A Tale of Three Trees

Cal Poly has had three different logos, and all have included a tree.

The first logo is still used as the "seal of the University". Here is the official description from the University Catalog: "The seal is used for all official acts of the university. It appears on official documents and represents a verification of the university's approval of actions and events. The figure in the sealís center is a representation of the head of the universityís ceremonial mace which represents through its five branches the major disciplines of learning basic to the curricula of the university: the arts, commerce, the humanities, the sciences, and technology. Surrounding the seal is a black band which circles the designation California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and the founding date, 1938. Above the stylized mace is the motto: INSTRUMENTUM DISCIPLINAE."

The description in the commencement program is more intriguing: "The central symbol of the seal of the university, which is repeated on the mace, is a stylized version of a Yggdrasil, the tree of life from Norse mythology, described as a great ash that holds earth and heaven and hell by its branches." It's a bit more complicated than this, as you might imagine. To us it's mythology; to the Norse it was religion, and they had only one Yggdrasil. You'd think a tree like that would be worth protecting, since it holds everything together, and sure enough, Norse religion (oops, mythology) fortells a time when the Gods aren't minding the store, a dragon Nidhogg chews away at a root and poisons the tree, the monster Fenris breaks his chains and eats the sun, and things generally deteriorate. This pretty much signals the end of the world, called Ragnarok. Wagner's opera Die Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods) is the same idea. It is unfortunate that the tree in the seal looks like a gaunt, leafless hulk in its final days. The mace isn't much different; it has five claws surrounding a small sphere, all in cast bronze.

The Seal also includes Cal Poly's motto, Instrumentum Disciplinae. A bit of quick Latin scholarship might suggest that this means "the instrument of discipline", and certainly the claw-headed mace itself would be an appropriate prod for wayward students or administrators (it is of course a symbol of the faculty). But the meaning of the words has changed since English took them from Latin. A better translation of the motto is "the tools of teaching" or even "the construction of instruction". Ironically for the agricultural origins of the campus, instrumentum also refers to "implements of husbandry".

In the mid-1980s, the University Seal was replaced on letterhead and such by a new logo. If the old Yggdrasil hung barren at the Götterdämmerung, the new one flourished at the world's beginning. On letterhead it was printed in green, unlike the black of the previous tree.

In addition to the tree, the new logo still contained the name of the University and the date of its founding, although the motto had disappeared. The new logo was widely used on consumer items: mugs, t-shirts, notebooks, and such, and it still appears, for example, on the fountain in front of the bookstore.

When the logo first appeared, Cal Poly was entering a brief period of adequate funding and general optimism. By the end of the 1980s, all that was gone, in the Great Budget Crunch.

In November, 1994, the former tree logo was replaced by a new logo (text from the University Catalog): "The California State Polytechnic University logo was created from two on-campus structures, the C/L/A Building and the Arabian horse barn arch, suggesting a transition into a new age of innovation--a linking of the theoretical and the practical. The leaf acknowledges the past tree logo and represents our lush and unique campus. It also represents the student flourishing within the nurturing Cal Poly Pomona environment. The placement and shape of the leaf created an implied P, representing the fact that we are a polytechnic university located in Pomona. The logo is the university symbol and will be used on all printed material."

The placement of the leaf is symbolic in other ways, too. It is alone. On a tree, leaves are connected, just as the students, faculty, and staff of the University are connected by the trunk and branches of the institution, and more broadly, of knowledge and scholarship. The detached leaf hardly symbolizes a nurturing environment. In the real world, detached leaves die.

The inner arch is the horse barn, overshadowed and in fact swallowed by the wedge of the CLA building. The hierarchy is obvious: The new Corporate University, swallowing up its foundations in the Historic University, and the Living University, the students and faculty, left to die beneath its arches.

The old Yggdrasil, standing bare as the world crumbles, may seem a bleak image, but the Norse legends tell of the heroism of the Gods as they await their final battle, and they imply a time of rebirth. The reborn tree of green symbolizes the heroism of students, faculty, and staff working to make the University a better place. The impersonal edifices of the modern logo match the modern University, a place no longer quite living, a museum of dead leaves, and a fate far, far worse than the Ragnarok, a world ended in a whimper.

Space for this page is provided by California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Although it is intended to further the educational mission of the University, the opinions expressed here are those of Curtis Clark, and do not represent official policy of the University.

© 1997, 2001, 2010 by Curtis Clark