About a decade ago, Melbourne, Australia had a problem, aside from all the venomous spiders and snakes that make life Down Under an everyday adventure.
The city’s trees were old and getting older. If you think of a city’s infrastructure as nothing but streets and water lines and sewer lines, you’re missing part of the picture. Look up, not down. Cities have forests, too, just more intentional ones than those found out in the wild. Sometimes those trees are the true skyscrapers, older and arguably more beautiful than some random office building. But back to Melbourne’s problem. About 40% of its trees were — how shall we put this gently? — elderly. Add in the ones that were struggling due to drought or disease and that meant Melbourne was looking at losing half of its trees within the next 20 years.
That would be an aesthetic problem for a city that bills itself as “Australia’s Garden City.” It also would be an environmental problem because Melbourne had set its sights on doubling the size of its tree canopy as a way to help hold down rising temperatures in a time of climate change — cities tend to be hotter because heat reflects off all the concrete.
Planting more trees was one solution — the city has embarked on a program to plant 3,000 new trees each year. But what about taking care of the trees Melbourne already had? How do you know where to begin when you have more than 70,000 trees? Melbourne hit upon a novel solution: After an aggressive tree-mapping campaign, it assigned an ID number to each of the city’s trees — and then set up a website with an email component. The idea was that if people saw a tree that seemed sick or damaged, they could email the city about the problem.
And they did. Boy, did they — about 3,000 emails in the program’s first two years. However, a surprising number of these emails weren’t utilitarian reports about limbs and leaves, they were love letters. Yes, love letters to trees. Here’s one example, as reported by the BBC:
Hello Weeping Myrtle,
I’m sitting inside near you, and I noticed on the urban tree map you don’t have many friends nearby. I think that’s sad so I want you to know I’m thinking of you. I also want to thank you for providing oxygen for us to breath in the hustle and bustle of the city.
Best Regards, N
There lots and lots of emails like that — expressing gratitude for the tree’s shade, fondly recalling a special memory that played out in the trees’ presence, or sometimes expressing sadness at the tree’s inevitable decline.
I am sorry that you’re so sick. Can I climb you one last time? Strip down that bark for me baby, it’ll make you feel better.
Who could have imagined people felt so strongly about trees? Well, today is Arbor Day here in the United States so somebody must feel strongly about trees. (If Australia is Down Under, are we Up Top?). That made us wonder about Roanoke’s trees. Or Salem’s trees. Or Blacksburg’s trees. Or whatever community you live in. If we had an “email a tree” program like Melbourne, what trees in our urban forest would generate the most love letters?
Alas, we can only speculate about that. We know in Blacksburg there’s a lot of sentiment for the oak tree on the old Blacksburg Middle School property. It was planted in 1976 as part of the bicentennial celebrations, but is slated to get chopped down as the property gets developed. We know in Fincastle people are mighty proud of the old honey locust outside the United Methodist church. Sometimes it ranks as the biggest of its species in the country; sometimes a rival in Frederick, Maryland does. We know that in the 1940s Roanoke wanted to remove the white oak that stood in the middle — yes, middle — of Carolina Avenue in South Roanoke but people rallied to save the tree so the city relented. When the tree finally gave up the ghost in 2005 — collapsing under its own weight after its trunk had hollowed out —people came from miles away to mourn the fallen giant and take home pieces of it. They also badgered city officials to plant a new tree in the same place, which the city did. So yes, getting emotionally attached to a tree isn’t simply an Australian thing.
Here’s what we do know: Roanoke has between 20,000 and 25,000 trees on city property — not counting Mill Mountain and not counting Carvins Cove. The city’s in the process of trying to identify each one, for many of the same reasons Melbourne did — to figure out the true state of the city’s urban forest. If you’d like to be one of Roanoke’s volunteer “tree stewards,” contact the city. You’ll get some classes and training to help conduct the equivalent of a tree census — a process that will take years.
The city knows that sugar maples and red maples dominate its urban forest, but doesn’t know the numbers. City spokeswoman Melinda Mayo explains why that’s important: “For many years in the distant past, the City did not employ an urban forester, so species selection was not often varied during those years, resulting in heavy numbers of these two species. Over the last 30 years, however, we’ve made an effort to vary the species across the city so that in the future, should a pest or pathogen target one single species, our urban forest is not decimated by the removal of that species of tree.” Think the chestnut blight. Think the Dutch Elm disease. Not all pandemics target humans.
Trees are useful things: “A typical hardwood tree can absorb as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year,” according to the website C02Meter.com. “This means it will sequester approximately 1 ton of carbon dioxide by the time it reaches 40 years old.” Unfortunately, people pump about 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year, so while planting trees can help sequester carbon, they can’t lock it all up. And, yes, when a tree dies, it slowly releases all that carbon back into the atmosphere as it decays or is burned. Still, every little bit helps.
Trees are also beautiful things. Vinton has a whole festival to the dogwood. Highland County has a whole festival to the sugar maple and the sweet syrup it produces. Washington has its cherry blossoms. “Leaf season” is a thing in the fall. Trees are also troublesome things: Roanoke receives 1,300 “calls for service” about trees each year — about 3.56 per day. If only we had a way to send those trees love letters to let them know we care.