An Alameda Garden: When Bad Trees Happen to Good People

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

When Bad Trees Happen to Good People

The S.F. Chronicle has an article today about an incident that occurred in the city where an apartment resident got into a shouting and shoving match with a tree surgeon who had come to remove a dangerously leaning old tree. The owner of the apartment building had gotten the necessary permits to remove the tree; the apartment resident had tried and failed to get the tree declared a city landmark. And when the crew arrived today to do the deed and the chainsaws were fired up, the resident just couldn't let go and all that pent-up arboricultural emotion boiled over. There were tears, shouting, and to make a long story short, it took four cops to break it all up so that the tree could finally come down.

If I'd read this story a few months ago, I might have been much more sympathetic to that overwrought tree-lover. But after finishing my course in arboriculture, I have to admit that I look at trees rather differently. I appreciate them more--for all they do for the planet and for their sheer beauty and unique character--but I feel less emotional about them. I hate to see them clear-cut, or removed simply because someone wants to build on that spot when there are other options available (as appears to be the case with the old oak grove in Berkeley that I wrote about in August). But when a tree is diseased, seriously damaged, or simply planted in the wrong spot to begin with, it's a different matter. Such a tree is a hazard, and a hazardous tree in an urban environment is a killer lying in wait.

There is a tree that I believe to be hazardous planted at the curb in front of my house. It's a very ugly, very poorly structured camphor tree and now that I know a little bit more about trees, I hold my breath every time we have a windy day for fear that one of the three lower branches will break off and fly through my bedroom window or drop onto some innocent pedestrian walking on the sidewalk below it. I intend to call the city and try to get them to remove the tree and plant something else in its place. I don't feel the least bit sentimental about the tree and I would feel terrible if someone was hurt by it. And besides, some other tree--maybe a crape myrtle or a jacaranda--would look lovely in its place.

I can understand attaching some meaning to trees, particularly ones planted to commemorate an event or a person. But there are ways for those meanings to live on beyond the tree. The apartment owner in the Chronicle's story might have been able to avoid an ugly scene by offering to give the upset resident some of the wood to make something from; or the resident might have taken a more positive approach and held some kind of ceremony for the neighborhood to come to to honor the tree before it was removed.

In the end, however, trees, like all living things, have a finite lifecycle and deserve a death with dignity, rather than being left to fall apart branch by dangerous branch.


  1. I understand your thoughts. My grandmother told me about the time that her neighbor "poisoned" her treelawn tree with salt because the city refused to take it down... and as she described the danger it posed, I could completely understand why. Even though I was admittedly a bit scandalized. :)

  2. Well I'm not sure that I get emotional about trees but I do see that there is more reason for a dying tree than you would suppose. There are many species of insect living in full colonies in old trees. Many beautiful songbirds live off of the insects collected in these habitats. There comes a time for urban trees to go but often it is premature because of the trees debris or the awkward look of aging.Personally I like trees that have the character of age and life.
    The danger of cars has never sent us to rid our city's streets because we see the way our lives would be diminished if forced to live without them, no matter the cost in mangled bodies and lives. Trees unfortunatly give no such clear picture of the importance to our lives and the lives of other of earths inhabitants. Our loss...

  3. Gloria does raise an important point about the wildlife that depends on dead and decaying trees. But leaving a section of the trunk or a branch or two on the ground serves just as well as a habitat for insects and others. A healthier tree planted in the old tree's place will also serve the needs of wildlife, without risking anyone's life.


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