The other night at the Beethoven Männerchor Halle und Garten the choir came out to read a poem in German and English and sing briefly to a tree. The large pecan tree will be cut down on Friday because it is cracked and a hazard. Meanwhile, a major project for Brackenridge Park was heard by the Historic and Design Review Commission following a couple of years of protests to “Stop the Chop” of older trees in the park. While the number of trees to be cut down has been halved since the protest began, the protestors remain at full strength and more than two dozen crammed the hearing room.
Why do trees have this power over people? They lie at the center of most religious traditions, not just the Germanic ones. There are sacred trees throughout Asia and Africa. Trees are oracles, places to expiate illness or sin, gods and goddesses and even human souls. You would find a similar spoken homage to the tree about to be cut along the Irrawaddy River as we saw last night along the San Antonio River. And one protestor at the hearing interrupted with “they are sacred,” voicing a human perception that dates back tens of thousands of years.
Not technically a tree but a centuries-old camelia flower, Weiboashan, Yunnan, China.
No wonder it has always been easier to landmark trees than buildings, such as I often experienced in China, where trees were tagged red and green for how old they were and more zealously preserved than any building. Same in the U.S. where real estate developers are only happy to tell you they will save trees on the site but the buildings have to go.
I am also reminded of the pisog trees of Ireland, where ribbons, articles of clothing, glasses or other objects are tied to a tree as a prayer for healing. This is also found in many other cultures, for examples Arab folklore and Greek mythology.
So is it the religious associations, the idea of a world tree, or the idea of human transference into and out of trees that causes this level of worship and attachment? Perhaps it is simply the basic environmental impulse, the mythology of the Avatar movies. Trees symbolize our entire environment, tended by avatars of our better selves, wrapped in a harmony myth.
Naiju tree gods, Ise, Japan, 2004.
Trees were symbolic to ancient Egyptians and African farmers. They are pretty darn near universal, on par with kittens and puppies. Like kittens and puppies, they symbolize “nature” but are generally farmed and thus a part of human culture. In parks especially the vast majority of trees were planted. The goal of great landscape designers was to make these places feel that they were natural even though they were designed. Parks are designed just like a Shinto temple or the Parthenon, but we tend to categorize them as “nature” because they are alive. And of course, trees breed new trees which are unplanned – like the ones now subject to removal in Brackenridge Park. Volunteers, they are called.
Framed. Farmed. Symbolic.
Frederick Law Olmsted designed the landscape above in great detail. He curated our experience and manipulated our views. Brackenridge Park was similarly designed, and the pecan tree at the Beethoven was curated and planted in the early 20th century. Yet unlike other human designs, these living things embody a mythology and passion that buildings do not.
Mural at Weibaoshan, Yunnan “Dancing under the Pine Trees”
There are of course natural areas, some great forests where the trees aren’t farmed. Occasionally burned, yes. And yes, the indigenous like the Ohlone would burn other species to focus on the oak.
Note how the forest burned here in modern times is described: “fuels had been building up for 117 years”. That is because normally (whatever that means) fires occurred every 8-10 years. Tree lovers tap into a long human tradition of tree worship, but there is an equally long human tradition of tree farming. The advocacy arguments are made in moral terms, but the moral realities are ambiguous. We have a preference for human-designed species, like dogs and cats, and we have made similar selections of our arboreal friends.
No one designs trees like the Japanese.
What I used to call “weed trees” up North are called “trash trees” here, but in either appellation the hate is great and the implication is that we humans did not design these trees into our environment. They were, as we say, “volunteers.” The lack architectural or historical value. We tend to curate our trees as we curate our cats and dogs.
I guess the Chinese crested is considered uglier than the Mexican hairless. This one is Peruvian.
Kittens, puppies, trees. In Brackenridge Park they have signs warning against the dumping of animals. They also have had a massive feral cat problem slowly being solved by humane spaying. Feral. That’s what you call your designed creatures when they escape the farm.
Christmas Tree farm, Los Gatos, California, ten years ago.
But why the zero-tolerance policy? That’s what I don’t get. Not a single speaker who protested last night admitted to the need to remove even one tree. Maybe that would violate the moral imperative. All or nothing. Asceticism. Not my vibe – heck I compromise on historic buildings all the time.
They were concerned about moving a large old live oak. I was not concerned about moving this 1880 limestone house across the street and rotating it 90 degrees. I’m crap at asceticism.
I sang the revised lyrics of Der Lindebaum to our Beethoven tree the other night and I will happily sing it to those park trees that are being removed because they are breaking down walls and threatening historic buildings. I can’t make more historic buildings.
Oldest industrial building in San Antonio. Note the volunteer trees, which are younger than me.
My students always chided me for handing out thick reams of readings and assignments, telling me I was “killing trees”. The implication was that I should do things digitally and save trees. My response? “I can plant more trees. I can’t plant the coal, uranium and lithium powering your digital device.” *
We planted all of these trees. You wait 20 years and there they are. I remember when the river birch on the right was in the back seat of the car.
Man kann den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht sehen
- – I guess the proponents would imbue each tree with its own identity and personality, be it volunteer, trash, designed, or sculpted. They might say we can always build more houses, and just to add a layer of overlapping irony, I would respond that the new houses won’t be made of old growth wood, which is straighter, denser, and more disease-resistant than any modern farmed wood. So, there is that.