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.
Terrible Loss in Weishan
Readers of this blog will know that I have often traveled to the historic city of Weishan, in Yunnan, China. Origin place of the Nanzhao Empire that became the Dali Kingdom before Yunnan was incorporated into China, Weishan was an important site on the Tea-Horse Route and home to Weibaoshan, a mountain with two dozen Taoist and Buddhist temples. For more than 620 years, travelers and traders passed through the impressive North Gate, virtually the only surviving element of the original city wall. I have photographed it nearly every year since 2003, and it is one of two National landmarks in Weishan. Four times I brought students to visit. Continue Reading
Leading with Expertise
The Sun Temple in Weishan, last week.
In approaching the second decade of the Global Heritage Fund, I have spoken of “Leading With Expertise”. This means going into a heritage sites in a developing region not with a massive restoration plan but with the best minds in modern conservation. This allows you to determine the best plan from both a conservation and community point of view, by determining precisely what the problems are and how best to approach them. It means resources are used more wisely, and by bringing in the best conservation experts we can leverage more partners, spreading the cost burden across many international, national and local entitites. Continue Reading
Real Life Monuments Men and Women
So, the movie with all of your favorite male actors (George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, etc.) is finally coming out, kicked into 2014 and out of Oscar contention. It is the story of a World War II platoon dedicated to saving priceless cultural treasures from the Nazi scourge. I can’t wait to see it.
But then again, I see it everyday, because saving heritage is the job of the Global Heritage Fund, and we have men and women doing that throughout the developing world (although not in the midst of war, generally). Women as frequently as men, the various architects, archaeologists and anthropologists of Global Heritage Fund may not be risking life and limb, but there is a palpable sense of adventure and exoticism to what they do. Just check out my posts on Ciudad Perdida, Colombia, Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia and Guizhou, China.
At GHF we may not be on the front lines of a war, but we are on the leading edge of heritage conservation in several ways. First, we often seek out sites that are newly accessible: Ciudad Perdida emerged from the paramilitary jungle within the last decade, which is when the landmines were cleared from sites like Banteay Chhmar. Roads have just reached the once-remote minority villages of Guizhou province, China and access to the Mayan sites of the Peten in Guatemala, such as El Mirador, is still by helicopter or lengthy jungle trek. Continue Reading
Cultural Landscapes: The Confluence of Conservations
we could all use some of this
That blog also delved into the 41-year history of World Heritage, which includes both cultural, natural and “mixed” sites. I detailed how we had shifted in heritage conservation from iconic and monumental singular sites to broader cultural landscapes. In recent discussions with conservation foundations, I am sensing a new confluence of heritage conservation and natural conservation as both approaches are moving into the arena of cultural landscapes. Continue Reading
Modern and Ancient, my Whirled in Views
As the Executive Director of the Global Heritage Fund I deal with many ancient sites, including one of the most ancient, the religious complex being excavated by the Deutsche Archaeologische Institut at Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, where stone columns carved with animals form intriguing ringed structures that predate Stonehenge by 6,000 years. This is not only ancient, it is more ancient than almost any other site people are preserving. I am honored to be involved in this.
But as a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Board Member of Landmarks Illinois, I am dealing with lots of modern artifacts, including the justifiably famous Prentice Women’s Hospital, a 1975 landmark that marked the first deployment of computer-aided design and crafted concrete cantilevers known for their beauty as well as their ability to hold a 45-foot projection. Bertrand Goldberg – whom I met – designed the building in his famous ‘flower petal’ mode and I have blogged about it many times before. Here. And here. And here. And way back here over two years ago. Which just goes to show you that preservationists are not always slow on the draw. We had the drop on the bumbling owner (Northwestern University) by, like EIGHT YEARS. Their clout might well prevail, but they definitely showed up late and unprepared.
The denouement, a court-ordered second hearing on landmark status and denial, will be held today, February 7, 2013. Continue Reading
Reuse and the Cultural Landscape
It has been almost three weeks since I blogged and since I officially became Executive Director of the Global Heritage Fund (GHF), which is NOT an excuse not to blog. But I have been busy. We are developing our slate of projects for the year.
The mission of the Global Heritage Fund is to help protect heritage sites in the developing world through community development. This was the vision of Founder Jeff Morgan, who also crafted our Preservation by Design® strategy: equal parts Conservation, Planning, Community Development and Partnerships. He understood “preservation” as a community development strategy, and that attracted me to GHF. Continue Reading
Heritage Communities: Guizhou, China
In small straw huts set along the river, men reach into cold pulpy water with large mesh racks, deftly picking up a thin sheet of pulp which they transfer to a stack of sheets. They are making paper in Heshui village, as they have for over 600 years. Continue Reading
Context and Culture
and I only have the one…
Context is everything in heritage conservation. As any of my former students could tell you, it is the key to determining the significance of a site. Context includes issues like rarity, authenticity, historical impact, artistic value, etc. If I have hundreds of walled cities in China – as once existed, only those that were exceptionally intact or beautiful or impactful would be considered significant. If, however, I have only one walled city surviving, its significance immediately becomes global.
Context is also important in terms of culture. There is a Belgian village in Japan which is sort of like a cultural amusement park, but we can successfully argue that it does not have authenticity because, well, it ain’t Belgium. Any cultural significance it has is related to the how and why of creating it and visiting it. Yes, Disneyland has significance, but that significance – THE CONTEXT – is America in the 1950s and not how pirates lived in the Caribbean. Continue Reading
Selling Out or Keeping It Real?
An article in the Washington Post yesterday described the economic challenges facing great European landmarks and how many are turning to corporate sponsorships and licensing deals to help defray the costs of maintaining ancient buildings. This practice in turn has caused criticism from those who feel it is wrong to “sell” your collective heritage. Continue Reading