What the Rock Leaves Behind

In deference to certain workplace environments, I’ve edited the quote (just below) to obscure an offensive word. Click on the link in the quote to see the word.

The big boulder on Observatory hill, which is the largest of its kind in the immediate vicinity of Madison, is now out where folks can look at it.

For centuries the huge granite “[click for offensive word],” partly visible, has been lying there on the hill, just alongside the cinder drive. For three days a crew of men, with horses, steel cables and capstan of 75-tons pulling capacity have been working to bring it to the surface.

It will be placed at the top of the hill, between the observatory and an Indian mound and faced with a bronze tablet which will set forth its history…

Thus begins a 1925 article describing the excavation of a large rock that would–until 2021–serve as a memorial, with a bronze plaque embedded in the rock in honor of geologist and University of Wisconsin president Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin, crediting him with making “the spirit of research effective in the organization and life of the university.” But the memorial would reach an inglorious end. The forty-one-ton rock–Chamberlin Rock–was removed in August to satisfy a demand from student activist groups, horrified at the nearly-forgotten offensive term and nearly-one-hundred-year-old use of the offensive term and thus abruptly horrified by the rock it to which it referred.

Although the role of the student activists in demanding the removal of the rock was well reported by the national and local media, the rock wasn’t the students’ only concern. It was number two on their list of the ten demands that they submitted to the university’s chancellor, Rebecca Blank. The first demand was the removal of the statue of Abraham Lincoln, a demand claiming, essentially, that Lincoln was a racist. Other demands included defunding and abolishing the University’s police department as well as meeting the unspecified demands made by activists in 1969, which appear to involve reparations.

Poor Chancellor Blank, was made to look the fool, compounded by her decision to remove the name of one of the school’s most famous alumni from its buildings. The actor Frederic Blank was erroneously considered to be a racist after someone (the “someone” in these stories is always mysterious) discovered that March, and most of the leadership of the student body and its student groups, were members of the KKK. Shocking, I know–this is Wisconsin, after all–but that mysterious someone, in the spirit of Chamberlin’s “spirit of research,” might have noted the date of their sins: 1919 to 1920. The Ku Klux Klan’s rise to national prominence (its second incarnation) didn’t occur until 1921. John McWhorter, the writer for The Atlantic and now columnist for the New York Times, thinks the naming of the student group a fluke , the infamous “KKK” and all its sinister associations perhaps not yet well known in the country. It doesn’t help Chancellor Blank’s position, or those of the student activists, to learn that Frederic March was a lifelong activist for racial equality.

But the full list of demands suggests Chancellor Blank’s approach was more strategic–in a campus atmosphere reminiscent of the flashback scenes in the television version of The Handmaid’s Tale, where the main characters helplessly watch as the repressive society forms around them–fighting the activist students and their faculty allies may only have inflamed them further. Blank may one day choose a hill to die upon (in the career sense) but surely she was wise to not die upon that rock. (Her wisdom seems rewarded–she will become the president of Northwestern University in the summer of 2022.)

It’s tricky times on college campuses and tricky times in America.

The Physical Sciences buildings are in a rural area, south of the main campus in Madison. If you drove by them you would be a) lost, since they are not near anything in particular nor on the way to the main campus from any highway exit or population center and, b) you would not take any special notice of them since the buildings appear to be some sort of machine shop (which, in fact, they are).

These buildings are worth noticing, however, because the Rock is here, somewhere. Chancellor Blank’s orders moved the rock to this location, though it is not specified anywhere in print or in her statements–I found the place with the help of locals–and she says the Rock is supposed to be “accessible to the public.” Not being a lawyer, I didn’t at first question when it might be accessible to the public.

There’s a cluster of buildings, some with roll-up doors open, a person or two walking around, a trail out back through the high weeds that leads nowhere, a military-style outdoor climbing gym set up just past the fence, a long strip of mown grass that seems perfect for the Rock, and an occasional sound of welding or metal grinding coming briefly from one of the large, open doors.

But no Rock. I drive around the buildings, drive between them into loading zones and places it looks like I’m not supposed to be. There is no Rock.

The door out front is the Administration door and I put on my mask and walk in, wondering who will stop me. There’s a little window for the clerk just after I enter but it is closed and a sign points me to Room 10, down the hall. That room’s door is open but no one is there, music is playing quietly–a small sign says that the room’s occupant will be back soon. There’s another door open in that hallway, which I had passed, and I walk back and I stop and peek in. There is a man sitting at a computer and he smiles when he sees me and I ask him if he knows when the receptionist will be back. He is friendly but doesn’t know and asks if there is anything that he can do for me.

And so I just blurt it out: “This might sound like a dumb question but I’m looking for that two billion-year-old rock that was moved here last month.” It’s hard to be smooth when wearing a face mask.

His eyes go wide, his hands literally go up into the air, very excited now, and in an exasperated, now-higher-pitched voice he bleats out, “I have nothing more to say!” And, indeed, he had nothing more to say.

My youngest daughter was traveling with me then and I think the man’s reaction proves her theory correct–the Chamberlin Rock is in one of these buildings, simply being stored under a tarp until the controversy blows over. The geology faculty wants to hide it from the activists’ roving Eye of Sauron until the students all graduate out of the university, and then the geologists can install it outdoors somewhere down here amongst the farms.

Back on the main campus, on Observatory Hill, the original location of the Rock isn’t hard to find. It sat for nearly a century on a thin rectangle of grass adjacent to the Washburn Observatory, one of those old and beautiful telescope buildings whose scientific use has been totally eclipsed by modern instruments but which still allows members of the public to visit and peer into the heavens (real astronomers nowadays don’t peer through telescope eyepieces so much anymore as they peer at the data on their screens, sigh). I came prepared with reference photos of the Rock still in place and with plans to line up various objects in the photos to triangulate the Rock’s exact former location but it was all to no use–the damaged ground where the Rock stood is plainly visible.

As I made photographs of the marks on the lawn left behind by the Rock, a few students walked by, wholly uninterested in what I was doing and, I suspect, wholly uninterested in the Rock. Which is fair enough, I suppose, as I was essentially photographing nothing, photographing something’s absence and the Rock, until the discovery of that 1925 reference, was just some rock on the lawn. The Rock became significant in modern times for a short period as the locus of some minor campus brouhaha but what it leaves behind–that empty space–may prove to be far more significant.

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