This week, I noticed city tree trimmers on Olympic Boulevard near Doheny finally thinning a row of enormous Ficuses (Ficii?). It was a happy sight, because I haven't seen much trimming lately, what with budget cuts. The urban canopy, at least in my neighborhood, had grown rather top-heavy. These big boys on Olympic stood like noble behemoths, their bark scabbed with people's initials, their mighty roots heaving up the sidewalk. They needed some love.
The tree trimmers were doing their usual hatchet job, using chain saws to hack off limbs, rather than artfully thinning smaller branches out to open up the center of the tree and allow light and air to flow through. I hate seeing bad things happen to good trees, but I reasoned it was better than nothing.
The next day I drove past the site and saw that the limb-lopping was merely the first step in a total take-down. These trees weren't being trimmed, they were being murdered. Today I went to see what was left and this was all I could find:
Just a series of square, brown holes, like freshly-dug graves dotting the sidewalk. For a moment I naively hoped that this was in preparation for new planting. I felt sure that Villaraigosa would pop a few of his million trees into these empty spots. But the truth is, as my friend, the brilliant Emily Green who has written so elegantly in the LA Times about city trees told me, the urban street tree program in LA is "truly down the shitter."
There are so many factors working against our trees: neglect, root pruning (a gentle-sounding term for savaging roots in order to get to pipes, or dig trenches), even things we can't control, like insufficient rainfall. But the primary cause of tree death is over-watering by lawn sprinklers. Trees want deep watering a few times a year, but constant sprinkling causes roots to stay close to the surface, making them unable to support their heavy heads. One stiff breeze, such as the one we had last December and thousands of trees can topple, leaving us all the poorer.
In almost every neighborhood I walk in these days I encounter these sad stumps. This one is located a block from my pad, its rotten center providing the forensic evidence of its demise. This one was nearly five feet wide, and once provided lush shade to nearby homes, reducing the need for air-conditioning in the warmer months -- a two-fold reduction in greenhouse gases.
There really is no downside to trees, they provide us with loyal, silent service, shading us, scrubbing the air clean so we can breathe, and giving free housing to our animal friends. Yet we treat them as though they are disposable nuisances. We stuff them into tiny holes, gird them with stakes, insist on growing lawns at their feet. All around the city we can see the result of our imperious carelessness: stumps of Ficus, Carrotwood, Chinese Elm and Sycamore like so many heads on spikes outside the castle walls of a brutal king. I paused over this mighty stump, which looked like a shoe left behind by a dead giant and I felt the loss down to my own roots. I trudged on under an unforgiving sun, feeling exposed and sorry for us all.
Then, three blocks later I encountered a neighbor working in his garage. He was kneeling in a drift of sawdust, sanding an enormous tree stump into something smooth and graceful. Bryan Drinchich is a Montenegran craftsman, a soft-spoken man who makes exquisite furniture from reclaimed wood. The piece he was working on would be a coffee table, made from a stump salvaged from the big wind back in December. It was a beautiful and hopeful sight.
Of course, not all dead trees and tree-trimmings get turned into art. Mostly they get ground up into bits and dumped. But even then we can close the loop, especially if you call a conscientious arborist like Carl Mellinger, who will drive his big truck over to your house at the end of his workday and dump that divine hash right on your driveway. Suddenly, your property will smell like the Santa Monica Mountains and birds and insects will come flocking to your little fiefdom. For you will have, in abundance, one of the most beautiful things of all...
Which, of course, is the perfect medium for planting trees.
Update: All those tree-planting wells on Olympic have been filled with Magnolias -- which appear to be the new tree of the moment in LA. A happy ending!