These are portraits- portraits of trees. Each a single pin-oak tree, part of the historic Oak Allée on the campus of Washington University in St Louis. The Oak Allée stood for over 80 years - an intact space offering passage along the East / West path toward the center of campus. In 2017 the double allée was felled - the entire space to be transformed for new buildings and campus renovation.

 

The One Tree Project was a multi-disciplinary landscape architecture studio led by professors Jesse Vogler and Ken Botnick.  Students spent an entire semester investigating the historical, ecological and spatial conditions of the trees aligned along this site.  From soil, to root, to bark, to tree crown; from sound to taste to pattern to structure, these trees were examined from multiple disciplinary perspectives. As a collective group of artists, landscape architects, scientists, ecologists, arborists, and designers, we spent months engaged in a beautiful process of inquiry.

 

Photographing these trees provided a framework to consider the significance of these trees within the contexts of transformation and collective history. Inevitably this select group of trees formed an insular ecosystem – a monoculture of containment. These trees stood together for decades sharing a history of soil, weather and spatial circumstance.

 

Looking at the trees as individual entities showed surprising diversity. The forms and patterns found on the bark surfaces, the reach and stature of each tree trunk, and the scope of the canopies, all revealed characteristics with more variety than imagined. Within each tree there could be seen micro and macro perspectives.  The outer bark displaying marks of identity and markers of time - the patterns like fingerprints, or pathways for insects and burrowing worms. Sometimes the surface of the trees appeared as road maps or vast mountain ranges. Bark becoming aerial views - abstractions both large and small.

 

When in distress trees alter their behavior. They send signals underground through their root networks and are able to connect above ground by releasing chemical toxins to parasitic attackers. The moment came for the felling of the trees. The One Tree had been identified - chosen as representative for the group of trees to come down first. An entire day unfolded where skilled arborists, crane operators, landscape professionals, students and architects, worked to extract the tree roots from the ground, The One Tree would not let go. Its fortitude was more than anyone had imagined. After more than 12 hours of intense effort the tree was eventually cut with chainsaws, bringing it down to the earth. The canopy on the ground shuddered, shaking its leaves in one last breath.

 

The death of the One Tree was profound. We stood under the littlest oak at the back corner- standing as witness to the felling event. As the One Tree gave way, a shower of acorns rained down from the littlest oak tree. It was as though the chosen One Tree was telling the next generation “I am going now, send your seeds and continue our species. Propagate now and fast, we are dying.” The next day the little oak tree had a distinct ring of acorns surrounding its thin trunk, creating a line of determination and marking the experience of before and after.

 

A portion of The One Tree was saved and will be repositioned within the new landscape, becoming the new garden’s nurse log. The decomposition and regeneration of this selected One Tree will symbolically and literally continue the life cycle of the original Oak Allée.

 

Within the context of this brilliant and insightful studio project, I had the opportunity to create this suite of photographs. Printed at 34 ”x 22 “ the individual photographs are intended to reference human body scale. The single tree portrait honors the distinctive diversity found in the individual tree. As an archive of the trees, the photographs honor the collective history of the Oak Allée.

Statement

High-definition laser scan and overlay of every one of the 43 pin-oak trees that once stood in the Historic Oak Allée.

© Jennifer Colten 2020