Make Ecologies Strange 1

Clara Secaira — “Sugar Maple Trees Tell Stories of Belonging in Philadelphia”

Clara Secaira is a first year PhD student in Anthropology. She is from Guatemala.

For her art-based project, she chose to do a video showing a compilation of photographs that were taken by herself between August 2022 and May 2023. By documenting the seasonal changes of a Maple Sugar Tree in Cobbs Creek Park, Philadelphia, she wants to bring to attention the different stories trees can tell about the ecologies they inhabit depending on their species. 

Cobbs Creek Park is one of the many recreational parks of the City of Philadelphia. Located in West Philadelphia, the park is inhabited by many species including different trees, plants, animals, and other beings. It is a space where many interactions occur. People come to the park daily to engage with other people and find some peace in the middle of the chaos of the city. I first visited the park during a morning in the late summer of last year (2022). At that time, I did not know how important this place would become in my transition to Philadelphia after moving from Guatemala. The following passage narrates the story of Cobbs Creek Park by focusing on a specific tree and what I learned from interacting with this tree.

The park of Cobbs Creek Park is composed of an 851-acre urban forest, and it constitutes one of the most important public spaces within Cobbs Creek– the largest neighborhood in West Philadelphia with roughly 15,000 people. Before colonization, the land of the park was occupied by the Lenni Lenape Tribe. The flow of the creek did not only provide a source of water for the many species that inhabited this place, but it was also a place for traditional fishing for the tribe. This place was best described as Karakung, “the place of the wild geese”. Today, if one is lucky and if they are not migrating, wild geese can still be spotted swimming in the creek with their offspring. Deer, squirrels, birds, and foxes also inhabit this place. In the Seventeenth Century, however, the Leni Lenape Tribe was displaced and forced to leave with the arrival of the Dutch and Swedish settlers. Colonization not only displaced the tribe but also change the land in many forms.

The exchange of species between the Americas and Europe created drastic impacts on the different ecosystems.  For authors like Zoe Todd and Heather Davis, these changes are important, they are so drastic that they could even describe and mark the beginning of the Anthropocene— in which humans are a powerful force that can create earth changes. William Cronon also invites us to think of the changes that occurred within the land brought by colonization. Also situated in the Northeast side of the country, he illustrates how forests in New England were reduced due to colonization.

The first time I visited Cobbs Creek Park this information was unfamiliar to me. I also did not know how important this place would become to me as a space to disconnect from the daily routine. In its very practical way, it became a common-sense ecology. A place where different organisms related to each other as well as to their environment and the land. A place where people from the city could visit and interact with other people and other beings. After visiting the park for some months, faces, animals, and plants became familiar. 

As I walked the same path repeatedly, places also became familiar, but I would also notice different details within the park. One day, as I walked on one of the trails made out of dark concrete, I noticed a big tree on the side. The presence of the tree was quite evident. I decided to take photograph of the tree without any reason or intention in mind. A couple of days later I was walking near the tree again and I noticed how much the tree had changed in so little time. I decided to take another picture. 

 As we entered the fall season, the leaves of the trees changed drastically. From dark green to yellow, and from yellow to orange, all the leaves changed colors. This sudden change inspired me to continue taking pictures of the same tree now and then. Photographing the tree became a ritual in my daily walks to the park. Soon enough, I witnessed the leaves falling off the tree during the winter. The tree felt empty and almost gave a lonely feeling when combined with the coldness of the weather. Yet, I could also appreciate the shapes and contours of the naked tree. The branches extended their tips into the sky. 

After not being able to visit the park for a week, I came back to the surprise of seeing various park signboards that had been installed. They had information about different routes within the park, important places to visit (such as the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Center), as well as the different trees and birds that one could spot in the park. They had vivid images of the trees and birds as well as their species. I was not sure who had installed the signs, but some sponsors included: The Penn Futures Project, Philadelphia Philadelphia Park and Recreation, Clean Air Council, The Circuit Trail, and Audubon mid-Atlantic, among others. I remember looking at the sign in detail. I was glad to know more about the trees and animals of the place.  

As I decided on what detail I wanted to zoom in for this assignment, it became clear that the tree that I had been photographing inspired me to learn more about it. The first thing that I thought of doing was identifying the tree species. I went back to the sign I had seen some weeks earlier. The sign had five different species names along with pictures of the tree, leaves, and fruits: American Sycamore, Black Walnut, Eastern White Pine, Honey Locust, and Pin Oak. By seeing this sign quickly, I thought the tree I had been photographing for the past months was a Pin Oak. There was something about the shape of the leaf that made me think this was the tree. However, looking at the tree closer, made me realize it was not. The leaves of the Pin Oak have a similar shape as the tree I had been photographing, but the leaves of the Pin Oak were thinner and longer. The next and only option due to the shape of the leaf was the American Sycamore, yet when I searched for more information about the tree on the internet something was not right. The bark of the tree was different. At that point, I had already seen the American Sycamore and the Pin Oak Tree in the park and the tree I had been photographed was neither of them, my tree was different. Could it be a mistake? Who made the mistake? Was I wrong? Was it an American Sycamore? Perhaps it is my non-background in natural sciences that troubled me so much. Perhaps through the lens of a biologist, it would be easier to identify the tree! 

I was intrigued by the confusion. I visited the tree in the hope of findings answers.  I carefully took more pictures of the tree and sought for fruits and flowers. I found some fruits. These, in combination with using an application I had downloaded on my phone to identify trees, confirmed my doubts. It was neither a Pin Oak nor the American Sycamore. The tree belonged to the Maple family of Aceraceae.

The Application I used to identify the tree led me to two possible tees: the Norway Maple and Sugar Maple Tree. I embarked on the journey of finding the exact species. The exercise turned out to be interesting, I engaged more than ever with the tree that I had been photographing for the last year. However, as I conducted more research, I understood that the stakes of being one tree or the other were high. The Norway Tree is considered an invasive species in the United States. An invasive species is considered an organism that is not indigenous or native to the land. As a result, they can create different environmental damages to the area as well as an economic impact. It is important to highlight that not all non-native species are invasive. To have the invasive trait means they can spread and adapt easily to the new area.   

The Norway Tree is originally from Europe and Western Asia and it was first introduced to the United States in 1756 by John Bartram to be offered for sale as an ornamental landscape tree. However, they pose an important threat to native trees as they can displace them. The leaf of the Norway Maple tree can also produce and release a toxin that prevents the growth of other plants, affect fungi and the local microbiome of the soil. In its most common sense, they have the qualities of a feral ecology as they are uncontainable due to the abundant seeds that germinate quickly and are carried by the wind which makes them capable of spreading easily. They also have the feral superpower of toxicity due to the poison of the leaf, and they are considered a human-led project with capitalist motives as they were introduced on purpose by humans to be sold.  

Contrary to this scenario, the Sugar Maple tree is native to the Northeastern side of the United States. The tree can grow up to 12 to 25 inches per year, and it can grow between 60 to 70 feet tall.   The tree grows in deep, well-drained, acid to slightly alkaline soil. They can offer a great source of shade due to the dense crown that it develops when the tree fully blooms during the spring. Something I had also witnessed during the summer. Additionally, the green dark leaves turn to yellow, to then burnt orange, and red during Autumn –also something I had seen. Sugar Maple Trees are browsed by white-tailed deer, moose, and snowshoes.  The seeds, buds, twigs, and leaves provide food for squirrels. In addition, this tree has an important role in producing Maple Syrup which is considered one of the older products naturally made in North America that dates back to the first Native Americans of the land who discovered how to make it. They also have an important role in the production of lumber

  The fact that the signs from Cobbs Creek Park did not include these species made me wonder if the reason was on purpose or a genuine mistake. Perhaps it was the Norway Maple tree and they did not want to include and acknowledge the presence of an invasive species on the sign? Regardless of this, the implications of being one tree or the other were substantial. One poses a threat to the lives of other plants and beings (the Norway Maple), and the other (Sugar Maple) forms part of what has always been part of the land. After carefully analyzing both trees the detail that gave away the specie was the fruit. Both tree fruits are referred to as Samaras as they belong to the same family tree. The difference, however, lies in their shape. Although they both have the shape of wings (as they come in pairs), the Norway Maple fruit spreads more horizontally when they are hanging. The seed also tends to be flat. The Maple Sugar seed is more downward when hanging and the seeds are round instead of flat. Taking a close look at the seeds I had collected at the park confirmed that the tree was a Sugar Maple.

I felt some sort of relief knowing the tree was not an invasive species. My research on Cobbs Creek Park has taught me that the place has witnessed many forms of displacement. It is not only the displacement caused by settler colonials but also the increase in crime and violence that occurred in the 1970s in the park. The number of crimes and murders that happened in the park during this time converted the park into a symbol of fear and anxiety. The abandonment of the park caused many invasive species to grow rapidly such as kudzu. It was only in 1996 that the park became to be restored by local communities due to the donation of the William Penn Foundation. I was glad to know that these efforts helped to keep the ecosystem of the park healthy. It would be a different story if the tree I found was a Norway Maple. Today, the University of Pennsylvania also has some projects that seek to involve community members to restore the park. I interviewed one of the team members of one of the projects. He explained to me that they aim to work with the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Center to make it a space that can serve to provide environmental education by working with the communities of West Philadelphia

My experience with trying to identify the tree has made me think differently about how we categorize trees either with scientifical lenses through their species names or with indigenous names. Either way, differentiating trees can help us know more about them, they can tell us stories of how they belong or do not belong to the spaces they occupy. What roles do trees play in the ecosystem? How can this also impact on our own lives? What difference does it make if they are native or invasive or if they are introduced or not? Identifying the tree –with biological lenses in this case— allowed me to learn about the different trees that inhabit this place, but they provided me with a different way of seeing the trees. Trees might look the same, but it is only until we pay careful attention to the details –such as the texture of the bark, the shapes and colors of the leaves, and the types of fruits and flowers that they produce— that we can fully comprehend how different they are and how integrated they are to the ecosystem that they belong to. Instead of posing a threat to the ecosystem, the Maple Sugar Tree has important ecological traits as they provide food and shelter for different organisms. Songbirds, woodpeckers, and cavity nesters use the Maple Sugar tree as their homes. This story would be different if what I photographed that morning in late summer of last year was a Norway Maple Tree. 

 15 Brownlow, Alec. 2006. “An Archaeology of Fear and Environmental Change in Philadelphia,” Geoforum 37, no. 2: 227–45,

16 Heinemann, Jane (N.D). Urban Vegetation Community-Based Participatory Research (UrbVeg CBPR) in Cobbs Creek Park.

17 Davis, Heather, and Zoe Todd. 2017. “On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 16(4): 761-780.

18 Cronon, William. 1983. Changes in the land: Indians, colonists, and the ecology of New England. Hill and Hang: New York.

19 Stanley, Morgan. 2022. Invasive Species.

20 National Park Services. US Fish and Wild Services. 2010. Plant Invaders of Mid-Atlantic Natural Areas. and Ngadiyali, Russel. 2021. Before, goannas were here forever.

21 Arbor Day Foundation. 2023. Sugar Maple Tree.

22 Schoenfuss, Amanda. 2010. Sugar Maple: Acer saccharum. .

23 Brownlow, Alec. 2012.“Chapter 8 Co-Opting Restoration: Women, Voluntarism, and Insurgent Performance in Philadelphia,” in Cities, Nature and Development: The Politics and Production of Urban Vulnerabilities.