Left: Futurefarmers, Tree University, 2013, pencil-making workshop, July 22, 2013. (Photo: Emily Evans) Right: The stump of the felled Norway spruce. (Photo: Liana Mestas)

Tree University is a site-specific project created by the collective Futurefarmers that was inspired by the life and work of Henry David Thoreau. Developed for the exhibition “Walden, revisited” at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, the work centers on a fallen Norway spruce in the middle of the park. Here, Futurefarmer Amy Franceschini—who founded the group in 1994—discusses the project. “Walden, revisited” runs through April 26, 2015.

TREE UNIVERSITY grew out of a lineage of “free school” projects that Futurefarmers had been organizing. We had been wanting to create a whole “curriculum” from a tree for a while. When the deCordova approached us for this show, a reexamination of Henry David Thoreau’s work and the site of Walden Pond, we proposed to do it there, but the cost of bringing in a tree or felling a tree was prohibitive. A few months after our first conversations with the museum, we got a call. Dina Deitsch, the curator, told us that Hurricane Sandy had felled a Norwegian spruce tree on their property. So we opened up the conversation again.

We feel that the continuous model of the “prototype” is quite liberating when creating work that is site/situation responsive. Most of our work happens on or in a site for a specific duration. We set up parameters beforehand, but the production happens within a spirit of readiness. You can figure out many things through quick prototypes—there is not time for perfecting, which often can cause paralysis.

As we got to know the tree, working with a group of people who participated in workshops at the site with us, we linked what we were learning with specific histories connected to Thoreau’s life. One such history turned out to fit wonderfully with our shared desire to write down what we were learning. We had invited an arborist and microbial ecologist to introduce us to the tree—to help us listen to the tree, taste and touch it.

One Thoreau quote that influenced the “Tree U” was, “Men have become the tools of their tools.” This was a meta line that guided our inquiry throughout. Thoreau’s father was a pencil maker and Thoreau improved the pencil by introducing a clay binder made with clay found at the bottom of Walden Pond. Mixing this clay with graphite revolutionized pencils. This vignette related to our early conversations about tools with the workshoppers—what tools do we have among us, what tools scare us, oppress us, liberate us, etc. One tool we agreed was still very powerful was the pen, or in our case the pencil. So we set out to Walden Pond to harvest some clay. We bored to the bottom of the lake and collected enough clay to run a pencil-making workshop at the museum using wood from the tree.

After we did the pencil-making workshop, we had a competition between a chainsaw expert and a two-person sawing duo to cut the tree in slices. Then we ran a two-day workshop where we took one of the slices of the tree and cut it into wood type. We used simple chisels to form type and then used the remains of the slice to lock up texts drawn from the workshop or Thoreau directly. One passage we extracted from chapter six of Walden was: “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. When visitors came in larger and unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all.”

This resulted in a series of broadsides that read:


— As told to Katie Anania