The Arnold Arboretum: Data and Distance


Image via Knight Science Journalism at MIT

Today I caught pieces of Kyle Parry’s talk titled Trees and Physical-Virtual Borderlands: metaLAB and the Arnold Arboretum at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Parry talked about his work with the Arnold Arboretum, with some commentary added by Arboretum director Ned Friedman.

The presenting problem; the Arnold Arboretum has meticulously catalogued millions of pieces of data about its history and its current collection of 15,000 documented plants, but the Arboretum doesn’t know how to share this information effectively with visitors. Parry cited founding Arboretum Charles Sprague Sargent as writing “a visitor driving through the Arboretum will be able to obtain a general idea of the arborescent vegetation of the north temperate zone without even leaving his carriage.” Today, most Arboretum visitors don’t use carriages, and it’s really not clear that they’re visiting to get “a general idea of the arborescent vegetation of the north temperate zone,” or even if they know what or where that zone is.

Meanwhile, visitors don’t necessarily have access to the type of information they want. Parry mentioned working with older elementary/middle school kids who said they wanted maps of the Arboretum to help them play Capture the Flag—to help them figure out where the trees make rooms, or mazes, or good places to hide. I don’t think the Arboretum’s botanical phenologists have been tracking these data lately.

More globally, I would say the sort of data the Arboretum collects and wants to share with the world—about plants’ response to global climate change, germination rates, botanical form and so on—is really at odds with what people have wanted to know about plants for most of our specie’s existence; what can you do with it?

Can you eat that plant? Does it make good arrows? Can you carve little dolls from the branches? Does it burn fast and hot or long and slow? Can you boil the roots into tea to make you feel better if you have a fever? Can you blow through its stem to make a farting noise, or a whistle?

The Arnold Arboretum really doesn’t want its visitors testing any of these hypotheses with its collection. Instead, I think we’re all still stuck in Sargent’s carriage, sitting and staring out at plants that we can’t really contact.

Parry didn’t offer much in the way of solutions to this whole dilemma. He talked about how technology can offer access to data on-site, letting people find out about botany, bloom time, and so on. Friedman described the “tree flash mobs” the Arboretum organized over the summer, inviting people to gather around a particular tree. But I didn’t hear much about making the Arboretum’s collection physically accessible, approachable, useful to people, apart from as a way of communicating rather abstract information.

I’ll admit that the Arboretum is, really, a museum of trees. It isn’t “nature;” it’s a series of exhibits. Connecting people to museums is very different from connecting them to the animal attractions of the outdoor world—readily available at the uncurated, unstructured, uncontrolled Allandale Woods Urban Wild across the street from the Arboretum. I hope that Parry takes a walk there sometime. He might see something he doesn’t expect.


Bay Circuit Rail Trail: Green Becomes Visible

I was pleased to see the Boston Globe’s article titled “200-mile walking trail moves closer to completion,” about the Bay Circuit Trail. The Bay Circuit Alliance has been working for 22 years to connect this trail, which runs in a grand swoop from Newburyport to Duxbury. Now, the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) and the Trustees of Reservations are working together to help the Bay Circuit Alliance link up the final 17 miles of the trail, protect land from development and “provide more consistent maintenance and signage, move certain sections off public roads onto undeveloped land, and promote public awareness of the trail.”

Bay Circuit Rail Trail

Bay Circuit Rail Trail / Bay Circuit Alliance

You wouldn’t think you’d need to “promote public awareness” of a trail that runs through 34 towns, but that may be the most important thing the AMC and the Trustees can do for the Bay Circuit Trail, which some folks know as “The Bay Secret Trail.” There are plenty of maps and updates and apps out there about roads, traffic, buses and trains, but finding information about walking trails in Greater Boston is difficult.

Walk Boston publishes maps by town, but doesn’t put out regional maps with trails between towns. Heck, the City of Boston Parks Department doesn’t even list the names of its parks anywhere on its site, much less a map of how to get around them. Only the Emerald Necklace Conservancy does that. The result, according to The Esplanade Association; tourists (and many Bostonians) can’t figure out how to get from the Boston Public Garden to the Esplanade one block away.

Worse still, Greater Boston’s parks and open space are owned by a blizzard of entities that sometimes cooperate very well, and sometimes gnash their teeth at all comers. There are city parks, town conservation land, state parks, National parks and historic sites, Audubon sanctuaries, Nature Conservancy sites, Trustees of Reservations landscapes, historic house sites, private cemeteries, college campuses, Boy Scout and Girl Scout camps, hospital properties… they’re all in the same planet, but occupy different worlds on maps and the internet.

Every space without roads in your street atlas or on Google Maps is  open space (if it isn’t an airport or under water); but you can’t tell if you can walk there unless you can find the trails on a map, and to do that, you have to figure out who owns it. This is how spaces get forgotten. This is how park land ends up being turned into parking lots.

So, go Bay Circuit Alliance! Put up those signs! Blaze those trails! Make it easy for people to find the trail, and walk on it, and bring their dogs if they want to! The easier it is to visit, the easier it is to vote to keep it.

In other easily-confused local news, the Bay Colony Rail Trail might get finished in our lifetimes! The distinction: the Bay Circuit Rail Trail is almost complete, and runs through 34 communities; the Bay Colony Rail Trail is a single seven-mile trail along an abandoned rail corridor linking Needham, Dover, and Medfield, and currently exists only in the minds of the Bay Colony Rail Trail group—and Needham Town Meeting

Last week, Needham Town Meeting voted to give the nonprofit group Bay Colony Rail Trail $35,000 to fund a feasibility study for the southern portion of the trail running from Needham Junction to the bridge going over the Charles River to Dover, according to Wicked Local Needham. That’s wonderful, but it’s only a first step. In 2009, the Boston Globe reported that rail-trail projects in Massachusetts take 10 years to complete on average. Your puppy might live to walk the Bay Colony Rail Trail; your hamster probably won’t.