Wednesday, October 14, 2009

We live in the trees

We spend four days in the Berkshires. We hike every day, deep in the woods – or
at least deep enough to put the thought of bears in your head – and stare deeply into wood fires at night.
It’s different being home again, but when I see the orange leaves on the maple tree just outside the door I’m aware of a deep continuity between country and city life. A little patch of orange is autumn. Columbus Day weekend in the woods, followed by Columbus Day week in Quincy, the week trees begin to show serious color here. Quincy, a state naturalist once told me, is the “asphalt jungle”; more pavement keeps temperatures a little higher. Our growing season starts earlier, probably lasts a little longer, than it would without all this heat-trapping, heat-emitting development. Global warming begins at home….
But so does autumn. If you can see the universe in grain of sand, you can see a forest in a patch of orange. The sun comes out this morning, after a rainy day, putting me face to face with the brilliant colors just beyond my kitchen window.
And while the asphalt jungle will keep some garden plants blooming longer – though not long enough to turn the tiny developmentally delayed white flowers on my pepper plants into table-pleasing green peppers – I realize another fine landscape-hopping term has an even greater claim our attention: the urban forest. It’s a habitat; our own. The trees live here, on our quiet residential streets; we gather around their roots. From an upper-story perspective ours is a planet of trees. At least New England is.
Get far enough out of town, any town, get some elevation, and when you look down at the world mostly what you see is trees. This is true, to a surprising extent, even in a place as densely built as Quincy, a city with only the foggiest notion of what is meant by “open space.” Most of the trees here elbow in beside us in the built environment. We have, regrettably, some single family houses without a tree out front or even in the back, but mostly the urban forest hangs on, and in many places flourishes.
The blocks in our urban neighborhoods where the tree coverage is thick, long fingers of oak and maple reaching toward one another over the roadway, are the blocks people want to live on. These are the places that look like “home.” For people born in this part of the world, who like what they’re used to (as most everyone does), living in a loosely grown woodland, a semi-natural environment, is what we expect. It feels “natural.”
We live almost within the classical notion of a wooded park – a place where the trees are spaced far enough apart so that people can easily walk between them, or ride in their carriages, on their horses, or run their dogs (or hunt, but let’s not go there); and are allowed to grow tall overhead.
It’s part planned, mostly accidental (or, we could say again, natural). The developer plots the shade tree in front of the house; everybody in my childhood home’s straight-line Long Island development got a sycamore tree in the front yard. Thirty years later, when the landscaping grew up, I was shocked to find my parents living in a lush green world where the locusts screamed in the summer night. In Quincy, the city plants trees along the roadways in the little strips of green space between the sidewalk and the road – if you ask for one. City planners know that trees are good for cities, even in dense commercial districts where they soften the look, cool the asphalt jungle, absorb the carbon dioxide, shade the sidewalks, and eat up some of the noise and over-stimulation simply by giving the senses something else to focus on. They exude calm. Persistence; endurance. Strength, fertility, acclimation.
They have a message for us. Do we want to survive, evolve, grow, thrive – live – in the world? Then be like the trees.
No wonder we still seek at times to live within their physical, and metaphysical, shelter. In the autumn we go to the forests, or the forested highways, to look at the leaves. We say we are going to take pretty pictures with our eyes, but we may also be paying an unconscious form of homage. We want to get close to the building blocks of our universe. The trees hold up our skies and shelter our lives beneath their roofs.
And each autumn they perform a glorious finale to the season of growth and then drop their leafy light-seeking lineaments to earth without complaint, in the annual sacrifice the climate demands. We thank them for preserving the world for another year.