“[Landscapes] are linked to multiple histories and rhythms that can
help us escape from thinking of nature or history as singular” (5)
Many urban college campuses are designed with interwoven green spaces, including lawns, planted trees, and gardens. At the University of Pennsylvania, the busiest area of campus is dotted with grandiose trees, both native and non-native. The presence of these trees appears
commonsense–many wouldn’t question the attempts of the university to bring greenery onto a campus in the middle of a city. However, what isn’t so commonsense is the value of the trees as living beings that coexist with the humans on campus.
The University of Pennsylvania sits on stolen land. This land is Lenapehoking land, formerly owned by the Indigenous Lenni Lenape. The first written emergence story of the Lenape begins with a Turtle and the earth that formed on its back. The first tree grew on this earth, and then came its first sprouts. These sprouts then became the first Man and Woman, from which the People of earth came to be (2). The Lenape coexisted with the Land, taking advantage of its tillable land and fishing access (1). They used natural resources to build homes and often situated themselves along rivers and creeks (3). In 1682, William Penn settled on Lenape lands because it was guaranteed to him by the King of England, Charles II. Although William Penn established relationships of goodwill with the Lenape, after his death, his son, Thomas Penn, created the
Walking Purchase of 1737, a deceitful plan to trick the Lenape into selling the majority of their land. As of 2010, around 13,000 residents of Philadelphia identify as Native American. Today, Lenape, Cherokee, Navajo, Cree, Seminole, and Creek tribe descendants remain in Philadelphia
(2). Every current being on campus is new since the settlement of European colonizers. It is important to acknowledge that although the trees that stand today have witnessed many changes, they are also a product of stolen land. According to the accession number (the number assigned to each plant the year they are received), all six of the trees included in this project were acquired in 2012 (6).
Trees See Too highlights the perspective and memory of trees on campus. This project zooms in on six trees on Penn’s College Green space located along Locust Walk between 34th St. and 36th St (Figure 1). College green is one of the busiest and greenest areas on campus, giving this project high-visibility and more tree options. Trees no. 1 and 2 are tulip poplar (native), tree no. 3 is a green ash (native), tree no. 4 is a swamp white oak (native), tree no. 5 is a Japanese scholar tree (non-native), and tree no. 6 is a chestnut oak (native). Most of the trees were chosen based on high visibility in areas with more foot traffic, however, a few trees were chosen based on practicality of wrapping the tree with the reflective film.
I wrapped each tree with one-way mirror tints, that appeared reflective to viewers, but were see through from within. As people walked by the trees, they could see a distorted reflection of themselves and their immediate surroundings. This is comparable to what the tree sees. Along with the reflective film, I attached a flyer explaining the project with a QR code that led to a website I created for the project.
Figure 1: Location of the six trees chosen for the project
On May 2, 2023, around 3pm, the sky was gray, the air was brisk, and campus was quiet. As I made my way toward College Green to install the reflections, I could feel the stress in the air as students spent their days studying for hours on end to finish off the school year. Materials in hand, I arrived at College Green and began seeking out trees that were visible and that I could easily wrap the reflective film around. My first tree was to the left of Van Pelt library, behind a few benches that are often occupied. I felt a slight unease in my chest–would someone stop me? Would people look at me funny? Or might people stop to help me?
I began wrapping the film around the trees. With only masking tape to secure everything, I wondered if the reflective film would stay for long. After finishing up one tree, I moved on to the next–another tulip poplar, but to the right of Van Pelt, much more visible, and easier to wrap the film around. After wrapping this second tree, as I walked away, I immediately noticed a few people stopping to look at the installation. They observed the reflections, looked at my flyer, scanned the QR code, and continued on their way. For the next several trees, I chose ones that were in the same general area, but far enough from the others to reach a wider audience. For tree no. 5, I decided to wrap the film around a thick branch that was close enough to the ground for me to reach. As I worked, a couple of people on a nearby bench watched me, but chose not to ask questions. Minutes later, another older couple walked by, and the man offered assistance, to which I respectfully declined.
Along the way, I made sure to take pictures and observe any interactions with my installations, as I didn’t want to assume they would last too long on the trees. I captured moments in videos, photos on my phone, as well as photos on my 35mm film camera. After installing the reflective film on 5 trees, I sat on a bench and waited. Waited for anyone to notice, waited for people to send me pictures, and even waited to watch someone take them down. I witnessed a few people stopping and decided to check back later. Upon coming back a few hours later, one installation was completely gone (tree no. 6, according to figure 1). Because I did not witness this happen, I am unsure if the film had fallen, or someone had taken it off. With some extra film on hand, I worked on another tree (tree no. 3), took some more videos and photos, then left for the day. The next morning, 4 out of 6 installations remained. By 4pm, all 5 were gone.
Although these installations lasted at most 24 hours, I hope for this project to be only the beginning for some to rethink the presence of trees and other wildlife on campus. Andrew Mathews describes in his study on landscapes through the Anthropocene, “[landscapes] are linked to multiple histories and rhythms that can help us escape from thinking of nature or history as singular” (5). In this paper, Mathews describes nature as beyond singular. Landscapes, trees, and other wildlife do not exist in the one moment through which humans view them. For example, the trees on College Green, don’t simply exist during the daytime, when people are passing through. They exist continuously and wholly, through multiple histories and landscape patterns, which Mathews describes as throughscapes. Viewing trees as existing in throughscapes allows us to perceive them as living beings that observe and feel their surroundings every single minute.
The reflective film that I briefly placed over the tree trunks is meant to reflect what the trees witness. They witness students picnicking under them, birds fluttering throughout their leaves, and squirrels jumping from branch to branch. Beyond witnessing, the trees are also experiencing (5). They are constantly experiencing encounters beyond those with humans: the trunk encounters a squirrel climbing up it, the roots encounter the soil all around it, and the leaves take in the sunlight from above.
Each of the six trees, and every other tree that I did not include in the project, is so deeply rooted into its place. For this project, according to the unique accession number assigned to each tree, all six trees were received on Penn’s campus in 2012 (6). For the past 11 years, these trees have grown both above and below ground, expanding into their surroundings, breathing in the air, and grounding themselves in their space. In Kristina Lyons’ study about the memories of rivers, she writes, “By a ‘river’s memory,’ I refer to its capacity to remember the courses of its currents, the expanse and heights of its beds, and the areas that it seasonally occupies and may have previously occupied” (4). In this study, Lyons challenges readers to see rivers as throughscapes that remember where they have been and what they have encountered. In the same way that Lyons describes the memories of rivers, this project aims to bring to light the memories of trees. All trees have the capacity to remember their growth, if they have been displaced, if they have been cut down, and much more.
Figure 2: Non-native Japanese scholar-tree with reflective film and Trees See Too flyer
For this project, all but one tree, the Japanese scholar-tree (tree no. 5, figure 2), are native to the area. While each individual tree has a unique memory, the five native trees likely experience growth in North America differently than the Japanese scholar-tree, which is native to China and Korea. While the Japanese scholar-tree may have needed to adapt to the climate and atmosphere of College Green, the native trees might not have. This process of adaptation for non-native trees could affect the way it grows, the way it observes, and the way it interacts with its surroundings. When comparing memories between native and non-native trees, we can also acknowledge how the origin of the species impacts the memories. A non-native tree has the climate and atmosphere of its native location engrained into its leaves, its rings, its bark, and its memory. We can imagine how the tree’s rings and memory change overtime as it grows longer and longer in a non-native location. As for native trees–the tulip poplar, swamp white oak, green ash, and chestnut oak–their rings and memory may also change overtime as they become accustomed to their specific location in Philadelphia.
Acknowledging the experiences, memories, and vision of trees is important, especially in the time of the Anthropocene, the time during which almost all ecosystems have been affected by human activity (5). Regarding political action against the climate crisis, Mathews explains, “Rather than recounting a single history that produced a unified landscape, in what follows I describe overlapping and interwoven throughscapes linked to multiple histories. From these storylines a different account of Anthropocene politics can emerge” (5). The climate crisis is one of the biggest threats our planet currently faces. In order to address this global issue holistically,
Mathews advocates for including not just a single history of our landscape, but rather taking into account the memories of landscapes and how they exist within our human-centered society (or perhaps, how we exist in theirs). At such a high-level academic institute as Penn, we have the power to challenge the binary between humans and nature. They do not exist separately. They are intertwined, impacting each other in ways that often goes unnoticed in our day-to-day lives.
The trees that loom over College Green are part of the ecosystem. They provide us with shade, they provide animals with habitats, they provide nutrients to the soil, and much more. A physical reflection on the trunk of six trees is only a temporary way to portray the vision of trees. Although the reflections did not last long, the trees still see. They are still absorbing sunlight and creating memories. The rings continue to grow, the leaves continue to green, and the roots continue to expand deep into the vast network that lives right under our feet.
In the short period of time that the film was installed on the trees, I hope viewers challenged their own perceptions of trees and other wildlife on campus. I hope more people will sit with the trees and be with them as they would with other humans. I hope more people will make memories with the trees. I hope people will write poems about the trees, read books next to the trees, crochet next to the trees. And I hope these actions can be with the intention and understanding that the tree will remember them, as well. For trees see their surroundings and feel them as living beings deeply rooted in our complex and everchanging ecosystem.
Read more about Trees See Too at https://projectblogorg3.wordpress.com/
1. DiPrima, J. (2022). Lenapehoking and Kingsessing: A History. Bartram’s Garden, https://www.bartramsgarden.org/lenapehoking-and-kingsessing-a-history/ 2. Francis, L. (2019). Indigenous Peoples of Philadelphia. American Library Association, Document ID: 7bb8a80c-e12a-4b91-acd0-ed8c896a11eb
3. Licht, W., Lloyd, M.F., Duffin, J.M., McConaghy, M.D. The Original People and Their Land: The Lenape, Pre-History to the 18th Century. West Philadelphia Collaborative History, https://collaborativehistory.gse.upenn.edu/stories/original-people-and-their-land lenape-pre-history-18th-century
4. Lyons, K. (2018). Rivers have memory: The (im)possibility of floods and histories of urban de-and-reconstruction in the Andean-Amazonian foothills. City & Society, DOI: 10.1111/ciso.12191
5. Mathews, A. S. (2018). Landscapes and Throughscapes in Italian Forest Worlds: Thinking Dramatically about the Anthropocene. Cultural Anthropology, DOI: 10.14506/ca33.3.05
6. Tulip poplar. Penn Plant Explorer,