Grafters, Edible Streets and
Famous Trees Killed by Idiots
The idea of turning urban greens into food resources for the hungry and the homeless is not new. But as far as the economy is concerned, there’s an increasing urgency making such an informal idea into a practical alternative to help feed the poor.
Several cities in North America and Europe already have some kind of seasonal programs that turn selected green spaces into edible tree markets, open to anyone. These programs are usually run in partnership with grassroots communities, and some are quite ambitious, aiming at creating new fruit tree species.
Talking about species, though, no other is as ambivalent and contradictory as our own, and along with such commendable efforts and noble purposes, there’s always the unconscious, the cruel and the plain ignorant who won’t hesitate at terminating a thousand-year wondrous life, that only happened to be on the idiot’s way.
Notwithstanding the patronizing aspect of such efforts, a fruit tree-lined street, or a corner in a public park, do offer a renewable, low-cost maintenance natural resource, that can provide a nutritious supplement to the usually unbalanced diet most soup kitchens and charity organizations are able to serve.
Plus, seasonal tasks involved in planting and maintaining edible trees and gardens can be easily tended to by volunteers of the same community that may benefit from them. New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Montreal, Vancouver and Canterbury, to name a few, already have plenty of expertise on the matter.
Outside cities, there’re many successful examples of permaculture gardens or even ancient forests that feed their neighboring farmers. What started as an experiment by Jerome Osentowski for the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute, for example, is now an over 20-year old polyculture garden.
It has fruit trees, many of which seed themselves, and nitrogen-fixing shrubs that help keep the soil fertile. The institute uses greenhouses to study and, if needed, replenish the garden with species cultivated specifically to help neutralize the climate impact on the ecosystem.
Geoff Lawton‘s 1970s discovery of a 2000-year-old food forest in Morocco is another instance of self-sustaining, naturally-occurring vegetation whose diversity and vigor is strong enough to feed the communities surrounding it.
The self-perpetuating oasis has a combination of date palms, olive trees, bananas, grapes, guava, mulberries, carob, tamarind, and many other species of fruits and vegetables, that form a self-contained ecosystem, that hardly needs any help to remain vital.
So even before anyone had the obvious idea of nurturing a system of urban food trees and community gardens, nature was already showing that it’s not just possible but, given the right conditions, it’s a virtually inexhaustible source of sustenance to those who gravitate around it.
MAPPING EDIBLE SOURCES
But it’s in urban settings, the place where most of mankind is bound to be living in the next few decades, where such a self-sustained source of food can make a difference in the lives of so many. And it’s where the challenges facing such an idea tend to multiply.
Seattle, for example, is about to turn seven acres of underused land into the nation’s largest urban ‘food forest.’ A community park planted with a variety of produce that visitors are encouraged to harvest and eat, for free, it’ll also be an educational tool to promote urban agriculture.
In Vancouver, Foodtree.com has just compiled and mapped all fruit trees on the public boulevards of the city. So you may find, for example, where the 13 fig trees are located, or the nearest fruit tree from where you stand, if you happen to be visiting or live in the city.
It’s a clever idea, and even though it’s not directed at the poorest, it shows how a future, comprehensive map of the location of every free edible resource could be put together, with valuable information that can be used by anyone, not just those who can afford a smartphone.
NEW HYBRID GRAFTERS
The City of Canterbury leaves very little to chance, as it offers technical expertise and regulates the planting and consumption of fruit trees, which can only be placed in determined areas of the city. Olive trees, bush cherry, apple, pomegranate and avocado are among the produce one’s allow to plant.
The San Francisco-based Guerrilla Grafters group has a far more ambitious agenda: they actually cross different species of the thousands of trees lining city streets, by splicing branches from fruit trees onto the non–fruit ones to grow cherries, Asian pears, and other produce for residents, free of charge.
The effort is vulnerable to criticism in other states where it’s illegal to have fruit trees on pedestrian footpaths. Fallen fruits become a health and safety hazard, and also attract insects and rodents. Their solution: to enlist community volunteers to monitor the system and prevent such problem.
THE TREE MURDERERS
And then, of course, there are the rotten fruits, not worth their weight in human flesh, who always manage to destroy, either by inattention or pure stupidity, what sometimes took nature hundreds if not thousands of years to build. We’re not sure what kind of punishment would fit such ominous crimes.
We told you about the latest of these sad episodes: the January killing of the Senator, a 118-foot, 3,500 year old cypress tree in Florida. A meth addicted has been charged for putting it on fire, while seeking shelter for a fix. The world’s fifth-oldest tree burned from the inside out and collapsed.
There’s the case of a rare genetic mutation that turned golden the needles of Kiidk’yaas, a Sitka spruce in British Columbia also known as the Golden Spruce. In 1997, a forest engineer felled the tree to protest commercial logging. Though scientists produced clones from its recovered branches, it did not survive.
Apparently, even in the middle of the Sahara desert a tree is not safe. A solitary acacia, L’Arbre du Ténéré, was a landmark for caravans passing through, marking the site of a deep well. Until it wasn’t: in 1973, it was run over by an allegedly drunk truck driver and it also didn’t survive.
BEFALLEN BY IGNORANCE
Prometheus, a California Great Basin bristlecone pine, may have been the oldest known organism on Earth, as it was estimated to be between 4862 to more than 5000 years old when it was cut down in 1964. The historical record points to a spectacularly misinformed student as the one responsible for its demise.
As Donald Currey was trying to date the tree, he failed at collecting enough material from its core with the tools at hand. So he was granted, by the Forest Service, the right to bring it down to count its rings. In that case, at least public outcry over the felling helped the emergence in the area of environmental protection activist groups.
Of all the destruction, the WWII is also indirectly responsible for the killing of Changi Tree, which stood for centuries, all 76-meter height of it, as Singapore’s symbol of strength. Then, in 1942, fearing that the invading Japanese would use it as a ranging point, it was cut down. They still regret it.
A ROT TRUST FUND
As we do too. Our relationship with other species on this planet is marked by these two extremes, and often they cancel each other out. On one hand, we desperately need to make this work, by finding ways to protect trees and the flora in general, so they can offer us shelter and food in return.
On the other, our extremely harsh, self-centered and, ultimately, suicidal lifestyle are their biggest enemy and our own too. The diversity and vigor of a huge extension of green land such as the Amazon Basin, for example, would be enough to provide for a huge parcel of our survival.
At the same time, its vulnerable and delicate conditions, developed along thousands of years to withstand everything but the human impact, may be the gateway to the forest’s own destruction. There’s much that could be done, but even more ways that we could only rush it towards extinction.