The Urban Forest

A year or so ago, I was looking out across Oakland when my perspective suddenly flipped. Instead of seeing the trees among the houses, I saw the houses among the trees. This was when I realized just how precarious our supposed ownership of this land is.

Redwoods stand like solitary steles, the tallest things in many places. Beyond them are the East Bay Hills in one direction, and the hills of Marin County in the other. Many of those trees are wider than I am tall. They stood with others of their kind, obviously, within the last century. My house was built in 1915. The large redwoods in the median of 14th Avenue, mere blocks away, were certainly standing then. The mansion in the middle of our block, whose grounds my house is built upon, is only an eyeblink older from the redwood’s perspective.

The oaks on the mansion’s grounds, layered as a forest is if you look in just the right spot, were probably there as well. I fear for those trees. There are young palms recently planted under them. When the palms gain height, one or the other will have to be cut. Our neighborhood will be poorer then. According to our laws, the owners have the right to decide which trees will survive. But should they really be allowed to do something that will so radically change the lives of everyone in the neighborhood?

The palms in our viewshed rival the redwoods in height. They are strange and beautiful, living in a land they were never meant to inhabit. Most of us can say the same. The trees and the people here are kin in this way. We all came from somewhere else. Even if we were born here, our ancestors came from somewhere else. We have made a home here, but we will never have a true home, where our ancestors for as far back as anyone can remember lie in the earth they sprang from.

There are ginkgos in my neighborhood, silver birches, sycamores and magnolias, just to name a few. We have made the strangest decisions in what we chose to let survive here. A scrub oak grows beside my house, dwarfed and planted witin inches of the foundation. I know it will someday have to come down, but I dread that day, and wish the people who planted it had more sense. I love that tree and keep the inner branches pruned back, but I can do nothing about the trunk. When we got here it was sick, covered in galls and growing strange, misshapen shoots, covered with white fungus. Over the years I have cut what looked strange and cleaned the dead leaves and galls away. The leaves and branches look much better now, and the brown leaves underneath are ny own miniature forest floor. I layer them on top of the worms in the bin beneath and breathe in the fresh, rich smell of the soil.

What is the makeup of your urban forest? What do the trees tell you when you look at them? Do they thrive? If they are sick, what makes them that way?

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