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Caring for big trees is like caring for elephants

Posted: Friday, July 11, 2008

Taking care of big trees is a lot like caring for elephants. They are so much larger than we are, they live so much longer than we do and they move to another rhythm.

Big trees have a history that spans many human lives. Our sense is that they watch us and our children and our grandchildren as we dash about under their canopies.

Years ago, Margaret and I had a cut flower farm on the sea islands outside of Charleston, S.C. The sense of the trees being a link through the generations was so strong that we could feel the long past as if it was still with us. Our trees in Juneau are of a more recent lineage, but our sense of the past being still alive in them is just as valid.

The big trees in our community are the remaining spruces and hemlocks from the mining era, and the maples and beeches planted during those same years. The majestic copper beech in Mark Choate's yard, across from the Governor's Mansion reigns as champion, but there is a red-leaved Norway maple on the beach side of St. Anne's in Douglas that is a close second.

When I walk by these giants or climb up into their tops I am in touch with another layer of life, I can feel the roots reaching down and out into the soil and the branches moving in the wind. Fifteen years ago, I was trimming the tops to reduce the resistance to big winds so branches would not be snapped in the top of that big maple, when the autumnal winds suddenly appeared, and I was whipped about like a bug. It was one of the most electrifying experiences of my life.

This year, we have a pair of French landscape architecture graduate students doing their international practicum with Margaret. Antoine and Florence have given us a glimpse into the modern European perspective and among the insights is an introduction to some new tree technology.

Antoine is in charge of a 20-person arborist crew for a big French landscape contractor, and their primary client is the palace at Versailles, a place with many old trees.

As trees get older, they have a tendency to get broken apart at the crotches, where the big branches separate, especially if the main branches are growing closely together. Our traditional treatment for this is to remove one or the other of the closely growing branches to allow the remaining one to grow and not split the main trunk. The tool Antoine showed me is a German cabling system like immensely strong bungees, and we have a prime candidate in Juneau this summer.

The care of these trees is part of our human partnership with the natural world; we manage trees as we incorporate them into the fabric of our urban lives. When we plant trees in our yards, or in public spaces, we are making a contract with them. We will care for you, we will provide enough good soil for your life, support during your formative years if you need it, and sufficient water for your needs.

We will protect you from weed eaters, from collisions with mowers, from vandals who would break your limbs and from the weight of ice storms that would tear off your branches.

In return, you will delight us and remind us of our long associations with trees, our original shelters and inspirations for our buildings. You will fill our skies with your leaves, and create a place for our children's fantasies; you will become the signal of our homes, the indication of our arrival, and our last glimpse as we depart.

You will shelter us from public scrutiny, provide a respite from constant eye-to-eye contact, and give haven and sustenance to the vast array of other lives that share the city space with us. The birds, bugs, and small mammals that remind us that they are equal inhabitants of these spaces all depend on trees for their continued existence.

As the seasons progress you will lead us from one to another, your annual cycles of new growth and waiting, and new growth and waiting, make us feel vicariously included in the annual dance. You grow and we watch without comprehending, and suddenly you are a lot bigger. How could time have passed so quickly? How could that small sapling planted in the front yard have become this huge specimen that dominates our landscape, how could you have grown up so fast?

I imagine the state of mind of that person a century ago as they planted that beech tree. The hope and faith tree planting contains can be summed up in a short phrase, Your present is our future.

• David Lendrum, with Margaret Tharp, has operated Landscape Alaska for 25 years in Juneau. They design and build landscapes on every scale and have won numerous awards both locally and nationally. They have a weekly call-in show on KINY and can be contacted through their Web site at www.landscapealska.com.



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