Archives are elusive and beautiful things. We thought we had viewed all of the documents related to planting on campus when Sonya, the University Archivist, and I found note of a 1936 “Trees + Shrubs” plan filed with some unrelated items. Upon pulling the file we found this incredible, 3’x7′ campus-wide plan of the University’s landscaping. Here we found verification of the commemorative and alumni trees, as well as the first clear species call-out on the rows of pin oaks.
The 1936 date confirms much of what we deduced on our visit to the tree-ring laboratory last week. While the specific planting date of each one of these incredible oaks may never be known exactly, we are moving toward confidence that the trees are ~80 years old.
What are the ways that plants “feel out their worlds”? Natasha Myers asks this question as she explores plant sensing and a broader “plant turn” in contemporary critical thought:
Alongside Myers, John Hartigan, editor of Aesop’s Anthropology, invites us to think about what it means to listen with plants. To think with and through and alongside other living things. “Living thinking” (rather than object thinking) is a mode of thought “that is relational, that recognizes how living ‘things’ interpenetrate and, in reality, are not things at all.”
In an 8 hour durational video performance, artist Julius von Bismarck cuts down a tree with a pocket knife. The work consists of the artists encircling the tree in a slow and relentless unbuilding of the tree’s rings.
The title, Tree Analysis, seems to me to be a take on the sort of intimacy and distancing that such a durational piece might induce. A dismembering that fully implicates the executioner in both body and time. With the knife edge finding each layer of the tree’s growth, its undoing is rewritten in the wrist of the artist.
[Special thanks to the always amazing Amanda Bowles for this reference. Endless respect!]
How do we gain access to tree-ness? How are symptoms diagnosed from within the inaccessibility of a tree–its history, its girth, etc? These are some of the broader landscape forensic questions we have been asking throughout the term.
This past week we worked with the German physicist, inventor, and tree expert Frank Rinn to begin to map the interior of a tree using sound.
Frank has invented and manufactures a system for sonic tomography–the measurement of a tree’s cross-sectional density by means of sound-waves.
With a girdle of 15+ sensors, the tree is sounded in a sort of arboreal perambulation–where each sensor is lightly tapped 5 times as the propagation time of the sound wave is measured at each of the other sensors. The resulting measurement is a map of the speed of sound through the medium of the tree.
Each vector in the chart to the left measures the relative time it took for the sound wave to reach a corresponding sensor. The resulting diagram of greens, oranges, yellows, pinks, and reds, is simply a visual coding of speed–with green being relatively fast, and red/pink being relatively slow (or nonexistent).
This set of measurement is then interpolated to form a density map on in the tomogram on the right. Here, a visualization of the wood density–and, perhaps, through experience in interpretation, strength–is charted in a communicable form.
As Frank is quick to point out that, while this tomographic system certainly communicates fundamental scientific information about the trees in question, this sort of imagining is fundamentally a political tool. In the politics of the visible, and in the politics of urban street-trees in particular, the ability to communicate the non-visible, the subcutaneous, allows urban foresters an immediate way to construct a slightly more informed landscape public.
At stake in this sort of measurement is the politics of diagnosis. Landscape is uniquely interpretable as a symptom: a symptom of ecological pressures, historical processes, and design intents. The traces of these (geo)histories, embedded as they are within the body of the tree, provide symptoms that can be diagnosed through a range of landscape forensic activities. Much of what we have been up to in this course is exactly this. Landscape forensics as method.
In 1895, the Board of Trustees of Washington University hired the landscape architecture firm of Olmsted, Olmsted & Elliot to develop a preliminary plan for a new campus site at the edge of the city. At that time, Forest Park was indeed a forested park, and the hilltop campus was a site of sharp gullies and savanna-like grasses and trees.
Into this landscape, Olmsted Brothers projected a picturesque campus with a sweeping entry that both followed the contours of the site as well as their longstanding design tropes of meandering paths and jaunty disposition of buildings. But within this pastoral vision, they also set the tone for what would become the defining characteristics of the campus–a set of nested outdoor rooms or courts, arranged orderly along the hilltop site.But within four years, having been invited to take part in the final, international competition for the master-plan of the campus, and with the site having doubled in size, the meandering, topographically responsive entry of Olmsted’s preliminary scheme gave way to a centralized plan linking Forest Park and the University. Here, then, lies the fate of this site. Every entry into the competition–from Olmsted to Cope & Stewardson, and from Cass Gilbert to McKim, Meade & White–projected this axis across the contours of the undulating landscape. To think otherwise, it seems, was to give-in to the specificity of place and context. And here, perhaps, lies a prolegomenon to the politics of topography.