The World is Aryt Alasti’s Garden



Aryt Alasti works as a security guard at Harvard from the evening until early morning. He returns home for a brief two-hour nap before coming back to campus. Then he toils each day caring, alone, for dozens of plants across Harvard.



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{shortcode-2a6d20b36bf1a51403bdb27028b331b88db39b7c}ryt Alasti works as a security guard at Harvard from the evening until early morning. He returns home for a brief two-hour nap before coming back to campus. Then he toils each day caring, alone, for dozens of plants across Harvard.

I’ve spoken with Alasti many times over the last few months. Several of our conversations were postponed due to a bamboo pruning project he describes as “grueling.” But Alasti is not employed as a gardener. His volunteer work with plants, which spans all three decades of his time at Harvard, is due solely to his love of natural beauty and a refusal to abandon life.

Over a decade ago, Alasti noticed three palm saplings left behind by a plant rental company that had brought 20 of them to campus as decoration for Memorial Hall. After two weeks on the building’s loading dock, it became clear the plants had been abandoned, so Alasti brought them back inside and began watering them.

During the winter, the palms had to be moved to a warmer place, so Alasti arranged for them to be housed in the Biolabs Greenhouse through the winter. Each year, for 10 years, Alasti wheeled the palms from Memorial Hall to the Biolabs and wheeled them back six months later. The plants eventually grew so big they had to be repotted. Alasti spent $400 of his own money to buy larger pots and potting soil for the two plants.

But after moving them to the lower exterior level of Memorial Hall in 2017, he had no way of getting the plants — which had already grown far too large to carry — out of the building. Alasti began calling other greenhouses outside the University to find a new winter refuge. “I could never find any place that had a combination of willingness and space,” Alasti says. “It’s a species that could be as big as 30 feet high.”

Alasti eventually negotiated their relocation within Harvard, one to the Science Center and two to Northwest Labs. In his search, he also contacted the Harvard football team to help him move the palms out from Memorial Hall. “They were good enough to send over four freshman football players,” he says.

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Both plants, having found final homes, remained at Harvard for another five years. The Science Center’s palm, at its largest, stood at 15 feet tall — a full story in height. “It was glorious,” Alasti remembers.

The plants tied Alasti to Harvard — a relationship he would have thought unthinkable for much of his life.

Alasti’s father, Arnold Schuchter ’55, had left the University feeling alienated, Alasti recalls. Schuchter had spent much of his time at Harvard volunteering at the College’s chapter of the National Student Association. The NSA, billed as an international democracy promoter on college campuses, had been secretly funded by the Central Intelligence Agency. When he learned of the funding, Schuchter never forgave the University.

“Harvard was never mentioned in the household when I was growing up,” Alasti says.

Schuchter, wanting to shield his son from the academic pressure he had faced to attend Harvard, didn’t force the issue of schooling on Alasti. But he never had to. Alasti learned to read before entering kindergarten and described much of his primary and secondary school education as “a torment” and “excruciating boredom.” By high school, Alasti was, in his own words, “at my wit’s end.” He stopped attending classes and was eventually expelled. Taking time away from high school, he took classes at MIT for a semester before finally graduating.

During these years, Alasti hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, trips he describes as “the high point” of his life. It was in the mountains that Alasti developed his enduring love for nature. Upon returning, he began writing about the environment, eventually writing two books that were never published. His research into environmental hazards, however — including chemically polluted rivers, asbestos, and everyday use of Agent Orange — made him severely depressed.

“A big focus for me has been on actually battling despair,” he says.

“It just radically altered my understanding of reality,” Alasti adds. He turned to gardening and plant care to find a source of hope. For him, nurturing a plant was creating beauty.

Still searching for escape, he explored life in communes and on farms in remote parts of Alaska and Arizona. Without a home, and not wanting to settle down, Alasti got by doing odd jobs, “wandering the back roads, knocking on doors.”

But Alasti needed money, and he eventually found himself back in Boston working at Whole Foods. At the time, the value of the U.S. dollar was soaring, and Alasti took advantage by importing nature postcards from a Swiss publisher and selling them to tourists, including at the Smithsonian Institution.

But when the dollar fell, Alasti started working as a security guard on night shifts to supplement his income. By the time he started at Harvard in the early ’90s, he was working all night and spending every day in the garden.

While at Harvard, Alasti has been involved with nearly a dozen activist organizations on campus, most prominently with Occupy Harvard, a climate divestment campaign, and the Student Labor Action Movement. He is well known among student organizers — even those he has never met in person — through SLAM’s email list and as a frequent online commenter on The Crimson’s labor and sustainability coverage.

Alasti, also a vocal critic of the University’s labor policies and pay scales, has attended many protests and marches organized by every union on campus over the years, although he notes his own union — Service Employees International Union 32BJ — rarely holds protests. Like a number of Securitas guards interviewed by The Crimson, Alasti has grown increasingly disillusioned with the union, Securitas, and Harvard.

“On the whole, working at Harvard has not been a pleasant experience,” Alasti says.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment.

For a long time, Alasti’s ability to garden on campus was the job’s saving grace. He tells me he had tried to disconnect from gardening at Harvard, but without assurance the plants would be taken care of otherwise, he felt he could not leave.

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His three palms eventually became infested with spider mites and root rot. Despite spending hundreds of hours trimming damaged leaves and stalks, Alasti was unable to save them, and all eventually withered. When the Science Center’s once 15-foot-tall palm was removed last year, Alasti took its death to heart.

He tells me he doesn’t want students and Harvard staff to associate him with the plant’s death, which he calls “a mess of an outcome.”

Alasti had hoped he could retire come January, feeling an increasing desire to leave Harvard and never look back. With such a plan in place, he wrote to former President Larry Bacow on the last day of his term, explaining his plans for retirement. “My hope is that I can do something which will contribute to bettering the world, or at least that will correspond with my interests and be an experience of positivity,” Alasti wrote.

But Alasti tells me he isn’t able to retire yet.

“If I could find some other job of adequate pay and benefits tomorrow, I would be thrilled to never see any of the Harvard plants again, even if some of them are indeed beautiful,” he says.

“So long as I’m remaining I’ll give my involvements my best effort,” Alasti adds.

Alasti still spends his nights working. During the day, security guards see him around everywhere, pruning and weeding in many of the campuses’ buildings and outdoor spaces. But the plants that give Alasti hope, he tells me, are outside Harvard. They are pieces of daily positivity: an enduring reminder of nature’s beauty and resilience.

Corrections: October 23, 2023

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Alasti attended MIT for a year. In fact, he did so for a semester.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Alasti cares for hundreds of plants across Harvard’s campus. In fact, he cares for dozens.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that after work, Alasti spends the rest of his day caring for the plants. In fact, he spends no more than a few hours in a day.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Alasti regularly attends protests of the University’s unions. In fact, though he did so frequently in the past, he is no longer a regular presence at them.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Alasti hiked the Appalachian Trail after high school. In fact, he did so at 16.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Alasti finished writing two books. In fact, while he wrote two books, he did not finish them.

Due to incomplete information given by Alasti, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Alasti grew two palm trees that eventually died. In fact, he grew three that eventually withered.

Due to incomplete information given by Alasti, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Science Center palm tree grew to two stories tall. In fact, it grew to 15 feet tall.

Due to incomplete information given by Alasti, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Alasti kept the palms in Annenberg. In fact, he kept them on the lower exterior level of Memorial Hall.

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at cam.kettles@thecrimson.com. Follow her @cam_kettles.