Keep off the Grass

Today we have a guest post from a former teacher at OISE Cambridge, Dr. Corinna Russell, now of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

keep off the grassI am, on the whole, rather sorry that the first thing most visitors will see as they walk into my College is a sign telling them to ‘Keep Off the Grass’. I can’t apologise on behalf of the College in any official capacity, though I have been a Fellow and Lecturer in English Literature at Emmanuel College for the past eleven years. What I can say, though, is that we genuinely don’t wish to be inhospitable or bossy to our guests: we just really, really, love that patch of grass.

Domestic gardens, municipal parks, tennis courts, football grounds and cricket pitches have their place in the sacred geography of the English mind, but the front court lawn of a Cambridge College is a peculiar category of holy ground. It belongs to nobody in particular, and is used by no one in particular: its function is to be cultivated and maintained in a state of emptiness. It is there to be kept off of. Just as you can end a sentence with two prepositions if you’re a Cambridge English don, you are, theoretically, entitled to walk across the grass if you’re a Fellow of the College. The truth about both these licences, however, is that people will think a little less of you for exercising them.

I do have colleagues who walk across the grass in Front Court, on their way from their teaching rooms to lunch in the Hall. I can only assume they’re hungry, because only the call of the celery soup could drown out the inner voice that tells the British Middle Classes not to Show Off. What is more striking, perhaps, is how few Fellows of the College make full use of their privileges in this area. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Senior Tutor on the grass except at General Admissions, when students graduate and their families are invited to an informal lunch on the lawn. The former Master did once encourage me to join him in cutting directly across the Court: ‘You’re entitled’, he said, courteously, but I think he just wanted company in his transgression.

There may be reasons, other than diffidence, for Keeping Off the Grass. The empty green square we protect with such politeness may be the opposite of what land managers, and philosophers of space like Gaston Bachelard, call ‘desire paths’, or ‘desire lines’. A desire path is carved out by tramping feet taking the most convenient or desirable route, regardless of the pavements, crossings or tracks laid out by city councils and other official bodies. I use a desire path every day on my trip to lunch, across another, freely traversable piece of College grass, called the Paddock. A newly laid path of paving stones from a gate to the Paddock lies side by side with a worn, muddy track, mimicking the trajectory of the official path, but more conveniently, and pleasingly, aligned with the contours of the lawn and the archway through which most people wish to pass. It has suited most people walking that way to trace and retrace the line of their choice, until the grass is first trampled, then balding, then reduced to bare earth.Paddock

The only lines traversing the grass on Front Court are the variegated dark and light green stripes left by the gardeners as they mow the surface. We still call these lines ‘swathes’, from the Old English word for a track, or for the span of a scythe mowing down grass for pasture. There’s been a long association in Western literature between grass, mowing, and mortality. We have frequently figured death as a Reaper, scythe in hand, perhaps mindful of the beautiful lines from Psalm 103, used in the Anglican Office for the Burial of the Dead:

15 As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.

16 For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.

If, by sternly guarding the grass, the College can be seen to resist or proscribe the natural desires of people to walk directly across the Court, perhaps we are also protecting a space where the grass is not so ephemeral as in the lines of the Psalm. It is artificially maintained in the blade, rather than the flower, so it doesn’t appear to be part of the same cycle of life and death as it would in a natural state; similarly, the attritional loss caused by foot traffic is Kept Off, maintaining the Court as a place symbolic of what seventeenth-century scholars called ‘the intertraffic of the mind’. Generations of students come and go, Fellows are elected and fall into decrepitude, but the thinking space remains.

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