Provocations of a Bathroom Wall

Whatever your gender identity, I encourage you to venture into the larger of the two stalls in the first-floor men’s bathroom of Frost Library. There, to your left, you shall see, inked on the gray metal barrier between the toilets, a challenge, of sorts: “Top 10 Nicknames for Biddy’s House.”

Before I go on, a disclaimer: I do not condone vandalism. I do appreciate, however, anything I see during the course of the day, legal or not, that makes me think. The scrawled note caught me by surprise — and elicited a hearty chuckle. An initially dismissive nod gave way to the only thing I could think of — mind you, I’m not known to compose good puns or jokes — “The Purple Martin House.”

Perhaps in your travels to and from Amherst College, you have driven by the iconic farm fields and pastures of the Pioneer Valley. Mustard yellow wildflowers dance in the wind, and purple coneflowers speckle a landscape filled with grass overtaking a former dairy farm. And there, amidst it all, stands not a tree but a pole, atop which sits a rather large, Victorian-esque mini-mansion.

This ornate piece of craftsmanship — for all its kitschiness, there is nonetheless something admirable about its detail — is designed for a specific North American swallow: the purple martin, Progne subis.

According to the “Sibley Field Guide to Birds of North America,” the purple martin is the largest swallow in North America. Its distinction from other swallows is its beautiful plumage: The male is described as “glossy blue-black,” with a tail and wings a dusky black hue. The female, while slightly duller in color, is no less spectacular. Most notable is the description of their flight: “graceful, liquid wingbeats,” reads a description in a National Geographic guide, “interspersed with gliding and soaring.”

If you’re not convinced yet of their ethereal flight or stunning-yet-subtle color, take a moment to look up a picture in a guide or find a video online.

Back, though, to what my response to the challenge for a “Nickname for Biddy’s House” spurred in terms of further mental fodder.

It brought me to consider the latest discussion about mascots on campus. Moose or no moose. Lady Jeffs and Lord Jeffs. Emily Dickinson, anyone? She could cudgel the Williams Eph with a book of poetry.
But what about a bird? At first, there may seem to be no greater connection between Amherst and a Moose than Amherst and a songbird. (Note: I’m not advocating one position in the debate or another. As an administrator recently counseled, “Any discussion has to involve the entire Amherst community, and there are lots of people — alumni, townsfolk, even students­ — who, despite the noise on campus, do not want to see the mascot they associate with changed.” So the debate is perhaps for another column.)

I’m inclined to suggest the purple martin enter the fray to pay homage to Amherst’s distinctive, regal purple hue; the “graceful, liquid wingbeats” of its diverse and intelligent student body; and, of course, our wonderful president, Biddy Martin.

Biddy arrived at Amherst at a difficult time, and she has steered the campus through controversial but necessary discussions and policy changes regarding everything from sexual assault to racial and ethnic diversity, to Amherst’s role as an educator in the world beyond its campus borders. Moreover, she occupies a pivotal role in our school’s history as its first female president.

Who better to honor with a mascot than both a bird of great beauty — and local relevance, not to mention a color matching our school — and a president of great character, intelligence and vitality.

This may be out on a limb (please excuse the pun), but the bathroom stall’s challenge leads me to issue a request to campus. Namely, should the mascot debate ever lead to an actual change, please, just consider the following: The Amherst purple martins. Moose are terrific — indeed, I hail from New Hampshire and love the brown beasts — but the tangibility, if you will, of the purple martin seems too good to be true.

The houses dot our landscape. The house of its namesake overlooks the college, its noble resident watching over us with our community’s best interests at heart. And, maybe someday, a fuzzy, cheerful, graceful purple martin could glide and soar across our very own athletic fields.