Three About Trees &
a 5,000 Year Old Truck
Buddha sat under one. Sumerians have crossed oceans on ships built with them. Many species disappeared, or exist only in old depictions, paintings predating the modern era. Yet defying all odds, trees still grace our world, and stun us with their girth, height, and vigor.
That’s why a man in India has planted whole forests of them, and the Brazilians plan to count those in the Amazon. Now, as the world’s biggest trees continue to grow, according to botanists, an editor at NOVA begs new architects: please, stop placing them in skyscrapers.
In New York City, where the latter thrive, though, trees are subjected to more mundane afflictions of street life, such as dog pee, rusted chains, and cigarette butts. That’s why the Treedom Project is halfway through a quest, which ends May 26, to ‘liberate them’ from such indignities.
But without being the cradle of ancient trees, or having a forest to call its own – never mind the woody wilderness of upstate New York – the city is still home of one of the gems of modern urban green architecture: Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s Central Park.
Carved and carefully planted at the heart of the city, it’s a wonder that neither its 800 acres plus nor its incredible variety of species haven’t felt to the axes of powerful real estate moguls. If the park’s been the setting of a few bloody crimes, it’s also been the very reason many a resident haven’t yet lost his or her mind.
Still, for all their majestic and soothing presence in Manhattan, no Central Park tree comes close in age to Methuselah, a fittingly-named truck which, by some accounts, is the world’s oldest. The bristlecone is said to be 4,844 years old, a thousand years older than any other on Earth, and it’s been living all this time at a pine forest in California.
The good news, at least if you’re a tree, is that many of the big species are still growing, just like what you’d wish your mind were doing right now. A Humboldt State University research team found that 3,200-year old giant sequoias, for instance, actually grow faster later in life than in their ‘teenage’ years, when all they’ve got is a few hundred summers imprinted on their rings.
One of nature’s best recordkeepers, trees can report back to us our entire walk on this planet, better that we ever could. They may not outlive us, but if that happens, they surely won’t complain. As the Gautama himself said, these green giants are so gentle that they give shade even to those who wield an axe to cut them down.
THE FOREST MAN OF INDIA
For Jadav “Molai” Payeng, the quest started in 1979, in a barren sandbar in the Indian Assam region. After working for five years at a government project, planting 200 hectares of forest in a neighboring area along with other laborers, Jadav returned to his arid and inhospitable land, prone to floods, and at times, infested with snakes.
He began sowing seeds and tending to the sprouting plants, one by one, and now, over 30 years after, is the proud keeper of a thousand hectares of reserve forest, the Mulai Kathoni, which wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for his effort. It shelters four Bengal tigers, three Indian rhinos, plenty of deer, rabbits, and apes, innumerable varieties of birds, and a few million ants.
Oh, and there are the trees, of course, several thousand of them, according to Wikipedia. Every year, the reserve is visited by a herd of elephants who stay around for several months. It’s baffling then that, until 2008, no one at his state’s forestry department knew about the Mulai Kathoni, which has been, at times, at odds with locals who want to raze it.
But even now that his work gained international recognition, he’s still the sole keeper of the green oasis. Anyone with that kind of record could rest on his laurels and bask on his well-deserved celebrity status. Jadav won’t hear about it, though. At 52, he wants to plant another forest, no matter how long it’d take him. Want to bet he’ll do it?
COUNTING AMAZON TREES
The Amazon forest exist in a scale that it’s hard to quantify, unless you resort to rough comparisons for size and dimension. For instance, to have an idea of its over five thousand kilometers width, running from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts of South America, it may be useful to think of the U.S., which also runs from coast to coast.
By the way, that’s just over a thousand kilometers shy of the Earth’s radius, 6378 km. So, if you picture yourself flying from New Jersey to California, and if the forest were within the U.S., all you could see below you during the whole three-hour trip, would be green. A luscious, luxuriant ‘ocean’ of green leaves from the top of the canopies.
About 60% of the forest is in Brazil, an estimated trillion trees tightly packed, despite a growing number of ‘bald spots,’ the ongoing predatory deforestation that the Brazilian government seems unable, or unwilling say critics, to stop. Short of preventing its demise, it decided that it can do something about it: count the trees.
According to the Brazilian National Forest Inventory, ‘the census will scour 3,288,000 square miles, sampling 20,000 points at 20 kilometer intervals and registering the number, height, diameter, and species of the trees, among other data.’ The massive undertaking is set to be completed in the next four years.
You may insert here your own bad joke about how much shorter, and easier, the job will be, if the rate of destruction continues at the present pace. But that did slow down lately, to be sure. Still, it’s a worthy enterprise; even Brazilians are relatively ignorant about what’s really in the forest, and if past experiences are to trusted, new species may be found in the process.
AN ARCHITECT’S FANCY
The quest to integrate more green areas into urban centers has intensified in the past 50 years, when it became evident that trees and vegetation not just improve city dwellers’ physical health, but also their minds and quality of life: we simply feel good around leaves, and they can also be awfully decorative.
It naturally goes beyond that. The green movement, if it hasn’t quite led to bankruptcy the villains of environmental pollution, fossil fuel producers, it’s driven city planners and architects to imagine creative ways to build having in mind, at least, the importance of saving and better manage energy resources. Thus the green buildings.
Already on its way to become a new model of self-sufficiency and sustainability, this new architectural approach to building in the city considers factors that just a few years ago would be unthinkably expensive to include in a project, such as lighter construction materials, water recycling systems, solar energy, and yes, gardens and trees at the rooftops.
In fact, in a city like New York, which has now more green areas than it ever had, produce gardens on rooftops of buildings have become a viable alternative for locavores and celebrity chefs. Now, about those trees, not so much. Apparently, some people have a problem with them, Tim DeChant, an editor at NOVA and the PerSquareMile blog, chief among them.
As it turns out, his reasons are both practical and sensible. Trees look good in skyscrapers only on the architect’s drawings, he says. They may appear more ‘green’ and impress the buyers, but when funding gets short, they’re the first ones to go, along with that fancy marble in the hallways, and the 60th floor Olympic-size pool. So why bother?
Also, ‘life sucks up there. It’s hot, cold, windy, the rain lashes at you, and the snow and sleet pelt you at high velocity.’ We told you, he has a point. ‘Life for city trees is hard enough on the ground. I can’t imagine what it’s like at 500 feet, where nearly every climate variable is more extreme than at street level.’
THE DREAM OF A TREEHOUSE
Deep down, we all wish we could live up there with the birds and bees. Unfortunately, most of us never even slept on a truck high above the madness of this world. More likely, we live in boxes made with them, and hardly ever see what’s going on outside our windows, let alone how does the sunset look like from behind a branch.
But that doesn’t make us any lesser beings or victims of a cruel fate, even though that’s what we wish it could absolve us. Because some of us just go and plant trees, and after a few years, have a whole forest under their belt. Others will spend years counting them and yes, may even have to live in one of them, so to learn what’s all about.
Yet, many may be thinking even more critically, and won’t get carried away with all this goodwill stuff, if it doesn’t also include a moment of reflection: but, after all that’s said and done, is that really the best way we can have trees around, perched atop a half mile high tower, left to battle the elements (and climate change) on their own?
Still, we simply can’t throw our arms up in the air and get paralyzed by the fear of turning everything into an even worst mess. The hell that we didn’t get to sleep a single night under the canopy of a sequoia. We would complain about the bugs, anyway. We’re still responsible, though, to keep them around, if possible, at ground level.
Others will come and enjoy them. Just like those elephants who occupy Jadav’s forest six months at a time, we should always expect that others will come to occupy our best dreams. Even those we didn’t get to live or turn into reality to ourselves. Trees can be many things to many a city dweller. It’s up to that person, though, what they’re going to be to the trees.