Being with a Tree
Trees & Shrubs
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.
Worm’s Eye View
The second iteration of our root/tree enclosure has been in place for several weeks and has seen more use than the first. Perhaps this is due to the increasingly warmer and sunnier spring weather? Perhaps it has something also to do with the configuration of the enclosure itself? A series of drawings for each iteration of the enclosure provides further opportunities to consider what it means to create an interior and exterior space, what it means to position ourselves in relationship to the tree. Critical to this analysis is the point of view of the drawing. Four drawings for each enclosure were made, all done in parallel (isometric) projection, however the most compelling point of view in my mind, was the worm’s eye view.
This point of view seems appropriate for the enclosures because it positions the observer looking upward into the tree, as you would be if you were seated in the enclosure itself. It also strengthens, lengthens and underscores the tree and the enclosure, and their presence, while humbling the viewer. The worm’s eye view offers a sensation of being embedded within the earth looking through transparent soil to the tree and the enclosure above. Perhaps root’s eye view is more appropriate for the context of our studio? At least one more set of drawings to add to the current two would make a more complete series, so I am thinking about the next iteration of our enclosure project and what that might look like…
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.
Our habitats, their habitats
Types of Habitats for Squirrels on WashU Danforth Campus
For Squirrels, there are basically two types of habitat. One is for food resource, and the other is for building nests or caves. Of course, the trees where they usually build nest also can provide food, but only the ones that are tall and strong enough with many natural caves can be the preferred options for squirrels to live in and have litters.
On WashU Danforth campus, there are around 4,000 trees in 160 species, where many of them can be our Eastern Gray Squirrels’ habitats.
For food resources, they can eat seeds or berries from walnut, pine, oak, cedar, hemlock, spruce, hawthorn, mulberry, hackberry, locust, locust, tulip, hickory, crabapple, pear, or even persimmon, paw paw or dogwood trees.
Impressively, according to No Nuts, No Problem: Squirrels Harvest Maple Syrup by John Roach at National Geographic, squirrels even can also survive on maple sap.
For their ‘residential’ spaces, they prefer oak, walnut, hickory, beech, elm, tulip poplar or sometimes cottonwood.
You may notice some of the food resources for squirrels are also edible for us, such as crabapple (for jam), pear, persimmon, pawpaw, and mulberry, although we do not tend to eat them as there are way better options for us.
When we do not need these available food resources, we would like to see animals playing around on the trees which bring us joy. However, if they accidentally invade our habitats, such as starting to live on our attics, or disturb our construction activities, this mutually beneficial relationship will be one-sided broken by us, and leave other species very little options.
Definition of Habitat
In Oxford and Meriam-Webster dictionary, the word “habitat” basically has two common definitions – the place where animal or plants grow or live, or residential dwelling places for the human.
Is there a chance that these two concepts can positively intertwine? How do we share our common resources wisely enough to create a healthy urban environment, not only ecologically, but also respectfully? How do we “communicate” with squirrels despite they can not really talk in order to know their feelings about our disturbance? The Squirrel Relocation Service team will keep digging into this question.
How do we act in the ‘network mutualism’ between squirrels and human?
‘Network mutualism’, a concept mentioned in Rod Barnett’s book “Emergence in Landscape Architecture”, where he describes the relationship between coyotes and human in Auburn as such.
“While coyotes do not prey on humans, the reverse is often true, so the human- coyote relationship, could be said to be that of a predator species to its prey. Even though humans do kill coyotes, they are not dependent on them for food.
Ecologically, therefore, their relationship might be seen as commensal, where one species, the coyote, benefits from the habitat created by urbanization, while the other, the human, is not affected in any significant way. Or it is more accurate to say that the two species are equally involved what is sometimes called a network mutualism.
The coyote population distributes itself throughout a space without borders or enclosure.
Organized by the rule of law, human Auburn is a static space defined by walls, enclosures and paths between enclosures, a division that nonhuman Auburn is continually redefining as a smooth continuum of “habitats”, “ecotones”, and “biotic communities”.
Just like these coyotes, we and squirrels also have this network mutualism, despite occasionally they go to people’s attics to live, and we human disturb their habitats by constructions, such as the one for the coming carnival.
When the land is stripped, some squirrels are still smart enough to find where they hid their food by smell, but it is doubtful that if all the squirrels are as smart as the one we filmed.
We all know animals’ habitats not only benefit themselves but bring us ecological diversity. However, the value of their habitats is beyond that. Their old habitats equal to “historic sites” in human societies, although may going through a faster pace of reconstruction. It is one part of the public history that documents the evolution of the human and non-human relationship.
As Rod Barnett says in his book: “Public space, may well, in fact, be the primary site of this encounter, if we extend the notion of the public to include nonhumans.”
So here is the question, how do we not disturb squirrels’ habitats while doing our necessary construction?
The first step might be, recognizing the public space is “public” for everyone, even beyond human.
Symbiosis of Squirrels and Pin Oaks
Check out the full image here
A deep relationship between squirrels and pin oaks are shown in our research as above. Even though pin oak is a fast growing tree, compared to squirrels, it has such a long life cycle. However, they work and live intimately together year after year, generation after generation and witnessing each other’s growth or even evolution in the long history of ecology.
How can we enter into thinking and seeing and imagining in tree time? What are the limits of detection these arboreal sensors operate within? How can we listen to particularly talkative tree rings? These were only some of the questions that Mike Stambaugh and his colleagues at the Missouri Tree Ring Lab introduced us to as we took a deep dive into the theory and practice of dendrochronology.
We held the world’s oldest oak specimen, learned of the process of cross dating, and my mind still swims at the worlds opening up in thinking landscape forensics. In mounting our One Tree cores, we have come to the conclusion that the trees are between 80 and 90 years old–putting their planting date likely sometime in the 1930’s. We will dive into the WashU yearbooks in the coming week to see if we might be able to corroborate this date which challenges some of our other diagnostic work.
Many thanks to all at Mizzou’s Tree Ring Lab for being such generous hosts!
Another set of tests with listening to the trees today, this time using simpler microphones – two 27mm piezo discs (acoustic pickups). The simplicity of their design offers other possibilities for connecting them to the trees. I tried two different configurations today; slotting them into spaces between the bark, and adhering them to a branch with two-sided tape. Having two of these microphones also allowed for recording in “stereo.” I inserted the microphones into the tree one on either side of one of our boreholes and began speaking into, blowing into, and prodding the borehole. (it’s best to listen to these files with headphones)
I also tried adhering the microphones to two locations on one low-hanging branch. The left channel (ear) microphone was placed closest to the trunk and the right channel (ear) microphone was placed further out along the branch. I then began repeatedly bending the branch.
The second recording marks a significant step in the tree listening experiments. Rather than generating a sound with an external device and recording that sound as it travels through the tree, the recording of the branch bending is the sound of the tree itself as it responds to an external stress. The result is much richer and the difference in location of the microphones is audibly detected. There is evidence to suggest that smaller plants (and perhaps trees?) produce an immediate electrical response when subjected to stresses such as having a leaf torn, or having stems shaken. If this holds for our oak trees, capturing that electrical variation and feeding it through audible output (vocoder, MIDI controller) might be one way to give a voice to the trees.