Faculty Voice: Sue Austin

science-sue-austin-MA20120120-0917-1682629434-OTeaching in the Pritzker Science Center allows me to be outside a number of times each day. As I travel back and forth to Ware Hall for assemblies, advisory, and other Middle School events, I generally follow the same path. Sometimes, as we fall into a routine, our movements become automatic and we don’t pay attention to the small details around us. Aware of this tendency, I try to take time to notice my surroundings. Towering over a grassy area outside of Cox Library is a magnificent white pine. I don’t know what it is about this beauty, but I often stop to gaze at it. Perhaps it is the height of the tree or way its limbs and needles form an impressive sculpture. Maybe it is the birds that make their homes on its branches. I think it is the realization that there is so much to a tree that is unnoticed and unseen. The same can be said for how we interact with one another. If we take the time to notice and get to know one another, we may realize there is so much more than meets the eye.

Trees have always played an important role in my life. As such, I consciously try to instill a love of trees in my students, as I describe the cushiony bark of a cork tree or the magnificent colors sugar maples are known to display. While I have a lifelong love of trees, there are certain specimens that have left a lasting impression on me. Growing up in central Connecticut, there was a small stand of red maples in my backyard. These trees were a constant source of entertainment for my brothers and me. Whether we were jumping from branch to branch pretending to be superheroes, or playing in the fall leaves after competing to make the biggest pile, these trees continue to be a cornerstone of my childhood memories.

If someone asked me what type of tree is my favorite, there is no doubt that I would say “a sycamore, of course.” My love of the sycamore can be attributed to the stunning camouflage pattern of its bark, the impressive spread of its branches, and its enormous leaves. There is something about this magnificent beauty that speaks to me. During the 13 years I taught in Maryland, a mature sycamore towered on the slope outside the school’s main building. In the winter, students used the tree as a launching point for sledding. It also set the scene for the school’s traditional graduation ceremony, as students would curl around the tree, following a path down “graduation hill.” I remember the day that the sycamore toppled down in a spring storm. The entire community was devastated by the loss. It was immediately decided that we needed to memorialize the tree. A huge slab was cut from its trunk, preserved and hung in the new science building, and numerous benches were made from the salvaged wood. While it wasn’t the same as seeing the sycamore every day, it was comforting to know the tree continued to be present in our community.

During my time at Milton Academy, I have heard stories about the significance of numerous trees on the campus. In addition to the majestic white pine I visit each day, I have made an effort to seek out these trees. Some have been there for generations of Milton students. Others were planted in memory of community members. Like our students, they are all individuals—each possessing special qualities and characteristics. Next time you are on campus, I hope you will take a moment to look around and appreciate the diversity and beauty of the trees. I guarantee you will see something that catches your eye. Will it be tiny buds emerging from the maples? Blossoms erupting from the fruit trees? Maybe it is the increased fluttering of birds in and around the small stands of trees throughout the Quad. Signs of spring are everywhere.