TREES OF TOMORROW (PART 1 OF 3: BRANCHING) :: MARGARETHA HAUGHWOUT :: FIELD NOTES :: UNEARTHING THE HIDDEN POLITICS OF ORNAMENTAL TREES

For this three-part special feature in our Field Notes Series (where creators from all disciplines shine a light behind the curtain at their daily practice), we are excited to introduce you to artist, activist, and Guerilla Grafter, Margaretha Haughwout. In Trees of Tomorrow: A Speculative Tour and Workstation, Haughwout collaborates with soil practitioners, teens from the John Bowne High School Agricultural Department, and the trees themselves, to investigate and articulate the ways in which ornamental street trees shape and are shaped by neighborhoods, economies, and soils in Flushing, Queens. Through collaborative map-making, art, storytelling, and even a speculative interview with one London Plane Sycamore tree, Haughwout and her team work to collapse the nature/culture dichotomy, subvert ornamentality, and reimagine ways in which humans and trees can co-create habitat for a range of multispecies companions. [2018 series editor: Adrian Silbernagel]

A Branching Network of Companions

Trees of Tomorrow unearths the hidden politics of ornamental street trees in Flushing, Queens: the ways that ornamental street trees shape and are shaped by neighborhoods, soils, economies. This project has many origin stories. It is linked to the Guerrilla Grafters, and our politicization/ protest of the sterility of city streets: our demand that gestures between naturecultures must generate deliciousness and difference. (Haraway, 16, 39) It begins with an email exchange between myself and soil practitioner Randall Szott, his seed of an idea to bridge a ‘soil practice’ project across the Social Practice Queens MFA program, John Bowne High School agricultural students; with Cody Herrmann’s investigations into the politics and histories of Flushing; Julian Phillips’ desire to link performance art to the cultures and histories of Flushing; Gregory Sholette’s political social practice at Queens College; with the trees.

Trees of Tomorrow

Trees of Tomorrow, then, exists as a branching network of companionships, collusions, and grafts across trees and their companions, across institutions, neighborhood stakeholders, individuals, and soils of Flushing.

A Puzzle, Map, and Ever-evolving Network/System

A fluctuating number of exceptional students from the John Bowne High School Agricultural Program — especially Larissa Li, Gabriella Heyward, Antonio Crespo, Destiny Irazarry, Angelica ‘Noguera, and Diana Vazguez — pioneered relationships with a range of trees found in Flushing. When MFA students Cody Herrmann, Julian Phillips, and I first met up with the JBHS teens in January 2018, we invited one another to choose a tree to get to know better.

Beginning research with JBHS agricultural students

We began with a collaborative drawing practice, the first stage of which involved drawing our chosen tree’s branches without a trunk onto a square canvas; branches at the edges of the canvas matched in size and location to those on other canvases, making a puzzle, a map, an ever-evolving network/system.

Collaborative drawing as puzzle/map/ever-evolving network/system

I also traced the branches and laser cut them into stencils so that the map/puzzle/network/system could expand in new ways on the street.

Expanding the network of trunkless tree art with JBHS students

Then we unfurled the branches for this collaborative drawing, using them to
guide narratives about the histories, presents and possible futures for our
trees.

Unfurling cherry branches across time. Artwork by Larissa Li
Unfurling cherry branches across time. Artwork by Larissa Li
Unfurling cherry branches across time. Artwork by Larissa Li
Speculative future for the Willow tree. By Angelica ‘Noguera

Station Stops and Resource Flows

A lot of the play of this project experiments with the implications of collapsing modernity’s nature/ culture binary and the subsequent expanded political field. Trees, in Trees of Tomorrow, are recast as political agents and as transportation routes.

Branches of this project arch over questions about how natures organize — and are organized by — political and economic realities, and how this way of knowing might also change how we understand communication and exchange. We play with the idea that for our trees, communication is synonymous with exchange of resources, transportation.

Imagining trees as responsive, politicized, networks could be easier if we understand media as elemental. As John Durham Peters argues, “’Media,’ understood as the means by which meaning is communicated, sit atop layers of even more fundamental media that have meaning but do not speak.” (Peters, 2) At least not in languages we are used to.

Cody Herrmann and Julian Phillips brainstorm the links between trees and transportation

Peters defines media as “ensembles of natural element and human craft.” (Peters, 3) Elemental media includes clouds, earth along with petri dish gel, railroad tracks, and the internet. Seeing the street trees of Flushing as media disrupts conventional understandings of how society is organized and for whom (what natures and what cultures); ornamental street trees shape — and are shaped by — neighborhoods, economies, histories. The London Plane Sycamore, found all over Flushing and discussed in Part 2 of this series, is tied to mass death of the Elm tree (Ulmus americana) due to Dutch Elm Disease, to ecosystem services, and the despotic urban developer Robert Moses, who favored replacing the dying Elms with these hybrid Sycamores. The Cherry is linked to medicine, sweetness and sourness, and food; the Cherry Blossom Tree is linked to orientalism and ornamentality, as well as to early 20th-century diplomacy (more will be said about the cherry in Part 3 of this series). Peel back the cultural training to dismiss these trees as ornamental, as other, or as unknowable, and neighborhood trees become laborers, resource flows, communication routes.

Rather than perpetuating the Cartesian duality between mind and body, seeing trees as media means encountering their content through their materiality/through our senses. Knowing the natures in our midst through our senses complement and also potentially challenge exclusively scientific ways of knowing, especially the kinds of science that operate in service to the market and the state. I suspect that through these ways of knowing we challenge the ways state and capitalism rely on the ‘otherness’ of nature in order to exploit it.

This project has many branches, but what joins them together are the tactile, sensory engagements — as a way of knowing and as a way of re-membering/ reassembling histories and futures, natures and cultures.

References

Haraway, Donna J. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Peters, John Durham. The Marvelous Clouds: Towards a Philosophy of Elemental Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.


Margaretha Haughwout’s personal and collaborative artwork explores the intersections between ideas of technology and wilderness, digital networks and the urban commons, cybernetics and whole systems permaculture — in the context of ecological, technological and human survival. Her active collaborations include the Guerrilla Grafters: an art/ activist group who graft fruit bearing branches onto non-fruit bearing, ornamental fruit trees, and the Coastal Reading Group: consisting of artists from different coasts who trouble the subjects of wilderness, speciation, humanness and ways of knowing through diverse engagements with non-humans. Haughwout and her collaborators at Hayes Valley Farm, an interim-use urban permaculture farm in downtown San Francisco, cultivated low input ecological systems and developed a unique lateral governance structure that was able to engage a range of different kinds of human input while still navigating complex politics with city agencies. Understanding practice to be the work of trying over time to make one’s engagements better, and survival to require flourishing multi-species cohabitation, mutuality and care, her expanded studio includes experimentation with both electrical and political power, interactive narratives, and the cultivation of biological systems.

Haughwout has been awarded numerous grants for community based work in San Francisco, and her personal and collaborative artwork has been exhibited nationally and internationally. Haughwout received her MFA at the University of California Santa Cruz, her Permaculture Design Certificate from the Urban Permaculture Institute, and she has studied with numerous herbalists including Matthew Wood and Autumn Summers. She holds a certificate from the California School of Herbal Studies. In her classes as Assistant Professor of Digital Studio at Colgate University, she draws connections to legacies in conceptual art, new media art, and collaboration, in order to foster distributed, artistic approaches to the interconnected issues of our time/s.

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