What are trees worth?


Trees and people, happy together. The Mall and Literary Walk, Central Park, NYC. Photo by Ahodges7.

Trees are dying all over Los Angeles, because of the drought. No one seems to think they need to be watered.

Trees which are not simply dying of thirst are being ripped out and replaced with “water saving landscapes” of succulents, cactus and gravel.

Both of these trends are disturbing, and are the result of ignorance more than bad intent. Our culture as a whole is green blind if not outright biophobic. I’ve come to understand that most people don’t even really see plants, except as a vague green background to their busy lives, and even fewer people understand plants and the value they bring to our lives and the world at large.

I’ve been traveling a lot this summer, taking refuge in green places which restore the soul. Returning to LA has been hard, because all of the plant life here is so very stressed. When I’m outside, it’s almost as if I can hear a constant, low-level cry of misery from the land, and that pain resonates in me, creating a deep sense of helplessness and sorrow. My strategy for dealing with this for the past couple of weeks has been to hide indoors and bury myself in books–to just shut down.

But I seem to have run into the limits of self-pity, and now I’m trying to figure out what I can do to help the situation. This post is a small gesture in that direction. I’m beginning with trees, because they are the lynchpin of the loving landscape.

In defense of trees

Shrubs and annuals come and go. Trees are long term residents of the landscape, surveyors of our lives. Above and below ground they knit together communities on many levels. They deserve special attention. They deserve to be valued and cherished for what they are, more than simply what they do for us. That said, they do a whole heck of a lot for us:

  • In mercenary, real estate terms, trees create street appeal and bump up property values by thousands of dollars. This, though, is the least part of their true value.
  • Trees cast shade, which cools the ground, which cools the environment at large, countering the urban heat island effect. They also cool the air by passing water through their leaves. A healthy urban forest makes for a much more liveable city for us all.  (The city of Melbourne understands this.) And trees clustered around your own house make your home cooler in the summer, reducing your energy bills. Low lying cactus and succulent plants do little or nothing nothing to cool the city, while gravel, concrete and artificial turf make your yard a blistering heat trap.
  • Trees help the land absorb rain, increasing ground water levels and preventing destructive run off and storm flooding. (See this and this.) A single tree can absorb thousands of gallons of rain water as it falls, like a giant sponge. What will happen to the dry slopes of California this winter, when the winter rains come, and our trees are gone, from stress and fire? Mudslides my friends, and lots of them. I’m already dreading it. But this isn’t just a California problem. Crazy weather is the norm the world over now, and trees are one of our best buffers against the worst of it.
  •  Trees don’t only hold water in the ground,  they share it with other plants. Having a big tree in your yard is like having a pump and well which you don’t have to maintain.
  • Trees make for clean water. By absorbing all that storm water, they pull the filth from our streets into the soil, and the soil cleans it, pro bono. (This is one of the many benefits of healthy soil, another important player in environmental health.) If that storm water runs unchecked, it just dumps all of the oil and fertilizer and insecticides and poo straight into the nearest waterway.
  • Trees absorb and store carbon, directly mitigating climate change–and they indirectly mitigate the change as well, by helping to temper the effects of storm water, high winds, high heat, etc.
  • Trees create food and habitat for birds, insects and mammals. We humans don’t like to share resources with the rest of creation, but trees support life of all sorts, with no trouble to us. Or maybe not, if squirrels are stripping your fruit trees clean! So we might have a vested interest in fruit trees–but all trees are beneficial to other life, above and below ground. Think of each tree as a city, teaming with life which is mostly invisible to us, but vitally important to the world.
  •  Trees heal the soul. They give us shelter from the sun and the rain. They give us a place to read and dream.  A place to hide and climb. An anchor in a shifting landscape of time and movement.  We’ve known since the 1980’s that they even speed our recovery when we’re sick.

These points just scratch the surface of what trees do for us. For more, see Tree People’s Top 22 Benefits of Trees.

Trees don’t ask much of us, but offer so much in return. I feel the least we can do is treat them well. They are valuable, long lived, complex entities. It is worth calling a professional arborist to give them a proper pruning, or to consult if they look stressed. Yes, this costs money, but removing a mature tree once it has died from neglect, disease or bad pruning is a much more expensive proposition.

If you live in a drought-stricken area, water your trees--even if you’ve never watered them before. They don’t have the resources they once had, and while they’ve been hanging on like champs for four years, they are beginning to give up. I see it everywhere.

Watering trees in a drought is a long-term investment. It is even reasonable to plant a new tree, as you would light a candle in the darkness. Don’t water anything else in your yard, if you must, but save your trees.

Bird’s Nest

bird nest

I’ve been wishing I would come across an abandoned bird’s nest for a while now. They’re just such marvels, so clever, so sweet–one of my favorite things in nature, and that’s saying a lot. I imagined how I’d display a nest if I had one, how I’d keep it safe from the cats.

Then, the other day I found this one sitting on the coffee table on our back patio.

Just sitting there, right in the middle of the table, as if someone put it there on purpose, all strange and gorgeous. I assumed Erik had found it. And since the table sits under our grape arbor, and a few grape skins were in the nest, I figured the nest had been up in the grape vines, and Erik had discovered it whilst up on the ladder, trying to defend our grapes from sundry critters.

Nope. Erik knew nothing of the nest.

Logic tells me it must have jiggled out of the vines on the arbor — perhaps a rat dislodged it?– and it happened to land face up on the center of the coffee table.

But my heart tells me that it was a present.

I’m particularly fond of this nest because it is made up from pruned materials from our yard. In fact, I think most of it was filched from the greens bin that I let sit on the back patio for far too long this spring.

I see bits of twine from our bean trellis in there, and some grasses which look familiar. That ferny stuff around the perimeter are clippings from this asparagus fern that I’ve been trying to eradicate for fifteen years. (At this point, I admire its persistence so much that I can only bow to it as a respected enemy.) The fern is beautiful in this nest. The soft fluff in the middle may have been sourced from a silk floss tree about a block away.

The grape skins in the nest are interesting. Could be that the birds were eating grapes, but I doubt it. Instead, I imagine a lazy mouse lounging in the nest, sucking on our grapes in luxury and spitting out the skins.

Or the skins may have fallen into the nest once it was already on the coffee table. There is, unfortunately, a rain of grape skins onto our patio every night, as we steadily lose our war with the nocturnal creatures for our grapes. But that is the subject of another post.

Anyone have any guesses about what kind of bird made this nest? The bowl is about 3 inches (7.5 cm) across.

ETA: I’ve been looking at this great page of bird nests–it’s heaven for the bird nest enthusiast. So many types of nests! Wee little eggs! Baby birds! One bird even made its nest in a sweatshirt hanging on a laundry line. (That’ll teach you to bring in your laundry promptly):


And as of now my uneducated guess is that it is the nest of a house finch.

My worstest grammatical/punctuation error ever . . .

Screen shot 2015-06-22 at 11.58.36 AM

Last week I perpetrated what has to be the worst editing error ever committed on Root Simple in its nine year history. Is it fair to blame post-kidney stone surgery drug withdrawal?

I know that “want’s” is wrong and spotted it instantly, after I hit the publish button, of course. Facebook has preserved it for all eternity.

A few days later I spotted this gem in an office (note also the fantastic nautical themed to-do list) and just had to take a surreptitious photo:

safety alway's

Thankfully there is a web resource for apostrophe sins: www.apostrophecatastrophes.com.

An Awareness of What is Missing

Fifteenth century blogging.

Fifteenth century blogging.

While a fan of the Internet (we have a blog and podcast, after all), I’ve been growing increasingly concerned about the disruptive potential of our hyper-connected age. Just remember what happened after Gutenberg gave up on fabricating pilgrimage mirrors and took up that printing press idea. Or remember Socrates’ lament over the loss of oral culture to writing in the Phaedrus. It seems to me that mobile computing, social media and the sharing economy have just as much potential to cause social turbulence as did writing and the printing press. While writing the printing press ended up as positive developments in the long run, the jury is still out on our computer age. On a personal note, I’ve watched, to my frustration, as this blog has lost ground to the short attention span and creepy data harvesting tentacles of Facebook and other social media platforms.

So what can we do? Perhaps it’s futile, but I thought I’d devote some time in the next few weeks to developing skills that run counter to the prevailing technological winds. I’m hoping to, as George Clinton put it, “Free my mind so my ass will follow.” At the very least I’d like to enhance my own skills in these areas, but I’d also like to develop some classes or gatherings around these topics. And I’m hoping to reduce screen time.

The beginning of this strategy was to come up with a bucket list of the skills our Silicon Valley overlords are supplanting through new technologies. I thought of these four counter-cultural skills:

1. Memory
I’ve written about memory before. The important thing to note about it is that memory is a creative act, not a boring rote skill. It’s a way of expanding your mind’s creativity. And it’s relatively easy to learn. It’s also, of course, atrophying under our constant access to “the cloud.”

2. Wayfinding
GPS, and mobile technology are raising a generation that will no longer know how to get around without their phones. Like memory, wayfinding is a creative act. In the West we get hung up on maps, a relatively recent technology. If you look at indigenous cultures you’ll see that wayfinding is more about telling stories about the landscape. Think of the Polynesian’s abilities to cross vast distances, without maps or GPS, between tiny islands. Their wayfinding technique was about a relationship with nature: with the stars, the subtleties of ocean swells, the migratory patterns of birds, the movements of fish, the coloration of the ocean. What powers of imagination and observation are lost when we depend on maps and, worse, a talking computer?

3. Handwriting
Most states in the US no longer require children to learn handwriting (my own state of California still teaches cursive along with just a handful of others). But what will be lost in a world we only interact with via a keyboard and mouse? What will happen to our fine motor skills? My own handwriting is abysmal:

Yet, with just a hour’s worth of practice using the handwriting chapter in the back of Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain, I was able to do this:

signature 1
Kelly describes it as looking like a 19th century toddler’s scrawl and the calligraphers in our readership won’t be impressed, but with a modest amount of practice I should be able to write better cursive. At the very least, I’m going to use handwriting practice as a way of luring myself away from the temptation of Internet surfing.

4. Contemplation
Reclaiming the contemplative moments of our lives is out of my area of expertise and a bit off topic for this blog, but it’s still very important to me. I wrote about it when I covered the topic of acedia (a more precise way of defining distraction), and I’ll leave it at that for now.

A cranky conclusion
I’ve noticed that when the press covers the constant state of distraction our technology has put us in, they tend to immediately jump to neuroscience studies to understand why we’re addicted to checking our email, phones, etc. While I have no doubt there are neurological phenomena at work here, we also need to look at the sociological and spiritual issues surrounding the skills we’re losing. We can’t forget that the forces that want to keep us in a state of distraction or acedia, and constantly glued to our screens, have economic and social agendas. They are harnessing acedia to sell us crap we don’t need and harvest our personal data for their financial gain.

But I also don’t want to come off as a Luddite. I like the community that this blog has formed, as well as the great people I’ve met through resources like Meetup.com. And I know a few people who use social media in a very positive and uplifting way (which should, perhaps, be the subject of a future blog post).

So what do you think? What skills did I leave out? How is your relationship to technology evolving?

Pack Rat Palladio


Admission: I’m a column hoarder. And the past few days I’ve been laying about, recovering from minor ailments and watching, through binoculars, a nice old house get demolished. I had my eye on the columns from the front porch and I just happened to be watching as the workers started pitching those columns into a dumpster. Summoning a reserve of foolish energy, I ran over and asked the workers if I could have the columns. I now have four more columns for my collection. Kelly is concerned.

Over the years I’ve acquired quite a few columns. I think their abundance has something to do with the Dwell Magazinifiction of our old neighborhood. As poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay put it, “As public sex was embarrassing to the Victorians, public classicism is to us.” The mid-century modern crowd just doesn’t dig the Doric, the Ionic or the Corinthian. Columns, molding, wood siding, old windows and many other ornamental details have fallen out of favor and are ending up on the curb.

House flippers loss, my gain. I’ve put my column collection to work as a grape arbor:


As garden follies:
And a pretentious flanking of our back door:


I’ve done a bit of indiscriminate column hoarding too. This tacky one should probably have been let in the street:


As soon as I recover from last week’s kidney stone surgery, I plan on restoring the four I just scavenged for use either as a shade covering for the back patio, a neo-classical clothes line or an extension of our rose arbor entry.

Perhaps someday I’ll aspire to something as grand as the broken column house in the Désert de Retz.