a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Learning the Names of Trees
I recently took two walks with tree experts around the San José State University campus. Neither arborist nor botanist, I merely wondered what trees I was looking at, and who planted them, and why.
Growing up I did not give much thought to trees. My first thirty years in San Francisco, a city characterized less by its trees than by Victorian architecture, and how the light falls depending on wind or reflections off the water, I didn’t really notice the witch-like Monterey cypresses clinging to the foggy coastline by the Palace of Legion of Honor. I smelled mentholated, murmuring forests of eucalyptus way out by the zoo on Sloat Boulevard and in Golden Gate Park, but trees were mostly off my radar.
At thirty I gave birth to a daughter and our little family moved first to Eugene, Oregon (a state of pointed evergreens), then dropped back down to the South Bay, where I worked for Sunset Publishing and proofread portions of the Western Garden Book but still did not think about trees. My Mountain View was an apartment complex at the intersection of two rushing traffic streams with a couple of skinny palms by the pool. My San José was walking my daughter Peggy to her school through massive dusty maple and sycamore leaves on the Alameda.
As I approached the age of fifty, now living in Campbell (which, according to the Arbor Foundation, has been one of our nation’s “Tree Cities” for a quarter of a century) and starting graduate work at San José State University, I found myself wondering why I felt so good every time I stepped onto campus.
Sure, part of the good energy might be that youthful bounce from the other students, but it might also be attributed to the sheer volumes of oxygen given off from the nearly one hundred white mulberry trees overarching the four walkways between Tower Hall and the library.
Trees are some of the most underrated living beings I know. That might be because they move so slowly and have no discernible voice. I began to notice the trees on campus, other than the mulberries—there is a riot of variety—and for the first time I experienced a longing to know more about them. What were their names? They did not seem to be randomly planted. Surely there must have been some kind of plan. But how would I find a map that identified the trees?
Unable to find a map on the school’s web pages, I met one day with Betty Luna, the Director of Facility Services, and her grounds management colleague, Dennis Suit. Betty’s mission is to make sure that the campus buildings and 154 acres of landscaped grounds stay attractive, clean, safe, and energy efficient. She showed me one of their current projects, a massive one, converting the campus irrigation piping from the SJSU drinking water system to a local source of recycled water.
Another significant project underway is the gradual replanting of those mulberry trees I’d come to love as the eldest ones reveal their exhaustion. Dennis, a class of 1975 alum who has managed the campus grounds for thirty-five years, walked with me and began to name the trees and tell me their stories. “Mulberries can last about fifty to seventy-five years before they go,” he explained. “We’re replacing ones now that were planted around 1967. We grow the new mulberry trees in huge buckets for three to four years on the South campus before planting them.”
Planting trees on a college campus is done in the same democratic spirit as designing a beautiful building. When public beauty is either planted or constructed, even the poorest student who walks by with nothing in her pockets is given free purchase of some of that beauty, and she is allowed to be a proud citizen of that community. To plant the graceful Chinese elms that arabesque in front of the Faculty Office Building, or the high-arching brindled cork oak that soars by the Art Building takes real foresight and attentiveness, and it’s not too much of a stretch to say that that kind of attention is akin to love. It’s the kind of love that builds and plants for future generations.
We walked along the north side of campus examining jujubes by the Industrial Studies building, which could be made into preserves if they were harvested, and pineapple guava, which is neither pineapple nor guava. I learned that several campus trees produce edible fruit. One could conceivably, if the seasons were to line up, eat figs and dates, and crack fresh pink pepper on avocados, down this with fresh-squeezed Valencia orange juice, and finish with a nice cup of hibiscus and lemon verbena tea.
We stood by an actual cork tree on the hill in front of Clark Hall. Ferdinand the Bull would have been right at home under its broad branches. Dennis showed me the differences between coast live oaks and valley oaks and big leaf maples. The last are native to the Santa Cruz Mountains, and produce leaves that are up to a foot long. It turns out that at least 180 tree species now live on the San José State campus, amounting to more than 2,000 trees. “We plant a lot of trees, and a variety of them, to replace the ones we have to take out,” said Dennis. “The botany department uses some of them for teaching.” A reputable landscape architect once advised Dennis to plant more traditional college stuff, “more ivy, more privet, more mulberries,” but he and the grounds team refused. They opted instead for more local and native, drought tolerant and ‘climate appropriate’ plantings: Scotch pine, Monterey pine, pin oak and coast live oak. The pin oak, explained Dennis, is different from the other oaks because all of its smallish, deeply lobed leaves turn brown but cling to the branches until one day, the tree sheds them all at once. A lovely pin oak stands behind Uchida Hall, next to the really smelly female gingko tree. Many people comment on and complain about the smell of that gingko, Dennis admitted, but every year people who know gather the stinky pink fruits, rub off the flesh and roast the seeds, which are a famous Asian delicacy. The ginkgo is apparently the oldest tree species in the world; how interesting that its essence is used as a tool for aiding memory! Later, Dennis stopped to point out a dark Norfolk pine that towered over us near Eighth Street and San Fernando. “I brought that one from home and planted it when it was in a six-inch pot,” he said. “I guess that was 30 years ago.”
Managing the campus landscape is a little like painting the Golden Gate Bridge—by the time you get to one end, the other is ready for work all over again. Here are just a few of the San José State grounds keeper tasks for two autumn months: Spray shrub and flower beds for fall germinating weeds. Plant trees and shrubs. Renovate, aerate and reseed lawns. Trim Tower Hall ivy. Plant fall flowers, bulbs, etc. Cut Acanthus to ground. Fertilize lawns. Fertilize Palms.
Someone actually created a comprehensive tree list and map not so long ago. I found The Trees of San José State University, by Dr. Charles W. Bell (1990), in the Special Collections room on the fifth floor of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Library. The book began, Bell says in the Preface, as a project in his class on Computer Techniques in Biology. “The trees of the San José State campus had not been catalogued thoroughly nor updated for nearly twenty years,” he chides. After explaining how his students compiled data and graphed it to maps, he writes, “It is now possible to approach any tree on the campus, and with maps and database in hand, the tree can be identified.” As he wrote the book there were 1,500 individual trees representing 169 species. He acknowledged Dennis Suit for his help identifying trees.
But the campus landscape kept changing. It’s been changing since the California State Normal School, the first Teacher’s college in the State, arrived at Washington Square in 1871. School historian Estelle Greathead recalled that the land at that time was “low, marshy, adobe, with traces of alkali. A few scrub oaks, and that pioneer family of weeds, the yellow mustard, formed the sparse vegetation of the unpromising site. ” By 1873 the main campus building had burned down, and then the quake of 1906 mortally weakened its replacement, necessitating more rebuilding. Photos from 1909 showed hardly any trees on the campus at all. Perhaps in those days a treeless plain (the root of ‘campus’ means a field) was perceived as a peaceful oasis in the midst of a city loaded with wild-growing trees. Of course, now it’s a different kind of oasis, a tree-filled one in the midst of urban concrete.
While reviewing several copies of The San Jose State Normal School Pennant, a student-written magazine from that era, I gather that trees and greenery were enough of a part of everyday life so that no-one remarked on them. What we now call environmental studies, they called nature studies, meaning mostly creating curricula for young children. I did find a poem about which trees fruited when, and what certain seeds looked like, but mostly trees offered a backdrop to stiffly written romances or morality tales. These students were, after all, training to become teachers. One gem I gleaned from back issues of The Normal Pennant is that every year the entire senior class took a day off to travel by wagon East on Santa Clara Street, past Alum Rock, up the windy, twisting road all the way to the top of Mount Hamilton. Each year’s cheerful report, arriving sometime around June, described the famished students, a dusty ride, the joy of picnicking at Smith’s Creek, and the kindness of their hosts at the Lick Observatory once they arrived. The field trips took all day into the evening. Today’s round trip might be driven in a couple of hours.
After the bareness of 1909, a great many trees were planted. Here’s more of Mrs. Greathead’s brief history of the campus trees:
[In 1928,] Washington Square . . . has grown to be a beautiful park. Wide stretches of terraced lawn, brilliant flower beds, cool ferns, elm-shaded winding walks, the many noble Sequoias and other evergreen trees make a picture of beauty which is not only a delight to recall in connection with a multitude of happy associations, but are daily and hourly joy to hundreds of people whose path leads them by or through the grounds. (Italics mine.)
Trees have come and gone. Bell’s detailed and accurate map was rendered close to obsolete a mere five years after he finished. The 1995 closure of 7th and 9th Streets and San Carlos was Dennis’s favorite project, “because it unified the campus.” Mexican fan palms near the Cesar Chavez arch now defined a spacious area to congregate and promenade. During the street closure, the grounds team replanted enormous legacy valley oak trees, and moved the Clark building twenty-five feet to the right from its foundation to make it that much harder for the city to re-open the street.
One of our finest old trees is a 90 year-old, very slow growing camphor near the 7th Street fountain. As we admired the tall grace of the camphor, spreading in all directions, I asked Dennis what he’d like for campus visitors to know, and do with their knowledge.
“I don’t know,” said the expert shyly. “Admire the trees.”
* * *
“To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday,” wrote John Burroughs, an American naturalist and essayist. His advice lingered on my mind as I began a campus tree tour with my classmates and professor four days after walking through with Dennis. This time, our guides were volunteers from Our City Forest (OCF), a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to cultivate a green and healthy San José metropolis by engaging community members in the appreciation, protection, growth and maintenance of our urban ecosystem, especially our urban forest.” Partnering with AmeriCorps, California Releaf, the City of San José, and other organizations, OCF provides free trees and planting services as well as tree tours.
By walking parts of the same path twice, I did see new things. Our friendly and smart guides, Nancy and Jeff, started with a pair of California pepper trees on Fourth Street. One is young and sturdy; its mate is thick and gnarled with age; they hail from Peru. Then we moved to a twisted juniper, learning that folks out in the wild have traditionally bathed in its cleansing, antibacterial smoke to combat sweat, and have distilled its berries to make gin.
We examined the Coast redwoods that I’d seen with Dennis. The best examples of these stand by the Memorial Chapel. It’s profound to hold one of the miniscule cones of the massive Coast redwood in the palm of your hand. Each cone, smaller than a thumbnail, holds up to fifty seeds the size of pinheads. Fifty potential world’s tallest known trees. This time our guides pointed out the silvery cast toward the bottom of the redwood trunks, explaining that this indicated a problem with the amount of salt in the water. I remembered Dennis and Betty saying that by converting the campus irrigation to a recycled water source, they’d actually spend more time and money testing the soil around the redwoods for this very imbalance.
San Jose State’s campus, with its lack of coastal fog, is not an ideal place for fog-dependent Coast redwoods, but they survive nevertheless. We also spent time poring over the Dawn redwood, a species thought to be extinct until a few trees were found in China in the 1940s. Now they are planted all around the world. The Dawn redwood is deciduous, so during late November and December you can watch its ‘needles’ turn bright gold, then rust, before they drop. “One especially fine dawn redwood had to be taken down to build King Library” notes Sylvia Light in a 2007 issue of Washington Square Magazine. “But in a permanent salute to this old friend, the wood was harvested, and now as a beautiful veneer it covers one entire column in the library’s atrium, which rises from the lobby to the eighth floor. It’s the hard-to-miss column closest to the escalators.”
Our tour with the OCF volunteers ran out of time just as we were attempting to differentiate between the many palms on campus. Palms, it turns out, are more closely related to grasses than to trees. Palms on campus, our connection with historic Spanish California, might be Mexican Fan (tall and skinny) or Canary Island Date (looking vaguely pineapple-ish under their head), or Windmill (smaller at the base than up top). We also have Hair palms with multiple trunks that line both sides of the sidewalk to Tower Hall. The Latin name of the Canary Island Date Palm is Phoenix Canariensis, which seems appropriate since the SJSU campus has risen and rebuilt itself so many times.
With those walks I began to learn my alphabet of campus trees by looking, naming, and internally mapping. I’d pass the Memorial Chapel and notice the Coast redwood standing sentinel on one side, the Dawn redwood turning shocking gold on the other. How is it, I’d ask myself, that I’ve come this way so many times and never really seen them? By learning to look at essentials like shape, bark texture, and leaves, I was like a child who reads a sentence or two, then, on a drive through the neighborhood suddenly understands what the shop signs and billboards are exhorting.
With the shapes and names of trees newly activated in my mind, a childhood memory surfaced. Though I had not had an active friendship with a tree, I had loved the stories of Paul Bunyan that my mother read to me. Giant Paul, and Babe, his Blue Ox, who was so large that when he dragged a tree trunk behind him, the Missouri River was created. And that was the thing, how very large the trees were back then, in the dawn of the world, the trees that big men labored to cut down. How the camp cook, Hot Biscuit Slim, was able to seat all the hundred or so loggers around the trunk of one felled tree for supper. What a vast table. My child’s mind dwelled many long evenings in that mythic forest, silent and tall, dark and quiet.
Lisa Francesca is a writer in Campbell, California. Her work has appeared in literary journals such as Caesura, Beatitude, and Berkeley Poetry Review, and in Eucalyptus Magazine. Her article about California trees is forthcoming in All Things Steinbeck: An Encylopedia of Steinbeck’s World. She is currently writing a book about weddings, forthcoming from Chronicle Books in 2014. Read more at www.lisafrancesca.com.