We The People

When mighty trees lie strewn like fallen heroes, it unsettles our minds, shocks our senses and disrupts our lives. We mourn their demise and our loss. Amongst the non-humans dearest to us,trees are perhaps only second to pets.

The question I’ve been asking myself most since hurricane Sandy passed this way has been – what more could we have done? With no power, heat, phone or Internet to distract me, I’ve had a lot of time to ask questions and think about such matters. Several days worth of time.

It was all very well to wait for the necessary people to come and set things right, to rail at the powers that be for not getting my life back in order and complain about the hardship of being cold even under several layers of fleece to anyone even remotely willing to listen but what could I have done to lessen the impact of such an event?

First and foremost, let me tell you what I did do. I took care of all pending chores in the garden. Okay, not all by myself. I did have family doing their fair share. In the end, the huge number of bulbs got planted, leaves were raked, perennials cut back, beds mulched, outdoor furniture put away, tender plants moved into the greenhouse, wayward limbs of roses secured, espalier pruned and window box plants (in liners) brought in. Anything that had the potential of becoming airborne was either weighted down or put away. The list seemed endless and the work was done at a somewhat frenetic pace. It got done because I had a list of what needed doing. So do forgive me if I sound somewhat smug. Nobody else (read that as certain people who live with me) has given me any credit for being organized. I don’t do things for accolades but an occasional gold star wouldn’t hurt. However, I remain optimistic.

Fortunately, except for some small branches and twigs, no harm was done to home or garden. I’m immensely grateful for that. Others did not fare so well. When you sit back to assess the damages, the majority of cases were the result of fallen branches and whole trees. Almost all those power losses were directly due to the lines being brought down by trees. How might we have changed this outcome?

We all agree that trees are priceless. Their uses are numerous not the least of which is preventing soil erosion that can become a serious problem in storms and heavy rains. So it’s not a matter of whether we need trees. It’s a matter of which trees to plant and where to plant them.

In a bid for instant gratification, so many ‘fast growing’ trees are planted that nurseries are full of them. I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again, fast growing means shallow roots. These are the first trees to come down in a storm. It does not take much of a storm to accomplish that. Look around and you’ll see that most of the trees strewn all over are of that fast growing class.

Whatever happened to stewardship of the land? Our founding fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson, exemplified that practice. Are we not obligated to do our bit? Or are we to think of that instant ‘privacy screen’ of evergreen trees as more important? Or how about that charming and impulsive idea of buying live Christmas trees and planting them each year in an orderly row at the edge of the property up close to the street and well below the power lines– they look so cute and evoke warm memories of holidays past. Those trees grow tall and stop looking so cute very quickly. Especially when one or more are tipped over by the likes of hurricane Sandy, or Floyd or Katrina or Hugo or Irene. Down come power lines with those trees. The rest you know. If privacy from the street or neighbor is needed, think instead about clipped hedges or Belgian espalier fences. Maintained at a height of six to eight feet either will serve the purpose handsomely. Or consider trees that don’t grow so tall. There are in addition, dwarf varieties of several favourites.

So okay, we stop planting shallow rooted, fast growing trees close to houses and other buildings and stay clear of power lines. What next?

We now consider the American oaks both red and white, river birchs, yellow poplars, sycamores, elms, red maples and similar stalwarts of this continent. These are the trees to plant! For posterity and majesty. Future generations will thank us as they linger in their shade, play on a swing suspended from one of the sturdy branches, picnic beneath their canopy or simply sit back against a wide trunk and feel content. Again, these too do not belong near houses or power lines because they get too big and their branches can cause harm should they break. Place them where they can rise tall and proud with limbs that spread wide like a giant embrace. Where you can watch them grow and where your children and eventually grandchildren can see them at their best.

A very critical factor in choosing a tree is the height and breadth to which it will finally grow. Tall, wide trees are fine as long as they do not overpower its surroundings. Keep it in balance. Think about the other plants, shrubs, vines and surrounding structures. They must relate to each other.

Trees make shade and therefore shade loving plants get planted around it. If you like the morning sun streaming into your kitchen then, don’t place a big tree on that side. Smaller trees like dogwood or dwarf fruit trees might be more appropriate. Harsh afternoon heat can be dissipated by well positioned trees on the southern side of the property. These same trees if deciduous, will permit warming light in winter when all the leaves are gone. You see? There are indeed right and wrong places for trees.

Trees are not maintenance free. They need water, nutrients and space to grow strong and healthy. Sometimes, they require cabling to give proper stability. Like us, trees age. So it’s important to periodically examine the health of the trees. Rot and disease are not always apparent so the best way to do this is to get a tree expert. He/she will know to read early signs in a dying or diseased tree and prescribe the appropriate action. If several neighbors got together and hired such an expert, it would be very cost effective. A tree in my neighborhood took down power lines in the previous two storms. The branches broke each time. Finally, Sandy uprooted the tree entirely and its now been many days without electricity, heat, phone and Internet. If the owners to whom the tree belonged had had the tree seen by a tree expert after the first storm, then perhaps we would have been spared the frustration we felt. I bear no malice to the owners. We are all guilty of such oversights. But perhaps this can be a valuable lesson for the future.

Finally, in preparation for the next storm, and it will come, can we make a concerted effort to scan our properties and neighborhood to identify all the potential problems? And in true community spirit, lets help each other trim, prune, cut down and clean up. Then perhaps we can look forward to fewer loss of trees and power and maybe less casting of blame on elected officials, power companies and tree services. Personal responsibility goes a long way in making for a thriving, successful democracy. Its for the people, of the people and by the people remember? Besides, raise your hand if you’d like to stop hearing your children whining about yet another day without heat, television, phone and Internet.

I’m not absolving local, state or federal authorities of their responsibilities. But, we get to vote them in or out of office. There is nobody checking on our own responsibilities. Except our conscience. And that fallen icon whose fate was sealed the day it was planted.

Dwarf apple trees

An old cedar

Clipped hedges in Piet Oudolf’s garden.

An ancient olive.

A study in white.

History on record.

Wood and stone.

(c) Shobha Vanchiswar 2012


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