UP A TREE
The tree's massive trunk, 14 feet in circumference, once supported a 70-foot canopy some 60 feet high. All that remains now are five gnarled branches. One of them probably lived its last season this year. The tree, which stands in a small park a few blocks north of Franklin Avenue on the west side of the Mississippi, is a Northern Burr Oak, Quercus macrocarpa, a native to this region. Ed Rain, an urban forester with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, looks after the tree. "It's hard to guess how long it'll last," he hazards. "It could be five years, or 50 years, or tomorrow if a big wind storm came through here. It's going to be tragic when this tree does come down."
In his 1945 book about the Minneapolis Park System, park supervisor Theodore Wirth described the "enduring sentinel" as it looked then: "Symmetrically beautiful, this 'first citizen' of Minneapolis, surviving the storms, drought, and fires that during the years have scourged the area of others of its kind, still remains a picture of physical strength and majestic beauty." Wirth estimated the tree to be anywhere from 150 to 700 years old. Anything more precise is guesswork. Foresters generally determine the age of a tree with a core sample, a thin plug drilled from bark to heart. Winters and summers leave their distinctive traces on the tree's flesh; it's a simple matter to count them. But the First Citizen has no heart: inside the tree a space large enough for a man to stand upright extends up from the ground. "Split the difference and call it 400 years old," Rain says. "It's an old, old tree."
In 1975, the Park Board dedicated a small plaque to the oak. The brass token is cemented to a chunk of granite that sits before the tree. If it weren't for this marker, Wirth might not recognize his sentinel now. The majestic canopy is a memory. Some years ago, a small hollow appeared at the tree's base, and someone with a chain saw has enlarged the opening to a height of about four feet. Inside, the tree is scorched by fire. "The first time I came up here," Rain says, "there were wine bottles, and whiskey bottles, and trash in there--people were obviously using it for shelter in a storm or something." The half of the tree that faces the river is dead altogether. Sap still flows in the other half. Less an enduring sentinel, the oak seems merely to endure.
The chief enemies of the urban forest are human. Lawn mowers and weed-whackers cut through the cambium layer where the cells divide and sever the ducts that transport water and nutrients up the trunk, and energy from photosynthesis down. Without access to their roots, the trees die of starvation. Automobiles crash into trees on a regular basis. Sometimes these trees can be saved, but more often they die of their blunt force injuries. Road salt and sidewalk salt spread to combat ice are killers. Airborne toxins kill trees, but no one knows when they strike--testing for death by pollution is prohibitively expensive. Vandalism kills trees. People who find romance in chain saws, or who seek shelter in a 400-year-old tree. "Cities are generally inhospitable to trees," says Rain. "Given the choice, a tree probably wouldn't choose to live here. We kind of force them to." Add natural disasters--lightning, wind storms, and the like--to the human, and the streets echo with the groans of trees in their death throes. Indeed, the textbook life span of a tree planted in a city today is just seven to 15 years.
Ed Rain and his colleagues in urban forestry plant some 4,000 trees every year in an attempt to keep up. Of those, three out of four are replacing dead elms. All across America at the turn of the century the founders of small towns and great cities planted elm trees along the streets and boulevards, no matter what the native flora might have been. Fifty years later, when the trees were mature, this vast monoculture succumbed to the ravages of a tribe of small beetles, harmless parasites who carried a deadly fungus from tree to tree as they ate, flattening the urban forest as efficiently as an industrious lumber baron. In the past 33 years, 121,735 elms have succumbed to Dutch elm disease in Minneapolis alone, with an annual peak of 31,475 elms down in 1977. Today urban foresters plant a variety of trees, and in recent years, a renewed interest in native flora is resulting in oak, maples and other regional trees making a comeback.
Even considering these advances, Rain is pessimistic about the chances of an oak planted today surpassing the age of the oldest tree in Minneapolis. The First Citizen has been lucky--it's in a forgotten corner of the city, out of the path of motorists and road salt, and in a spot where its slow loss of branches poses no danger to passing pedestrians. "I can tell you this," Rain says, "if it were on a boulevard it would have come down a long time ago."
We thought with the political season behind us, now would be a good time to take stock of some of the buzz words that are soon to fade into oblivion. Invention of truth, of course, is wrapped up in the invention of language. A company can't build an corporate ethic out of firing people--so it invents "downsizing." But the true mothers of invention are politicians. The following graphs chart the trajectory of some of our favorite BUZZ WORDS (and some inventions of our own just for contrast) as found in an online search of 25 national and regional newspapers. (The vertical axis equals the number of times each word/phrase appeared each year.)
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.