Tree Roots Get their Moment in the Sun

Photo by Kevin GradyPhoto by Kevin Grady
The Boston Globe
May 21, 2015
By Kevin Hartnett

In the human imagination, towering tree trunks and leafy canopies get all the attention, even if we know it’s the subterranean root systems that really do the important work.

For her part, Rosetta Elkin loves roots, and she’s trying to elevate their profile (literally and figuratively) in a new exhibit called “Live Matter” at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The piece displays a sprawling root system, excavated recently in Arnold Arboretum from beneath a white poplar and transported to Cambridge for display.

“It’s an incredibly ordinary structure and I aimed to displace it in order to highlight its extraordinariness,” says Elkin, a professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “The world around us seems mundane, but it’s filled with wonder.”

And that wonder exists as often as not in places we can’t easily see. In an interview, I asked Elkin questions about the tree that used to associate with the roots in “Live Matter.” She said she’d prefer not to talk about it because, she said, “I’d rather not fetishize the canopy and the tree itself.” Instead, she wanted attention on the roots.

Elkin went on to explain that in fact it’s wrong to think about a root system as belonging to a single tree. To create the exhibit, she had a team of tree specialists use an airspade, a high-pressure device that blows away dirt and is less likely than a shovel to damage roots. Their work revealed a root system with a variety of evocative features: one root plunged straight down into the ground farther than the excavators could reach; another did a dramatic 90-degree turn in an apparent search for water.

Back above the surface, the roots connected not to a single white poplar, but to a number of them, of different ages and sizes. The relationship between these seemingly individual trees is lost without the roots, but once you have the roots in mind, the whole scene shifts. It’s a change in perspective that Elkin hopes to get across in “Live Matter,” and it’s one she imagines in engagingly fanciful terms.

“If you think of an animal, a worm pops its head up,” she said. “Imagine if you took away the soil and [all the worms] were interconnected.”

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