Tree City Loses Its Cachet

Forty-plus years ago, we moved 2100 miles from the urban-Midwest to Pacific Northwest, USA, our destination city sight unseen—at least, unseen in real life. A friend had traveled there and returned flaunting post cards. One card was a view of the city’s main street. The street appeared to end in a hill covered with trees.

From my concrete-laden world, the picture was beyond implausible. I told her, “That’s not really how it looks downtown, is it? They doctored the composition to make it look nicer than it was.”

“No,” she insisted, “I think that’s really how it looks.” I remained skeptical, imagining a future reunion when I would thrust my finger at her and denounce the post card as a sham.

Three months later we set off for graduate school out west, from Interstate 80 just southwest of Chicago, across Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and into Oregon. A little ways beyond the Idaho border, we grew transfixed by low-lying white clouds on the horizon; they grew perceptibly every few miles. Eventually we realized the clouds never shape-shifted. They weren’t clouds but snow-capped mountain peaks, the Cascade Range.

Cascade Range

We hadn’t researched the area in advance of our move, but I had a vague recollection that some such geographic formation existed. Making our way up and over this gentle range, we discovered another wonder: white-ruffled rivers that babbled and burbled over rocks and timber, a marvel upending my image of rivers back home—the smooth-gliding Fox River, renown for spontaneously igniting from toxins steeped within its muddy banks. Here I found a western revision, the lively green McKenzie.

McKenzie River
Standard-issue CPO

Our old Buick sedan lumbered like a barge, side-swiping waterfalls and tipping around mountain curves, down through foothills of holly farms and blueberry fields, into the valley that cradled our new home. The town’s look was conventional—a little downbeat and old-fashioned but familiar enough for us to feel comfortable. Over the weekend, we ventured out to the city-center army surplus store for camping gear and woolen CPO jackets, 70s hippie de rigeur. My counterpart chose olive, I a polished US Navy-navy. Our arms loaded heading back to the car, my gaze swept the townscape. Sure enough the street dead-ended a quarter-mile north in a hill studded with trees. They called it a butte, just a bump on the landscape, and there it sat, right in the middle of town.

So began our decades among ski slopes, ocean cliffs overhanging beaches that spouted spray through mussel-crusted rocks, whitewater rivers, corkscrew hilly roads, and speed limit signs shot up by local cowboys. We took to hiking and camping nearly every weekend, when we weren’t in school.

We house-sat here for one of my profs

In those days, our cities had not discovered landscape architecture. They were unadorned concrete monuments. Except for the poshest residential areas, streets had not been transformed into boulevards with landscaped medians. Businesses had not framed their entry doors with potted ornamental grasses. Our new city, in this respect, was rather unkempt. Charming bunglalows aside, you could discern no exclusive neighborhoods, except around the university where professors maintained dignified red brick colonials with boxwood hedging.

On campus
Douglas fir as far as the eye can see

But trees were everywhere. “Tree City!” one of my new school buddies from Iowa gushed. University sidewalks were lined with a smattering of variously colored maples among the fir. That’s Douglas fir, to be precise—not a true fir, nor genetically aligned to other evergreens, suggesting this tree was a type unto itself. Documented in the 18th century by an eponymous Scottish naturalist, native Douglas fir stretches from north of the (San Francisco) Bay Area right up through Oregon, Washington, and into British Columbia. On our weekend jaunts east from town and into the forests of fir, the hillsides to the horizon softened from dusky green to deep and frosty blue. Our only occupation: to inhale, to move, and to reflect back freshness and well being.

Back on campus, classic university life rebooted each fall, rustling around leafy quadrangles and dignified elder evergreens, the imperturbable solace of college student life.

Three years into grad school we had a baby on the way and established ourselves in a tiny rental house set back from the street under a towering redwood and walnut trees. Another couple years and number two was on the horizon. So we bought a home with two mature willow trees, a scraggly fir, and a sumac out front, three firs, a cedar, and five fruit trees out back. Thirteen trees on our half-acre lot.

Over the decades we added more: a line of poplars along with apple, peach, plum, and cherry. Eventually birches, sweet gum, dogwood, redbud, maple, and cypress elbowed their way in. Admittedly some trees died. The peach quickly succumbed when we refused to spray it with pesticides. Fifty-foot poplars rotted from the core out. One willow ran afoul of the electric company, and bronze borers attacked the birches.

Forever, it seems, green growth has been irrepressible in the Pacific Northwest. Despite our losses, we’ve steadily looked out over a veritable parkland, now grown in order and sophistication. Climate-wise, I flatter myself that we’re model citizens. We tend the grounds, grow veggies, compost, and plant for pollinators. In truth, we’re no exception. Tens of thousands of neighbors share our devotion to outdoor space. Greenspace, parks and recreation bond measures pass by landslides here.

Acer japonica Sango-Kaku/ Coral bark maple

No wonder the report this year from our Urban Forestry Supervisor came as a shock. “Tree City’s” tree canopy is declining about 1% a year. To restore and sustain our ecosystem, we need to plant three to five thousand more trees a year over the next ten to twenty years.

I should have paid attention when a well established 25-foot maple across the street up and died last year. So did a hardy 20-year-old coral-bark maple outside our kitchen windows. Too dry? Twenty-first century heat waves and forest fires have exacted their toll. While those miles and miles of Douglas fir remain one of the best oxygen-producers on the planet, annual conditions for their stability have grown wobbly. Fire and heat aren’t the only parts of the equation. We face a human toll. More inhabited space means less canopy. Trees increase the soil’s water retention. As go the trees, so goes our water.

Black Tartarian cherry tree, planted in 1847

We came west for school; it’s not an exaggeration to say we stayed for the trees. Trees are our fundamental daily furnishings, and they enrich every breath. Word has it an acre of Douglas fir can absorb the amount of carbon dioxide produced by two cars in one year. We don’t have an acre of fir on our lot, which suggests we’re not keeping our part of the bargain. From the university-area hilltop park studded with oak and fir, to the heritage cherry tree in the city rose garden, to our flatland but tree-rich neighborhood across town, this tree city still loves its trees, with insufficient support, it appears. I imagine we all can find ways to befriend our own, others’, even public and wild trees. Here as of yet, no one has pressed the five-alarm bell, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to keep planting.