The unsatisfied maple tree

Acer ignarus ex libidus

Late summer 2018, we get a tour of the Amstelpark’s heemtuin with ecological manager Luis Nobre Canha. Since 1972, Amstelpark has housed a heemtuin where different types of landscapes of the Netherlands are simulated. Different landscapes unite to form a habitat for a piece of urban ecology. After almost 50 years, the heemtuin has become a symbiosis of ecological manager Luis acting as the conductor of a symphony of local ecology and the clumping together of landscape types, which are hardly distinguishable anymore.

Luis tells us that, conditions permitting, a landscape always wants to become a forest. Luis knows a lot about the different types of trees in the botanical garden. Walking through the botanical garden, the slender tree trunks move swayingly in the air. The trees are close together and a single tree fell with the last spring storm. In a dense stretch of forest like this, besides the feeling of wonder, a slight fear of the creaking and squeaking tree trunks creeps in. The fear of the forest and/or wooden objects is called xylophobia.

Winter rustles through the leaves of the common maple, a snow of immature propellers swirls down. The extreme heat and long drought cause the maples to lose their seeds prematurely. Because of the metres of fill sand that lie beneath the park, some trees can reach groundwater with their roots poorly. Luis says some trees and also a range of rhododendrons will not make it through the desiccation. What strikes us in the Amstelpark are the numerous short-lived trees, dozing in a waiting position, hopeful that one day they can reach maturity. The stumps make us think. Is it a new kind of nature that only arises in interaction with humans?

In the botanical garden is a hayfield. A piece of Dutch landscape normally kept short by grazers. The herb-rich hayfield is now mowed twice a year by the heemtuin managers. The grasses and herbs such as agrimony or wild marjoram thrive under these conditions. The hay meadow is enclosed by a lush thicket of hazelnut, hawthorn, Spanish sycamore and trees such as oak, maple, birch, ash or elm. All these species spread their progeny to their heart’s content via nuts, berries, maple propellers or elm saplings. However, their offspring never reach maturity in the hay meadow. Small trees grow hidden among the grass here, not reaching beyond knee height in a growing season. When we dig out an ordinary maple tree, it is gnarled and fused into a stumpy entity at ground level.

We dig out a small tree that once fell from the sky as a prop. The tree, no taller than 25 cm must be at least 10 years old. Structurally, this common maple (Acer pseuodoplatanus) is cut small to ground level, while below ground level a branched root system is evidence of the age of this piece of nature. ‘What do we call such a piece of hybrid nature?’, we ask ourselves ponderingly. Searching for new ways of seeing this stump, the theory behind biofact could perhaps bring a new orientation to how we can interpret this natural-looking element. We approach the term biofact from its philosophical meaning to Prof Dr Nicole Christine Karafyllis; This theory emphasises living entities that can be highly artificial due to the methods from which they have emerged within agriculture, gardening, breeding, biotechnology or genetic engineering. Biofacts, Karafyllis argues, display characteristics of culture and technology and refute the idea that all living organisms around us should be considered nature. Looking at this stump from this hybrid term, how can we interpret and develop the definition of natural-looking elements in our environment in a different way? Could this view eventually lead to new approaches to parks or even the park?

This piece of hayfield with its miniature stumps confronts us with our incompetence regarding our vocabulary. The lexicon for our habitat is very one-sided because the elements around us are not enabled to engage in a dialogue with us. We have a hard time imagining a nature outside a particular utility or framework. We have become experts at analysing what nature can do for us, but we lack a language to elicit what nature means to us when we start from a holistic perspective.

If we should not see the stumps so prevalent in Amstel Park as nature, according to Prof Dr Karafyllis, how might we relate to this biofakt? New hybrid species will emerge. Our idea of nature will begin to transform from an environment we visit outside the city to a blending of nature with our living environment. A nature that cannot exist without humans. What characteristics will animals and plants develop as they adapt to living in a shared environment with humans? How will we come to interact differently with nature when it has fully blended with our habitat?

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