|The Whale Hunt is worth a look. It’s a high-production slideshow (come on, that’s what it is) created by Jonathan Harris, who is a mere 10 days younger than me. He spent a week on the northern shore of Alaska, photographing a group of natives. Some of the photos are really great, others are just pictures–the conceit was that he took a photo ever five minutes. The whole thing is an impressive construction.|
In the introduction to his monumental book Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner writes, “Trees, because of their moisture requirements, are our physiological counterparts in the kingdom of plants.” Although the book is about water (specifically, moving water around), not trees, Reisner makes an important point: an area that can support trees can support humans, from a hydrologic standpoint. And so it stands to reason that trees, in some ways, have historically been our advance signal corps, communicating whether a region was friendly and sustainable.
Reisner later notes that on North America’s western plains, during Lewis and Clark’s journey, “There was game—at times a ludicrous abundance of it—but there were no trees. To an easterner, no trees meant no possibility of agriculture.” And without agriculture, how could people settle and survive? This is a valid question of viability, one that remains robust when discussing the persistence of civilizations. But not all of the civilizing ideas of the 1800s stood the test of time, such as the famous “rain follows the plow,” or the similar basis for the federal Timber Culture Act, which required people given land in the American West to, as Reisner describes, “plant one-quarter of your quarter section with trees, a stipulation inserted because it was thought that trees increased the rainfall.” Reisner mentions later in his book, “There was not a single tree growing in San Francisco when the first Spanish arrived; it was too dry and windblown for trees to take hold. Today, Golden Gate Park looks as if Virginia had mated with Borneo, thanks to water brought nearly two hundred miles by tunnel.” My adopted city is built on man-made structure and environmental artifice.
Throughout San Francisco are various non-native plants and trees, usually Mediterranean or East Asian or Australian in origin. Lands in the San Francisco Bay Area that are set aside for protection by the state or federal governments, places like the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes, are bursting with eucalyptus, the biggest, and possibly most attractive, most successful weed I’ve ever laid eyes on. (In fact, the eucalyptus, massive and almost invariably surrounded by bone dry leaf litter and lengths of shed bark, helps make Marin County a tinderbox every summer. In a sort of reprise of 1906, the plentiful eucalyptus combined with the high density Bay Area sprawl will make fire a major, if not the primary, regional cause of destruction following a significant earthquake.)
Despite my ecological inclinations against non-native species, it was with a mixture of horror and disappointment that I saw the tree in front of my house dismembered by city workers this morning. The tree (I’m not sure what it is—was—except that it was probably Australian, and possibly a water gum or silver dollar gum tree) was chopped to pieces, one limb at a time, and fed into a wood chipper. Its death seemed unnecessary; it was damaged in a storm last week, but seemed to be structurally sound. Since that night, I’d been repeating the hope that it wouldn’t be removed. As I arrived home last night, I saw signs taped to it and a neighboring tree warning people not to park next to them due to construction between 7.00 a.m. and 3.30 p.m.
I left for work, walked out the front gate through a haze of fine sawdust, picked my way over piles of leaves and clumps of dust that had accumulated like sand blown against the walls of my building. I meant to talk to the workers to see if they knew why this tree got the chop. But the men on the ground were were busily blowing leaves and sawdust around the street. They wore headphones over their ears to muffle the noise; and anyway, they seemed to veer away from me as soon as I stepped out and surveyed the scene, no doubt conditioned to avoid unhappy residents.
It’s difficult not to anthropomorphize when writing about a tree. After all, trees are our physiological counterparts in the plant world. It is no accident that I keep telling everyone that “my tree was dismembered this morning.” (It is technically the city’s tree.) And there is that persistent, romantic idea of trees as potentially sentient beings, sources of bounty and a sort of native wisdom gained from having been around so long, witness to history. To see this tree, probably 20 or 30 years old, cut down reminded me of an elm from my freshman year of college, on which some student had posted a sign noting its age (over a century) and that it would be chopped down to make way for a library expansion; as well as the Prometheus pine, the oldest single organism known (estimated to have lived for more than 5,000 years)—we only know it is so old because a graduate student chopped it down during the course of a research project. As we talked about today’s cutting, my roommate Pablo, also unhappy, jokingly asked over the buzz of the saw, “Do you think trees have feelings?” “I don’t know,” I absently replied as sections of its leafy limbs fell unceremoniously past the window like bodies that had jumped from the roof.
Besides whatever spiritual, emotional, or historical value people or cultures may assign to trees, they have very specific quantitative benefits. They clean the air, are attractive, provide shade and privacy and windbreaks, conserve soil, slow the runoff of storm water, act as shelter for animals, reduce violence (seriously), help municipalities save money, inspire shoppers to spend money, and increase property values. In San Francisco, I feel much more comfortable in neighborhoods with lots of trees compared to those with sparser vegetation. It would be smart if the city planted a good sized replacement tree as soon as possible.
I realize that the chopping of this tree may have been a necessity: the gash that existed where it’s its wind-torn limb once stood left it susceptible to disease and infestation. It’s possible that it might even split down the middle, starting at that point. And until last week, I never spoke too much about the tree. But I often noticed it—though I noticed its absence more. (The dining room was considerably brighter.) I don’t think I ever photographed it whole.
On the train to work, my music player randomly selected a piece of melancholy music by Jon Brion. Specifically, it played the song “Get What It’s About,” from the soundtrack to I (Heart) Huckabees. The last part of the song is an instrumental set piece, an orchestral interlude in the soundtrack whose sound evokes clouds ambling across the sky before it crescendos into a rainy, windy thunderstorm that settles down into a calmer rhythm punctuated by percussive tinks like individual drops of water glistening in the new sun on blades of grass. In the movie I (Heart) Huckabees, a character plants a tree in the sprawling parking lot of a big box store, and I rode the whole distance to work bothered by the loss of my tree. My train this morning was operated by a conductor whom I’ve ridden with before, a middle-aged man with a Mexican accent, a voice characterized by a sort of quacking timbre, and a Cantinflas mustache. He regularly talks to the riders over the intercom system. He says, “Remember, folks, Muni loves you. You may not love Muni, but Muni loves you.” Before I stepped off the train, he added, “Be safe. Don’t cry.”