Tag and measure, measure and tag

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.

consider the tree


Bruno Munari

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.

Root brain

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.)


Yesterday and today

Pierre Huyghe, Timekeeper, 1999
A highly site-specific work by Pierre Huyghe, who we’ve admired in class in other contexts. It’s a wall sanding through layers of paint to the wall surface…thereby providing a window to read the passage of time–and from a flat surface! But isn’t it strange to think that if you perform this operation on a tree, rings are exposed that reveal the same passage of time as from a cross-cut section, if you were able to go all the way to the center…? (Although right,  not the whole ring as it was formed) An ongoing consideration is how our conventions and tools dictate the kinds of information we receive, and how we receive it. This is an inversion, or a 90-degree turn, in any case, that challenges what we think we know about how to know and measure a tree–if you know what I mean…

bound and unbound

Charles Ray, untitled (1973)


bound and unbound
tethered and untethered
which is the body of mediation—the human form or the tree?
do I project myself into his space,
the binding a cruel act against him—
or is it animal attraction to the tree?
is he free there, suspended against gravity
or am I instead the tree,
possibly imposed upon, bearing this unwieldy thing,
so awkward in its limbs and attitude
do we come to equilibrium,
being neither one way nor the other

tool : finding

the relationship of the tool to its corresponding finding
Shigo notes that the lightweight chainsaw made possible longitudinal sections, or dissections, of injured trees; he made over 15,000 in a 25 year span.
He found that the discolored wood varies in size, color, and degree of moisture — and shows a relationship to the external wound.
From the longitudinal application of chainsaw to tree, a very particular internal reality of the tree is revealed — albeit violently. Concepts of discolored and decayed wood and heartwood were subsequently developed — but we humans are still knocking from the outside.
(reference: Alex Shigo, A New Tree Biology)