Celebrating Ups and Downs at Morris Arboretum: The Summer of Swings

Cling, swing, Spring, sing, Swing up into the apple tree. ~ T.S. Eliot

Visit Morris Arboretum, the University of Pennsylvania-owned preserve at Stenton and East Northwestern Avenues, and you’ll take in a verdant 92-acre vista of trees of all varieties. 

Ah … but do you really see them in all their glory?

The arboretum’s education director, Bryan Thompson-Nowak, suggests there might be much more to a tree than you might appreciate at a cursory glance, and he wants to remedy that by treating you to a new point of view—on a swing. Ten of them, in fact, suspended from many of those large trees. Most of the swings are strategically placed along the well-trodden visitor inner and outer loops, and you’ll find a few off the beaten path. 

And don’t worry about whether you think you’re too old to resurrect childhood memories. Many of those swings are designed to hold a typical adult. So, feel free to kick back … and forth. It’s the Summer of Swings.

The swings are evenly distributed throughout the arboretum.

“That’s intentional,” says Thompson-Nowak, “to try and get people in parts of the arboretum they normally don’t go to, to spread people out … to kind of tease people to go into some of the newer parts of the garden, or to do the whole loop.”

And don’t worry: No trees will be harmed. “We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure the trees are not injured in any way,” Thompson-Nowak says. “So, if you look up to where the ropes go around the tree limbs, they’re not drilled through them with big bolts. They’re not tied by a knot. There’s a block of wood between the ropes and the branches. The ropes aren’t rubbing on the branches at all. Those little blocks of wood are taking all the friction. We put a lot of effort into hanging the swings in a way that is as light on the tree limbs as possible.”

And the park’s arborists have chosen carefully, he adds. The limbs from which the swings are suspended are huge. They can handle 1,000 pounds.

Is it all in good fun? You bet, says Thompson-Nowak. But Morris being an educational facility, there will be plenty of opportunities to learn. “We have a lot of trees that people walk right past—massive, stately lindens, really big, old oak trees—and never look at,” he explains. “What better way to highlight these trees than by bringing people right into them under the canopy? So many people don’t look up into trees to really appreciate them, but you almost can’t help but do it when you’re on a swing.”

There will be signs next to each tree, explaining what it is. Even the seats of the swings present an opportunity for enlightenment. They’re fashioned from trees that have been pruned or fallen in storms, with the name of the tree from which they come carved into them.

And if you’re up for a cool science lesson, Thompson-Nowak says, try this on for size.

“Galileo was one of the first to explain the physical properties of a pendulum,” he says. “A swing is a pendulum. And it doesn’t matter how big the person is on the swing, an adult, or a kid, and it doesn’t matter how far back you start your swinging motion. The amount of time it takes to swing back and forth, one rotation, is not affected by weight or how far back you start the swing. The only thing that affects it is the length of the rope. The only time it will change is if you go to a different swing with a different length of rope. So, it’s pretty crazy, but it’s physics in action.”

Thompson-Nowak might not have been thinking through all the educational implications when he hatched the swing idea. He lives in Fishtown and bikes to work, so he has a lot of time to think. A part of his commute is through the Wissahickon. There are a few rope swings hanging from trees in that area—and no, they’re not supposed to be there—but, still, he realized how much people just love swings. He also worked at Bartram’s Garden, and there’s a swing there. Whether they’re aware of the physics or not—and they’re probably not—people are drawn to swings.

He introduced the idea to arboretum Director Bill Cullina, and it took off from there. “I said, ‘What do you think about putting in a swing for the summer?’,” Thompson-Nowak recalls. “He said that’s great—but why do one, if we can do 10?”

It’s a fair bet that those 10 swings (including a porch swing at the Swan Pond) will see a lot of action this summer. “I can’t wait for people to see it,” Thompson-Nowak says. “If you haven’t been on a swing in a while, it’ll bring a smile to your face.”