Now is a good time to hug a city tree

Nature shouldn’t be regarded as something separate from humans

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It’s time to say goodbye to the Monterey Cypress at 1500 Geary Blvd. Although The City’s Bureau of Urban Forestry requested that the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency not remove the healthy tree, the transit agency authorized it anyway. To honor the cypress’ life, which has shared the street for decades, a group of mourners braved the busy boulevard with canes and walkers on May 1 to bring the tree flowers and sing it a song.

“This necessary and sturdy creature has no rights apparently,” Deetje Boler, an 87-year-old San Francisco resident of 60 years, told me after the memorial. “It’s been dealing with gas on Geary Boulevard for all these years and now it’s being attacked. I feel outraged.”

More San Franciscans should feel Boler’s outrage over the removal of healthy trees. Our urban forest won’t flourish if we treat trees only as pieces of urban infrastructure made to serve humans by cleaning the air, addressing climate change and making our city pretty. Instead, we should remember that cypresses, sycamores and New Zealand Christmas trees are living, breathing, connected San Franciscans, like us.

Research conducted by ecologist, professor and author Suzanne Simard, has revealed that different species of trees “talk” to each other. In one study, a Douglas fir that had been injured by insects appeared to send chemical warning signs to a ponderosa pine growing nearby. In response, the pine produced defense enzymes to protect against the insect. These links can occur through an underground network of fungi, and the biggest, oldest trees—sometimes referred to as the “mother tree”—can act as the hub of this “Wood Wide Web.”

Simard’s research showcases the importance of viewing San Francisco’s urban forest as part of an integrated community. There is still much to learn about the diverse array of trees shading San Francisco’s sidewalks and streets. We may not fully understand the impact that removing one healthy, mature tree will have on neighboring trees, local biodiversity and us.

“We view the world as this bunch of parts, and we think we can dissect it all and put it back together the way we want and expect it to work. But it doesn’t work,” said Simard in a recent interview with New York Magazine.

While there is truth in Simard’s statement, San Franciscans do demonstrate exceptions to this general rule. The draft of the City’s Climate Action Plan, for example, includes several strategies specifically dedicated to trees, such as optimizing management of the entire urban forest system. And San Francisco voters’ passage of the Healthy Trees and Safe Sidewalks ballot initiative (Proposition E) in 2016 set aside critical funding for street tree maintenance.

But it is inappropriate for The City’s transit agency to bypass the Bureau of Urban Forestry’s denial and authorize the removal of a mature, healthy tree. Trees are not the same as streets and public transit. San Francisco needs one agency with expertise in urban forest management in charge of authorizing removals. It also needs stiff penalties for developers who chop down trees without permits and funding to plant more trees, especially in heavily-cemented areas, such as schools.

At the same time, The City’s trees need more of us to care. During the shelter-in-place, San Franciscans enjoyed local parks and outdoor spaces in record numbers. This connection to nature should translate to a greater desire to protect it.

“People are rediscovering the benefit of being among green trees and plants,” Dan Flanagan, who lived in a treehouse in an American Elm during college, and who’s retiring next month as executive director of the local nonprofit Friends of the Urban Forest, told me. “Trees calm us down. It’s an important part of who we are. And we had become distant from that.”

But the best thing San Franciscans can do for the environment is to stop viewing trees, and nature in general, as something separate from us. If trees can connect with different species and help them thrive, why can’t more of us?

“We could have a commemorative tree hugging,” Boler laughingly answered when I asked her how she thought we could inspire more people to care. “Everyone should go out and hug a tree and feel its peace.”

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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