In praise of the hardworking tree

Nature’s Miracle Worker

by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

In the same way that friends in rural areas might know the difference between a tree branch hitting the side of the house and someone knocking on the door, city dwellers learn to distinguish—before we’ve even turned around—the sound of a car behind us from the hiss of the hydraulics on the bus we’re waiting for. We’re all animals, attuned to our habitat.

At the same time, we filter out and ignore much of what we regularly see and hear, and one element that we’re probably not paying close attention to are the trees around us that, among other good works, muffle the abrasive sounds of sirens and people.

After reading Jill Jonnes’ book “Urban Forests” I am even more appreciative of Philadelphia’s investment in our tree canopy—especially in disinvested neighborhoods—and our deep relationship with trees. Jonnes recounts the stories of various insect infestations in the last century, when entire neighborhoods, suburban and urban, rich and poor, were shorn of their tree canopy overnight, leaving mourning families and barren blocks, the trees loved but underappreciated until they were gone.

The stories made me think again about how lucky I am to have a mature elm in my neighbor’s backyard (though it’s being choked by ivy). In the front courtyard, another neighbor has a beautiful dogwood that just bloomed. A sugar maple that popped up six years ago in a patch of derelict dirt just steps from my door is now 30 feet high; I just pruned it so that its branches wouldn’t keep my petunias from blooming. And at the back of my house, there is a giant, forked male mulberry that I know is having an affair with the gorgeous fruiting female in the Old Swedes churchyard three blocks away. It’s hard not to think of them as people.

City trees do so much for us, we might as well list their vocation as “miracle worker.” If just those four humble trees around my house were taken down, there’s little chance that I would sit on the patio and hear birds: I’d be hearing more of I-95 instead. The neighbors and I would be peering into each others’ open windows in the summer instead of seeing the leaves rustle in the twilight. I’d be paying more in the summer for electricity, my basement would flood more often and I’d be breathing in more pollutants. 

Their avocation is providing us with beauty and a connection to nature that keeps our minds settled and our spirits soothed. They soften the hard edges of our buildings and our psyches. They also provide habitat for all kinds of mammals, insects and birds, which at my house, just a block from the four busy lanes of Washington Avenue, begin stirring and chirping at 4:30 a.m. My only-in-a-city neighbors include three opera singers on the same block, but also a hawk who makes a feathery mess of some of the less fortunate pigeons in the neighborhood, a cadre of squirrels who eat my bulbs, the occasional raccoon who scales the chain-link fence in my yard unphased by the barbed wire and an opossum who has taken to walking in the open back door at night in search of cat food while I’m quietly reading on the couch. We’ve surprised each other more than once, but the opossum is better at playing dead than I am, and once I had to just sit on the stairs waiting for her to wake up and find her way out. My tiny house is little more than a tent made out of bricks, and what’s a tent without trees?  

An arborist, unkindly, once called my mulberry a “weed tree.” If that’s true, then I have an announcement: I’m an unrepentant weed hugger.