Chris Buchignani’s ‘State of State’ talk

Ever wondered why Happy Valley has its name? Why the spirit of Penn Staters is so ubiquitous and recognizable? How a relatively isolated part of Pennsylvania became home to one of the nation’s great universities?

Chris Buchignani delivered a talk at Penn State at last month’s “State of State” conference that answers these questions and more.

My favorite part of Chris’s deck was this slide, portraying the typical student’s sense of “Happy Valley” unless/until they become aquainted with the larger region by forming a relationship with someone who cares about them, their experience of place, and their future.


This would be a great poster.

Advent ales

Chris Buchignani is highlighting this particular column for December, and incidentally the book from which it’s excerpted makes a great Christmas gift. Check out The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution.

Nowadays, it seems, excitement is experienced as something that is thrilling because it is new, unknown, risky, sexy and dangerous. Today’s young people seem to look for excitement at the edge of life.

But the ancient excitement of Christmas was something quite different. Christmas wasn’t something which happened at the edge of life, but something that happened at the heart of life. It wasn’t a search for something new and dangerous. On the contrary, Christmas was as predictable as clockwork, and as familiar as one’s most favorite feeling. Each year Christmas came on exactly the same day, and everyone tried very hard to do the same things in the same way they had done them in the past.

To today’s young people that might sound boring. And yet … and yet … in those days it had seemed so very exciting. To me, Christmas had always seemed like a challenge without equal. It was an adventure in time. Every year people tried to see if they could rekindle and pass down the same feeling that had been felt on that first Christmas morn.

They all knew and believed with childlike simplicity that something wonderful had happened on that hallowed night almost 2,000 years ago. They believed that hearts had been opened and changed in a way that had never happened before. They naively believed through all the years since then that the original joy had been rekindled again and again each and every year at Christmas, just as it had been experienced on that first blessed eve.

Oh, the excitement of it all! Each year they wondered: Could it happen again? Would it? Could the magic still work? The anticipation grew to the highest levels of expectation and awe: If they did all the same things, heard the same stories, ate the same foods, drank the same drinks, rejoined in the same ways, would they again feel the excitement of their own first Christmas when they were children? Did they still have it in them to unlock all that joy one more time?

The wonder of it! Could their joy be great enough to renew again for one more year the tremendous joy of that first blessed eve in the year One, when the time of our time began? And so, on the 4th day after the winter solstice, when they were absolutely sure that the sun had begun to rise again in the heavens, they celebrated Christmas.

In ancient days everyone had worked so hard to make it happen again each year. They bought presents which they believed would bring out each person’s most childlike joy. They baked Christmas cakes and cookies, worked for weeks to prepare festive decorations for every room and window, searched out old recipes for Christmas goose or turkey stuffing, hung mistletoe in their hallways, hauled in the Yule logs, and brushed up on the ancient Christmas stories and carols to tell over again to their children and themselves. Old fights were ended, debts forgiven and friendships renewed in this season.

One of the smallest and least significant contributions to the annual challenge to rekindle the ancient joy was made by the brewers of Europe and early America. In those days everyone felt the obligation to contribute whatever they could to the annual renewal of the community’s joy. Each year the brewers made their small contribution by brewing special Christmas ales and holiday beers for the season.

The ancient tradition is undergoing a rebirth in America…

Ben Novak wrote this in 1984. A lot has changed, but hopefully you’ll drink in the spirit of Christmas as meaningfully this season as so many of us have breathed in the magic of the Nittany valley.

Conserving the timeless and fleeting

I wrote the other day about Pierre Ryckmans, and want to share another aspect of his New York Review of Books feature that struck me. It deals with concepts I’ve been working through as part of The Nittany Valley Society, and larger concepts relating to locality, sense of place, and cultural memory:

In one of [Ryckmans’] most interesting and provocative essays on Chinese culture, he tries to find an answer to an apparent paradox: why the Chinese are both obsessed with their past, specifically their five thousand years of cultural continuation, and such lax custodians of the material products of their civilization. India and Europe are full of historic churches, temples, cathedrals, castles, forts, mosques, manor houses, and city halls, while contemporary China has almost nothing of the kind. … People in the Chinese cultural sphere, and perhaps beyond, did not traditionally share the common Western defiance of mortality. The idea of erecting monumental buildings meant to last forever would have seemed a naive illusion. Everything is destined to perish, so why not build impermanence into our sense of beauty? The Japanese took this aesthetic notion even further than their Chinese masters: the cult of cherry blossoms, for example, fleetingness being the essence of their unique splendor. … But if even the strongest works of man cannot in the end withstand the erosion of time, what can? [Ryckmans’] answer: “Life-after-life was not to be found in a supernature, nor could it rely upon artefacts: man only survives in man—which means, in practical terms, in the memory of posterity, through the medium of the written word.” As long as the word remains, Chinese civilization will continue. Sometimes memories replace great works of art.

I think a worthy challenge lies in attempting to live out a reconciliation between Eastern and Western tradition—in embracing the worth and place of tradition and real tributes and monuments and markers as “timeless” symbols in the same way the written word might, while also embracing their fleeting nature.

What are great stone memorials for if not conveying a sense that even though some stories have a greatness that hints at infinity, the storyteller himself was made for death? We have to be moving toward something, with some metaphysical basis for virtue, to understand that the sweetness of our tributes and memorials isn’t really sweet at all if those things don’t lead to a stirring in our souls, and a visibility in our own lives.

If “the word remains” but the heart has lost its capacity for feeling, then words become worthless. We have to be moved, transported, utterly awed by history for it to matter.

The Willow Gathering

The Nittany Valley Society is hosting The Willow Gathering tonight in State College. The Willow Gathering is a celebration of Penn State, the Nittany Valley, and their people. By bring people together for a special night, it’s a tangible way we put our mission into practice to “foster a spirit of community across time.”

This is The Willow Gathering’s fifth year. It’s the first time we’re syncing it up with Homecoming, which is when it will probably be celebrated from now on.

img_0896The Willow Gathering’s name refers to two aspects of the Nittany Valley’s history. First, it’s named in honor of Old Willow, Penn State’s oldest tradition. Old Willow was planted in the late 1850s during Evan Pugh’s presidency as a symbol of the hope of the founders that the institution would “take root” and flourish in the years to come. This sort of thing was common then, but today is almost unknown. Old Willow lived into the 1920s, when a second generation cutting was planted, which lasted until the 1970s. A third generation descendant was planted, but never took root physically or culturally, and the tree vanished from the cultural consciousness of much of the community until recently. Thankfully the fourth-generation Old Willow is now recognized on the Old Main lawn.

You can learn more of the history of Old Willow in Ben Novak’s book Is Penn State a Real University?. The photo of Old Willow below is from a 1923 Penn State Alumni News profile, which can be found in the Hintz Family Alumni Center on campus:

Old Willow on the Lawn.jpg

The second motivation for The Willow Gathering’s name relates to the hope that, in the same way Old Willow’s roots physically took root in the soil of this place, perhaps new students, professors, trustees, alumni, and friends can become more firmly rooted in the cultural landscape of the community we share by coming together in fellowship.

In other words, we intentionally created The Willow Gathering as a means to defeat the “information silo” effect that can especially plague university communities, where specific constituencies self-segregate with the effect of cultural corrosion that can seriously weaken communities. In years past, I’ve met students and businesspeople, trustees and alumni, and others. I’ve stayed in touch with a few of them, and strengthened some relationships.

Roger Williams, retired Executive Director of the Penn State Alumni Association, delivered one of our past keynotes on “Evan Pugh and George Atherton: Penn State’s George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.” Roger’s keynote was my favorite so far.

Old Willow.jpg

Tonight Paul Clifford (Roger’s successor) will be keynoting at The Atherton Hotel with an expected attendance of 50 guests—we intentionally keep this small so that guests have a chance to meaningfully connect with one another. There will be open bar with craft beer availability, tying in with our book The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution, and specific time set aside for fellowship among friends old and new.

I hope more students and alumni consciously develop local relationships and reasons to return to the Nittany Valley—even beyond our legendary football tradition.

Campus as it once was

Penn State’s Historic Campus Modeling Project, which “aims to enhance Penn Staters’ sense of place and University history,” looks promising:

“University Libraries provided us with digitized fire insurance maps from 1922 as well as a large collection of historic building images,” Klippel said. “So we’ve been using these resources to model buildings that, to some extent, don’t exist anymore.”

A few notable historic buildings the team has modeled include the former Women’s Building (which stood close to the location of Burrowes Building), the original Old Main building and a former version of Old Botany Building complete with an attached greenhouse.

“It’s just amazing how drastically campus has changed over the last 100 years,” Klippel said. “With this virtual reality technology, people can go back in time and experience campus as it once was.” …

Although the project is still undergoing preparations for broader use, the team hopes that in the near future it can be used to educate users on campus’ past while providing context to its present and future.

There’s a historical perspective that to understand the present you have to first understand the past, but it can be really hard to imagine it,” said Mark Simpson, a geography doctoral candidate working on the project. “So being able to see what was here before in virtual reality is really helpful.

For Klippel, one of the greatest benefits of virtual reality is its ability to illustrate these environmental changes beyond the constraints of human imagination.

“I think our imagination is limited when it comes to trying to visualize things that are no longer there,” Klippel said. “So while imagining how campus looked without the Millennium Science Complex is almost impossible nowadays, virtual reality is a way to bring these past environments back to life.”

We created The Nittany Valley Society to foster a spirit of community across time, and we created Nittany Valley Press to make more of our history and heritage accessible to regular people. Learning about initiatives like this historic campus modeling project is validation for what we believe: that special places need to continually fire the imagination of its newest people through encounter with its past.

If there’s “something in the water” at special places like Penn State, and distinctive regions like the Nittany Valley, there’s a key lesson that’s often overlooked: you need to actually drink the water.

History changes

After watching Bruce Schneier’s talk a particular comment of his has stayed with me. Schneier emphasizes that we’re “bad at predicting our social future.”

Amidst the constants of life, death, taxes, etc. our social and cultural environment is always changing in unexpected ways. This is true of the Nittany Valley, though I think it tends to be difficult for Penn Staters and residents to acknowledge this. The pace of life in the Nittany Valley is so cyclical (so familiar from year to year) that it can seem like nothing changes. Yet the character of community certainly does change.

What does this unpredictable change mean? It means we’ve got to keep telling our story—we’ve got to keep articulating who we are and what we believe and convey how we understand our lives in the context of the history of our community.

Our story will change in the telling just as stories did in the old oral traditions. It’ll change based upon our biases and our prejudices and our hopes for the future that impact how we speak about ourselves and the things we love. Yet with every telling of our story what we’ll really be trying to do is convey the best aspects of our legacy to those who’ll carry forward our names in the future.

This is one of the reasons why I wrote Conserving Mount Nittany and helped create Nittany Valley Press. We can’t let our history seem so obvious and permanent that its specifics and nuances dissipate over time. If we don’t treat our history and place a living thing, the words and ideas that we ascribe to the place just like dry sentiments.

A continual recovery and conveyance of our history is an essential aspect of a real community, which is what we’ve got in the Nittany Valley if we can keep it.

Little renaissances

Are you watching Stranger Things this summer? I did. I loved it, and I love Gracy Olmstead’s reflections on why so many have.

Among other things, Stranger Things “reflects on a time when kids rode their bikes around town without parental concern, considering the beauty of a small community in which people know each other: where there is a shared history and context undergirding everything.”

Stranger Things reminds us what it was like to have that sense of safety and camaraderie. It reminds us of the communal threads that hold us together, lending context and beauty to our lives. But it also—importantly—hints at that mystery and wonder that also thread their way through childhood, transmitted in fables and films and games. It suggests (as so many other stories have before them) that these tales are not to be taken lightly, but convey something vitally important to the next generation. It’s their attention to tales and lore that help Will’s friends find and save him, in the end. …

“Again and again there are ‘renaissances,’ which attempt programmatically to win back something forgotten or suppressed and to restore it to esteem,” writes [Josef] Pieper. “Admittedly, the usual result of such ‘rebirths’ is the unintentional creation of something completely new.”

This is the thing about tradition, so often maligned as the milieu of the dead or the playpen of the romantics. Properly encountered, tradition isn’t a means of robotically re-enacting the past, but rather it’s a means of entering into a way of being, or a way of experiencing, the world in communion with the past, but with a character and tone wholly distinct and particular to the time.

Every little renaissance is an echo of the past as much as it is an echo of the future.