9 min read

Music from Trees

Great trees from the archive // Visiting the Queens Giant // Walking the Astoria Desire Path

Thank you for reading this year! I I hope you were able to connect to a few interesting ideas. I’m excited for how my projects have progressed this year and feel I have a bit of a stockpile to share. I definitelyl fall into the collector category. I like collecting and working with the pile, but now it goes beyond photographs. It’s a pile of data, ideas, thoughts, drawings, images and notebooks. I don’t know where it’s all going yet but I like many of the clues I’m discovering.

This week I’m excited about trees! I’m always excited about trees. I bet many of you are excited about trees too. Hope you enjoy this short journey with the trees!

Do you believe a tree can be an oracle?

Before I get to that question. Last Friday I was up early doom scrolling on Twitter when I came across this article on the social life of trees in the NYTimes.

It’s a fascinating article. Just the week before after visiting the Queens Giant in Alley Pond Park, I started researching old growth forests which got me to thinking about the oldest groves of trees around the city.

After I shared the Tmies article on Twitter, photographer Astor Reem David shared a cool thread where she catalogs all the trees she’s photographed the last few years.

I’ve photographed numerous trees over the years too! Or so I thought. Going through the archive I realized that for the most part the trees have been the supporting characters in the frame, but there have a few where they are the main focus.

A Few Memorable Trees from the Archive

Is that a grove of palm trees? The iconic palm trees in Los Angeles always seem to be perfectly planted in alignment but there are random groves from what I can recall. I actually don’t recall much, but I do have this photograph and I like that it’s a group of palm trees. It also reminds of walking in Santa Monica in the late aughts.

In 2013, I started my Skyway project, where I walked between La Guardia and JFK airports. This tree is on the shore of Meadow Lake in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. There are planes flying over all the time on certain days, so it didn’t take me long to get my frame. I haven’t re-photograph this tree yet, but it’s on my list as I plan on making the Skyway walk a few more times. It’s 18 miles. I made the complete walk for the first time on March 8th. It took 39,625 steps that day.

In 2014, I started taking day trips to Long Island for a new project. During this time, I began making more photographs of trees and paths. I’ll never forget this complex tangle of branches and roots. I don’t have specific locations for any of these since they were on film and I was lazy with my notetaking back then.

And this one from Long Island combined a desire path and a beautiful tree! This is one I really wish I knew the location of. I hope to make a print at some point.

Back in Queens, I’ve had this one in a folder with no home for several years. I’ve always liked it because the tree caught my attention from a few blocks away and this alley provided an interesting setting for it.

In 2018, I took a vacation to Denver and then drove to the Grand Canyon for a day. I woke up early and made an epic saunter around the south rim. This lone tree was mesmerizing, and I’m sure there are thousands of photographs of it floating around the internet. If I were more ambitious I might try to find some. Perhaps a project for another day.

Last year I walked around the perimeter of Manahttan along the greenway. This tree was in Upper Manhattan, probably in part of Fort Washington Park if I can recall. It was before I started taking detailed notes. I think I’ll revist it at some point, but will be able to spot it? I don’t know!

Visiting the Queens Giant

Ok, those are some trees from the archive. Back to the Queens Giant! It’s supposedly the oldest and tallest tree in New York City, although it’s somewhat disputed.

The grove in which the Queens Giant stands is one of four ancient forests still existing in New York City, said Bruce Kershner, a forest ecologist and vice president of the New York Old Growth Forest Association. He estimated the Queens Giant's age at 425 years. In 2002, he measured the circumference of the tree (19 feet), and used a laser range finder to measure the height, which put the tree at 134 feet tall, though it could be a foot or two taller by now, he said. - In Obscurity, The Tallest And Oldest New Yorker

I’ve visited it around 5 times now (above photos are from May 14, 2020) . It’s tough to get up close and photograph because it’s down a sloping embankment, and the trail is tricky to navigate. I went down once and made this photograph looking up, and recorded a silly video for Instagram (you’ll just have to follow me there for my walking experiments)

Last week when I visited I got this feeling that I should be prepared with a question. I’ve been working on this oracle idea for a few months now, and started by asking questions before I walk a desire path. It’s been interesting to learn what pops into my head when I’m focused and mindful while walking a path. Once the idea set in, I knew it was time to test it with the trees, and there’s no better tree to ask a question to than the Queens Giant.

I’m not implying that trees can literally answer questions but I do believe that something about the encounter can help us generate answers and ideas. It’s a good creative exercise if you don’t want to believe that the trees actually communicate with us!

But I do! I think they are able to transmit messages and that with the right mindset, we can receive them.

When I arrived at the Queens Giant, I was already having a few ideas about fire pop into my head. And then I felt like the tree was pissed off! It was strange. An angry tree? Aren’t they suppose to be chill? I guess maybe not. I started thinking about how trees must be pissed off about forest fires, so I took that as a clue that maybe there had been a forest fire near the Queens Giant and that’s why it was pissed off.

Or could it be the incessant noise from the nearby Long Island Expressway? How many groves of trees were removed when it was built? How much of it was old growth forest and could there have been other old trees?

After that encounter, I’ve become more fascinated about the remaining old growth forests in New York City and across the country. On Twitter, Noah Kalina pointed me to photographer Brian Kelley’s Gathering Growth Foundation. He’s been documenting champion trees since 2017 as an ambassador for American Forests Big Tree Program. What’s a champion tree? They are the largest documented of their species. Right now there are 795 Champion Trees in the US. What an awesome project! Would make a great interview I bet.

[astoria is for thinking] music from trees

With trees on my mind and full Sunday for walking ahead, I decided to make another test of the oracle theory. This time I was headed to Astoria, where lived for almost five years, and have continued to walk it since I moved to Sunnyside. I’ve started calling them the [astoria is for thinking] walks because I find familiar terrain good for getting into flow state and thinking.

Back on April 15th, I left my copy of Walden on the path as part of a somewhat aborted project where I leave old philosophy books at diffent place on my walk. I don’t know why I stopped doing it. I like the idea. Anyway, someone probably found it on this desire path, and I like that idea.

I decided on this walk I would ask the Astoria Desire Path a question about the trees when I walked it. My intuition has been telling me there’s a connection between the trees and the desire paths, so I have to pursue it.

On my way I found this tree with a bunch of sneakers hanging from it. You can’t see them in this Instax but if you make it Ralph Demarco Park in Astoria, you can spot them. I took it as a strong clue about the trees, so I made this Instax. I wanted to make Instax photos for a year, and now I have, so I’m putting them into notebooks.

When I arrived at the Astoria desire path there was hip-hop coming from the parking lot. I’m not sure what was going on, but I took it as a sign. I made an out of focus Instax, took a deep breath, and then walked the path. What stuck in my mind was ‘music from trees.’ The desire path weaves through a grove of trees which I took as another sign. I’m not sure where it’s going yet, but I’m looking into this connection between desire paths and trees.

When I arrived back at my apartment I knew I need to research ‘music for trees.’ What I found was pretty cool! This article in the Atlantic titled ‘Trees Have Their Own Songs’ has some interesting quotes from biologist David George Haskell who wrote a book called ‘The Songs of Trees.’ Unbelievable!

“I’ve taught ornithology to students for many years,” says Haskell, a natural history writer and professor of biology at Sewanee. “And I challenge my students: Okay, now that you’ve learned the songs of 100 birds, your task is to learn the sounds of 20 trees. Can you tell an oak from a maple by ear? I have them go out, pour their attention into their ears, and harvest sounds. It’s an almost meditative experience. And from that, you realize that trees sound different, and they have amazing sounds coming from them. Our unaided ears can hear how a maple tree changes its voice as a soft leaves of early spring change into the dying one of autumn.” - Trees Have Their Own Songs

Of course I needed to know if there were any projects out there where people made music from trees and that led me to a project by Bartholomäus Traubeck.

A tree's rings are like the grooves of a record, in that they contain information. To dendrochronologists, the scientists who study these rings, their grooves yield clues to the tree's environment, like rain levels, disease, and even forest fires. Light-colored rings indicate fast growth; darker rings indicate times of slower growth. A few years ago, the sound artist Bartholomäus Traubeck began taking this simile more literally, turning the data of tree rings into music. - The Beautiful Record Made from Tree Rings

And that’s where the investigation ends for now. I’m very keen on this music from trees idea. If you have any tips or thoughts, drop me a line: info@bryanformhals.com

Can a tree be an oracle? Definitely.

“I’m very comfortable using words like intelligence, but I need to emphasize that this is a very other kind of intelligence,” he says. It’s slow, diffuse, other. “We’re not putting elves in the forest or imagining one big super-organism that thinks in a human-like way. The forest’s intelligence is so decentralized compared to ours. To me, the closer analogy is of human culture. Ideas and human culture happens between points of consciousness in our brains. It’s very decentralized, but it has memory and contributes to our understanding and our ability to solve problems.” - David George Haskell, Trees Have Their Own Songs

I’m an artist and marketing strategist based in Minneapolis. This is my newsletter on art, walking, urbanism and mindfulness.

Each issue, I share new work from my projects and try to make connections between ideas, articles and people that fascinate me. You can email me at info@bryanformhals.com or follow me on Instagram or Threads.