Inventorying Trees

Nick Paumgarten’s short article in the January 31 New Yorker reports on a census of Central Park’s trees undertaken by Edward Barnard, a “retired book editor,” and Ken Chaya, a graphic designer. Together they inventoried and mapped more than 19,000 trees, several of which they consider Very Important Trees (VITs) now having completed the project. VITs stand apart from the forest; they amount to the distinctive and curious exceptions worthy of noticing, touring on foot (binoculars in hand), and pausing to dwell upon. About the map, Paumgarten writes,

In December, they published their map. It’s five feet tall. It has nineteen thousand six hundred and thirty trees on it, about eighty per cent of the Park’s estimated twenty-four thousand trees, all of them identifiable according to a leaf-shape key. It is a beautiful and meticulous artifact, as full of captivating detail as the M.T.A.’s new subway map is devoid of it.

Trees stand up especially well to this map-treatment, since they are uniquely rooted and living. I read this brief article with an interest in what generalizes from these methods, from this project. City-dwellers, particularly NYC-dwellers, might be more fascinated with trees than we who find them abundantly surrounding us in more open Midwestern spaces. Yet, this also means for Midwesterners that we risk resting without noticing them in their seeming ubiquity.

To generalize from Barnard and Chaya’s impressively geeky inventorying, then, what becomes possible out of this for a course like Writing Ypsilanti? Map the campus’s trees? Map a local park’s trees (e.g., Frog Island, Prospect, Normal, Candy Cane)? In tentatively posing this, I am thinking, maybe not. Nothing here. Then again, I think of Denis Wood’s public utility map and jack-o-lantern map, and something here blends inventively into other noticings: Attending to trees that grow and change almost invisibly, what else might we accidentally find? Possibly a related tree-inventorying experiment could function as a heuristic then for yet other object-oriented census maps, which, like Barnard and Chaya’s project, might change our manner of dwelling or our routes simply by resetting those fields of attention that have gone stagnant.


  1. I’m surprised there wasn’t already a tree database for Central Park.

    Maybe EMU already has a tree inventory. Until recently, WIU had an forestry professor who included tree inventory as a research specialty. I often saw him and his students working on trees around my building as part of classes.

  2. They very well may have a tree inventory. Although, I learned last summer, when I sat on the Computer Refresh Program Committee, that they do not have a computer inventory. Not sure which would be harder to inventory, actually.

    I’m as much interested in getting students thinking about what a map like this (perhaps including photographs) might do capture/extend another side of campus than we usually notice or hear about. Even with an existing inventory we might ask–in a class concerned with writing local landscapes–what else we could do with the data than is being done with it already.

  3. Hey Derek,
    I’m not sure whether or not you’re originally from Ann Arbor or Michigan, and if you are, then I feel silly for mentioning this, but if not, then I’m not sure whether or not you’ve heard about the “Sam Graham Trees” at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. If not, you should check them out, and also be sure to visit the Nichols Arboretum as well. Again, if you’re from around here, then I’m sure you’ve heard about them.

    Dr. Graham taught forestry at U of M, and his most popular notion about the concept of forests and trees was that, “[w]e must get away from the old conception of a forest as merely a collection of trees, under the shelter of which live certain birds and beasts. Instead, we must look upon it as an organism composed of many elements.”

    Interestingly enough, I can see this organism as somewhat symbolic of the technium!

    My house is surrounded by trees and a nature area in Ann Arbor, so I feel like the ubiquity of the forest gives me more of an appreciation for the beauty, elegance, and incredible nature of the trees.

    We once had someone come to our house and he offered us thousands of dollars for our walnut tree. Haha, it’s still standing large and proud! There are just some things in life that are too valuable for money!

  4. Thanks for the suggestion, Grace. I’m originally from Michigan, but I am new to the AA area, and I haven’t spent any time in and around the botanical gardens in the area.

    That Ann Arbor is so definitively recognized as a tree city makes the unnoticed tree life in Ypsi all the more interesting to me, particularly as relates to the Writing Ypsilanti course. I wouldn’t want to pose as a horticulturalist by any means, and yet noticing/mapping trees on campus (or in a park) might very well function as a heuristic for other kinds of noticing. That’s the real attraction in this for me, thinking pedagogically.

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