I call it my “Holiday Tree”, but photographer Mae Koo calls it a “Magic Tree”. When the fairy comes out to harvest the glowing orbs, I’m inclined to agree with Mae — it’s magic!
In November 2011, I created this installation by illuminating the ash tree in my front yard with glowing orbs. Each orb contains a 3-watt RGB LED light which can be set independently to any color I wish. The lights are connected to an Arduino microcontroller at the base of the tree. I program the little Arduino to make the lights fade, flicker, or ping based on the holiday, season, or month of the year.
UPDATE AUGUST, 2013: I took the system down during June-July in order to give the tree a trim, and to do maintenance on the system. It’s back in place with an addition to the system. I’ve included a Raspberry Pi computer so that I can add features over WI-FI. The Raspberry Pi has a date and clock on it, so I can make the behavior of the tree change over the course of the month, week, or night. Come walk down the street some evening to see what’s new!
I change the programming about every month. The idea evolved from Christmas lights in the tree, and expanded to include Halloween. The chore of putting up and taking down the lights became harder each year as the tree grew, and I also wanted to celebrate other holidays with the tree. For each nearing holiday, or to match the season, I choose a set of colors which animate in serene celebration. Fall colors, Spring colors, summer blossoms, winter ice. Each month is an opportunity to celebrate with a new set of colors and an new way to animate the lights.
The animation of the lights adds another dimension to the project. I usually have the colors fade slowly, but sometimes I have them pop between colors or flash like lightning. New Year’s Day and the Fourth of July almost demand frenetic sequences such as these! However, these lights turn on at dusk and remain on until after midnight, so I usually want them to change slowly, to flicker or pulse with the rhythm of the growing night as they sway in the cooling air that condenses off the nearby San Gabriel Mountains.
Setting the speed and character of the light animations takes me as long to do as it takes to choose the colors. Programming them in place on the tree in the dark, I’m inspired by the energy of the night, the sounds of the neighbors returning home, and the crickets, which are very loud here in the summer.
The lights are very pretty, but they are not spectacular. They are not meant to be. Unlike Christmas decorations, this is something to experience every evening. It’s something we take in small doses as we enter and exit our front door, or a neighbor does as he or she walks by the tree. Finding this tree where it is, rather than in a mall or amusement park is a large part of the experience. This is a permanent year-round installation in a residential neighborhood. I live with the lights, and my neighbors live with them, too. The lights are as much for my neighbors as they are for me. It’s a quiet neighborhood, but everybody seems to enjoy taking walks down the streets. When I’m working on the lights, it’s common for someone to call out a compliment about the tree as he or she walks by. Mae Koo is one such neighbor who was inspired to shoot these photos.
Initially, I installed 10 lights, but it started to look sparse as the Spring growth expanded the tree. In 2012, added more lights to make a total of 15 lights in the tree, and I’ve spent some more time adjusting their placement to make the lights and the tree comfortable.
The Raspberry Pi installed in the system has a clock, so I plan on changing the patterns based on the time of night, and on the calendar date, but I haven’t got to that yet. I do enjoy my programming sessions, as they give me an excuse to spend more time in the light of this magical tree. I like to sit and bask in its colorful glow after dark.
Next time you’re walking down my street in Altadena, I hope you take a moment to enjoy the magic tree!