When the first US land surveys were underway in the 1800s and land was being parceled up and distributed amongst settlers, the corners of each section and quarter section were marked either by a post erected on prairie land; or in woodland, by trees marked with a blaze or carving. These trees became known as witness trees, because they bore witness to the accuracy of surveyors’ maps.
The trees are the inspiration behind artist Jennifer Dixon’s sculptures in the centre of Seattle‘s Ballard neighbourhood. There are five sculptures in total, each one mounted atop an old cedar post.
The Fossil Tree is pretty self-explanatory, adorned with imprints of past marine life; but some of the other sculptures take a little figuring out.
The Clam Tree is a nod to Ballard’s fishing industry and is shaped like an upside down Coast Salish clam basket fashioned out of clam shells.
The most bizarre one, The Immigrant or Family Tree, takes its inspiration from the Nordic Yggdrasil, a tree of life, and is meant to represent a hybrid of physical and genealogical trees. The balls mimic topiary in the neighbourhood and the blue and white patterns reflect traditional Nordic folk costumes in a nod to Ballard’s Scandinavian heritage.
The First Tree sculpture, meant to represent ancient primordial forests that once covered this land, is also a clever homage to the Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen, who was an accomplished paper cutter. Often, he would clip away at a piece of paper while telling a story, and then finish with a flourish by unfolding the paper and producing an intricate cut out to his audience.
My favourite of the five sculptures is the New Growth tree, a happy flurry of fresh green leaves bursting from old wood. Perhaps it is a wish for the future prosperity of this great little neighbourhood.
The Witness Trees are located in Bergen Place; a tiny triangular park between Market Street, Leary Avenue and 22nd Avenue NW in Ballard. Check them out next time you’re in the area.