Make Ecologies Strange 2

Madeline Ahola — “Trees See Too”

“[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


1. DiPrima, J. (2022). Lenapehoking and Kingsessing: A History. Bartram’s Garden, 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, 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, MENUM=229&DETAIL=1&startpage=1

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