A Knox County Almanac

Bartram's Garden

Jayne Gelman
November 12, 2019

The Gund Gallery is hosting a three-part program this fall, titled "The Art of Trees: A new social imaginary in the face of environmental crisis." Three visiting scholars and artists will discuss humanity's relationship with nature and how to appreciate the natural world in the midst of an ongoing environmental crisis.

I attended the talk featuring landscape architect and artist Kaye Lynn Johnson '81 who mostly spoke about her work in designing, reimagining and reinvigorating the oldest botanical garden in the United States: Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia.

Johnson began her presentation by sharing a photo of a tree that had grown around a power line and was cut to avoid interfering with the transportation of power. Here, she said, was a great example of how we, as humans, are making nature accommodate us.

This got me thinking about the way we treat great spaces in our communities where gardens exist for the purpose of beautification and are carefully weeded and maintained to not appear too wild. This type of manipulated nature is limiting its contribution to our overall ecosystem. Maybe we should allow the plants to grow where they would like, allow vines to spread and sprawl onto trees and buildings and plants to dominate each other vertically.

Johnson described a supportive community that exists among trees. After a tree is cut down, the stump is sometimes able to resprout by receiving nutrients from nearby, still-living trees. Underground, the root systems are connected, and those who still have leaves feed those that do not. These trees are helping one another, building and giving to those that cannot.

Johnson concluded by saying that we need an aesthetic shift as a society — from one that prefers perfectly pruned bushes to one that appreciates an ecosystem working in harmony. By conserving and maintaining ecosystems, we are supporting a wild aesthetic that exists independent of us.

I want to view nature not as something to dominate but something to be a part of. We can help plants the way they help each other. An untrimmed yard may not be beautiful to our standards now, but living in balance with nature could be the most beautiful way of life.

Image: Sycamore tree at the Kokosing Nature Preserve.