Tree of Knowledge

Tree of Knowledge, Peal City, Boca Raton, Florida. Courtesy of Boca Raton Museum of Art.

Nature and nurture are the fundamental principles of the human condition. The debate about whether our biological disposition or our experiential knowledge defines us is an oversimplification. It isn’t one or the other, it is both. Our genetic structure embodies the evolutionary processes of prior populations. It provides the framework for cognition. Our flexibility to respond and develop in regards to our environment and nurturing stimuli, enables us to adapt and adjust to changes and be lifelong learners.

Before we developed large and crowded metropolises, we lived in communities among the trees, rocks and waterways, and many of us still do. Trees and mountains were the first skyscrapers, and they inspired civilization after civilization to develop cultural narratives about the world around them.

The Tree of Knowledge in Pearl City, Florida, is an example of the symbolic and pragmatic impact of nature and nurture within a longstanding community. The tree, a banyan, is the oldest living thing in Pearl City, a historic neighborhood in Boca Raton that was initially developed for working class Black laborers who worked at nearby farms.

Banyan trees are notable for their cluster of aerial prop roots, which are roots that exist above the ground and are able to spread out and anchor themselves wherever they touch the soil. The deep and widespread roots of the banyan tree could be seen as a metaphor for the rhizomatic learning processes that are integral within diverse communities like present day Pearl City.

Rhizomatic learning is a concept that was coined by philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, to describe the organic nature of cultivating knowledge in a fast paced and multifaceted world. From a rhizomatic learning perspective, knowledge is negotiated via socialization under the premise that pedagogical goals are constantly in flux (Cormier, 2008). Therefore, learning requires constant contact and communication among diverse individuals, with emphasis that there is no one expert in a given field and perspectives and methodologies are liable to change and evolve over time. This viewpoint is similar to the philosophy of constructivist education theorists like John Dewey (we learn through sensory and social experiences) and Paulo Freire (who advocated a discursive learning environment where students are encouraged to actively solve problems using prior knowledge to form new frames of mind and being).

maren hassinger at Pearl City (002)
Maren Hassinger alongside children from Pearl City, during a workshop for the Tree of Knowledge. Courtesy of the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

The rhizomatic learning process is indicative in Maren Hassinger’s monumental art installation Tree of Knowledge, which she created in dialogue with Pearl City and its oldest living resident of the name. The tree symbolizes a living link between Pearl City’s past and present. From the first residents to today’s population of citizens, Pearl City and its famous tree have been the catalyst for innovation, communal spirit and perseverance. The tree’s deeply implanted roots are expressive of generational social, emotional and experiential learning. Besides being an ideal place to get refuge from the sun, the tree has been a sanctuary for the community to rally around, tell their narratives and relay important cultural knowledge to one another. It has been a place where learning happens naturally and is not bound by one specific set of guidelines. This is where rhizomatic education is best practiced.

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Newspaper coils made in a collaboration with Maren Hassinger and the local community in Boca Raton. Courtesy of the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

Hassinger, who lives and works in New York, was moved by what she learned and experienced about the Tree of Knowledge and its role in facilitating intergenerational relationships. During community-based story-telling sessions, Hassinger worked with diverse groups of the public to roll newspapers that represent the aerial roots of the renowned banyan tree. The coiled newspapers were then hung from the ceiling of the Boca Raton Museum of Art, where they currently envelop the museum’s main gallery (on view through March 1st). The installation represents an additional outlet for generational confluence and communal learning. Community members of all ages had the opportunity to learn directly from Hassinger during workshops to create the newspaper roots. She scaffolded instruction and artistic processes to fit the participants’ developmental phases. For example, she realized that young children were having a hard time physically and conceptually realizing square knots, so the artist decided to utilize the more familiar and developmentally appropriate method of twisting the paper in a manner that alludes to vine-like structures (Uszerowicz, 2020).

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Installation view of Tree of Knowledge by Maren Hassinger. Courtesy of the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

The intertwining of materials, backgrounds and experiences during the creative process is indicative of Pearl City’s communal curriculum of rhizomatic and non-hierarchical learning. Through gathering around the Tree of Knowledge (both the actual tree and the symbolic representation), stories and ideas about labor, the environment and identity are transferred and expanded upon in a democratic form of negotiation. The maintenance of our environment is dependent upon moments of equitable and mutual making, learning and growing.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Cormier, Dave. “Rhizomatic Education : Community as Curriculum.” Dave’s Educational Blog, 3 Jun. 2008.

Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Félix (1993). A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Uszerowicz, Monica. “A Maren Hassinger Installation Blossoms From a “Tree of Knowledge” Rooted in a Majority Black Florida Town.” Hyperallergic, 17 Feb. 2020.


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