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the unofficial city tree map

Megan Betz

 A screenshot of the community-assembled map of fruit foraging opportunities in Bloomington

A screenshot of the community-assembled map of fruit foraging opportunities in Bloomington

I was new to the "food scene" of Bloomington when I first heard about the map. I'd come to town for graduate school, was getting really settled into the idea of food studies as a focus, and was trying to get to know the food & landscape around me.  

I was telling a friend about an assignment I'd been given in my creative writing class: go out onto campus, find the serviceberry bushes, & eat some serviceberries. I'd failed. I settled for having a check-in with the one edible I knew on campus: a large persimmon tree growing just inside the well-known Sample Gates. When I related the story to a friend, a fellow volunteer at the Bloomington Community Orchard (BCO), they mentioned that a group of foragers had created a Google map noting all the serviceberry bushes in town, along with other edibles, so that people could navigate the city's fruit.

This map became mythic for me. I checked in with fellow BCO folks, the ones I knew could gather enough sour cherries from around town to make a pie, the ones who could point out what to grab as a snack on a walk between locations for meetings. No one had seen the map. At first, I thought that maybe my friend had misremembered--that there had been the idea to create the map, but it had never come together. 

Then I started to think the foragers I knew were lying to me. That, like the sites closely guarded for annual morel hunting, I was being excluded from a resource. I trust my friends. So, I kept pushing the thought from my mind. Maybe they were also being excluded, I reminded myself. But if so, who was holding ownership of this knowledge, and if the trees were on public land (or land that had been opened to gleaners and foragers), what gave them the right?

After a while, I forgot about the map. I moved onto my PhD studies, had a baby, & settled into my fieldwork. Then, the map came back--in two interviews I was conducting with people who had volunteered with BCO, as part of my dissertation research.

While interviewing a professor who had worked with BCO in their early days, helping them get approval from the City to begin planting, we were discussing his relationship to the BCO and his work on city trees. As an urban forester, he'd done work with the City to map their street trees. In the process, he'd also heard about the Google map & was intrigued by it. How would this collection of trees compare to what the City was counting, and what could the two together tell us?

While I can't comment on the reasons the professor was ultimately unable to access the map, I can say the overall impression we shared from our time trying to access it was that the resource was closely guarded--that use was being monitored by way of limited visibility, & in the case of this professor, there may have been a desire to keep distance from power or governance.

Then, just a few weeks later during another interview, I spoke with a woman heavily involved in Bloomington's food justice and local food work. She mentioned her passion for foraging, and that it something a local food pantry had incorporated into conversation with customers to try to further contribute to food security. I was fascinated to learn that they were freely giving out the link to the foraging map to anyone who expressed interest.

This democratic, justice-oriented use of them map made my jaw drop with excitement--and I wasted no time in asking if she would be willing to share the link with me.

To date, I have no idea how the map came about or who monitors it. I don't yet have an understanding of the trees' composition, but I'm eager to dive in--eager to learn more about what's growing, but also more about how boundaries between public & private property are being blurred (both in what is mapped & in who is granted access to, then acts on, what the map contains). It's like I've stumbled into an alternate field site in my own community, & the possibilities seem endless.

I look forward to sharing more--including reflecting on how I come to feel about sharing the map. Notice, I've shared a screenshot but no usable information here, & I don't yet feel I have any right to distribute the information. Will I feel differently after I use the map to track down some fruit this summer? Or will I even make it that far? Will my concern about being seen publicly "stealing" or taking fruit from land I don't manage prevent me from going to any of those little pin drops?