TREES OF TOMORROW (PART 3 OF 3: DIGGING) :: MARGARETHA HAUGHWOUT :: FIELD NOTES
In this final installment of Field Notes special feature “Trees of Tomorrow,” artist and Guerrilla Grafter Margaretha Haughwout traces the history of ornamental street trees in Flushing, Queens — back to the first commercial nurseries founded in the colonies, and further back still, before the Europeans’ arrival, to when the Matinecoc Tribe flourished in the areas now known as Queens. Haughwout’s investigations bring into stark relief the nature-culture dichotomy that frames modern experience, showing it to have deep roots in colonization, displacement, and violent conflict. Through dialogue, research, and grassroots activism (see: guerrilla grafting), Haughwout, her collaborators, and the participants in her “speculative workstations” envision possible futures wherein inter-species relationships, and the relationship between nature and culture, are reciprocal rather than imperialist. [2018 series editor: Adrian Silbernagel]
Trees of Tomorrow explores the ways that ornamental street trees shape and are shaped by the neighborhoods, soils, economies of Flushing, Queens. Through a range of media (elemental and otherwise), inviting and resulting from conversation and speculation, Trees of Tomorrow unearths the hidden politics of ornamental street trees. We dig — unearthing, branching, sowing.
Soils are history, material, living networks, and metaphor. What happens when the ground under our feet isn’t reckoned with? Flushing-Corona Park unrolls on top of an area that was once a wetlands, then a landfill, now a “green space” (where folks can look but not manipulate the more-than-human natures around them, unless they are workers mowing, pruning or spraying). Layers beneath our feet tell of salt marshes that contributed significantly to ecologies extending to Meadow Lake, and larger city maritime ecologies, of Eastern Red Cedar, Staghorn Sumac and Blueberries… then of smallpox outbreaks, of ash and coal dumps, drastic pesticide use (to lay the groundwork for the current park and in attempt to control new, aggressive grasses) that lead fish to die off in the waterways. Adjacent to the park, a soccer field sits on top of a waste treatment facility.
Trees of Tomorrow promotes kinds of digging that unearth vertical politics and power structures, deepening our ability to read the naturecultures in our midst, to offer companionships and solidarity, and to employ cultures of reciprocity across species.
Soils beneath our feet tell stories, and in order to imagine livable futures, we need to be able to read them. This has potential to be a kind of “ancestral futurology” as Dr. Memory Biwa (2018) calls it.
Soils are history, material, living networks and metaphor. As we cultivate our horizontal networks across species, as accomplices in instantiating more-than-human political fields, we unearth vertical histories, histories tied to chronological tellings in such a way that the past is meant to be separate, cut off from the present. But these pasts have direct impact on the ground we stand on, and how we see (Abram, 1996). The past is in the present. “Breaking up the linearity of past -> present -> future, recuperative work imagines all accessible time as rich with possibility” (Rose, 2004, 25).
Matinecoc peoples, a part of the larger Algonquin linguistic group along the Eastern seaboard, thrived in areas of what would become known as Queens for centuries until Dutch colonists headed from Manhattan to the tidal tributaries such as Westchester Creek, Flushing Creek, the Gowanus Canal, and Newtown Creek in search of fertile soil. As the Matinecoc also recognized, the landscape adjacent to Flushing Creek offered beneficial soils and protection from both flooding events and invasion (Haughwout and Herrmann,
When the Matinecoc flourished here, the territory was filled with Ash, Eastern Red Cedar, Beach Plum, Staghorn Sumac, Blueberry, Bearberry, Little Bluestem Grasses, Seaside Goldenrod, Pasture Rose and Pitch Pine, Chokecherry, Elderberry, Boneset, Joe Pye Weed, and Black Cherry, for example. These plants have rich cultures of use, and can tell stories of how the right kinds of engagement and care can increase the health and population of a species. The inner wood of the native Green Ash, for example, makes fine strips for weaving; Robin Wall Kimmerer tells us of how careful harvesting of the Black Ash in northern New York actually promotes the population and health of these trees. Research with one of her graduate students found most areas where Black Ash once thrived either had saplings or old growth trees. They found adolescent trees where windstorms or Dutch Elm disease made gaps in the canopy, and, importantly, where there are communities of basket makers. She writes, “We hypothesized that the apparent decline in ash trees might be due not to over harvesting but to underharvesting […] Black ash and basket makers are partners in a symbiosis between harvesters and harvested: ash relies on people as the people rely on ash. Their fates are linked” (Kimmerer, 2013, 14).
Berries like blueberry and bearberry offer sweetness and easy energy in the summer months, while elderberry also staves off colds and flu; sour Sumac helps strengthen the kidneys, clean the blood, and prevents incontinence; acrid rose petals astringe wounds and ease heart issues; boneset resolves fever and strengthens the healing of bones; bitter Joe Pye clears stones in the kidneys and balances water (in the human body as well as streams and rivers).
More-than-human Realms of Diplomacy and Domination
Today the trees on Flushing’s streets, as in most cities in North America, read to us primarily as ornamental, and secondarily as cheap laborers providing ecosystem services. How did naturecultures of connection and reciprocity get buried here, in this place?
In 1645, the Dutch chartered Vlissingen, now known as Flushing. A group of predominantly English settlers also lived alongside about 30 Matinecoc families; they lived along the coast of Flushing Creek and in the area along historic Mill (Kissena) Creek now marked by Kissena Lake and a series of underground streams. A smallpox outbreak, what many now recognize as a kind of biological warfare against Native Americans, in 1662 devastated much of the native population, already hit hard by colonization, displacement and direct conflict. The Matinecoc numbered under 200 at around 1788; at this time, they joined the Oneida in northern New York.
Matinecoc territory, now known as Flushing, then became a famed center of scientific horticulture amongst Europeans and European Americans up until the early 20th century. The first commercial nursery in the colonies was founded in 1735, at its peak covering 80 acres near the intersection of Flushing Creek and present day Northern Blvd, by father and son pair Robert and William Prince. The Prince Nursery was later named Linnaean Gardens after Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus. Until its closure in 1869, the Gardens flourished by selling plants both domestically and internationally and by focusing on horticultural research, ornamental trees, fruits, and roses.
In 1839, the Parsons and Company Nursery was established by Samuel Bowne Parsons. Until 1906, the nursery specialized in trees and shrubs from Eastern Asia, and in evergreen production. Many rare and non-native trees found throughout the entire United States once passed through the Parsons Nursery, with Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux as regular customers. The historic, 14 acre area of Parsons grove in Kissena Park is home to over 100 different species of tree (Ibid.) These nurseries then, are the gateway for the colonial cultivations still found throughout the US.
Jason Moore argues that capitalism and its intertwined projects of science and empire rely on strict division between Nature and Society: “the dualism of Nature/Society” — with a capital “N” and a capital “S” — is complicit in the violence of modernity at its core. So it should come as no surprise then that these colonial nurseries — the first in the colonies — should determine ways of seeing that obfuscate direct relation, and reciprocity, that obfuscate interdependence and intertwined fates” (Moore, 2015, 4).
Trees of Tomorrow is firstly a conversation. With Flushing Chamber of Commerce Director John Choe at the old Flushing Quaker Meeting House, we imagined Benjamin Franklin, who visited the Prince nursery on more than one occasion, buying cherry trees for his plantation.
We made connections between colonial power structures, white supremacy, and plantations — where the brutal organization of human, subhuman, and nonhuman required ornament to distract from the ongoing violence, and where reckoning is ongoing.
Cherry trees, their ornamental varieties, also came to us in the thousands as street trees through the diplomatic channels of the early 20th century, when Eliza Skidmore and First Lady Taft pioneered the idea of ornamental street trees on new thoroughfares in DC; and the US and Japan are eager for alliance. These same trees have very different resonance in Korea, where during Japanese occupation, Cherry Blossom trees sprouted throughout the country.
At the Intersection Between Power and Time
With the teens of John Bowne High School Agricultural program, we began to explore the histories and possible futures of the ornamental streets trees. In part one of this series, we described a process of making a puzzle, a map, an ever evolving network. For this workshop, we worked with these same images unfurling and stretching the branches out to narrate pasts, presents and futures — of living, lived, and yet-to-live trees and their companions.
Teens found recipes for using different parts of the plant and imagined these trees in the future. To order a print publication with recipes for sweet gum honey, hawthorn tincture and jelly, cherry blossom face cream and Katsura water, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human-World. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
Biwa, Memory. “Keynote.” International Symposium of Electronic Arts, University of Technology, Durban, South Africa, June 27th, 2018.
Haughwout, Margaretha and Herrmann, Cody Ann. “Soils.” http://www.treesoftomorrow.life/soils/.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013.
Rose, Deborah Bird. Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonization. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2004.
Moore, Jason. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso Books, 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.