Morality & perfection in Oberlin’s landscape.
There is a Gnostic theory that Eve’s serpent, rather than a harbinger of Satan, was actually a gift from Sophia (Σοφíα, wisdom).
His message was: This world is false. Your reality, this garden, has been contrived by Yaldabaoth, and he is insane.
So when Eve ate of the apple she fell not into sin, but into a state of freedom from illusion.
You need not worry about me; the most that I worry about is that I shall get stuck in the mud and cant get out.Oberlin student’s letter home, 1851
Mud! Dripping from boots, from the wheels of carriages, from the hooves of runaway hogs; tracked across the floors of Tappan Hall, on skirts, on hands, under nails, smeared on books. The principle ingredient in the early days of Oberlin was mud. The wet, clay-ey mess of (mostly) fallow, thick earth on everything. If you haven’t already noticed, Oberlin is a swamp, and was to an even more alarming extent before the college found a way to properly drain itself. This mess, this swamp, is described in one student’s letter home from 1845: “The soil is very clayey, I should think, for when it rains it is very muddy and there are so few sidewalks that it is very difficult to walk more than a rod without getting a free shoe in the mud.” Another student wrote, “I was more disappointed in the appearance of the soil, than in any one thing. It looks almost like a swamp.” One resident was so taken with the “Ohio Mud” that he devoted an entire newspaper article to the subject titled simply: “Mud!!” Tenured faculty member James M. Buchanan abandoned his position in part because of the swamp, and Reverend Charles Grandison Finney himself wrote that “had it not been for the good hand of God in helping us at every step, the institution would have been a failure because of its ill-judged location.”
THE PARTING OF TREES
So why journey away from the rolling hills of the East coast to this glacial plain, this muddy, muddy swamp?
It seems this “hastily decided upon” location was chosen less for its individual qualities than for the fact that Ohio, not so long ago, was the frontier. Ohio, and likewise Oberlin, were virtuous in their separation from other parts of the world, not necessarily in and of themselves. The benefits of separateness were the foundational ideology that brought Oberlin’s first missionaries bushwhacking. Oberlin was not just different from other institutions of higher learning back on the east coast, it was separate. It existed “eight miles from everywhere,” meaning “eight miles from sin” (according to Oberlin historian Geoffrey Blodgett), and the corruptions that festered in more civilized parts of the frontier. Yet this connects Oberlin to the most vital facet American historical self-imagining: Manifest Destiny. It was then possible (and important) to create a perfect utopia, a nineteenth-century hankering that did not receive as large an amount of popularity again until the sixties.
Much like Oberlin’s founders, those first students arrived in this area via a parting of trees. A Mrs. Dascomb wrote of her first journey to Oberlin, “When we were passing through the woods, I was so delighted with the black squirrels, the big trees, & above all, the beautiful wildflowers,” that at times while riding on the carriage she forgot to watch out for “scraggly limbs that every now and then gave us a rude brush.” She almost “[got her] eyes torn out, seconded perhaps by an unceremonious lash from a neighboring bough, wd. [would] Recall [her] to the duty of self preservation. Glad were [they] when an opening in the forest dawned upon [them] & Oberlin was seen.” And what could she have seen? The tangled fingers of budding trees part ways to reveal a (mostly) barren clearing. A few structures shudder closely together, a few men meander around in pairs, talking in low voices. If she arrives around sunset then, stepping down from the carriage to narrowly avoid moistening her laced shoes in a puddle, she sees her reflection, windswept hair blending with the sky above, softly graced now with light orange wisps.
BITS OF BONE // ORIGINAL LANDSCAPE
Oberlin itself was less than aesthetically appealing for many of its first visitors. There is an abundance of students’ letters home complaining of the lack of scenery, opportunities for swimming, and soil that was, well, ubiquitous. One disgruntled visitor wrote of Oberlin, “In the first place it is surrounded by trees. You cannot see more than two miles at the farthest… The bildings are not very near each other and probelay would look very lonesom to you as you are accostomed to see them surrounded by shade trees and [shrubbery] while here it is a rare thing to see even a rose bush.”
Though Oberlin was surrounded by a dense “primeval” forest, for some reason it never occured to first settlers to save some of these trees on the campus proper. By 1846, only two trees stood in Tappan. Likewise, the abundance of mud made sidewalks hard to construct, the clay soil made farmer’s lives difficult, and even in the regions near Plum (Plumb) Creek where natural beauty was more readily available to be gazed upon, “old log bits, bits of bone, peaces of leather, &c—stumps, rail fences &c. &c.” got in the way. Yet, “when attempting to take in a different point your heels fly from under you,” and the observer would fall flat in a puddle of Ohio mud. Much of Oberlin’s early relationship with its environment consisted of embattling it in a struggle, or taking refuge from it. Frontier communities, while offering the unique ability to world-make away from constructed civilization, also had the unique challenges of whatever natural environment they chose to settle on.
To add to this muddy mess were farm animals and fowl running amok across the village. In 1841, “75 Hogs Turned loose in the beautiful Village of Oberlin—to ravage, waste & discomfort & Destroy the fairest portions of our gardens, vex the peaceable Inhabitants, and in particular to war against to most defenceless, Ladies & Children.” The loose hogs raised such an issue that not one or two, but three whole committees were formed under town ordinances for the explicit and sole purpose of dealing with the abundance of rampant farm animals. The animals were apparently not passive trespassers, either. Citizens often reported being “assaulted” by wayward livestock. Cows, pigs, and chickens would “swarm upon and soil the sidewalks and crowd themselves into whatever door yard is open to their forcible assault.” Individuals who refused or neglected to contain livestock would be “notified & admonished” and “void of all regard to the rights of his neighbor & the community.” A hog was not “morally responsible for his actions,” so “the owner must of course be morally responsible for all trespasses by his Hogs.”
The hogs served to muddy the streets and were, in part, what made it necessary to implement sidewalks and boardwalks. The mud made just the act of walking in early Oberlin hilariously difficult. The few boardwalks constructed to aid foot travel proved slippery as a result of poor construction and/or livestock tracking mud onto their surfaces, and numerous letters home detail students falling over themselves while walking, especially those students wearing petticoats, or, “the fairer sex.” Apparently, sidewalks were also capable of inhering moral virtue. In 1861, the editor of the local paper declared, “One fourth of the walks in our otherwise moral and orthodox village are indecently dangerous. A proper degree of risk is exhilarating, but the amount we daily encounter, is destructive and discouraging.”
Here, Oberlin’s land management blends oddly with the village’s perceived moral duty to be a tidy, well-ordered community and live in accordance with the town’s founding sensibilities. After pushing their way through the trees and settling in a swamp, clear lines needed to be drawn between the natural and the civilized. Which is ironic, considering Oberlin left civilization in order to exist outside of what it deemed to be morally corrupt. Yet Oberlin felt it had a duty to prove to the rest of the world, and indeed to God, that despite its departure, it was still a suitable, perhaps even utopian, alternative to civilization elsewhere. Oberlin was infused with morality, and apparently the things that were most likely enemies of this morality were natural elements that threatened to overtake an otherwise proper society. Yet even still, Oberlin had mud, it had hogs, and these were physical markers of its geographic and ideological departure. Oberlin was in the frontier, but only so long as these natural frontier elements didn’t encroach on its proper society. Hogs were only morally corrupt when on the loose, and somehow a “degree of risk is exhilarating,” at least according to the paper.
BITS OF BONE // FIRST WOMEN
Though Oberlin loves to pride itself on being the pioneer of coeducation, Oberlin’s first women were admitted on the basis of a “means to end,” according to Oberlin historian and former professor of history Geoffrey Blodgett. Apparently, Oberlin found it primarily important to educate the “minds of those who were going to make first impressions on small children.” The more Christian teachers and missionaries, the better.
Female students at Oberlin had the apparent reputation of being far less outwardly radical as a direct result of coeducation. Blodgett cites some nebulously termed “recent studies in women’s history,” which show that emancipated college women in the nineteenth century became huge agitators in the suffragist cause, settlement house projects, and other reform movements. Yet these “agitating” women were mostly recruited out of women’s institutions in the East. Blodgett claims, “One can find very little evidence of feminist militance at Oberlin before the Civil War, and when it emerged it was slapped down.” Even after the war when suffrage movements gained traction in other parts of the country, Oberlin was “strangely passive” and perhaps even “hostile” on the subject. Women were more likely to be indoctrinated into missionary work or married off after graduating Oberlin. “Perhaps part of the reason for this,” says Blodgett, “is that Oberlin women in their formative college years learned stern daily lessons in how to behave in the presence of men. They learned that they were expected to behave like ladies.”
Yet women were rarely even in the presence of men. The sexes were separated in all areas of college life except the most highly surveilled: dining halls and classrooms. Up until the 1890s, even library hours were segregated. According to Blodgett, “Having embarked in somewhat ad hoc fashion upon authentically radical arrangements for bringing large amounts of men and women together for educational purposes, college authorities spent the rest of the century trying to curb the most feared consequences of what they had done.” What could be more damaging to a pious Christian community’s reputation than a “sexual scandal”? So in order to prove itself worthy of existence, an “air of conservatism” surrounded the institution with regard to coeducation. Extra stress was put on Oberlin’s first women to “behave.”
Women were also, not surprisingly, relegated to the domestic tasks required in village homes and dormitories. They washed dishes, ironed, and sewed for other students. This provided a welcome break from the natural fatigue the female brain was inevitably prone to after spending a period of time studying. One woman wrote on behalf of the “young ladies”: “After having our mind absorbed in some abstract subject until we become weary with intense thought, we repair to some household duty & the mind & body becoming relaxed, we return to the page we left & grasp the thoughts with avidity, & instead of the pale face which too often belongs to the student we see a continual freshness & glow… here domestic economy, which is true should be inoculated by the mother is carried on to still greater perfection, here knowledge of domestic affairs, high intellectual culture & even refinement of manners are considered as consistent with each other.”
PERFECTION // MANUAL LABOR
It is primarily in the realm of educational innovation that the Oberlin colony tried to find the latchkey to perfection.Geoffrey Blodgett
The domestic chores relegated to Oberlin’s first women were part of a larger system of manual labor, enacted to both combat the natural obstacles to frontier life and somehow instill in young men and women the virtues ingrained through laboring in the woods. The system was an attempt to both engage with Oberlin’s landscape and cultivate its likeness to God’s kingdom. In the eyes of the institution, Learning and Labor were inseparable from one another: “It meets the wants of man as a compound being, and prevents the common amazing waste of money, time, health, and life,” proclaimed the first College report.
Oberlin became known as the “poor man’s college,” in contrast to older institutions in the East. It allowed students of little means an education at the cost of their physical labor in Oberlin’s initial construction. Indeed, the system’s ability to provide alternate modes for covering the financial cost of an education was in part what attracted Black student applicants—some formerly enslaved people, some not—to apply. Black students seeking college degrees in the nineteenth century were met with countless obstacles, financial and otherwise, that resulted from systemic racism; Oberlin was by no means exempt from this reality, but did create limited opportunity within it. This system allowed lower income students, both Black and white, to access an Oberlin education, though not all who applied were in need of the financial assistance. As a result, many of the earliest applications highlighted an applicant’s moral virtue, physical prowess, and good nature, without any mention of scholarship. A Middlebury student wrote to Oberlin in an expression of his wish to transfer: “I think the classical books which are studyed [at Middlebury] have a bad influence in forming the characters of young men. They have in a great measure an attendance to corrupt the habits, morals, and minds of those who pursue them, to say nothing of the time which is lost in commiting to memory ideas which are of no consequence.”
One student wrote in 1837, just four years after town and college were founded: “Nearly all the labor since this Institution was was first established, has been chopping, logging and burning brush; and this too, a great portion of this year, ankle deep in mud and water!” Oberlin’s earliest students cleared the land, constructed buildings, conducted special projects for private residences, etc. One early timecard reads: “2 hours burning Stumps, 3 Hours building walk for Prof. Finney, 3 Hours hanging Gate etc., 4½ Hours preparing … sewer for Prof. Finney.” Eight cents an hour was the going rate for shoveling manure; seven cents for “picking up sticks.”
In service of this belief in Oberlin’s heavenly potential, students worked: felling trees, cutting the stumps away from their roots, dragging the stumps to a brush pile, lighting the pile on fire, standing and staring into the flames, covered in mud, cicadas droning overhead, the smell of wood smoke drifting around them…
The driving force behind this “perfectionism” that influenced Tappan and his peers was a departure from belief in the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Calvinism placed heavy emphasis on mankind’s original sin: when Eve bit into the apple and fraternized with Satan in the garden. Because of this sin, Calvinists believed each person had their own pre-determined fate in the afterlife. The ripple effects of Eve’s first sin had made it entirely impossible for humans to not sin.
But the breakup of Calvinist theology was ushered in by an age that was no longer entirely status-oriented, but celebrated the achievements of the self-made man. Along with this, a heavier emphasis was placed on human achievements, and the possibility of human perfectionism. This is partially why Oberlin’s founders felt motivated to create a utopian community, why they placed so much emphasis on the morality of this community, and why they ultimately held the men and women behaving in this community to high standards of judgement. They hoped that they could somehow teach perfect behavior through manual labor and later, the inauguration of coeducation.
PERFECTION // LADIES AS CIVILIZING INFLUENCES
In the same way working the land was thought to bring about stronger character in Oberlin students, women were also thought to be civilizing and moralizing forces for their male peers. Apparently, working alongside women “exploded” the male idea that “a lady is a toy or a plaything” according to the Oberlin Evangelist.
One male student wrote after moving to an all-male boarding situation that he missed dining with women because, “Without the restraining and refining influence of ladies, it is found impossible to maintain decorum, and instead of our meals being a place to cultivate refinement and to refresh our minds from our studies, it is only a place for satisfying hunger.”
What is it about women that was so able to provide such “refreshment?” The same student wrote earlier: “The society of such a collection of boarders, is just what could be expected from a lot of young men living secluded from ladies. Some would like to have everything carried on in the best of order, but others only wish to swallow their food and run.” Manual labor, a system that made for “sound bodies and clear minds,” perhaps possessed refreshing properties similar to those conferred by sitting next to a woman and engaging her in conversation over dinner. Like a cool breeze, like a stroll in the garden after being cooped up in the library all day. Something different, something immutable, something primal.
By their very presence, women allowed Oberlin another step forward to that ephemeral latchkey to perfection—men were made closer to the ideal civilization through socializing with the opposite sex. Having women around perhaps kept Oberlin from becoming a sort of primeval male colony in the woods. Having women nearby was also a way for men to manage their sexual urges. The presence of real women, the very hum of them intellectually and physically working, supposedly put male urges to rest—like a lullaby.
Yet while feminine presence was grounding for men, it was also akin to a fresh breeze. So their etherealness, their natural mannerisms, had to be reigned in, segregated to avoid too much enticement. A balance was struck between the natural and the civilized. Perhaps we can draw a parallel here to those unscrupulous hogs: only immoral when on the loose.
ARBORETUM // NEURASTHENIA
The natural look of the Arb has occasionally had to withstand planning and domesticating impulses brought to bear upon it from both town and college.Robert Stinson, Oberlin Tribune columnist
It is funny then, that Oberlin women were in apparent need of a place of retreat themselves, and that this place of retreat could only be located far from men, far from academia, at the edge of civilization itself.
The mid-1870s saw increasing discussion about a need for “a place for women to walk in quiet meditation.” This place had to be, most importantly, out of the way and in seclusion from male students. It had to be physically and socially separated from men: “a tract of land of seventeen acres containing the only bit of primeval forest left immediately adjacent to the village,” the same forest we now call “the arb.”
Ladies Grove itself was a much smaller area of the sweeping acreage of the Oberlin Arboretum, located a bit northwest from what students now consider to be the arb proper, with its reservoirs and prairies and illegal fire pits. It was an alleviation of an Oberlin-specific coeducational dilemma, keeping men separated from women in all spaces not heavily supervised to avoid a sexual scandal, and even more so, women seperated from men, to calm their nerves in peaceful pursuit of “contemplative rewards.” Like all other aspects of the lives of women on this campus, the Ladies Grove was another attempt at keeping pure the impressionable minds of the “fairer sex.” Again, Oberlin reached for perfectionism by way of separation. Ladies could reach their ideal serene state outside the civic lines drawn by others.
If we can understand Ohio as an imagined frontier again, the water of Plum Creek running past miles and miles of “primeval” forest, separated infrequently by agricultural and clustered communities… If we place these women walking at the edge of this, teetering perhaps on the final line drawn between rural piety and rural wilderness…
It was a world unto itself where these Victorian women could find cure for their “hysteria,” in the warm woolen arms of this wilderness. During the early eighteenth century, Neurasthenia, a make-believe “nervous affliction” originally attributed to the possession of a uterus, was increasingly thought rather to be a neurological phenomenon brought about by the stresses of daily life. The Oberlin Arboretum was at first a place where Victorian ladies could escape these stresses. Perhaps separation for these women had a similar effect to the one Oberlin’s founders pursued when they left the coast; salvation by separation, revelation by seclusion.
When Eve bit into that apple, was she given knowledge that her world had been contrived by an insane deity? What messages, what wisdom, was imparted to those women in the fluttering of thousands of leaves? The world you imagine to be real is actually fabricated to limit you. What else could quell the “hysteria” bred by an insane patriarchy? Where else could liberation from illusion become possible?
Truthfully, there’s not much in the Ladies Grove. Two engraved brick posts swept off the intersection of Morgan and South Prospect Street by the curved, muddied arm of a footpath mark its entrance to this day. Down past these pillars, a hill slopes gently into a forest interspersed with thin trees and tangled underbrush. On cloudy days, when the trees are barren, the forest is foreboding, the spaces between trees reveal more spaces between other trees and the cemetary to the right stands in ominous salute. But when it is sunny, maybe at the beginning of spring, or at dusk in late fall, the forest stands in subtly perceptible communication with itself. Frogs murmur, squirrels perform acrobatics overhead; and in the late hours of the day, the jeers of cicadas merge into one impenetrable wall of warm sound.
Is this what Eve heard as she bit into the apple?
Several women glide through the grove in pairs; a few tread in solitude. One lone woman stoops to kick a clump of mud from her shoe, another snaps a twig in half as she passes under a low branch. Around and around they move, the plumes of their dresses elegantly spill out from their hips like clouds, like pockets of air.
The sun begins to set, turning the sky to a pink and orange froth. They murmur, blending their voices with the loudening symphony of frogs, the babbling creek.
It gets darker, the light trickles in grey. Few women remain; most have carried off to make curfew, to slide into bed, to light their candles. But several don’t. They continue breathing deeply, trailing fingers across moss, across lichen. Suddenly, one woman trips. Her counterparts look over their shoulders and smirk but she is unfazed, she wanted to be closer to the ground, anyway.
Fingers moving cautiously now, the woman cranes her neck forwards and spies a small boulder. She plants her elbow in the soil and rolls it over to reveal a tangled knot of earthworms.
Most women are gone now. One stays.
This woman takes the knot into her lap and watches as it strains against the pressed linen of her dress. Then the worms move deeper, they are looking for a parting in the soil.
NOTE: I want to acknowledge the little information available on the experiences of Black women within the college’s domestic labor system and their role in the college’s moral negotiations within coeducation. The works cited in this piece focus on the experiences of the earliest female students at Oberlin and do so without fully acknowledging the disparity in experiences between women of different identities. Published in 1943, Robert Samuel Fletcher’s A History of Oberlin College in particular generalizes the student body’s experiences as those of white students, erasing the individual experiences of students of color. I sought to write a piece focusing on Oberlin’s initial relationship with its landscape and how this mirrored the indoctrination of coeducation, but there are many factors beyond gender that influence a student’s experience at Oberlin and it is important to acknowledge these complexities.