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Plant Trees, Don't Petrify Them

By Frank Gruber

October 31, 2011 -- Wednesday evening the Santa Monica Planning Commission will review the draft “Urban Forest Master Plan” that the City has been developing since the City Council appointed an urban forest task force in 2009.

The task force, City staff, and outside experts have done a remarkable job not only in creating a block-by-block, species-by-species blueprint for the next (human) generation of planting trees in public spaces in Santa Monica, but also in writing a report that eloquently expresses the role that trees play in a modern city. The task force was made up of knowledgeable residents, and city-savvy heavyweights were involved, too: former mayor Judy Abdo is the Chair and the Vice-Chair is former city manager Susan McCarthy.

The draft plan is available at

The plan has been percolating through various boards and commissions, gathering suggested changes. The Planning Commission will now add its suggestions, and the report is scheduled to go to City Council in December for final review and approval.

There is little that is “natural” about an urban forest, especially in Southern California, where human beings have been altering the flora for tens of thousands of years. Many people like to romanticize Native American peoples as having lived with the land, but archaeology and cultural histories show that Indians typically groomed the natural environment to be more productive. Earlier this year I visited Yosemite, where I found that current Park Service policy is to restore the valley floor there not to a natural state, but closer to the state it was in when Indians kept down the growth of trees.

As the draft urban forest plan says of the various cultures that lived here, “they adjusted their lives to fit the landscape and adjusted the landscape to fit their needs, tastes, and sensibilities.”

Trees are important for cities. They improve quality of life and the environment, and they have a big economic impact. According to the report, Santa Monica has nearly 34,000 trees on public property, with a value of more than $159 million. Trees don’t depreciate, either -- they gain value as they mature.

Most of Santa Monica’s street trees, however, were planted in the 1950s. This means that many of our trees will reach the end of their life spans within the next human generation.

Conceptions of what is beautiful about trees and of what is important about them change with the popular culture, much the same as with anything else, from music to fashion to literature. Right now two of the most powerful trends are encompassed by the words sustainability and diversity. We want to preserve the world for future generations, and we are skeptical of top-down orthodox or “monolithic” thinking.

The draft plan reflects this. It emphasizes, when it comes to choosing species, the environmental benefits they offer, and in its goal of planting “the right tree in the right place,” the plan hopes to expand the available choices of trees, and to allow the inter-planting of different species on the same blocks, as and when trees need replacement.

Controversies regarding the task force’s work have mostly been focused on blocks where residents want to retain palms in the interest of historic character. The task force and staff have largely acceded to these requests, but in the long term it’s not clear what will happen. Palms are among the more provisional of trees -- they don’t live particularly long, the most common species in Santa Monica (Mexican fan palms) develop safety problems once they grow beyond pruning height, the Coastal Commission prohibits some species in the Coastal Zone, and there are difficulties acquiring replacements for some species. I suspect that over the next 20 years there will be more angst about Santa Monica’s palm-lined streets.

Related to the issue of retaining “palm allees” is a more general controversy about the historical nature of street trees. After the draft plan was completed, the task force at a meeting earlier this month voted to add a section creating a program for “heritage trees.” Heritage trees would not fall under the purview of the Landmarks Commission because they would not, by definition, satisfy the criteria of the landmarks ordinance, but they would be trees that would be “recognized” for their “exceptional characteristics and contributions to Santa Monica’s urban environment.”

Meanwhile, the Landmarks Commission has asked for changes to the plan that would create “a more specific approach to the Preservation of Neighborhood Character as defined in the existing tree scape.”

There is, however, a problem with applying to trees notions of historical preservation that were developed with buildings in mind. Trees and buildings have fundamental differences. A building, with proper maintenance, can last forever, but at the same time, once it has been destroyed, it can never be replaced authentically. In contrast, all trees die, but their inherent transitory nature means that, paradoxically perhaps, they can be replaced authentically with the same species. A forest, for instance, remains the same forest even as all of its trees die and are replaced over time.

Since generations of humans have views about trees and landscape different from those of preceding generations it is unfair to use historic preservation to tie the hands of future residents of the city as to what trees they can plant. Nor is there a need to do so, because if a future generation wants to recreate historic plantings, they can do that by returning to and replanting the same species of trees.

Those who want to use trees to define history have it backwards. Trees are transitory, but because they live so long, they offer the living the chance to make an impact on future generations. We’re planting for our children and grandchildren, and let’s hope we do a good job. If, however, our descendants don’t like what we did, they can plant something else.

More to the point, what is considered historical at any given time does not necessarily reflect what the past believed was important (as if in any case beliefs in the past were homogeneous), but what we today believe people in the past should have believed was important. Historicism, as opposed to history, is a very “now” thing, as much as sustainability or diversity, and should only be considered as one of many contemporary factors in decision-making.

History is important, but the worst insult to history is to trivialize it by our own present tense perspectives.

* * *

I want to say something about Anonymous, the new movie based on the idea that William Shakespeare was too uneducated to have written the plays of Shakespeare. It’s not my usual beat, but this snobbish idea is one of my bêtes noire, and the reason is that my day job is being an entertainment lawyer, representing writers, directors and producers.

I suggest that the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild consider expelling the writer and director of Anonymous for promulgating the seditious notion that one has to be educated to write or direct entertainment. The WGA in particular should point out that it’s much harder to write a good plot, dialogue, or a joke than it is to learn anything about history or culture or, for that matter, grammar.

Defenders of Shakespeare typically show how truly impossible it would have been for any of the pretenders to have written the plays, but the best argument is a positive one: no one without Shakespeare’s training on the stage, in show business, could have written such successful entertainments.

Consider movies. In my opinion, John Ford was the greatest film director we’ve had so far, and 400 years from now he will be looked on much as we look on Shakespeare. Like Shakespeare Ford did not invent his medium, but also like Shakespeare he took it to a new level of profundity. Like Shakespeare Ford had only a basic formal education, but he had the best training imaginable: he made two-reeler after two-reeler before he graduated to features.

Who directed John Ford?

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