What Coexisting with Urban Trees Can Teach Us About Our City
From the Nest, Issue 12
by Lesia Mokrycke
In 2019, I started research for a project on street trees that uses art to fuel action around new models for conservation in urban areas. Although the grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to begin this work was awarded last September, my interest in trees has a longer lifespan in my practice.
I began to untangle this work several decades ago with a question about the way forests and trees perform in our imagination. In the mythic forest popularized by the Group of Seven, the ecosystem lives in our collective consciousness as the Canadian North.
Since this place is far away, protected, and large, one can rest assured that, beyond the threshold of the city, nature is intact and there is plenty of it up there. It can come as a surprise to learn that one of the richest and most biodiverse regions in Canada is not up north, or even in British Columbia, but in Hamilton, Ontario.
As an artist growing up in Hamilton I had this quandary in mind when I completed a mural for Greg Sather at McCallumSather Architect’s former office on Catherine Street North, in 2007.
What was the old forest once like here? As someone who has a love of Canada’s northern forests, as many people in this region share, I have often thought about these ghost forests in the downtown urban core.
The mural is growing over now, being reclaimed by the entropic forces of invasive English ivy, which is perhaps a metaphor for the state of urban ecology in the city.
These questions around what is urban and what is wilderness, and how green space can be planned in urban areas, has a long history in landscape architecture.
This history dates back to 1858 in North America when Frederick L. Olmsted and Culvert Vaux proposed their design for central park, and includes figures such as Cornelia Oberlander and other women who have dramatically moved the discipline forward through their work on ecology and climate in more recent years.
In Building Conservation Networks, which is the umbrella title for the larger urban design strategy that frames this project, I take on this question of art and nature and expand it to include the politics of otherness that have underpinned the arts since the early 90s.
My interest in trees takes shape here and builds on the work of recent developments in science on forest ecosystems and in philosophy to make a case for a more wholistic approach to plant-people relations in cities. The first phase of this project, Monument Trees is captured through the Heritage Tree Index that I have been building with my studio assistant.
The creative engagement aspect of this work, of which the response from the Hamilton community has really been remarkable, is forming the basis for an exhibition and publication of photographs and will be published this year.
One thing I have become really interested in is the practical day-to-day interactions between people and the urban forest. Despite the legacy that has been built up around urban ecology, it is still common to find a profound disconnection between the life of the forest and people in the city. In many ways this disconnect makes sense.
There are things in the way in cities that make it difficult for forest landscapes to survive in urban areas. Prior to the development of sewer systems and electrical wires, many early cities coexisted with large numbers of historic trees. Modern planning has made this coexistence seem nearly impossible, with trees often losing out to infrastructure that is needed for contemporary living and urban convenience.
In my work in landscape architecture and as an artist I think a lot about the integration of the natural, physical and social dimensions of time and the physical landscape in cities. In response to some of this discord with the cyclical world, this project takes a broader view of natural systems in our region as a primary source of research. Within this sphere, the larger scope of my work looks at geographic boundaries, and in particular how trees operate spatially between urban and protected landscapes. Given the scale of the urban city, we can no longer think of conservation lands as the only climate sinks.
In many faiths and cultures around the world trees are anchors between humanity’s reproductive forces and the afterlife. Why do trees have such an important role in the human story, yet are so often neglected? As a result of the way trees come into conflict with urban infrastructure, it is easy to forget how they grow and what their life cycles are for survival. How often has each of us cleaned up a messy tree, unknowingly removing the offspring a tree is trying to give life to?
Over the course of the documentation phase of this project that took place last fall, I have often been surprised by the compassion the Hamilton community has for urban, ancient trees. Many of the Monument Trees documented in this project so far are located in backyards in the lower and upper city. It is often true that they have taken root in the imagination of residents and have become a source of neighbourhood pride and conversation.
On one block downtown I met Jerry, a retired steel worker and naturalist who walked me through the backyards of several of his neighbours to show me an unusually large Gingko tree. Although Gingko’s are not native species to this landscape (they originate in China and are prehistoric), they have a strong cultural association to Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia.
A contact of mine in the United States was skeptical that a Gingko could have traveled to Hamilton in the pack of an American soldier, perhaps during the time of the American revolution. A member of Six Nations who I am working with as a partner on this project, Paul General, however, raised the point that travel networks between Philadelphia and Hamilton were well established and used by the Haudenosaunee people at this time, who were regularly in the practice of seed exchange along these routes.
Given this history, it is easier to see where the disconnect may lie. While we often think of the grid as an achievement of modern planning, what is rarely mentioned is that these streets correspond to major geographic features in the area. Over centuries urban form has emerged from these cultural and ecological patterns that were long established in the landscape. It is tempting to think of these pre-settlement landscapes as natural.
A key part of this work is reorienting this historical narrative and raising questions about what place is. A series of burned oak savannas that are managed each year to ensure food diversity is a carefully cultivated cultural landscape, as is an agricultural plot of land that follows afterward. As many scholars are recognizing across the Eastern United States and locally in Canada, these savanna landscapes are an early part of North American history that is seldom told as part of the history of urbanization.
Recognizing the role Monument Trees play in the structure and history of our city through art is an important part of the current and upcoming phases of this project. As others have observed, these ancient trees provide a view into what the composition of old-growth forests in our region were once like. Urban, old growth trees that remain standing in Hamilton are living monuments to our natural history and to this legacy.
The cultural and historical clues that ancient trees give us about our human condition in relation to larger systems is integral to the design of the future city. Trees and plants tell us the story of our humanity in a way that is not separate from the life of the forest.
As I move through the streets speaking with members of the community about cherished old growth in their neighbourhoods, I am often reminded how the rhythms of our lives are contained in the cycles of the plants that occupy our yards and streets – not necessarily in mythic spaces up north, or even in conservation lands – but, here and now, in the corridors that make up our lived environment.
Lesia Mokrycke is a Hamilton artist and urban designer with a passion for the environment; she is the founder of TROPOS, a multidisciplinary studio that operates as the research branch of OMC Landscape Architecture; Lesia has degrees in Art and Landscape Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; she is an Associate Member the OALA, CSLA, ASLA; a Professional Member of CARFAC; and a long-time YMCA volunteer where she has worked with kids; Lesia’s current work documenting the urban forest is supported with funding from the Canada Council for the Arts