carving from allée pin oaks with an angle grinder, 2017.
processual material encounter with the temporal archive of the tree.
The goal of this project is to attempt to disorder the cultural archive of the tree with an experiential practice that engages with one tree—and perhaps collapses, ever so slightly, the remove between us. I use an angle grinder to make a hollow in the living material of a pin oak in the campus allée that would shortly be felled. The operation is grounded in experimental veins of cultural geography and archaeology that use performative landscape practices, specifically those involving movement and feel, to foreground the body in the revelation of the human and nonhuman world. The embodiment of the process makes for a lived experience of the material chronology of a tree, its otherness/closeness, and the tightly interlocked grains and folds of its matter—haptic exchanges mediated by a tool across time. The outcome is a kind of intimacy with a tree. The resultant concavity of its substance is a subtly-evolving processual artifact, and an accompanying essay a translation of the practice.
ON THE OCCASION OF FUTURE TREE PLANTINGS with reference to “Tree-Planting Day,” Calvin Milton Woodward, 1905
What do we plant when we plant the tree?
We buy eighty years for the next allee;
We look to the past but mostly ahead;
We often ignore the tree now dead
Decaying gently in the new entry;
We plant to forget when we plant the tree.
What do we plant when we plant the tree?
We know the resources historically—
We plant a pole, a mast, a winter’s fuel;
A rifle, an ax, more violent tools;
We know the harvests did come to be;
We planted to deploy when we planted the tree.
What do we plant when we plant the tree?
We’ve read about instrumentality:
We plant for trees to serve our needs;
We perpetuate this, we save their seeds,
Force shape on their neutrality;
We plant an object when we plant the tree.
What do we plant when we plant the tree?
We plant to project authority;
We plant in grids, Cartesian perspectives;
We dominate nature, acculturate spaces;
We educate with due civility;
We plant to contain when we plant the tree.
But come, my friends, it isn’t all bad:
We plant, we’ve said, to give power to plans;
By planting a tree, we’ll do more than deploy—
The shade of a tree we can always enjoy;
We plant for places to move and debate
with raised glasses, for we plant to create.
The terrain is contested, it always will be,
And we start all again when we plant the tree.
Merriam-Webster defines a tree blaze as “a mark made on a tree to show a trail,” most particularly “a mark made by chipping off a piece of the bark.” As a material practice, there is a long history of mark-making on trees, imparting scars that last but do not endanger the tree. It is practice of the surveyor, the forester and ranger, and, most simply, of people who move through the landscape.
By leaving a trace in the material of the tree, the maker signals intention and, possibly, layers of information. As an indicator, it projects information in our visual plane for our feet to follow—a design for the sighted and the upright. It heralds an organizing system, one point in a network of points that is sensible only in relation to its terrain.
The placement and number of blazes on a tree are a further extrapolation of terrain and projected human uses:
i) the out-and-back or destination trail, which requires way finding in two directions;
ii) a directional use trail, which guides use in a single direction; and
iii) a loop trail or closed circuit, which is uni-directional and does not revisit the same points.
In the word blaze are echoes of its verb forms—”to make conspicuously brilliant” and “to make conspicuous or public.” Conspicuously brilliant, the blaze is full of material force and interest as an alteration to the texture of the landscape. Conspicuous, it invites its own public to participate in an experiential narration.
This was the order of human institutions: first the forests, after that the huts, then the villages, next the cities, and finally the academies.
–Giambattista Vico, The New Science
In his amazing book Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, author Robert Pogue Harrison writes that “Civil society comes into being through the activity of gathering.” He references Vico on the ordering and evolution of this gathering (above), and further cites him on the Latin word lex, or law:
First it must have meant a collection of acorns. Thence we believe is derived ilex, as it were illex, the oak (as certainly aquilex means collector of waters); for the oak produces the acorns by which the swine are drawn together. Lex was next a collection of vegetables, from which the latter were called legumina. Later on, at a time when vulgar letters had not yet been invested for writing down the laws, lex by a necessity of civil nature must have meant a collection of citizens, or the public parliament, so that the presence of the people was the lex, or “law.”… Finally, collecting letters, and making, as it were, a sheaf of them for each word, was called legere, reading.
In the zine The Cell Tree, author Nolan Boomer evaluates the tree as an instrument of communication. In the wake of the recently popular book by Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, he takes for granted that the interconnection of tree organisms through mycorrhizal systems has become embedded cultural thinking. Boomer reminds us that trees have for some years been tapped as disguises for infrastructural cell towers and that “tree diagrams” deserve critique as inadequately complex visual display methods. The tree is being used for its very ability to absorb these uses with neutrality, as Jesse has noted. Part of the tree’s elusiveness may be in its ability to wear well so many guises that are actually obstacles to our understanding.
Trees, whether living or in decay, are points in larger systems. In the allee, they are placed into a selective grid, expressive of a Cartesian control over the measured landscape. Here the tree communicates the designer’s strong desire for spatial form and order, an architectural mimetic that also is transformative of the archetype of the forest. The tree remains productive.
Is it possible that trees might yet project some of what they are back to or onto us? If trees are communicators, then we must actualize ourselves as receivers. The tree has been encoded culturally and distanced spatially–both from natural communities with other trees and from a richer haptic association with humans. The tree has been a focus as an object, and as an object, it is something we can never know. To close the subject-object gap, we might need to recognize the tree, physically and metaphorically, by standing alongside it.
When I apply the dense matrix of the grinding head, I feel its tight pull against the wood grain. The deep furrows of this mature part of the tree tug the grinder unevenly, threaten to pull me out of the diameter of the chalked outline I have drawn—like my head in size, but evenly circular. When a woodpecker penetrates the bark of a tree, it has chosen a thin-barked tree, or the younger upper reaches of a mature one. Its strikes are repetitive, accurate: a hole is cast. My work on the tree looks haphazard at first, bumbling, of little skill or grace. It is by a law of averages, an evening out of increasingly smooth passes, that the bowl hollows and incrementally takes form. My mental ambition is to scoop. The grinder wants to take off in a nefarious line, grind a deep burning wedge, fall to kick in circles at my feet.
The rings come up quickly, like interstate signs in the rain, postings of new information that arrive and pass as I whip by them. The scale of the grinding action is too much to control a relationship to the rings, this fast intrusion more a break-in than a neighborly visit. Then, the quick smell of vinegar, and the heartwood is shredding wetly under the grinding head beneath my hands.
Spencer Finch, Walden Pond (surface/depth), 2013 mixed media installation
IN this work, Finch has re-recorded the 102′ depth of Walden Pond (first and last recorded by Henry David Thoreau), correlating its latitude and longitude with aqueous colors in 700 readings along a mariner’s sounding line, complete with terminal lead plummet. The tied red marks here designate every foot—instead of the traditional order of 2, 3, 5, 7, 10, 13, 15, 17, and 20 fathoms. (Intriguingly, mariners’ lines were shaped so that they could be read by eye, or by touch in the dark of night.
“Neither entirely documentation nor sculpture, the long line may best be considered a drawing of Walden Pond.” -James Cohan Gallery
As Rob has posted previously, is our drawing the root, the trench, or the displaced soil itself? The root we’ve uncovered may itself be thought of as a record of that soil—with all of its stones, pockets of air, and patches of nutrients, invisible to our sight and evasive of the touch of our hands. Scientific tools could help us correlate the root depth to porosity/compaction, to soil nutrients and fertilizers and competition. What would the tool be for measuring depth when it comes to ground—a plumb bob? A forester’s dbh tape, then, for the diameter of the root compared to the last measurement. An accounting of the number of branching moves and their direction relative to the tree, or to true north by means of a compass. Soil color at horizon depths could be measured as well as depth and trend—as Margot has noted, we are as designers drawn to correlates of color and their potential for variation. Curiously, there are no means to measure the passage of time in root growth. Is the map of root time in its corresponding branches above, their terminal bud scars from the year before yielding proportional information?
Or could our soundings be the points of variation from a lateral, level expectation: trend reversals from thick to thin to thick again; the doubling-back, the circling, and the backwards-forking, thwarting our lateral anticipations? The rooting behavior is more akin to creation of a networked mat with socialist tendencies than a set of hierarchical root structures. Would further abstraction make this more explicit? Would circuits and nodes rather than lines come to inform our understanding?
Like Finch’s drawing, ours might combine the visible and measurable, the analog and the digital, art and science. Our rendering(s) might reveal what underground truths we are separated from and create correlates to our sensory experience, thereby mitigating, at least in part, our soil blindness to the underneath.
has taught many thousands of people how to look at and draw trees more closely.
How would he interpret our OneTree (because we reserve the right to be fickle, B-5 for now)? How can drawing it help us see more closely?
The basic pattern of dividing, tapering branches remains the same among all trees. In our tree, the branches spread upward and become more narrow. Our tree has been exposed to the weather and to changing conditions, and so it has adapted, reaching for light, the branches more on one side, and more at the top. Munari asks us to consider the mad branches, “like there are in any family.” Each tree in the allee a variation on the same genetic branching structure, varied by circumstances.
Lyford & Wilson. Harvard Forest Paper No. 10. (1964)
Trees are in constant, foraging exploration through their roots. Darwin’s was a “root brain” hypothesis—a human metaphor that yet acknowledges a sort of decentralized command via the root’s tip. Or imagine instead “every organ of intentionality [in a tree] playing the role of a parallel processor.” The foraging root is thereby a device of the tree, independently cued by feedback to seek out nutrient-rich environments.
Roots are hypersensitive to context, hyper specific to place. Soil hardness, stones, light penetration, temperature, invertebrates, distribution of water, minerals, gases…all play a role in stimulating the root tip to develop structures to recover its optimal conditions.
A tree’s placement of roots is non-random and deliberate: intentionality expressed by its growth movement toward optimal patches of nutrients, in turn expressed by “modular growth and phenotypic plasticity.” Shortening and intensification of branching structure when resources are abundant, lengthening and moderation when they are not.
Its tree intelligence becomes clear.
(Reference: Marder, Michael. “Plant Intentionality and the Phenomenological Framework of Plant Intelligence.” Plant Signaling & Behavior 7, no. 11 (November 1, 2012): 1365–72. doi:10.4161/psb.21954.)