Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s S(tree)twork project worked with international artists, local musicians, and community organizers to create the urban reforestation symbol and transmitter
According to legend, lightning struck down on Morton Street in Germantown some time ago. Inspired by the broken tree trunks and branches around them and Sun Ra’s direction to make a drum, former drummer for Sun Ra, James Jacson, built a drum from the fallen trees and carved an Egyptian Book of the Dead symbol on it. Sun Ra named it the Ancient Infinity Lightning Drum.
Fast forward to the fall of 2023, the Lightning House, a semi-permanent structure built from recycled trees, has opened to the public. The structure is in a wooded spot beside the Awbury Arboretum Agricultural Village.
It’s the culmination of work from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) and the S(tree)twork project. This multi-year project brings art and culture programming, education, and community organizing around trees, tree planting, and the Philly Tree Plan.
The Philly Tree Plan is a ten-year strategic plan to grow, protect, and care for Philadelphia’s tree canopy. The comprehensive plan involves the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department, the Philadelphia Water and Commerce Department, PHS, other city and state agencies, local and national non-profits, and funders with a goal of urban forestation, especially in Philadelphia’s lowest tree canopy neighborhoods.
“It’s a beautiful story,” said Karen Smith, one of the drummers in the S(tree)twork project and a current Pew Fellow. “I think it’s like a folktale. I think we don’t get to see folktales open in front of our eyes. Like they actually become more than just a folktale; it’s reality.”
She continued: “I love the fact that I am part of this story moment, and it turned into this beautiful reality, a paradise. It’s something for everybody and very community-friendly. It’s very magical to me.”
The S(tree)twork project is as collaborative as the Philly Tree Plan it is a part of- partnering with local musicians like Smith, Rich Robinson, and other drummers to create musical programming, instruments from trees, and other art activities, all while connecting to the importance of tree canopy growth and tree education in Philadelphia.
According to the S(tree)twork website, a “126-year-old hemlock that had fallen in the Arboretum serves as the central support beam for the Lighting House as well as benches,” and it serves as a “collective woodworking, performance, and gathering space.” Founder of Futurefarmers and lead artist Amy Franceschini says the space “serves as a receptor and a receiver and transmitter.”
Awbury has become a spot for Futurefarmers, with lead architect Lode Vranken and artist Nobuto Suga creating what became the Lightning House. Marina McDougall curated the project. Their interdisciplinary team worked with S(tree)twork’s community organizer Kiersten Adams to build on the Afrofuturistic story and community connections that local musician Sun Ra and his band started.
“There’s a deep history of Black folks in Philadelphia connecting to their ancestral roots through drumming,” said Adams. “How do we talk about the future? How do we talk about the past and the present from a Black cultural lens? And drumming was such a natural connection.”
Adams notes that the way S(tree)twork connects tree education and tree planting and drumming in Black and brown neighborhoods in the city is inherently Afrofuturistic, that they’re planting the future forests for the next generation.
“The drums are alive. The drums that you saw, they’re still alive,” said Adams, about the instruments made from the fallen trees in Awbury Arboretum and being housed in the Lightning House. “They’re not going to finish drying for at least four to six years. There’s still so much life in them, and there’s something really beautiful about the fact that we’re taking something that was once alive, and we can continue to bring life to it and to different communities.”
“Projects like S(tree)twork help disrupt inequity in our systems by connecting with neighbors where they are, rooting work in creativity, and local stories and culture,” said State Senator Nikil Saval, who stopped by the Lightning House in Germantown, outside of his own district, to talk about the importance of urban tree reforestation in regards to climate change, and to promote overall well-being in communities.
Kiasha Huling, who works with the steering committee for the PHS Tree Tenders program, also noted the creative ways that S(t)reetwork incorporated art-making and drums into their tree planting in neighborhoods. She notes that community members would already bring speakers and tools for kids during tree planting, but the project took it even further.
“It was the right tone of community and celebration. It encouraged some inquiry and some whimsy around the trees. What kind of wood is that? How does the drum make that sound? How do you create sounds using hollowed-out tree trunks?”
Community organizing and drumming were on full display at the opening of the space. Folks from many different parts of Awbury’s programming came out on the beautiful fall day to see the house come alive in the sun.
“In partnership with Awbury, PHS is committed to ensuring the S(tree)twork legacy and the Lightning House become a hub to celebrate trees and inspire new leaders to plant trees, especially in the lowest canopy neighborhoods where the benefits of trees have multiple impacts,” said Matt Rader, PHS’ president.
To learn more about the Lightning House space and upcoming programming with S(tree)twork and the Awbury Arboretum, you can go to www.streetworkproject.net or contact them at email@example.com.