Photographs and Text by Victoria, 1st Year MFA Candidate, The Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania
Pace and Emerging Worlds
Each day on my way to the University of Pennsylvania, I cross the Walnut Street Bridge from the East side of Philadelphia towards the West. I began a Masters program here last August, and have rode my bicycle or walked this bridge approximately 211 times so far. The bridge is made of concrete, heightening the climate conditions to make the cold colder, the wind stronger and the heat radiate hotter. The sidewalks are raised so that when riding a bicycle it is impossible to see anything in the foreground. On my bike, I see the Schuylkill River in the distance, with the river’s industrial sides, as I pass towards a space of residential, commercial and recreational places in University City. There are no trees on the bridge nor on its approaches and as vehicles speed past their movement reverberates.
Things changed one day, perhaps around my 160th journey across the bridge when I noticed a canopy matching the height of an A-framed roof. Between the tree and I was a chain linked fence, a construction site, a railroad, power lines and a parking lot. What a beautiful tree I thought to myself. How did it get there? Was it planted with intent or did it find its way there by chance? I had to continue forward with the trajectory of my day but the tree stayed on my mind.
Indeed I thought about the tree for the rest of that week. How could it have taken so long to discover it? But now that I had, I could not unsee it and began to see it everywhere. The tree has become like the epicentre to my life on Campus.
Location + Access
Below the Walnut Street bridge, tucked between the back of the Hecht Tennis Pavilion, the back of the Class of 1923 Ice Rink and a railroad, resides a singular tree.
The tree is alone in a grassy area enclosed by a chain linked fence. From the Walnut Street Bridge, I descend a staircase to the side of the ice rink. I stop at the top of the stairs to observe the tree from an unobstructed view, and again I stop halfway down. The parking lot contains many facilities trucks, recycling and garbage bins, patches of snow created by the ice rink, and shrubs that line the fence between the UPenn recreation area and the railroad. Most days when I visit the tree, the fence is closed. I asked for permission from the UPenn facilities to enter the area but never heard back. The fence that encloses the tree attaches to the Tennis Pavilion and disappears on the side confronting the railroad tracks. It makes it inaccessible to humans but offers an odd opening to the railway. The tree, which I identified as a type of Pine tree, resides on the northwest corner of a grassy area that is about three metres by three metres. At the bottom of the trunk, which I guessed to be about 50’ tall, is a sand bag and a variety of rubbish.
It was only on the last possible day for me to document the tree that I fell upon good luck. I could see from the bridge that the chain linked door was open. I walked down and felt odd as I finally traversed the threshold. The ground changed from hard and nonporous, to damp and sticky.
Now, with this short lived access, I dance in circles around the tree, close up and from afar. By coincidence, the walkways and pedestrian bridges of UPenn’s campus loop around the Red Pine. The trajectory of my academic life circumnavigates the tree, and now I move around and take time to view it from all perspectives like a dramatic Pittoresque scene. Its scale abstracts from different angles. As I look towards the Red Pine from a higher vantage point, across from the train tracks, foliage enveloping a chain link fence conceals the railroad and the foliage of the fore and background appear almost to meet in harmony.
Observing Red Pine No. 2012-8349*A
The University of Pennsylvania offers to the public an application titled ‘Penn Plant Explorer’. The Plant Explorer houses maps, information and tours of the flora found on campus. To my luck, the ‘red pine of my eye’ is identified on the map, with the Accession Number: 2012-8349*A. Had it been up to me, I would have chosen a different name but No. 2012-8349*A will do just fine.
The University of Pennsylvania last updated information about my Pine friend, 2012-8349*A, in 2020. Here is what is reads:
Number 2012-8349*A asserts itself as a Pine with their long, sharp dark green to yellow green needles. Red Pine, Pinus resinosa, is a species native to Eastern North America and in the Pinaceae (Pine) Family. The needles range from about ten to fifteen centimetres long. Their bark is a red tinged brown that is scaly with broad flat plates. The crown is full with feathery foliage and there are fewer branches near the base. There are dark brown, egg-shaped seed cones on inaccessible branches that tower above my head, and very few on the ground.
Red pine is monoecious, so No. 2012-8349*A produces both male and female cones. To avoid risk of self-fertilisation, which leads to decreased genetic diversity, female and male cones are spatially separated on the tree. On red pines, male cones occur on the lower branches, while female cones occupy the middle or upper portion of the tree.
There is no information to prove that the tree was planted on behalf of UPenn and I begin to wonder how it arrived here.
The seeds of Number 2012-8349*A found their way to this precarious plot of exposed land. Against what feels like all odds, it landed on open ground and appears to be thriving.
The production of female (seed) cones comes before producing male (cones), producing female cones at around 5 years of age but delaying production of male cones until about 9 years. Red Pine trees growing on harsher sites may take longer to produce cones. Seed production is best when the Pine Tree is of 50 to 150 years of age.
Red pine is a large and long-lived tree that usually begins its lifecycle as a pioneer species following fire. Did the train tracks’ friction create sparks that ignited your life?
Most seeds are released immediately when ripe, and dispersed by wind, but a small portion of cones remain on the tree for 2-3 years. Germination is triggered by a combination of warm temperatures and moisture.
Seeds of trees like No. 2012-8349*A are dispersed by wind, most often within a radius equal to the height of the parent tree, although dispersal distances up to 300 metres have been reported. I walked and looked in all directions within 300 metres with no luck of a parent tree. I wonder if not sparks from the tracks, if the river brought high winds that carried a seed further than closeby.
Seedlings do not compete well with other vegetation, so perhaps this secluded zone is exactly what No. 2012-8349*A had in mind. Seedling mortality is high and can occur from drought, sun scorching, early freezing, flooding, and browsing by rodents. I wonder if the sound of passing trains hinders its growth in any way.
Red Pine’s growth generally starts at 10 inches or less per year for the first four years, then accelerates to 1-2 feet a year, continuing for 10-20 years. Optimal growth requires at least 6 hours of direct sunlight; more shaded grow slower. Maximum height is reached by 60 to 120 years, but radial growth continues for as long as 200 years.
Red Pine trees that reach maturity typically live 200-400 years, occasionally as long as 500 years. Maybe No. 2012-8349*A and I came into the world within the same decade, but they could lap my lifespan six times. An ancient future.
The gate is open and I take a closer look. I sit below No. 2012-8349*A and the slowness opens new avenues for observation. This tree offers key importance for several species. Several large and smaller birds interact with the Red Pine.
It is a nesting site, a site of refuge, an important food source. I observe Warbler-like birds, Robins, Squirrels, Insects and a single Crow. Numerous moths, rodents, butterflies, beetles and other bird species are supported by red pines.
Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, climbs up the trunk of Red Pine No. 2012-8349*A. It is a five-leaved ivy species of flowering vine in the grape family, Vitacea. It may not be, but it appears to be undesirable to touch, so when I hold the bark I do so far from where the ivy climbs.
My address to Red Pine No. 2012-8349* transforms into something different the more time I spend traversing landscape and observing what is around them.
Are they a ruderal entity? Growing between the rubble, gravel, steel, and recycling? This might not be the ruins but the landscape feels ruined. The presence of this Red Pine is like a promising maestoso section within lands detained by industrial domination. They are a survivor, whose resilience transcends the lonely conditions. Perhaps just a plant in a city, a species in a modern ecology, but the more I stay with them, the more that worlds unfold. Their presence establishes an ecology of its own. Birds and other entities dance and sing upon their limbs. I wonder if there is a nest, or several nests, tucked between Red Pine No. 2012-8349*A’s needles.
A train passes and no one seems to flinch but me. The multispecific group seems more concerned by my terranean movement than that of the high speed train. Has Red Pine No. 2012-8349*A established an ecology of patience and fortitude in a place of industry and human activity?
Industry rules the land at this site, and in the greater Philadelphia region. My ties to Red Pine No. 2012-8349*A have grown stronger, but I am not naive to the present world and conditions around it. I have seen more of the Pine family in hardware stores than I do on my bicycle explorations throughout the greater Philadelphia cityscape.
Lumber is an industry word for wood that has been processed into uniform and useful sizes, such as beams and planks or boards. Lumber is mainly used for construction framing, as well as finishing, yet has many uses beyond home building.
Timber is a word used to define wood prepared for use in building and carpentry.
Red pine is used for industry where it is valued for its straight trunk, workability, and even-textured grain. It is mainly used for utility poles, railroad ties (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree), construction lumber, and as pulpwood. In colonial history, Red Pine was used for ship masts. It is sometimes planted in plantations, including in areas far south of its native range. It is often sold together with mixed conifers, labelled as SPF.
Red Pine is rarely used in landscape design, as it does not adapt well to cultivation, and particularly, fares poorly when planted in poorly-drained soils, areas with hot summers, or when exposed to pollution. Its northerly range falls short of most major population centres, and thus most people live in areas where it does not grow well.
The linear economy thrives on cutting short the potential of life and resilience of a wood species for shortsighted monetary gain. Raw materials are grown, or found, collected and transformed
The current model where raw materials are collected and transformed into products that consumers use until discarding them as waste, with no concern for their ecological footprint and consequences, puts specimens like Red Pine No. 2012-8349*A at risk of banishment. Despite being recognised on The University of Pennsylvania’s “Penn Plant Explorer” I have never encountered another human or observed any attentiveness to its existence. Do other humans know that this tree exists?
To tackle this question, I took it upon myself to interpret a potential future of Red Pine No. 2012-8349*A. I am concerned about the inevitable uprooting or death of this specimen and wish to make its presence, and potential demise, known.
The sculpture is titled Shapeshifting and is composed of two forms. I collected 2”x4” leftovers from construction and other sites throughout Philadelphia. The end to their linear life was imminent and so I took them and transformed them into a sculpture with circular potential. The sculpture is formed of one stump-like and one trunk-like form that can amalgamate together to create a modular body.
I can guess from the lumber colouring that each 2”x4” is Red Pine, or at the least from the Pine family. Mounting 2”x4” pieces together, time is reversed and Red Pine transforms back into a trunk. In a few days of travelling between construction sites, I was able to gather enough scrap lumber to rebuild a girth diameter of 45 cm, akin to the trunk size of Red Pine No. 2012-8349*A.
The stump-like fragment exhibits the piths of anonymous Pine Trees. At least twenty different Pine Trees are accounted for in this gesture of illustrating a single living tree, Red Pine No. 2012-8349*A. In my mind, I imagine the plantation site where Pine Trees are bred, grown fast and logged young, akin to a veil system of farming. The annual rings offer insight into growth patterns, and hints towards conditions of past living.
The circumference of the sculpture mirrors that of Red Pine No. 2012-8349*A. The trunk-like sculptural form reaches two and a half metres high. If felled and flipped, its convex top forms with the concave form of the stump sculpture. The convex and concave sides meet and transform together as one. The other side (undisclosed in the photographs) follows the pattern with a concave form. The more discarded 2”x4” I will come across, the larger that the tree sculpture will become. The sculpture will grow to match Red Pine No. 2012-8349*A’s current height. And the work will grow further as Red Pine No. 2012-8349*A continues to grow and radially expand.
Red Pine No. 2012-8349*A has established roots in an area no larger than 3m2 and appears not only to be surviving but thriving. The resilience of this pine tree should be recognised, and not taken for granted. I recognise how quickly a life, whose timeline can sextuple my lifespan, can haphazardly be put to an end. My concern ignites when I encounter discarded industrial corpses, wooden lives taken for granted for capital gain or felled for a minor inconvenience.
In making this sculpture, and bringing it into an art space, my hope is to make aware of Red Pine No. 2012-8349*A to those who encounter the work. Even if for half a second, a viewer of Shapeshifting stops or diverts their regards upon the Walnut Street bridge to pursue Red Pine No. 2012-8349*A, then my work is accomplished. I believe that acknowledgement of existence and livelihood are steps towards rethinking commonsense ecologies that humans find ourselves in, in places such as Philadelphia. I intend for the wood used to make this sculpture to act as a collaborator, instead of a tool of mere symbolic representation.
Conclusion / Recognizing Resilience
Art has the ability to take humans on a journey, to transform the quotidian. It is my hope with this sculpture that another consciousness can be offered that opens the door to critical reflection on our personal perceptions of the realities and worlds that intermingle with human-centred worlds.
My affinity for No. 2012-8349*A grows each and every day. I wonder what could occur if a limb extends too far, or roots extend too far west and interfere with the railroad tracks. What happens then? Would their life unexpectedly come to a halt due to mere inconvenience?
Some say that red pines can live to be about 400 years old. My dream is for this red pine, 2012-8349*A, to outlive me, the adjacent tennis courts and, hopefully, our current human ways.