The tales trees can tell us

Landscaping in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, November 06, 2002

Drifting off the limbs and branches, this season's leaves drop and reveal several layers. The most obvious is at the landscape level, where vistas we haven't seen since May are visible again.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to

Drive out towards Tee Harbor and see the other shore, look out at the Shrine of St. Thereseor even down at the beach at Auke Rec. The curtains have been drawn back again and the next act is opening.

It will be a long time until the screen of green returns, and we will have gotten used to the look of the country without leaves, and it will be exciting to have them back. The new look we have now is exciting too, as remembered features arouse familiar sensations.

The dropping leaves have not only revealed the landscape. They have revealed the trees themselves. The branches and trunks of cottonwoods and alders can be seen now and as these graceful and expressive skeletons become clear, individual histories and stories of each comes clear too.

There are trees that curve up from a hillside, not one at a time but in huge crowds. Dozens or hundreds of them with curves so similar it's symphonic. The acre-wide response to a moving hillside is to grow back towards the vertical, as the hill slides slowly, inevitably, into the channel, the trees swing back up towards the sky. Their trunks widen and the flare at the base thickens as they brace themselves not only against the wind and storm but against gravity itself.

This ability of the trees to respond to changes in their environment by growing back towards their ideal form has attracted idealists and philosophers since the dawn of civilization. We recognize their effort to recover their balance by pointing their tops directly at the sun; they move and adapt to the rolling of the surface as if they were on the deck of a ship. Their time is not ours, and the waves they feel are so slow that we don't even notice them, but the minute changes we are unaware of accumulate over decades into significant motion.

Ultimately these trees will succumb to the pull of the earth, they will be torn loose like old rotten teeth from the flesh of the hillside, tumbling and tearing out their neighbors as they go. Openings left in the canopy will be arenas of competition as the successional generations struggle for light and space, and another series of trunks will widen and curve as the up moves to down.

Individual trees too tell their tales, walking along the Kax trail along the Mendenhall there is a huge spruce tree that twists upwards as it leans over the trail. Fifty feet up, the massive trunk's taper abruptly swerves to the west where the former top was killed and one of the side branches took over. Lightning, a falling neighbor or some other force clipped off the directing point of the tree decades ago, and the nearest successor began growing upwards towards the sun. That swerve in the trunk reflects a stream of history in the life of that tree and once we see one such story, a whole volume of natural literature leaps open to us.

The shapes of the trees are as eloquent as Homeric verse, the struggles and troubles of whole populations or of single souls are revealed in these newly visible forms. Broken branches, injuries from fires or catastrophic landslides show up years later as variations in the idealized forms of the trees. So too are the results of their encounters with the tools of the humans.

The trees in our domestic spaces and the street and park trees of our public spaces show the effects of our efforts to force them into fitting our ideas of perfection. Trees have an innate design and they will do everything possible to achieve that shape and size. We plant them in spaces too small for that form or in configurations where that shape puts them into peril and manipulate them to suit our needs.

Trees that would get 30 feet across are planted in spaces where they can only get 10-feet-wide before they are clipped off, trimmed up and thinned out. This is not a moral question, there is no right or wrong in manipulating the growth of these trees, but it is a question of economy and aesthetics. We can read the history of the trees written in their bodies, and it makes great reading.

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