In my many years as a newspaper reporter, I've been to a lot of groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings and other events that journalists tend to dismiss as "dog and pony shows,'' but I must say I've never seen a dignitary take to a tree planting with quite as much gusto as the 73-year-old Dalai Lama showed in Harvard Yard this morning.
It was just after the Tibetan Buddhist leader had delivered a talk on education inside Memorial Church (more on that in tomorrow's paper), on a patch of grass (OK, on a piece of fake green stuff that had been placed over the ground) just in front of the chapel-cum-war memorial. Harvard's staff arborists (yup, Harvard has a staff of botanists, horticulturists and arborists over at the Arnold Arboretum) had apparently created a hybrid tree just for the Dalai Lama -- a blend of the Monarch Birch from Asia and the Paper Birch from North America that is supposed to evoke trees significant in both Tibetan and Native American cultures.
The event began with the requisite speeches. Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust reviewed the Latin-Sanskrit etymology of the word "birch,'' and the uses of the tree by various cultures, including, she said, the use of its bark for the recording of the earliest Buddhist texts.
"Just as His Holiness has linked East and West, and inspired so many with his leadership and humility, so shall this tree combine the expression of a large heart and a tradition of simple service,'' Faust said, before giving the Buddhist leader a framed rendering of a birch tree in three seasons.
The Dalai Lama offered thanks, saying the tree would likely outlast both Faust and him, and would remind future generations of his visit.
"Sometimes, in the modern time, in a big city, sometimes a lot of modern machines...a little bit distance from nature,'' he said. "Trees and flowers always bring us close with nature.''
He said the tree is a reminder of the importance of environmental issues, saying that with dramatic climate change, "we are finished,'' and warning that excess pollution causes harm to unborn babies. He noted that war is an obvious problem, because it creates for people images of blood and death, but that "the destruction of ecology" occurs "invisibly, unnoticeably, gradually...without much notice.''
But then the fun began. The tree had already been planted, but there was a ditch dug around it, and a pile of dirt with four shovels so that the Dalai Lama, Faust, and the deans of the divinity and education schools could ceremonially turn over some soil. But the Dalai Lama was having none of that. When Faust turned over a timid shovelful, he said to her, simply, "too little,'' and waited for her to do more, at which point he said, "good.'' And then, after the deans did their part, he took his shovel and proceeded to circumnavigate the tree, adding dirt to cover its roots and smoothing out the ground.
Finally, he asked of no one in particular, "have you some water?" An aide brought him a plastic eco-shaped half-liter of Poland Spring with which he proceeded to lovingly water the sun-dappled green leaves.
"Good,'' he said again, before shaking a few hands, walking slowly back to his motorcade, and heading off to lunch.
(Photo, by Mark Wilson of the Globe staff, shows the Dalai Lama at a tree-planting ceremony in Harvard Yard today, 4/30/09.)