Dankers maintains swing's legacy

by Kaitlin Bell | 8/8/03 5:00am

Some of the best tree"climbers in the world have signed their names in support of preserving the tree that until a few days ago held Dartmouth's latest -- and by some accounts, greatest -- rope swing.

Nicholas Dankers '01 wants the College to know it.

En route to the Pine Park site of the now-defunct swing yesterday, Dankers presented signed placards, festooned with pictures from his portfolio of landscaping work, to administrators and professors, as though to prove that it he is not some lone, crackpot tree hugger.

Dankers has been intimately invested in the swing from its conception in the fall of 2001 and regards himself as its current caretaker. But he was careful to downplay his own role in the process.

"I am but a link in the chain of rope swings," he said. "Like most best things this was a collaborative effort," he said.

An architecture student at Dartmouth, Dankers worked with engineering majors and members of the Dartmouth Outing Club, Ledyard Canoe Club, Palaeopitus Senior Society and Epeios Secret Senior Society, as well as Picea Landscape Design to construct the swing as a replacement to the one taken down by Hanover officials in the summer of 2001.

They built the swing according to the principles of indigenous design, a practice that aims for maximum safety while using as few man-made materials as possible. Thus, for just $100, but with a full week of labor, a new swing was installed in Pine Park along the banks of the Connecticut River.

Secrets and Safety Issues

The old swing had a 15-foot trail line that ended up causing injuries and rope burns when it accidentally wrapped around limbs and torsos, but the new one, Dankers said, was as close to foolproof as possible.

The ropes and the cables that held them were sturdy and replaced regularly. The platforms and ladder rungs were secured strongly to the tree and to the riverbank -- a move to prevent erosion caused by people scrambling up and down the bank. Even the highest platform, nicknamed "the overview" in German, was designed to look risky to ward off the fainthearted, but was not in fact dangerous, Dankers said.

In addition, numerous signs, notably the one that read "Do not use when drunk, high, stupid or dark," were present, instructing respectful, safe use of the swing.

Minor injuries resulted when people jumped off platforms with slack in the rope, but a sign warning users to keep the rope tight did its part to remedy the problem, Dankers said.

In the beginning, the swing's location and the intricacies of its use were passed by word of mouth, which for the most part ensured that the people using it had the wisdom and prior knowledge of others who had gone before.

"You design it for everyone, but you don't advertise it," Dankers explained.

Then, Dankers and a friend made a movie for an architecture class that all but betrayed the swings location. The movie, which was a takeoff of the Dr. Schlitz film showed at Moosilauke Lodge during Freshman Trips, featured a canoe on wheels going through the important buildings on campus and ultimately ending up at the rope swing. It was intended, Dankers said, to show the interrelationship between campus and its natural surroundings.

However, encouraged by enthusiastic friends and professors, Dankers entered the film in last spring's student film competition -- only to have it end up showing in front of an audience of hundreds in Spaulding Auditorium.

Dankers said he is convinced the film had something to do with the rope swing's loss of anonymity and its subsequent discovery by the College.

But as much as he would prefer the swing to remain a private haven available only to a few in the know, he concedes that under the proper conditions it is a challenging, exhilarating experience for anyone.

"It is the essential summertime experience," he said.

An Alternative to Fraternities

The way Dankers describes it, the swing was not only designed to be safe and ecologically sound, but as a response from outdoors-minded students to the Student Life Initiative, which had been announced by College President James Wright not long before.

"We survived not by spending out nights in fraternity basements -- we spent them outdoors," Dankers said. ""If they're going to cut the rope swing down, they might as well shut down the fraternities too," he said, noting several risks associated with fraternities.

The swing provided an alternative social outlet, just as Wright had called for in the Initiative. Dankers and his friends used to go out to the clearing where the swing sat -- nicknamed Schlitz Gardens after the College's most famous and beloved outdoorsman -- to study, socialize and enjoy nature.

Still, with the idea of potentially raucous socializing students in mind, the platforms were deliberately designed to be small.

"You can't throw a party up there," he said. "You can't jump off holding the rope and a beer in your hand at the same time."

Dankers remains perplexed as to why the College would be opposed to the tree. The liability issues could be ironed out by putting the swing under the jurisdiction of the Outing Club or Ledyard and making participants sign a waiver form, he said.

"We're very proud of what we did and we think the College should be proud of us too -- we've learned how to come up with an ecological solution and to put the best of what we're learning in the classroom to work in the real world."

Protest

But at least for the moment, the College seems far from proud. So far, officials have pledged not to cut down the tree the way the town did two years earlier-- as long a new swing does not get put up.

Dankers, though, will not concede. "I'm not a militant person," he said, "But there are some times you've just got to say no. "It's a game of cat and mouse, and sometimes the mouse has better ideas."

"When President Wright and S & S go off it, then we can talk," he added.

Compared to many other activities students pursue at Dartmouth, the swing is hardly unsafe, Dankers said, and the College should consider it an asset, not a risk. "It was one of the best additions to the College since co-education."

Dankers said he plans to submit a compromise proposal to the College in the near future that he hopes will result in the takeover of the swing by some campus group and its ultimate preservation as a result.