I’ve just started on a 10-week residency at the University of Grenoble-Alpes, developing my work with street trees. The first few days have been a process of landing, beginning to explore the context, but already noticing some striking features. Grenoble is a well-treed city, with a lot of small and larger parks, and trees in many streets, including along the tramways in the centre of larger boulevards and avenues. There are a lot of young trees and there has been some controversy over how many trees have been cut down in the last few years (I hope to find out more about this). On my first day, air pollution levels were high so public transport was free. The city aims to plant 15,000 new trees by 2030. These are the kinds of little pieces of information I’m gathering to start building a picture of tree-being here. In the next few posts I’ll talk about the practical research I’m starting, and plans for how it might develop. With the recent, painful process of a practice-based PhD behind me, I’m also thinking a lot about how this fits into an academic research context.
I’ve been here 2 weeks now, and I’m beginning to get more of a feel for how I, at least, relate to the trees here, feeling like I am actually meeting some of them and getting more of a sense of what I might want to do in relation to them. I’ve been taking bark rubbings but in some cases this is hard to do, as I noted before, because they are so inaccessible. I’ve been talking to a few more people about their experience and knowledge of the trees here – from someone who’d just seen trees planted in her street (one of the big main streets in the city) the day before, to someone who remembered the old mature plane trees that are no longer there. One of the reasons there are so few mature trees in the city centre, it turns out, is a disease of plane trees which, so far, has not reached the UK. It makes me think I need to be very careful about what I bring back from here – drawings, bark impressions etc.
Last week Claudia, the intern I’m working with, took me to a couple of different districts of the city to see the trees there and how people live with them. First we went to Villeneuve, one of the poorer areas with a big social housing project and a huge park. The roads around here have a lot of beautiful mature trees, as does the park. Then we went to the Presqu’île, a new tech industry district on land partially reclaimed from military use. The buildings there are all shiny and new and massive, (rather than dilapidated and grey and massive), and the trees are new plantings in regular rows. There are very few people around and the place feels quite sterile, but there are some interesting trees. These two are on opposite sides of the city and I’m planning a walk from one to the other to map trees and changes along the way.
Yesterday I also went to see the ‘Vernon oak‘, a venerable 400-year-old tree outside the village of Vernon, which stands on a hillside and is visible for miles around. It is well known and protected, and it makes me think how split we can be in our thinking about protection/instrumentalisation/neglect of living beings, depending on where we meet them. This oak would come into the category of ‘charistmatic megafauna’, unlike the tree you let your dog piss on in the street because it’s there.
There have been storms across the UK and most of France, but this corner has had its own freak weather with an incredibly warm day of 20 degrees. The buds are of course coming out on the trees, as well as many spring flowers like primroses and violets. I’m still hoping to talk to someone from the city or metropolitan area about the policy on trees, and how they respond to global heating is one question I’d like to know more about.
As I walk around the city centre and other areas, I’m still feeling disturbed by how unloved the trees seem to be, and how it’s sometimes hard to feel their presence even though there are so many of them. It’s different from London, where the trees seem much more present in the streets, even though very often ignored and worse. This may be partly because there are fewer big, old trees, and most of those are in parks rather than on the streets. It’s also to do with the containment I wrote about earlier – as in this photo of a young Turkey oak. Obviously the fencing is for protection, but it also makes the tree very hard to connect with. One of my regular practices with trees has been taking bark rubbings on thin layout paper. I was out doing this yesterday (an exceptionally mild day, with warm sun), and tried to make a rubbing from this tree and others in that street (which is a long row of these young oaks). Although I was just about able to reach, I didn’t feel connected and the rubbings are not as detailed and subtle as the ones I took from a circle of basswoods in a nearby square.
I have an intern working with me, and she has found me a huge database of over 31,000 trees in public space in the city – which is how I’m able to confirm species identification. I’m not interested in this naming in order to pin them down, but I am planning to look more at the origins of the trees and how they got here, as well as the aesthetics of planting, how happy different trees are likely to be where they are, and hopefully, whether local residents have particular feelings about different species. I’m also relying on the expertise of the estimable Paul Wood, who’s an absolute expert on London street trees. He’s already helped me identify a rare urban planting of female ginkgo trees…
The university campus where I’m based is another huge, massively treed area (around 25,000 more trees). There’s a different feel here, with a lot more open space and the trees are mostly in grassy or wooded areas (including an arboretum). But as in the city parks, I’m noticing a lot of ivy on the mature trees. When and if I get to talk to people who look after the trees, I plan to ask about this and whether it’s a conscious decision not to remove it.
I’m heading off now to do some sound recording – it has stopped raining which I’m disappointed about because I wanted to record the sound of rain in the trees/ trees in the rain. But in this extremely mild winter, more rain is very likely…
I’ve been walking in the centre of Grenoble and on the university campus for a lot of this week, looking at the trees and how they are living. The campus is huge and the trees there are generally given a lot of space and planted in grassy areas (though still often quite isolated – one or two outside each building). There’s also a lovely arboretum.
The city centre is quite different – there are a lot of trees, but many of them are very contained, either within high-sided beds or railings (sometimes) or in the case of young trees, lots of protective sheathing and fencing. It’s quite hard to get near some of them – I’m used to being able to touch trees, which is one of the ways I greet and get to know them, and it’s not always easy here. The trees are also very often completely blocked in by parked cars (in car parks), street infrastructure etc. And they’re quite often used in what seems to me a possibly harming (or at least uncaring) way e.g. to hang cables from (or even, as in the image, to mount this box – CCTV? lighting? on a horse chestnut in the main square in the centre.
I’m working on identifying which species are planted (which is harder because it’s winter). I know some, but am hoping to get help from the municipality with information on what is planted. I’m planning to work on a kind of experiential mapping of the ones I visit.
This project has grown out of a longer project I began in 2018, the Street Tree Twinning Project (STTP). I’d been wanting to do some work around street trees for a long time – living in London, they are a real resource for me and I wanted to bring attention to them and honour them. Street trees tend to be isolated from one another, rather than living in community as most trees do in their original habitats, with their roots entangled in infrastructure (cables, pipes etc.), in often compacted soil, and subject to pollution, vandalism and littering. The aim of STTP is to create symbolic links between street trees, to make a sort of virtual community but also to draw attention to their presence as beings in the city. I’ve twinned trees within London, and between London and Gravesend, so far using laminated bark rubbings (the rubbings are exchanged between the tree ‘twins’, as above. But I’m not happy with these because of the plastic, and because attaching them with drawing pins (as I have in some cases) damages the tree. I’m working on some ideas for more sustainable markers, and part of the project of this residency is to explore materials like clay, printing on fabric or some more sustainable way of making the paper rubbings weatherproof.