One of the great things about living Phoenix, AZ is the abundance of beautiful and “meaningful” public art. While there are many great examples of this throughout the valley, one of my favorite, and often most overlooked pieces is the “Tree of Life” which marks the northern boundary of Papago Park. Like all stone monuments, it sits silently in its purpose, unaware that it celebrates the deeper principles of its builder’s ideals while fusing together their hopes to the land itself.
Constructed only yards from a major city intersection and obscured by Palo Verde and Mesquite, the Tree of Life sits mostly concealed except for its stacked rock columns which protrude above the treeline. Maybe you’ve noticed these rock pillars at the intersection of 64th street and McDowell yourself. Six of them stand on the southwest corner while a lone pillar rests on the east side of 64th street, tying the intersection into its purpose. I first noticed them years ago but thought they were simply a Phoenix Preserve marker and never gave them a second thought. I’d even asked people about them and no one seemed to know. Imagine my surprise when I discovered they were an integral part of a much larger project hidden amongst the desert foliage whose very existence is its purpose. The Tree of Life is much more than a public land art piece. It is a city boundary marker, Monsoon flood water harvester, ancient Hohokam designed reclamation garden, and solstice observation marker. Dang, How cool is this? Phoneticians never cease to amaze me.
The site consists of seven 16 foot high vertical markers sited around a 240-foot wall with seven branches radiating from its center forming the “tree of life” form. The entire project is made from stacked and mortared field stones in a style which is similar to the parks historical WPA ramadas. The City of Phoenix’s parks web page states that the “the markers serve as an axis for directing viewers to municipal, historical, and natural sites across the valley—they also align with the summer solstice, the longest farming day of the year.”
From Judypinto.com – “Stone markers, dry-stacked fieldstone terraces, plant materials. A symbolic and functional construct of alignment and regeneration. Located at the northern entrance of Papago Park. It brings into alignment the cities of Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe, the Casa Grande ruins and Squaw Peak. The axis is the point from which a plant form originates whose seven branches become desert farming terraces. Seven stone markers of varying heights indicate the axial alignments. Central to the project is the fact that the park had a dying ecology. The design calls attention to and celebrates the basic life forces of the desert and its timeless methods of survival.”
The Tree of Life is a self-sustaining reclamation land art piece, created by New York artist Judy Pinto, with landscape architecture by Steve Martino. It is constructed of stone walls, arranged in the shape of a tree (however it looks more like an agave bloom to me.) Its “branches” are designed to capture Monsoon storm runoff flowing from the hills above and direct it via the trunk into terraced gardens where native plant species can flourish. Pinto’s goal was to “sculpt with the environment” and restore Papago Park to its previous condition when it had earned the title of Papago Saguaro National Monument. A designation which was revoked April 7th, 1930 after the rapid decline of the immediate area’s ecological systems. It is believed that the park’s high usage by local Phoenix residents significantly impacted the fragile desert ecology creating a scenario in which the nurse plants necessary for the life cycle of the Saguaro cactus were all but wiped out. The eradication of the local desert fox caused a swell in the rabbit population which in turn consumed all the Bursage – Bursage being the primary nurse plant in the area and necessary to the life cycle of the Saguaro Cactus. This, in turn, prevented all Saguaro cacti from successfully germinating and surviving in subsequent years. It was Judy’s vision that the Tree of Life project would be the first step in the reclamation of the entire park which would lead to the restoration of the area as a whole.
Now you know me. I get excited when I hear words like stone markers and axial alignments and just have to wonder what is being aligned and why? Although there are some basic numerological consistencies within the project (those consistencies being the number 7) I could find no overarching esoteric coding or meaning.
- 7 branches of the tree
- 7 pillars which align with the summer solstice sun
- 16-foot tall pillars. The root numerical sum 1+6 being 7.
I’m not going to dive into the number 7 here. Suffice to say it is a widely recognized as the number of God and represents all that is good and lucky, both in the Bible and western culture. Whether or not this held significant meaning for the architects I can’t say, but its use defiantly appears to be purposeful.
There is also the matter of twin pillars, and whereas this is used extensively in Masonic practice, it doesn’t seem to be an overarching anchor to the project. There are indeed two pillars side by side but they apparently mark the root of the “Tree” and form an axis point for the solstice marker. I could be wrong but I just don’t think this is Masonic symbolism.
One thing I did notice (and I just have to add it in before someone emails me about it) is the owl face baseball diamonds just north of the site. This too seems a coincidence and I’m not ready to dive into this one, but the entire project is pointing directly at it. Owls, as we all know, are a major symbol of the Illuminati, Freemasons, and their ilk. The fact is, one can find these owl faced baseball diamonds all across the valley and I think this may very well be a coincidence.
Another correlation which came to mind, and one that I’d never realized until writing this article; is the project’s similarity to the Intaglios of western and southern Arizona. “Intaglio” is the name given to huge “geoglyphs” or “earth writings” on the desert floor found mostly near Blythe and Yuma Arizona. There are others as well but the archaeologists keep their location mostly hidden, and for good reason too. These Intaglios were first discovered during WW1 when pilots flew over the deserts during military exercises. When scientists asked the local tribes about them, they replied that they didn’t make them and that they had always been there.
There are also the Nazca Lines of Peru. These geoglyphs need no explanation as they have been widely documented for decades now. It seems that desert dwellers have always had a propensity to construct massive works of art that could only be appreciated from high above. Hmmmmm……
Like the Intaglios and Nazca Lines, the Tree of Life cannot be fully appreciated until viewed from the air. Hooray for Google Earth. While the purpose of these ancient geoglyphs remains a mystery their enduring existence is a testament to the unchanging ways of our deserts and perhaps it’s inhabitants.
After doing some more digging I am convinced the Tree of Life is simply a community art project initiated by the Phoenix Arts Commission and the Scottsdale Cultural Council. Funding was provided by the City of Phoenix Parks Department, the Street Transportation Department for Art Funds, and Artscape (the City of Scottsdale art public art program.) The entire project was overseen by the Phoenix Arts Commission. In short, I found no apparent diabolical grand plan here, no masonic pyramids, and no hidden hands staking out territory and resources. It appears to simply be a community project. How refreshing……
Like the Solari Bridge in Scottsdale, this public art piece is multidimensional. Embodying both ancient and modern aspects the Tree of Life is a collaborative effort harvesting community insight and ability. It is a solar marker celebrating the cycles of our world as well as our place in time upon it. Furthermore, it seamlessly unites the ancient engineering techniques of the early inhabitants of the Valley of the Sun with modern day Phoenix (the city which rose from their ashes.) This public art piece honors their ingenuity, creativity, and determination by incorporating ingeniously simple techniques which maximized their desert resources and allowed them to thrive here in the Sonoran Desert.
Like these early peoples, we too face many of the same challenges, only on a larger scale and within new parameters of our technological capability. But in the end, we still have to carve out an existence from the same sands as they did, collect water which flows from the same mountains and guide it to our fields and homes using (canals). We still engage in trade with other regions and bring goods into our city along trade routes laid directly atop theirs. Although much has changed in the past 1500 years, much has stayed the same; and the Tree of Life brings this fact to our awareness.
I’m happy to say that this project adds an organic depth to our valley which I for one truly appreciate. It’s nice to see projects like this coming to fruition and I hope to see more of them in the future.
I encourage everyone to get out there and visit this unique Phoenix gem for yourselves. I personally intend on being there June 20th to witness the alignment of the rising of the summer solstice sun, and perhaps again in August, during a heavy monsoon downpour to get a first-hand look at it in action. I can’t wait.
How to get there
This little gem can only be truly appreciated by getting up close and exploring it for yourself. The good news is you’ll have to get out of your vehicle and do some hiking to get to it. Parking anywhere near the corner of 64th st and McDowell is virtually non existent so you’ll have to either park at the Papago Park trailhead parking lot just across the street from the Phoenix Zoo entrance and hike south to the site along any of the trails from there, or park along the south side of McDowell Rd. right in the pass of the mountains to the west. From there one can trek a short distance east along the obvious trails to the Tree of Life.