PLEASE SAVE THE TREES

Beijing, 17 December 2012

I’m a sucker for a fine tree, as any reader of these postings will know. So it was with increasing depression that I read an article recently in Science Daily (www.sciencedaily.com) which said that large old trees – trees that are centuries old – are dying at alarming rates. The die-off seems to be happening in all types of forests worldwide and to be caused by many things: land clearance, changes in agricultural practices and in fire regimes, logging and timber gathering, insect attack, climate change, and I don’t know what else.

I suppose I should recite the critical ecological roles which large old trees play. For instance, they provide nesting or shelter for up to 30 percent of all birds and animals in some ecosystems. They store huge amounts of carbon. They recycle soil nutrients. They create rich patches for other life to thrive in. They influence local flows of water and the local climate. They supply lots of food for many animals with their fruits, their flowers, their leaves, their nectar. In agricultural landscapes, they can be focal points for restoration of vegetation. They help connect the landscape by acting as stepping stones for many animals that disperse seeds and pollen.

So large old trees are very useful. But ultimately they are beautiful.

baobab_tree

C

elm tree

oak tree

plane tree

Angkor-wat-Tree

I’ve said it before, but my life has been punctuated by a number of beautiful large old trees. Let me tell you about one of them. My maternal grandmother had a sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, standing in magnificent splendour in the corner of her garden. There must have been a fad for planting sequoias in the late 19th century in this part of France because a number of older properties in the surroundings had sequoias – you could see them towering over garden walls as you drove by. I loved that sequoia. My cousins and I used to spend all our summers in that tree, or so it seems to me as I gaze back through the golden haze of more than four decades of memories. Our grandmother tried to stop us climbing it by sawing off the lower branches. But we just cut steps into the soft bark and climbed. And climbed. All the way to the top, where we would sit, talk, and look out over the pastures, woods and vineyards that surrounded us as the breeze rustled through the branches and the tree swayed slightly. We were lords of all that we surveyed.

I don’t have a photo of my grandmother’s sequoia, but here is a photo of another sequoia in a French garden somewhere. It gives you a great idea of what awaited us in the far corner of my grandmother’s garden.

sequioa-in-france

That tree seemed so huge to us, but nearly two decades ago, when the children were young, we took our summer holiday in California and visited Sequoia National Park. My God, what truly magnificent trees those were! My sequoia was a laughable midget compared to these giants. But I couldn’t climb these trees.

giant-sequoia-tree-pv

My wife has just old me that she never climbed trees when she was young. And I don’t remember our children every really climbing trees – we have become so conscious of dangers for children in the intervening decades (it is true that my younger brother and cousin fell out of a tree when a branch broke; my cousin cushioned my brother’s fall but fractured his collar bone in the process). But I think my family missed something. There is something magic about being up in a tree. Suddenly you are back to being a four-limbed creature as you have to use your arms as much as your legs. The world concentrates down to just a few branches. And the noise levels change; there is a quietness in a tree which you do not have on the ground, but also you hear noises you don’t hear so much on the ground, like the rustling of leaves. And your lines of sight change; suddenly you are a giant able to see much further around you than you normally can. And if the tree is a fruit tree, ahh … you can sit on a branch, pluck the fruit around you, and munch on them in quiet contentedness.

My memories of trees are nearly all from rural areas, although I do have some memories of beautiful trees from city parks – one of the earlier postings testifies to this. So many of us live in cities now and I’m worried we are getting cut off from trees – and this can only get worse as more and more of us live in cities. Cities and trees do not seem to mix well. As I look around Beijing streets, for instance, I do not see many great trees. The majority of the specimens look malingering. And yet … My wife and I visited Singapore recently. For her, it was the first time. For me, it was the first time in fifteen years. And the city struck me the way it had always struck me: it is so green. Not grass green, although there is certainly a lot of that. No, tree green.

01-rain-tree-06

There’s a huge number of trees in Singapore – and not small trees, either, but big, mature trees. The city always gives me the impression of the planners having carefully inserted the buildings between and around the trees which already grew there. Of course, it’s silly; it was obviously the other way round. I mean, the trees grow along the sides of straight roads … And the older parts of the city, like Little India and Chinatown, show the bare and treeless Singapore of the past, the kind of city we’re used to seeing elsewhere. But still, the impression is of a city inserted into a forest. According to National Parks Singapore there are something like 2 million trees planted in the city-state, which works out to be about one tree for every two and half people. I don’t know of any other city with such a high tree-to-citizen ratio.

So it is possible to live in close harmony with great trees. We must do it, because I think we lose part of our humanity if we don’t live near trees, if we cannot have this view every day of our lives.

01-rain-tree-04

_______________
Baobab tree: http://www.louisianagardenclubs.org/live_oak_society/photos_files/AngelOak.jpg
Copper beech tree: http://www.visualphotos.com/photo/2×4003896/copper_beech_tree_1811714.jpg
Elm tree: http://i.istockimg.com/file_thumbview_approve/1678381/2/stock-photo-1678381-elm-trees.jpg
Oak tree: http://www.louisianagardenclubs.org/live_oak_society/photos_files/AngelOak.jpg
Plane tree: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/14963960.jpg
Angkor wat tree: http://www.davestravelcorner.com/photos/cambodia/Angkor-Crooked-Tree.jpg
Sequoia in France: http://ts2.cn.mm.bing.net/th?id=H.4582357281933013&pid=1.9
Giant sequoia: http://www.nunukphotos.com/images/giant-sequoia-tree-pv.jpg
National Parks Singapore: http://www.nparks.gov.sg/cms/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=173&Itemid=161

PLANE TREES

Beijing, 30 July 2012

Until a few years ago, plane trees were not high on my list of favourites. The memories of my youth were of leprous-looking trees in a ragged line along anonymous city streets, with long strands of dirty bark peeling off them, a pathetic crown often savagely chopped to allow the passage of telephone and other wires, and every passing dog peeing on them. My grandmother would say that they were used because they were the only trees that could survive in cities. But what a life, I thought. Better no life than this …

plane trees in streets-4

And then one day, on a holiday with my wife in Spain, we were walking through the Jardín del Príncipe in Aranjuez, near Madrid, when we came across a row of absolutely magnificent plane trees, of vast girth, with huge spreading crowns of light green sparkling leaves, and whose bark ranged in colour from pale beige through pale green to ivory white.  Simply ravishing. If we took photos, I have no record of them here. So I insert this picture of a plane tree in these gardens which I found on the web, to give the reader an idea of the beauty of these trees.

plane trees jardin del principe Aranjuez-6

I add this picture of a row of the trees in the gardens to give an idea of their girth.

plane trees jardin del principe Aranjuez-1

And I add this one simply because I like the colours!

plane trees jardin del principe Aranjuez-4

I remembered that glorious moment of discovery yesterday when, visiting Ritan Park in Beijing on a beautiful day with a blue and – that rarest of things in this city – clear sky, we found ourselves sitting in the shade of a lovely plane tree.  It was not as majestic as the specimens we had discovered in Spain, but it was still arresting. It had been manicured so that it grew more regularly in all directions, and a bench had been arranged around it in a wide circle.

ritan park 002

ritan park 003

We just sat there, drinking in the quiet beauty of it all.

POSTCRIPT:

One year on from writing this, I must report the saddest of news. Seventy years ago, US soldiers disembarked in Italy, carrying with them munitions boxes made with wood of the American plane tree. That wood contained a fungus, Ceratocystis platani, unknown to the plane trees in Europe and against which they have no defence. It has left Italy now and is slowly spreading throughout the rest of Europe. Eventually, it will kill millions of plane trees throughout Europe. This was reported by the BBC, where they were saying that the thousands of beautiful plane trees planted along the Canal du Midi

canal du midi plane trees

are becoming infected and will have to be cut down and burned.

Canal du midi plane trees being burned

I fear that the same fate will soon be shared by those lovely old plane trees in the Jardin del Principe. One more tragedy caused by the global movement of goods and people – and bugs that go with them for the ride.

_____________________________
plane trees on a street: http://animestoi.midiblogs.com/media/02/01/2964573664.jpg
photos of the Plane trees in the Jardin del Principe, Aranjuez:
first: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/14735886.jpg
second: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-sCRByt2Qd6s/UUsvkfma43I/AAAAAAAAZ10/eTOTJ_kaYxQ/s640/Platanos+de+sombra+Aranjuez+01.JPG
third: http://turismoenaranjuez.com/sites/default/files/otonojardinprincipe_0.jpg
photos of the plane tree in Ritan Park: mine
Canal du Midi: http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/56128000/jpg/_56128150_canalview624.jpg
Canal du Midi-plane trees being burned: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-4yIXXHCnDRY/UYN1Ru6K3yI/AAAAAAAAAuM/16Cdm8bNqT4/s1600/Canal+du+midi+abattage+PK+143+%25287%2529.JPG