The University of Guelph’s Arboretum is a plant museum, park, and conservation lab located in Guelph, Ontario. Arboretum encompasses 400 acres adjacent to campus featuring plant collections, gardens, walking trails, natural woodlands, wetlands, and meadows. Established in 1970, The Arboretum is home to more than 2000 species of woody plants. The Arboretum features thematic collections like a synoptic collection World of Trees, Native Trees of Ontario, and more species-specific collections of Oaks, Beeches, Maples, and Conifers.
Besides serving as a conservation area, Arboretum also acts as a research facility aiming to connect people with nature and enhance teaching, research, and outreach at the University. It is a “living laboratory”, a learning space that is integral to many undergraduate courses. Arboretum offers dozens of workshops and nature-oriented public programs.
Arboretum’s conservational efforts are represented by long-running recovery and conservation initiatives such as Rare Woody Plants of Ontario and Elm Recovery Project programs. Arboretum collects, stores (in gene banks), and archives representative specimens of rare and endangered trees and shrubs of the province of Ontario.
In 2021, the University of Guelph announced Nokom’s House – a land-based indigenous knowledge research lab that brings together community-engaged indigenous scholars to explore questions of relationship in an interdisciplinary research environment.
In the late Paleozoic to the early Mesozoic era, Earth’s landmass was a single supercontinent called Pangaea. As the continents separated, plant populations became isolated and evolved independently. The impact of this evolution can be seen in the tree and shrub variations showcased in the World of Trees Collection.
The Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe and Attawandaron peoples lived on and cared for the land that now hosts The Arboretum, the University of Guelph and the City of Guelph.
The Mississaugas, Three Fires (the Ojibway, Odawa and Potawatomi) and Iroquois contested this region during the Beaver Wars. Following their victory, a group of Mississaugas settled on the land between Toronto and Lake Erie, becoming known as the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. Through the 1792 Between the Lakes Purchase Treaty No. 3, the Mississaugas of the Credit ceded over 3,000,000 acres of land to the British Crown.
After the land was ceded, the British Crown divided the area into tracts and sold them to wealthy individuals for development. John Galt, a Scottish businessman, author, and superintendent of the Canada Company which was responsible for populating a part of Upper Canada (now part of southern Ontario). Galt first began developing Guelph in 1827 to attract potential settlers.
A few years later, in the mid 1850s, William and Ellen Hamilton purchased a 400-acre tract of land in Guelph. The Hamilton family worked to clear much of the area and develop a farm on this plot. In 1910, the family sold the land to the nearby Ontario Agricultural College to use as a research farm.
Over the next several decades, the notion of an arboretum lingered in the minds of O.A.C. professors. Many instructors believed that there was an opportunity in the Botany, Horticulture, and Landscape Architecture curricula that could be filled by an arboretum. Several proposals for an arboretum were submitted during this time but were postponed or rejected due to a lack of funding.
In 1963, the Arboretum Study Committee was formed by Professor R.J. Hilton. The Ontario Agricultural College was moving towards University status, and with the creation of the University of Guelph in 1964, it seemed like a good time to propose a new arboretum. For the next seven years, Hilton and a team of professors completed various studies on the benefits and feasibility of an arboretum. Eventually, they created and submitted an academic brief and a master plan to advocate for its creation. In December 1970, the University of Guelph’s Board of Governors approved the master plan for The Arboretum. After years of dreaming, The Arboretum was finally going to become a reality.
The first collection plantings took place in May 1971. A small group of employees using only a tractor and a crew-cab truck planted a collection of maple trees on the grounds. These trees mark the first official collection of The Arboretum.
During the next several years, The Arboretum slowly began to take shape. Arboretum employees and volunteers worked tirelessly to transform the farmland with trees and plants, establishing the beginnings of the gardens and collections. Trail systems were developed to encourage visitors to explore the grounds. The Arboretum’s infrastructure was developed and the O.A.C. Centennial Arboretum Centre (1974), the J.C. Taylor Nature Centre (1978) and the R.J. Hilton Centre (1988) were opened.
We are used to thinking of parks and conservation areas as human-maid landmarks. Parks are subject to zoning and regulations; we refer to parks as something we “build” instead of “cultivating” them (if we are planning to grow the park ecosystem from the ground up) or “containing” them (if we are restricting the natural ecosystem of an area to a designated park zone). We often imbue urban parks and green spaces with watermarks of human activity by naming and re-naming them after notable historical figures, as we do with streets. But unlike streets that are man-maid navigational constructs, parks and green spaces are living ecologies, the heritage of which stretches beyond temporal and spatial constraints of visitor maps or park plans.
Located at the University of Guelph, Arboretum officially celebrated its 50th birthday in 2020, however, the histories of its plant species trail back to the formation of the Pangea supercontinent that subsequently impacted the evolution of numerous tree and shrub variations showcased in the Arboretum’s tree collections.
The Arboretum represents a unique relational environment that is both ancient and recent, man-made and self-formed; it represents a particular location but at the same time represents the world with all its biodiversity richness.
Some Arboretum plants like Cucumber Magnolia Tree appeared and developed during the pre-human Cretaceous period when dinosaurs walked the earth. The Cucumber Magnolia species that we may observe at The Arboretum are not thousands of years old individually, but their genetic makeup reflects this claim to pre-historic antiquity both aesthetically and reproductively: cucumber magnolia blooms are large, resilient, and thick-skinned; and magnolia pollination is carried out by beetles because when magnolias have first appeared, the bees didn’t exist yet as species.
The Arboretum might be located in Guelph, Ontario – a very particular location on planet Earth – but at the same time, it houses species from across the world including Japanese Sakura and Norway Spruce. The World of Trees Collection is a place where one can discover some of the amazing similarities and differences associated with temperate woody plants of the northern hemisphere.
When we think of how music is typically composed and recorded, the industry standard for recordings reflects our obsession with control and sound “sterility”. Recording studios are soundproofed against noise and natural reverb to create the cleanest possible sound. When a vocalist records a vocal track, in a professional recording studio they do so inside of the vocal booth; and after the recording is complete, the track is then further inspected and cleaned from environmental noise or hum. Studio architecture as well as the post-production cleanup process quite literally designed to separate the vocalist from their immediate environment by aiming to create a perfect “vacuum”. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this approach; it evolved this way to emphasize the music by removing distractions. That being said, before the invention of recording, music never existed in a complete vacuum and was always subject to environmental situatedness.
The Arboretum has proven to be an amazing natural studio in the most subversive way possible because it is never truly quiet. It was clear from the beginning, that it was not me, the artist/creator who was the centerpiece of this co-creation experience, but the environment itself with a myriad of active actors that altered and changed the terms of creation: wind, insects, birds, animals, and of course, the trees themselves.
As I was working on my research-creation project, I made many excursions to The Arboretum with my data collection devices, searching for inspiration and waiting for trees to speak to me. And the overall experience of making music with trees was immensely transformative for me, as it became abundantly clear that hyper-individualism, which is commonly demonstrated as a desirable target lifestyle in modern society, is a constructed narrative. In truth, no living being is truly completely self-sufficient; instead, we exist in ecology of connections and relations. Plant-based life is incapable of surviving without water, pollinators, and many other factors that compose a meshwork of connections and relations.
In “The Mushroom at the end of the World: on the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins”, Anna Tsing writes that the history of the human concentration of wealth is focused on making both humans and nonhumans into resources for investment. This history has inspired investors to imbue both people and things with alienation, that is, the ability to stand alone “as if the entanglements of living did not matter” (5). Tsing emphasizes that the Darwinian concept of lone survivorship that we often see in literature or media is a myth, and in the natural world, sole survivorship without forming connections with other lifeforms is not possible. Similar arguments are corroborated by Haraway in “Staying with the Trouble”, as she investigates how inter- and multi-specie collaborations and co-relational meaning-making play a key role in addressing and navigating contemporary challenges and issues of modernity.
Haraway emphasizes that since neither biology nor philosophy no longer supports the individualist notion of independent organisms in environments, single-minded thinking can only “mislead us down deadly paths” (33) As an alternative to individualist thinking (autopoiesis), collective thinking or sympoiesis de-stabilizes the notion of individualism, inviting multiplicity of meanings, experiences, and perspectives.
In my bio-ethnographical analysis as well as compositional process, I aimed to adopt sympoietic thinking to re-negotiate and de-stabilize the familiar relationships between human and plant life not only theoretically, but also in creative practice. I aimed to imagine myself (as a researcher, data collector, and composer) and the plants I engaged with as a collaborative living system where all possible creative directions could be navigated and explored. Becoming such a collaborative system meant to move beyond the sharp feeling of “otherness” (me - a human, and the tree – as a non-verbal plant specie) and communicate in different modalities, making learning a primary focus of our collaborative engagement.
The first documented experiment involving the interpretation of plant biodata was conducted in 1966 by the FBI agent Cleve Backster who attached polygraph electrodes to a Dracaena cane plant, to measure at first the time taken for water to reach the leaves. The consequent experiments revealed that plants chemically respond and are sensitive to emotions, light, touch, and other changes in their immediate environment. In my biodata collection experiments, modalities like touch, light, and speech/singing became not only instruments of communication but also ways to impact the biodata I was receiving in ways I could not predict, fine-tune, or control. The lack of control did not matter, however, since, in sympathetic systems, the concept of control is not the focus.