here, might you want to speculate also about the happiness of non-human animals?)



Nan's picture

Happy Me; Happy Plants ?

Hi, Everybody! 

I'm Nan and I have spent many decades taking classes at Bryn Mawr.  I am really happy to be here with all of you. My work is as a therapist, and my practice is in Swarthmore.  It is wonderful to be able to continue to come to Bryn Mawr and share in these conversations together!  Thank you so much for welcoming me!


It was already 8:00 PM one evening last weekend when I happily marched off into the Morris Wood (with my husband still happily wandering after me).  This started off better than it ended, about an hour later in the vast deserted hallways of the science building where my husband, a composer and prof at Swarthmore College, had long since given up hope of finding me any time soon.

I was quite happy, diving into the darkening wood, perhaps even happiest as we explored deeper among a resplendent diversity of species, apparently unmanaged and relatively free on their stems as the sun was setting and the high beech trees and immense tulip poplars made a canopy catching the last rays.  The plants seemed happy as well, if I would like to allow myself that bit of projected anthropomorphic glee.  But even as new shoots were sprouting from fallen limbs, I thought I did hear something dark green giggle in planty pleasure on the evening air.  I and the plants were quite happy there.  And my husband had not yet started to complain that he was accompanying me in this quixotic undertaking.

#1 for me & #1 for the plants:  The Morris Woods


It is always fun and a source of deep pleasure for me to escape from bugs.  It was dark when we walked into English house, lights ablaze, and apparently empty.  I am very familiar with these classrooms and feel a familiar homey indoor comfort here.  Classroom #1 is not a large room, relative to the woods or perhaps even to some larger classrooms that I might be happier in, but it is homey with large windows,  cosy and quivering with an energetic excitement of imminent thoughts and shared conversations about to make themselves known as the semester begins.

Even with the windows dark, I could remember how bright and cheerful a room this is, one where I am always happy to return.  I am not sure if plants would be happy here.  I suppose there are some plants, perhaps not unlike some domesticated animals, who have come to accept their indoor lot.  Perhaps not unlike someone who has been blind from birth, a potted plant may not know what it is missing, never having seen the woods.  If a plant were transplanted from the woods to the classroom, it might be even less happy, remembering in its fibers, the feeling of the wind through the pectin of its being.

#2 for me; #4 for plants:  English House in Classroom 1


I could not enter the glassed-in stairway of Dalton at night because it was locked, but I could see it from the outside and could imagine its vast prisms of glass stretching above and below the stairway. I think that I might like that space a lot and be temporarily happy there if I did not get trampled by traffic.  I think a plant might be happy with the light and spaciousness as well, but perhaps in the flow of human traffic, the plant might be even more likely than I to be jostled or knocked by people on their way somewhere.  And unlike humans who can pass from glass into air on their own feet carrying them through a doorway, a plant would be incarcerated there like a prize zoo animal gazing through a transparent wall at a world it could not inhabit.

#3 for me; #3 for plants :  The Glassed-in Stairway


It was quite late when I found my way to the parking lot, and I could not see well. I had gotten a little lost, had asked the night watchman for directions, wandered off, leaving my husband happier at this point to read in the car, resigned as he was to my completing this labyrinth of tasks.

So I have to admit, I was not happy in the parking lot.  Parking lots are ostensibly to make cars happy doing one of the things they are meant to do, and to the extent that their owners are eager to get rid of their cars, they are happy too.  But of what use is a parking lot to someone on foot, whose husband is beginning to get restless waiting in a parked car in some other parking lot ?  I did feel slightly silly wandering around in the dark staring at the small trees and plantings. And I'm pretty sure I felt some distain coming from the plants toward me.  Even if they were leading a severely restricted life within their concrete borders and controlled edges, they formed an outdoor community, albeit inhaling auto exhaust, but they still had some suburban sense of belonging, self-satisfied and homogeneous in their attractive ghetto.  I, however, was clearly lost and out of place.

#4 for me; #2 for plants:  The Parking Lot


Now I was on my own and I tried every locked door to the Science building. I was getting tired and worn out but something about this undertaking still tickled my sense of humor.  This was a building I had never entered when I was at Bryn Mawr, though I took rat psychology somewhere along the line.  Could it have been here?  Nothing about the building pleased me -- I am definitely lab phobic.  I asked the security guard and he pointed to the handicapped entrance.  "That one's always open."  I staggered through the doorway and definitely needed a guide to find my way through the rat-maze to classroom #20.  An elderly physicist was pouring over his notes in one classroom.  "Have you heard of Lab 20?" I asked.  "Yes," he said and then proceeded to give me directions not unlike those that get people lost in the labyrinthian streets of Rome.  "It's a new Lab," he said. My thought:  Even if I become miserable in science buildings with vast deserted hallways, perhaps there is a happy plant in a bio lab.  Down the corridors and stairways to Lab 20, locked of course.  But I could see its shiny new tables and counters, sinks and sills, and a bank of windows, certainly bright in the day. Somebody, probably not a plant, was proud of this room. In fact I saw no plants, and would they be happy here either?  Delirious paranoid projections and prejudices gambled through my brain.  Plants cannot, as far as we know, anticipate their own deaths; so perhaps if eager botanists should operate upon them, they would remain blissfully unconscious.  Yet do we know that for sure?  There was a slight chill in the hallway, or was it in my body?  I beat a hasty retreat, happy for myself to leave, happy to see no plant about to succomb to a Mengele's blade.

#5 for me; #5 for plants:  The Science Lab

Amanda Kennedy's picture

Hi, everyone! I'm Amanda, and

Hi, everyone!

I'm Amanda, and I'm a senior English Major at Bryn Mawr, with a concentration (or minor? still figuring that out) in creative writing. I have not studied ecology before, so a course with intersections of literature and ecology intrigued me. I also love gardening, so I thought this class would be a good fit.

My response:

1. In order of happiest to least happy: English House I, Morris Woods, glass staircase in Dalton Hall, campus center parking lot, Room 20 in Park
2. Memory, association, and ambiance influenced my comfort level. Not only am I in English House the most, as an English major, but I also associate moments of learning and growth with this location. English House also has a cozy feel because of its antiquity and location near Morris Woods. Conversely, I had never set foot in Room 20 of Park, and have barely been in Park previously (and as a result, the layout confuses me), so I feel that I am placed outside of my environment here.
3. Morris Woods, campus center parking lot, glass staircase in Dalton Hall, English House I, Room 20 in Park
4. Natural light, room for growth, and availability for soil all affect the comfort level of plants. I ranked the locations as such because the first two are outside, and the parking lot does have a perimeter of plants and trees. While the staircase of Dalton does not contain a space for plants to situate themselves, it does have copious natural light that would be conducive for plant growth. The laboratory, on the other hand, does not have much natural light and feels the most enclosed.
5. Ambiance is key: if there is more natural light (or if the location is outside), then there is a greater agreeability with enhanced mood and plant growth.
6. Plants need specific conditions in order to grow, whereas humans can alter the conditions within the location to feel more comfortable (put on a sweater, surround yourself with friends, etc.) For plants, it is a matter of life or death, whereas for humans, we can adjust to the environment without endangering ourselves.

Srucara's picture

Happiness: Plant vs. Human

Hello Everyone! I’m Sruthi and I am looking forward to this course because it mysteriously coincides quite perfectly with several themes in my personal life I am currently exploring including my connection to the natural world and the human ability of representing experiences with thoughts, beliefs, and with words. A few of my questions include what is the potential of the word with respect to representing anything, what are its limitations, and how do these limitations and potentials define the human experience with respect to connecting the words back to thoughts and chatter in the mind in the place of actually, truly, experiencing the world and life as it is. By participating in this class I seek to further explore these ideas and am looking forward to a semester of immense growth and development with you.

My Ranking of where I felt happiest (1 being happiest):

1 English House I
2 Morris Woods
3 Room 20 in Park
4 Glass staircase in Dalton
5 The campus center parking lot

I found that I was most comfortable in the room English house I because it had a feeling of home, as though it was a completely safe space and I was protected, I had very little to be concerned of, and I could freely be myself – especially when I am the only one in the room! I felt a sense of peace while in the Morris Woods but occasionally this peace was disturbed by my suspicions of a bee around the corner preparing to attack or a strange insect or animal I may have to confront unexpectedly. Even beyond that it was an unfamiliar location. As a child I grew up in houses and played outside in the afternoons usually in man-made parks or backyards. I rarely ventured off into the woods or took adventurous trips into natural locations where no one else was near. Standing in the Morris woods with the trees enveloping me from the skylight and the uneven ground and dirt beneath my feet, I was both amazed at the peaceful energy around me and afraid of the unknown. I was least comfortable in the campus center parking lot because not only did I not feel a feeling of peace but rather I felt distress. I soon began thinking of all of the things I have to do during these busy days with my classes and began feeling powerless towards the challenges that lay before me. When in the Woods and English House I felt safe, protected, amazed, and at peace however in the campus parking lot, I did not feel safe as I worried the impatient driver behind me may run me over and I did not feel amazed at the unappealing concrete surrounding me.

My Ranking of where I feel the plants were happiest (1 being happiest):

1 Morris Woods
2 English House I
3 Room 20 in Park
4 Glass staircase in Dalton
5 The campus center parking lot

The plants of course would be happiest in the environments in which they were naturally meant to be present – in regions of rich soil, nutrients, sunlight, water, and the collective inter-relationships between organisms and plants (earthworms aerating the soil, bacteria that decompose plant matter back into nutrients. I think plants would be happy growing in the English House and Room 20 especially if a few humans manually provided them nutrients, water, and light. I feel that they would be least happy in the Glass staircase and the campus center parking lot. Both of these areas are made of coarse and strong materials which may make it difficult for plants to penetrate the surface of these materials. Although there is ample sunlight in campus center parking lot, the many cars that drive in the parking lot and the toxins released from the vehicle emissions as well as those already present in the aphalt may make it difficult for plants to be happy in this location. The glass staircase in Dalton, although glass and therefore may let some sunlight through, is also not optimal because glass only lets a limited amount of sunlight through and certainly not all of it. For plants to be happy, especially for the large and healthiest ones, I think they may need to be in as much of an unenclosed, peaceful, and undisturbed area as possible – such as the Morris woods.

I think the plants and humans may be similar in finding comfort in areas that are peaceful and undisturbed. Plants will thrive in the Morris Woods because this region is essentially left mostly undisturbed by humans (except for the occasional grounds crew workers and other humans walking around). However, in the parking lot plants will probably not thrive with the toxins from vehicle emissions and asphalt and being damaged by excessive human activity – whether that may be being stepped on or run over by a car. The concrete may also be difficult to decompose over time. I feel that plants share this feature with humans because humans too find comfort in peace and security in place of distress and insecurity.

 Where plants and humans may vary include humans need for familiarity. Although humans enjoy adventure from time to time, they would rather enjoy coming back to a familiar location – a space where they feel safe, secure, and home. Humans need a place where they can trust, especially because of their strong habits and associations with domestication.