Home to the Mathematics and Computer Science departments, Middlesex College building is a dominating figure on campus. Situated at the bottom of the hill to where University College stands, its distinctive collegiate gothic architecture with clock and bell tower is the campus landmark.
The featured photograph conveys the imposing height of the building, but it does little to demonstrate its breadth. If you can imagine two wings, scaled to match the clock and inwardly reaching like long arms to embrace the campus, then you have a sense of Middlesex College.
Middlesex College opened in 1960 as a home for the Department of History. According to the building’s Wikipedia page, the tower houses five bells, each eight feet in diameter and weighing 400 lbs. However, the bells no longer ring, and were decommissioned in 2007 due to high refurbishment costs. They are “tuned to E, B, E, F and G#”.
The photograph above shows the trees that have sheltered between Middlesex and University College. There is a mix of planted specimens and a stand of natural growth that can be found on the lower right, across the road that intersects the pathway.
The front lawn of Middlesex houses a stand of black walnut trees. Previous to this space becoming a university, it was used as a farm, and these trees were planted here at that time. (The school’s founding date is March 7, 1878.) The story I learned was the row of walnut trees followed the road entering the farm and is all that remains of the farm itself, although there are trees on campus which predate farming in the region.
When walnut seeds fall from the trees, they are covered in a coarse green skin encapsulating a fibrous flesh. Inside is the walnut in its shell. As the seeds lie on the ground through the autumn, the flesh blackens and rots away. In early winter only the nut remains, and this is when the squirrels take advantage. The husk is not a nice thing to handle, as it stains black everything it comes in contact with and can be irritating to the skin.
While dropping from the tree, each seed is a heavy little ballistic that falls from some very tall trees. It is a bit risky to sit, or even walk, under them when the breeze picks up.
After giving a proper introduction to the Physics and Astronomy building last post, I thought I should give you a good look at the old gal’s rivals, the University College Building and Middlesex College (next post).
Home to Western’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities, the UC building looks down hill toward the Thames River (yes, unfortunately the current names to things in this area of Canada are associated with places in England; obviously, no one was anticipating the havoc it would cause with Google). The original downtown of London in Canada, with its grand first homes, is across the river and further south. Coming up from town to the university, you would know you had arrived when you crossed the bridge and were greeted by University College. Built in the 1920’s, University College is a massive building embedded on the high ground and dominated by a castle-like lookout tower.
University College recently underwent a massive $34 million renovation, with details available here.
Renovations from the inside out also included new gardens and outdoor seating, which replaced a car parking lot. Some trees around the building were also removed to increase the amount of interior light, especially on the left side of the tower.
Undisturbed by the work is an extensive collection of planted trees. It is possible to stroll the immense lawn to Middlesex College under a shady avenue of amazing maples, walnuts, oaks, chestnuts and others.
In this area are some of the first trees planted on campus. I think the photo below might be of the famous self-seeded apple tree that is thought to have predated the campus. It appears to have had a long life, and despite its diminished appearance it is maintained and kept on site near University College.
After introducing Jane’s Garden in last post, I wanted to share another building on campus that has gained an addition to its old form. It is the Physics and Astronomy Building. Sadly for it, sharing a corner on campus with the impressive University College that looks like a castle and Middlesex College with a gothic-style clock tower, the original Natural Sciences building seems a little plain at a distance. This changes, however, when you get up close. Considered the better-built of the campus’s two 1920’s buildings, the Physics and Astronomy building is filled with quirky details you have to search for to find.
Opened in 1924, the original Natural Sciences and University College buildings are the two oldest academic buildings existing at Western today. When we arrive at Physics and Astronomy 98 years after its opening, we are greeted by a set of original carved faces like the one shown above. On the featured image, the carved heads appear only as dots along the lower banks of windows flanking the front entry. There is a bit of information about the carvings posted inside the building shown below.
Each of the side doors and the main entrance are also decorated with equally surprising carvings. A closer look at one of the smaller side doors is shown above. We can see leaves, flower buds, a sun with a face, and is the middle one in the bottom photo to the left a pie?
Like the Biological and Geological Sciences building, the Physics and Astronomy building contains an inner courtyard, but here a $25 million renovation in 2012 converted the space to make it interior to the building. Much of the exterior façade was kept. The new space serves for functions and events, and there are a small number of tables for students to use.
In the featured image at the top we see four rows of windows, the lower one appearing to sink into the ground. From where the interior photos were taken (seen below), we are in the middle of the building on the second level. In the next photo we can see down to the lower floor, and the top of the photograph shows a staircase leading to the upper levels. The last photo shows the upper level.
Exterior landscape renovations were completed in 2021, connecting the exterior space of University College and Physics and Astronomy is a large pedestrian avenue with exterior seating.
The Western University campus has an amazing collection of trees. I showed off two Magnolias in a recent post. The perennial collection, on the other hand, has fallen victim to digging squirrels and foraging geese, so often what comes up also disappears before much happens.
More successful gardening happens in raised beds, like the purple and white tulips at University College. Or, on the wall below.
And hidden away in the shelter of the Biological and Geological Sciences building, is Jane’s Garden. It is a secret spot that one finds only if happening past it. Sheltered amidst the building itself, it is a fully enclosed outdoor space.
As can be seen in the photo above, the walls suggest the space was not fully enclosed when the building was first erected, and that a later addition caused the garden’s separation from the exterior of the campus. This is not entirely uncommon at UWO, where one mode of expansion has been to annex outdoor spaces that formerly separated buildings and join them together. Here, the space was not made part of the indoors, but became a garden protected by multi-storied walls.
Anyone familiar to gardening has probably observed that a particularly well-sheltered spot can serve to cultivate plants that normally do not thrive in the given climate zone. I suspect this is the case here as well, given that spring-flowering snow drops appeared around March 18, and then in the rest of London a few weeks later. So perhaps it should not have been so surprising to see that redwood trees have been growing here.
According to Wikipedia, the Dawn Redwood is known by fossil record to have grown in the northern hemisphere, and was thought to be extinct. When only a few specimens were discovered in China in the 1940s, seeds were collected and distributed to botanical gardens throughout China and world-wide. Today it is an endangered species in the wild, but has been preserved through cultivation.
These photos were taken on March 18 and April 30. I will try to share some updates over the summer.
I had never seen one in real life, so it is a guess that I am making that this is a magnolia tree. I think the images on Wikipedia match well enough to say this is probably correct.
This was not a tree I noticed in the previous seasons, but when I saw it blooming on the afternoon of my last exam in April, it became the thing I remember clearest of this term’s finals. After a particularly exhausting last test, I left the exam room like one leaves a shopping mall or movie theatre. I had been in a windowless room, entering it from a cool and rainy spring morning, and emerging into falling snow. The spring weather was similar to the typical London autumn snow, with snowflake clusters so large they slide from the sky rather than twirl and spin on the thermal currents. Out of sync with it, I felt I had emerged into a different season.
Then, walking to the bus stop, I saw what I thought were suspended snow clusters refusing to fall: snow balls hanging mid-air. It took a bit to process, but there it was, these marvelously large white flowers emerging in a landscape of bare branches and late spring snow falls. I had my introduction to magnolias.
According to Wikipedia, Magnolia is an ancient genus, with plants of this family existing in fossil records as old as 95 million years. They have existed longer than bees, and it is hypothesized that their flowers evolved to be pollinated by beetles.
This year, I am staying in Eastern Canada for the summer. Exciting! I am a garden enthusiast, and moving into a new biome means there is a lot to explore in both the cultivated and natural world. According to the map below, my current area is temperate broadleaf forest, compared to other photos on the blog that come from an area called temperate steppe.
Warm weather, flowers and greenery has come to London much sooner than my home city in the Canadian prairies, which experienced snow flurries yesterday. However, my husband did send recent photos of the tulips blooming, so things are waking up back home as well.
First thing to notice is that with the milder London winters, spring-flowering bulbs and corms are more diverse here. Try as I did in my early gardening years, there is no way I could get daffodils (in the featured image) or the saffron-bearing crocus to grow in my prairie garden. These are all common in southern Ontario, where London is located.
Some of the early spring delights, from about five weeks ago on April 12, 2022.
It may seem that for Canadians the world of war and political conflict is far away. This is a fact that often leads people to make this country their home, to hope for the safety and prosperity of their children, and to look forward to a long and peaceful old age.
But when violence erupts in other parts of the world, and we experience our connection to it, we are reminded again of how the majority of us living in Canada now have our ancestry in places outside our country. In recent years, it feels like so many people in my life are grieving for friends and families displaced or killed in other places, or worried for them.
I chose this post’s topic in consideration of how much disruption irresponsible leaders unleash on the world. Currently, several of my courses have included some type of study on population growth/decline. What I see in the overall story of humans is that despite the death and suffering they inflict on so many people, dictatorships with their big wars and the bankrupt economies they create, are unable to make any significant change. They do nothing to disrupt the underlying patterns of life. They are meaningless to history once those they harm are gone.
In London, Ontario, at this time of year, one such reminder (albeit not human) is the Canada Goose. It was noisy on campus last week, a constant reminder of the continuity of life, as I will explain. On Monday, I set one rule: while on campus I would take a picture of every goose on a roof that I encountered. To try to keep with the rule, I eventually had to stay inside as much as possible, because it took a lot more time from the day than I expected.
Western University is home to year-round geese residents. During the fall and winter they are rather docile. They travel in large groups, usually grazing across the lawns. When the oak trees drop their acorns the geese converge to the sidewalks under these trees shortly after every class-change. The crowds of students walking across the seeds breaks open the shells and the geese rush in to take them.
At this time of year, the birds begin their fight for territory and mates, and start to pair off. One way to attract a potential partner is to claim a roof and commence the noisy mating call process. By Friday, the birds had begun to settle down. But very soon, the nests and the eggs will happen and then goslings. At this point, it is not uncommon for students to be attacked by ground and by air, should they enter goose-occupied zones.
Writing teaches us many things, and the necessity of patience is foremost. We must wait with our story. Be patient to learn its ending. We must be compassionate with our characters. Be patient to learn who they are. We must manage our expectations about our narrative skills. Be patient as we practice, almost endlessly, it seems. Be patient with how much we do, how fast we work. Protect the creative energy. It may seem that we are always waiting, never fully reaching the thing we are trying to get to. But when it comes, it can come fast—the story rushing at us, overwhelming, and leading us to wish it away again.
In these past two years none of us has really known what the next year will be like, or the next month, or week. The uncertainty crawls into the belly, lives like a parasite in our guts. Meanwhile, in our most-human and paradoxical mind, we struggle with the everyday mundaneness of living, working, studying, cooking, eating, reading, fighting, loving, sleeping, laughing, crying, and doing-everything-at-home boredom.
Regardless of whether we are writers or not, artists or not, inventors or not, there is a rhythm to human life that moves us naturally into balance of doing and retreating. We are driven to oscillate emotionally and intellectually. We move between states, and this movement is where the creative static of insight, growth and self-expression comes from.
Some of you know that this writer is also a student, learning how be a mathematician. This is a strange statement “be a …”. It is strange, in part, because “to be” in the English language has such finality to it, a decisive closure that denies the precariousness of identification. Here, strange is the best word to fit against that finality, putting our sense of being in partnership with alienation. It reminds us that identity is a spectrum. We oscillate in our relationship with our own self, being and knowing ourselves as different people across a lifetime, sometimes even being several versions of ourselves in only one day.
To “be a mathematician” is also strange—mathematical culture is itself strange. It carries with it a layer of expectation from the outside world that the people inside it must be a stereotype of the anti-social genius slowly going mad with their own inability to connect with others. Think of the popular movies A Beautiful Mind (Nash) or The Imitation Game (Turing) that played up the stereotypes, misrepresenting the real-life people. To be is to both be a part of something and to be apart from it, never fully inhabiting the mythos of archetype, but not fully stepping away either.
There is a bit of anxiety within institutionalized math culture to uphold that genius-level expectation, even while exerting a high level of self-control to avoid the other stereotype of being socially inept. In so many ways, a math lecture is the opposite of those I had in the English department. Math: lectures are quiet, students are reluctant to speak, and there seems to an embarrassment about process, as though we can’t try and fail, that we should instantly know and agree and hide our ignorance or doubt, and therefore this process must be modelled in departmental colloquia by speaking over everyone’s head and otherwise being reluctant to talk with a general audience about math stuff. English: outbursts of passionate hyperbole and theoretical nit-picking are normalized and expected, no one is right and must be challenged, therefore this process must be modelled by being contentious in departmental meetings and controversial in interviews with the local press. (Drama was billed as part of the job if one stayed in humanities academia past the undergrad.) Math: this is what it is to be analytical, logical, and reasonable. English: this is what it is to be creative and people-focused. There is a pageantry of belonging, of acting the part. Underneath, we are always us and aware of our complexity, but we are less likely to let go of the costumes and masks—to come as we are—when we feel our place in the group is threatened. Thus, the caricature of difference and difference-making persists. In academics, where inclusion is offered to a fraction of those who pursue it, the game can be intense.
One thing, and this began before the pandemic arrived and upended our lives but has now sped it up, is that the dichotomies we have created for human identity and self-expression in the public space are changing. Some of it is the process of self-preservation. Those of us who felt happy removed from the world, best when left alone, have been joyful in the cyclic reunions with the world when we are afforded them amidst the waves of pandemic. For those I know who always seemed busy with the outside world, rarely making anything for themselves, creative work has become a place to put their excess energy during times of isolation.
When in-person classes resumed for some of the university this fall, something was different in my math classes. A greater delight to talk about math with each other, to ask questions, to use the colours, not just white chalk on black boards or black markers on white boards. Teachers seemed to enjoy students more, delight with their learning, seek response and interruption in lecture (no more muted and expressionless black zoom windows). And out of doors, cameras—real equipment or just the cell phone—catching a pic of the morning light, the first snow, the turning leaves in autumn. More of us remembering to grab those small, sustaining things that help us endure the hours of another lock-down.
I walk past this place in the photograph several days a week, often enough that I have begun to not see it. To not see the tree, the contrast of colour with the small burst of red fruit against the green vines, the building behind it, the concrete and autumn leaves. But this day, there was something about the light, or the mood I was in, so rather than not notice, I saw Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” instead. Or, perhaps it is more honest to say that I didn’t see this either, but felt it and knew immediately where the feeling came from.
Klimt gives the lovers a natural world of flowers and vines and sunlight that holds them as they entwine with each other. There is support, gentleness and shelter in their pose. A yearning to be close, but their mutual embrace feels unhurried, in some steady state of forever. There is care taken to postpone the kiss which itself is not painted.
March. Multivariable calculus. One day the professor gives his lecture and then adds that vector fields help us model the spread of disease, something we might be interested in given what is happening in China.
My Asian classmates have been wearing face masks for a couple of weeks now, but some of the local students poke their heads up and blink. “What’s happening in China?” one of them asks.
Last in-person classes of the semester are in March. Within a few days of the university closing we are on a flight home. The flight plan has changed a few times as the airlines try to adapt; we are travelling the day classes resume on-line.
I do a calculus assignment in Toronto’s Pearson airport. Most of the services have closed and the only food option is potato chips from a vending machine.
The next day we login to the university website, and carry on. My husband has moved his office into the house. He goes to work in sweat pants. My oldest daughter tells us stories about what it has been like working in a grocery store since the shut-down. “And by the way,” she says to her sister, “they want to know if you can start work now that you’re back.”
This is the new normal. Lockdown haircuts, baking and projects. Study groups via Facebook.