A Cakewalk of a Treewalk I
Bill Long 9/13/08
In Palo Alto's Crescent Park Neighborhood
The sun struggled to break through the morning haze as about 25 people of all ages gathered for the monthly "tree walk" sponsored by Canopy.org, a Palo Alto (CA)-based organization committed to preserving and educating about the value of trees to our community. Each tour has a visiting arborist as guide, and he is treated as a cross between a revered professor, dispensing precious morsels of rare knowledge, and a service professional you might consult for problems with your sycamores. The language of arborists is fascinating, and Jess, our guide, introduced us to basal sructures and canopies and cambia and pollards and galls, various pathogens, treatment modalities and the "architecture" of a deodar cedar. Trees are a lot like people, and we learned about those that send down deep roots and shallow roots (though Palo Alto trees, because of the soil, are generally shallow-rooted trees); some are much more "communal" than others (like the European birch) because they share nourishment from each other; some are quite finicky and take root only with difficulty, though then become quite pliable and manageable (like the Eastern Redbud). Some even flourish in areas currently at war with each other (such as the European Olive--in the USA, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan) so that perhaps the tree can "teach" us how to live with each other.
The purpose of these two essays is to take us along the tree walk, identifying a few trees as we go, but especially pointing out the culture and "world" of trees. I would venture to say that Palo Alto, known as among the most progressive small cities in America, will set the tone for the future in trees. Within a decade tree walks will happen in hundreds of US communities. Arborists will be our new rock stars. Donations to "preserve the trees" or "plant trees" will skyrocket. If Jesus said "By their fruit you shall know them," and meant it to refer to people, within a decade we will be saying "by their leaves you shall know them," and be referring to a new craze to identify and learn all about trees. You heard it here first...
Getting Started on the Walk
We came from hither and yon for the tree walk. Young and old couples, single adults, those from Mountain View and Palo Alto, and I, visiting from Salem, OR were there. Some, more than you might imagine, came with notebook in hand. Though a few people were looking for "advice" on how to handle trees (sort of like going to a cocktail party for doctors and limping up to the orthopedist and asking questions, I suppose) but most seemed to want to learn about trees and how to welcome and protect these majestic presences in our lives. Trees are probably the largest animate things we fly by, heedless, each day. In that regard I think that people went on the tree walk for more than one reason. There is, of course, the desire to get some knowledge/professional advice "for free." But, even more, I think I had a sense that these 20 adults are the tip of a large cultural iceberg which is feeling the need for taking some time to stop, look around, learn about and embrace the world in which we live. Those who take tree walks symbolize to me the desire to see life differently from the way we have been taught to see ourselves and the world--as people who are largely economic units who should learn about the things "we need" in order to keep being successful economic units. Tree walks symbolize to me the gradual entry of different modes of learning, and of new possibilities, into the consciousness of many people. I hope more people catch the vision. I believe they will.
Looking at/Learning from the Trees
There were 25 trees in the brochure we were given, but three of them were no longer there. Of the 22 remaining trees, two had two exemplars; thus there were 20 different species of trees in these 22. Yet, because Jess was complaisant, he took the time to point out at least 10 or so other species of trees along the way. Thus, it was a sort of educational feast for those of us committed to building our knowledge of the world gradually.
Not each tree requires comment, but let's massage several things that we learned. We began with an Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica) near the corner of University and Lincoln. Here is a picture of the short-leaved branch, with roundish yellow or brown cones. The next were a pair of Red Oaks (Quercus rubra), which are normally distinguished from other oaks by the reddish color between stem and leaves and the sharply pointed lobes (sometimes 7 or 9) of the leaves. Here is an exemplar of their leaves.
Soon we came upon a Deodar Cedar (Cedrus deodara), which differs from the Atlas in that it is more "horizontally" oriented, is greener (while the Atlas is more "silver") and has huge green cones. The accepted wisdom used to be that the right way to manage these cedars would be to "thin out" the wide-spreading horizontal branches so that you could "open up the tree and let the wind blow through it." But that isn't the advice anymore (it weakens the limbs), though most of the Deodar Cedars you still see are "thinned." This illustrates a point that should give us pause. Not only in dendrology (why isn't there a word "arbology"?) do the prevailing fashions change, but they do so in nearly every field. As a matter of fact, we belive that much of what we did then in many fields is either imprecise, undeveloped or just plain wrong. It makes you wonder what we will learn in the next 30 years which will make our current knowledge obsolete. By taking a tour like this and learning about the development of a field (as well as the trees themselves) you learn to see the tentativeness and provisional nature of human knowledge. But yet we live. And we pay professionals to give us advice about how to spend our money--advice which probably will change dramatically in the future.
Let's continue the tour, here.