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Who Speaks for the Trees?

Dec 30, 2015 09:31AM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

I always find this a curious time of year; the first week of a new year, marked by pine trees slumped over the curb. Just a week ago, those trees were center stage; brought into our homes, decorated with lights with gifts laid at their feet. Now they lie alongside recycling bins, soon to become mulch for flower beds this spring.

What is this strange relationship that we have with trees? Why have our customs and traditions become so wrapped up in them? It seems a backyard is not complete without a treehouse for the kids. And yet, it is often the parents that derive the most pleasure from trees, daydreaming of more youthful days

From front yards landscaped with ornamental cherries blossoming to mark the start of summer, to maples bursting in shades of yellow and red at summer's end, it is no surprise that neighborhoods filled with trees hold higher resale values than those without.

Which makes me wonder, why do developers spend time and money clearing lots of trees, only to replant new ones after homes are built? A homebuyer must wait years for the day when these young trees mature, once again providing canopies of shade reminiscent of the older trees long gone. I can only imagine it is a matter of convenience; a clear, flat lot is far easier to build a house on than siting a house among trees, accounting for roots, falling branches and veiled sunlight. In the eyes of a builder, trees are obstacles, and they have little consideration for these assets that add value to a property.

Last fall, I was disheartened by one such builder on a lot that I had been considering. It was filled with giant oaks and white pines that had another century or two of growth in them; two acres of awe-inspiring heights, each tree trying to outdo the next, reaching for the sky.

I had visions of a house nestled and protected by such sentries, echoing the songs of birds throughout the year. But it was not to be. Instead, the trees were felled, every last one, and the site cleared to the very edges. The lot became a barren patch surrounded by wooded properties on all sides, an open wound crying out for cover. Root balls were pulled out, branches were stripped off, and trunks piled up as pick-up-sticks were waiting to be loaded and carted off to the mills. Such is the beginning of the wood floors and cabinets in the homes that we build.

It calls to mind a story I read as a child, of a tree giving everything it had for the needs of a growing boy.

Aside from the many offerings the tree made, it always struck me as one-sided. There must be a better way of doing things. I am reminded of a comment made once by a friend, "These proud trees, appreciated and brought to a full potential by our use, worthy of their mighty size and strength."

Maybe this is as it should be. Trees cleanse our air to breathe, then cool it with shading leaves, and are finally harvested for wood to build. Yet, this may be oversimplified. Trees are home to birds' nests, burrowing squirrels, clinging lichen, tunneling larvae…they are a microcosm of life far beyond our narrow human demands—the lungs of the earth, their tips stitching together a bridge between the clouds overhead and the earth under our feet.

Trees can be handled in a smarter way, creating a more fitting and respectful relationship. There was a time when builders knew trees by the characteristics unique to each species. They built from these strengths and weaknesses, placing evergreens on the northwest side of a house to shield it from cold winter winds, and deciduous trees on the south to shade it from summer heat, allowing warm sunlight through when needed after the leaves had fallen. With a little thoughtful consideration, a house can be constructed that fits within the landscape, not the other way around.

And in the long run, isn't this best? If our communities are to last, we will need to consider the things around us, the things we use to make our homes. If we do no more than exploit our natural resources, we will soon find our lands desolate, just as so many legendary forests have gone by the wayside. Where are the sycamore stands that once lined the waterways of America? Where are the oaks of Europe, the cypress of Asia, the acacia of Africa? They have vanished as snow before a summer sun.

The lifespan of a tree is measured in centuries, but can be taken in a day. Such acts take years to undo. How can a storied life be ended with so little concern? Are we so distracted that we no longer notice what is missing?

With a new year upon us, consider preserving the trees that enrich your home. If you find yourself looking for a new home, take a closer look at the trees standing on the properties you consider. Your home will be the better for noticing, as you become more attuned to what the trees have to say.

 

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.

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