On trees and what they say about us

Jared Farmer's book on the history of the trees that now signify "California" in the public imagination
Jared Farmer’s book on the history of the trees that now signify “California” in the public imagination

Trees say much about who we are as a culture – especially about what we want to be. In Northern California, redwoods are planted everywhere (including in places they dislike – such as in hot and dry roadsides). And they are planted to signify all the things that Northern California has long aspired so be – woodsy, a little rustic but still important, and decidedly not Southern California. Meanwhile in Southern California, the ubiquitous Mexican Fan Palm is almost synonymous with Los Angeles itself, spindly spires emanating tropical vibes above a low-slung landscape whose climate is, at its core, decidedly not tropical.

There has indeed always been an element of escape and fantasy to gardens and landscapes. They are idealized images of nature, and their makers oftentimes want their landscapes to offer us a respite from the modern world. It is little wonder then that all-native-plant gardens are a tough sell to many folks, as, well, they remind you of where you are, and perhaps you don’t always want to be where you are – a truism that has been seen throughout history in the trees we have chosen to populate our cities.

Case in point: California and the palm, the redwood, the eucalyptus, and citrus trees. These trees have come to signify “California” in the public imagination, and that is what Jared Farmer writes about in his book, Trees in Paradise. The prose is spritely and far from dry and the content is chock-full of tidbits of information you didn’t know. And once you’ve read it, you’ll never see California in the same way.

Hummingbirds are architects too

If you’re ever feeling like humans have a leg up on absolutely everything, watch this and you might end up rethinking your worldview. What if we had to build our own homes, all by ourselves? And with objects foraged in the wild? Most of us probably wouldn’t even know where to begin.

The little plant that could

Mystery plant spotted and observed in Oakland growing and still green with no irrigation for months
Mystery plant spotted and observed in Oakland growing and still green with no irrigation for months

We spotted this plant back in May, appearing seemingly out of thin air and looking surprisingly un-weedy for being a volunteer. Since then, it has grown without irrigation for months, and has stayed remarkably green too, not once showing signs of drought stress. The thing is, we have no idea what this plant is. We are waiting for it to bloom to have a better clue of what it might be. In the meantime, we’ll marvel at its toughness and its ability to plant itself in horrendously compacted soil and thrive all summer long on basically zero water.

Once again, plants growing and thriving irrigation-free are all around us. We just have to open our eyes and look.

Get your vote on

Downloadable GOTV postcard designed by Prairieform's John Kamp
Downloadable GOTV postcard designed by Prairieform’s John Kamp

Very simple post today: The earth needs us all to vote on November 6. We can plant as many gardens and landscapes as possible, but policy also plays a pivotal role in making sure that our planet stays healthy for the long haul. You can download a printable PDF version of this postcard here. Instructions on how to mail it to registered voters can be found there below the image.

When a forest isn’t a forest

A prairie savannah in what had recently been forest in Phil Hardberger Park, San Antonio, TX. Photo from the Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy.
A prairie savannah in what had once been forest in Phil Hardberger Park, San Antonio, TX. Photo from the Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy.

We so often think that forest is the natural result of just letting nature be and that to see forest is to see an indication of a healthy ecosystem. Yet we forget that many ecosystems are actually not forest-based at all, or else they are a mix of forest and other types of ecologies, such as grasslands and prairies. Years of fire suppression and mismanagement in the US have actually allowed many formerly grassland and savannah (mix of grassland and forest) ecologies to become completely dominated by forest, which is then often dominated by one or two species that have simply outcompeted everything else.

This scenario was very much the case within what is now Phil Hardberger Park in San Antonio. Years of fire suppression, grazing, and dairy ranching on the site had turned what had once been prairie, prairie savannah, and some forest, into basically all forest. So embedded had the forest look and feel of the area become that within the local narrative of the place people simply saw it as natural and having always been there. Recently, when the site was to be re-envisioned as a park, designers and ecologists had to contend with vast stands of juniper that had worked their way in and basically choked out native grasses, oaks, and perennials.

This foresting of places that were never forests to begin with is nothing new in American history. In fact, much of California was grassland before European settlers arrived. In his book, Trees in Paradise, Jared Farmer writes that settlers coming to the Far West wanted to “complete” the land by foresting it. “They forced grasslands and wetlands to metamorphose into fields, orchards, and garden cities,” he writes. To use a term of the time, they “emparadised” it. These longstanding efforts, combined with years of fire suppression, have transformed parts of California into hybrid manmade-natural tree-dominant ecologies that didn’t exist prior to the arrival of the Spanish some 450 years ago.

Of course, the lessons we can learn from these examples are not that trees don’t have their place in spaces where perhaps they once didn’t grow. Our urban and suburban landscapes are brimming with things that didn’t used to be there – pavement, right angles, roofs, to name a few – so to make the case that trees shouldn’t be there because they weren’t there before doesn’t really hold water. Not to mention that we need street trees more than even, given the realities of the urban heat island effect and climate change. Yet when it comes to our less urbanized and wilder spaces and places, rethinking the role of the tree in ecologies that were not ever forest is a much-needed endeavor. To restore these places back to prairie or Savannah is a way of ensuring that they are able to grow and evolve in a way that ultimately reaches a balance, so that one species – such as juniper – doesn’t become so dominant as to prevent biodiversity from flourishing. As a result, intense, long-term maintenance of the space does not have to be a prolonged and expensive reality.