When We Vandalize Rocks


Spirit rocks—the painted boulders around campus—are a generally overlooked feature of UConn’s landscape despite always being there. They are intended to be a billboard for students to promote their activities. In my experience—and I assume some can relate—I look at them and then move on. It did not mean anything to me until we were asked to ‘consider the rock’ (as bizarre as that may sound) in my Environmental Literature course last semester. Where is one to begin? I’m a big rock guy, and I keep track of the traditional rocks that I come across on my daily commute through campus; they are drawn to my hands like a lodestone. While classmates crowded those rocks, I had to spice up this assignment and find an angle. Genius struck me as I walked past the only rock I did not consider to touch: the spirit rock.  

The campus is manicured for the student’s experience. Each tree foreign to Connecticut had a committee decide its place while all the natural, old trees must have been considered for removal at one point or another. Mirror Lake is manmade and there are never swans on Swan Lake. In some ways ironic, the emphasis on appearing natural harms the environment. Retroactive landscaping gives legitimacy to the destruction caused by construction because, “look, there are trees and rocks!” 

Spirit rocks are a University of Connecticut endorsed feature. According to Stephanie Reitz in her UConn Today article, “‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ Spirit Rock on the Move,” The Rock, located outside North Garage, has an extensive travel log for an inanimate object. It came from a much larger boulder demolished in 1958 to accommodate for the Torrey Life Science building. It was moved to various places until it was stored in the Depot Campus during the nineties. Stripped of its lead-based history, it was brought back to the campus in 2008, where it was then moved around a few more times. More than one-and-a-quarter inches of paint accumulated from 2008 to 2018. Five years later, it must be nearing 2 inches thick. The buildup of layers remind me of tartar on teeth and there’s a perpetual smell of fresh paint. 

The plaque in front of The Rock, as all of you that have read it would know, portrays it as a much-beloved tradition. It is not. It is not there because nature happened to place it there, students did not start painting it as an act of rebellion which was later incorporated into the school’s culture, and it has been—and can still be—stripped of its layers. It is manicured to appear messy. 

Of course, a University-supported pure form of expression would never work. The rules are listed out in the Rock Painting policy. Namely, non-students cannot paint the rock or else it “may be considered defacement of public property.” The superficial distinction between who can contribute to it does not convince me that ‘spirit’ and ‘vandalism’ are not synonymous; like how dialect and language is determined by the powers that be. Other rules include the three rocks designated to be painted and the area surrounding it may not be painted. 

I assume the biggest critique that a reader might be thinking is that UConn can legislate any rules for the Spirit Rock because they govern the land they are on (note how I did not say ‘own’). Legally, yes, that is a very good rebuttal which I did not consider, but doesn’t UConn have an ethical obligation to the environment? The way they throw dirt around, chop mature trees only to plant a bunch of young saplings and move rocks away from their original locations is not eco-friendly behavior. Their attempt to create a perfect campus sets a bad example when UConn requires each student to pass an environmental course to graduate. They continually neglect their values in practice.  

Construction is always happening here in the name of “student experience.” The new STEM building just finished construction, and now they are working on yet another South Residence Hall. Some roundabout thinkers may follow the line to find students at fault. New angular, glass buildings advertise to us. It is important to remember that UConn is a business and acts as ruthless as any other. An e-mail sent out by President Maric Feb. 8 reports that UConn is set to lose $160 million of funding from the state. My initial reaction was “Good. They can finally focus on maintaining rather than expanding,” but we know that will never be the case. 

Students that are not here for the sports attend for the campus’ balance of nature and industry. A variety of trees are placed for shade and rocks frame the campus in a way that UMass-Amherst just doesn’t have. On the flip side, Spirit rocks are not here for their beauty, but for reassurance that students have an active role in shaping the campus.  

A note from a reader reads: “So how did your ‘consider the rock’ assignment turn out?”  

Thank you for asking! I totally forgot to circle back to it from the heat of the article. I imagined it must be dark under all of those layers and received an A+. Aside from that, it became an article in The Daily Campus in addition to a research project. 

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