On this sunny Friday afternoon in late-September, I sit on a perfectly-manicured and pesticide-ridden lawn that feels more like a graveyard (albeit a beautiful one) than a wood. A fair wind blows—not quite howling—but enough to rustle the leaves as if in a faint, distant whisper. I recall, during my first stint here four years ago, the lush green trees and other flora that inhabited this little plot. Those old-growth maples and oaks—which existed here long before Oxford was a town and Miami a university—were allowed free reign over the land. Even the sinister honeysuckle—an invasive tree that strangled the underbrush—were in abundance back then.
There were many reservations about the so-called “restoration” of Bishop Woods, which took place in 2015. Several professors and experts whose job it is to consider local ecology and conservation pushed back against parts of the plan to tame the space. They were concerned with “the large area of grass that would be created puts an unnatural environment in the center of a little island of natural environment.” They were also worried about the size and layout of the paths.
Unfortunately, their advice was largely ignored. Yes, the invasive Honeysuckle has been removed. But so has Bishop Woods’ soul. Now, it is not so much a wild wood as a utopic park. Perfectly trimmed, lighted and maintained, wide paths cut through it like an interstate. It serves as little more than glorified thoroughfare for students too lazy to take the long way around and too entitled to duck under a branch or two.
Admittedly, the new Bishop Woods is objectively beautiful. It is, like the rest of campus, a Utopia of sorts—a stunning green space on, as poet Robert Frost described it, “the most beautiful campus that ever there was.” However, not only is it completely unnatural and ecologically apart from what is the norm in southwest Ohio, but it does nothing to promote the University’s purported aims and objectives for sustainability on campus. Frost must be turning in his grave.
Is it humanity’s most tragic flaw to endlessly strive for perfection, for Utopia, and in turn kill what is perfect about our natural world? The word ‘Utopia’, of Greek origin, simultaneously means both “the perfect place” and “no place”. We constantly attempt to tame rivers and seas, reclaim land, span water, pave woods—all to make our lives more convenient. And yet we come up short — Utopia always evades us.
Scattered in the breeze on this late-summer’s day, I can almost hear the collective voice of the ghosts of Bishop Woods warning us not to destroy Utopia in search of it. A dire warning the whole world should heed, but probably won’t.