Philadelphia Metropolis


My City of Trees

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By Margaret Guthrie

I am unsure exactly when I fell in love with trees; I do know when I fell out of one, breaking my arm.  I was six and don't remember much about it but evidence exists in a snapshot of a very gamine me with a very large plaster cast almost up to my armpit.  (I am old so back then every fracture was encased in lots of plaster.)  It did not even dent my love of trees or of climbing up into them.  Age took care of the climbing part.

The sidewalks in my neighborhood, East Mount Airy, tilt and heave like the deck of a ship in a storm because of the trees, or more precisely the roots of the trees.  Big tall trees have big roots which  heave up the sidewalk at groundOak Tree leaves.jpg level.  One of the reasons my house appealed to me the first time I saw it, before I even stepped inside, were the large oak trees that lined the sidewalks on both sides of the street and marched two-by-two up the boulevard in the middle. 

Around the corner there are a couple of white pines and several spruce trees; walking by them and inhaling their scent transports me back to the coast of Maine where we went in the summers.  Pine trees and horses are the only living things that smell good when they sweat.  My remembrance of pine scent is invariably mixed with the salt sea smell of the north Atlantic right outside my bedroom window in my great-aunt's house.  There were piney woods on either side of the house where I would look for unbroken sea urchin shells dropped by the gulls.  Any that missed the rocks and landed in the woods often came down intact on the cushion of years' accumulation of pine needles.

One of the ways in which this city reminds me of Paris is the trees.  Paris, where I lived all too briefly, is a city of trees.  In fact, I discovered that every tree in Paris is inventoried on a database where its health and well-being is tracked, its need for a replacement known.  Philadelphia has nothing like that, of course, but I have discovered that the city is doing a pretty good job when it comes to trees.

   Philadelphia has been an official Tree City for 35 years.  The National Arbor Day Foundation designates which cities or towns are tree cities according to criteria they have set up.  In addition, the city has teamed with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society in a new program to plant a million trees in various neighborhoods.  This program is a really good thing for two reasons that come immediately to mind.  The first is that a lot of the city's trees are mature and some in decline so they need to be replaced.  Second, I have noticed in traveling around the city that in residential neighborhoods, the blocks with trees on them are usually better maintained than those blocks without trees.  There's something about trees that encourages people to take pride in their micro-neighborhood.  Beauty, shade, birds, whatever it is, trees have a positive effect on a block.

   Almost better than all of that, though, is, an organization devoted to planting orchards in vacant lots throughout the city, with emphasis on the more ravaged neighborhoods.  This brings not only trees to a neighborhood, but fresh food as well.  It invests the neighbors in caring for the trees, bushes and vines that will yield fresh fruit for all to share.  Philly orchard came into existence in 2007 and so far has planted 29 orchards with a total of 374 trees.  The organization plants apples, Asian pears, cherries, figs, peaches, pears, plums and persimmons as well as blueberries, blackberries and raspberries as well as grape vines.

   Full disclosure:  Since moving into my house I have indulged in a bit of guerrilla gardening.  I have underplanted some of the oaks on the grassy islands in the middle of my street with dogwoods.  And where a couple of oaks were missing, I brought a young oak sapling from my sister's place out in the country and planted that and it is now over two stories tall.  I have underplanted the young oak and the dogwoods with azaleas and daffodil bulbs.  I also planted a cup-and-saucer magnolia out there that one of my nephews gave me for Mother's Day a few years ago.  Planting a tree is an exercise in optimism because the likelihood I will be around to see that young oak as a mature tree is slim to none, but it will provide shade and cleanse the air for someone else. That thought pleases me.  What better legacy could there be?





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