Friday, May 06, 2016

Tree Seedlings Everywhere, But Not a Street Tree To Plant

There's irony to be savored, or puzzled at, while pulling out the hundreds of trees sprouting through the woodchip mulch in my yard. The tradition of Arbor Day, which slipped past this year on April 29, is to encourage people to plant trees. Free trees are distributed, often spruce seedlings--a species more likely to be found growing naturally in cooler latitudes. Planting a tree is often mentioned as a small, partly symbolic but meaningful way to counter global warming. While serving on the Shade Tree Commission, I did some math and figured out that the 50-100 street trees being planted in Princeton were not even coming close to replacing the 250 trees being lost each year. The 2-3" caliper trees deemed most likely to survive and prosper cost $250 each, eating up the budget.

Clearly, there's a perceived and sometimes real need to nurture trees, and there's pleasure in watching a tree, planted in the right spot, grow with deceptive speed towards towering heights. What, then, to make, in meaning and utility, of these hundreds of red oak seedlings rising from the earth each spring?

Or the elm seeds that carpet the patio,

filling the drain,

and making an improbably lightweight but effective dam that needs to be cleared for our low-budget drainage to work. Thousands, perhaps millions, of achenes will soon follow, spinning earthward from the maples--red, silver and sugar--adding another layer of trees-to-be, and trees-to-be-pulled.

Those Arbor Day tree giveaways are a tradition that likely dates back to early in the past century, as fields slowly shifted back to forest. Now, with reforestation long since accomplished, trees in this neighborhood, at least, hardly need our help. When it comes to reproduction, they don't fool around, which is to say, fooling around is what they're doing a whole lot of.

The issue is more a matter of how to get the right tree growing in the right place. There is no lack of gaps in the street canopy to fill, no lack of parking lots where cars bake in the summer sun for lack of shade. And no lack of trees, free for the transplanting. There's also no lack of logistical issues--getting permission to plant them, hemming and hawing about which species would be best, watering the first year and protection for a few years after that, and so forth. Meanwhile, the trees are showing us how its done, on their own. So simple, and yet so much conspires to keep our world just as it is, filled with persistent problems side by side with an abundance of solutions. If future generations can find sustenance in irony, they will surely prosper.


  1. What kind of tree is in this picture here?

  2. Red oak, most likely. Will have clearer lobes when older.