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An Ode to Urban Forests

A new book unpacks the indelible relationship between city dwellers and trees.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Each spring, some 1 million people flock to Washington, D.C. to see the cherry blossoms. They wander in awe below the cathedral of branches, whose blooms cast a pink tinge across the sidewalks and reflecting pools. “It’s intense, public tree worship,” says Jill Jonnes. “They’re so beautiful; they’re so ephemeral.”

Jonnes is the author of the new book, Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape (Viking, $32). In it, she deftly outlines the mission to plant trees and quantify their utility, and the campaigns to eviscerate pests that have ailed them. And there’s a strong, data-backed case for city trees. Jonnes describes the many tangible benefits the canopy infuses into city life: a bushy urban forest pays environmental dividends in the form of storing carbon, siphoning stormwater, and cleaning the air; trees have also been shown to nudge property values north; they also mitigate depression, stress and other health problems, and boost attention spans. In June, scientists at the U.S. Forest Service tallied up the monetary value of California’s 9.1 million street trees, my colleague Laura Bliss reported. The researchers concluded that every $1 directed towards planting or maintaining street trees yields reaps an average of $5.82 in benefits.

But beyond quantifying those dollars-and-sense benefits, the book soars when Jonnes teases out the profound emotional connection city dwellers feel towards the nature that surrounds them. There’s an “essential bond between people and trees,” Jonnes says. “I think it’s somewhat mysterious, which is part of its charm.”

Trees, she writes, have long figured into civic life: they were the site of public gatherings, and they were deployed as metaphors. Part of the allure of Arbor Day, dreamed up in 1872, was the symbolism of trees as children, maturing side-by-side with human youth, Jonnes says. “As those children grew up and saw those trees they planted become big, they were enthusiastic about that with their own children and grandchildren,” Jonnes adds. She cites marriage rituals in which a couple plants trees to cement their bond and signal their rootedness. “A tree links you to the passage of time and to a particular place,” she says.

But time and technology have eroded some of those conflations between nature and civic events. “Life has moved indoors, much of the world has been paved over,” Jonnes says. “Trees don’t live forever.” Take, for example, the 600-year-old white oak tree in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, declining after centuries of being at the center of the community. “Town and tree would always be inseparable, or so the people thought,” the Washington Post reported in June. Now, as the tree’s branches fall bare, many locals have begun to mourn the tree, talking about its “demise as they would a family member’s.”

That indelible pull towards nature plays out across the globe. In Melbourne last year, citizens commandeered a web platform—intended to help grease the municipal gears by funneling attention where it’s needed—to avow their love for local trees. The trees had been assigned IDs and email addresses so that people could report dangerous conditions, such as dangling branches. But instead of writing in with alerts, Adrienne LaFrance wrote for The Atlantic, residents sent flowery greetings: “everything from banal greetings and questions about current events to love letters and existential dilemmas.”

I saw this play out last winter, when I tagged along with a tree identification class on a gray February morning in Brooklyn. Even in that bare-branched month, the class was rapt. The instructor, Lisa Nett, told me that attendees may feel comforted by the promise of spring on the horizon, even as the bony branches scraped the sky. Looking at the trees is a “longing for that source of life, that fresh vitality” of spring, she told me.

Perhaps the most affecting portions of Jonnes’s book delve into trees as symbols of resilience. Memorial trees gained traction in the aftermath of World War I, Jonnes writes, as “the grieving nation sought suitable ways to honor its almost shocking number of dead.” Green, robust trees were framed as ways to acknowledge soldiers’ vigorous sacrifices. More recently, trees have also become symbols of a body politic shaken and shaped by traumatic events, but managing to persevere.

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, most people weren’t thinking too much about trees. The urban canopy around lower Manhattan had been charred and mangled, smothered by soot and debris. But Jonnes chronicles one woman who did notice a Callary pear bearing a small green shoot. The tree had been rooted near the Twin Towers since 1976. After the attacks, “aside from that one long branch and its few leaves, all of the other branches had been blasted off, reduced to jagged stups splayed out of the eight-inch-wide trunk,” Jonnes writes. But Rebecca Clough, who worked in the city’s department of design and construction, spotted the sign of life. “Anything that’s trying that hard to survive, I thought, we should save it,” she told JJonnes.

Thirteen years later, Jonnes writes, Clough returned to the tree, “seeking solace and communion.” She placed her hands on its bark and titled her head to look up into its branches, dappling the light. Against the odds, the splintered tree had recovered, and flourished. “The tree has definitely become a piece of Americana,” Clough said.

Jonnes, the founder of the nonprofit Baltimore Tree Trust, advocates prioritizing city trees and reorienting our lives to more frequently intersect the natural world. In addition to encouraging citizens to learn how to be responsible stewards of local trees, she says, “it would be a great thing for people to realize, ‘here are these old trees, and things should happen under them.’” And as much as trees can be transportive, inviting imagination to alight on the branches arcing towards the sky, they can also anchor us. Trees, with their graceful grit, embody some of the very best traits that we can hope to emulate.

Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape, $32 at Amazon.

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.