Take a walk anywhere in our beautiful sylvan town and you will be accompanied by giants. Silent, stoic, and imbued with magical powers, these benevolent Brobdingnagian beauties stand quietly, patiently, never asking, never imposing on we, the mere mortals at their feet. Yet despite their enormity, perhaps because of it, they are unseen in our busy days, filled with our self-imposed urgency. We overlook the magic of these alchemists, walking beneath their shade, breathing in the fresh oxygen they exhale, we are soothed by their presence without notice, without a care, and unaware of the profound effect they have upon us, and we upon them.
Their abundance hides them in plain sight, causing them to recede from our awareness. Just as the sky surrounds us and the ground supports our feet without a thought, we take them for granted. Arising out of almost nothing, their humble beginnings belie the magnificence of their potential. Potential that, with providence and good fortune, will transform the tiny seeds of their beginnings into the enormous sentinels of power and strength they hope to become.
But for all their majesty, for all their enormity, there is a frailty. A vulnerability to shifting conditions that renders these giants helpless to the changing world around them. Their quiet way of life relies on stability and consistency – rare commodities in our modern world.
Above our heads their great branches reach to the sky offering their leaves to the sun. Each one tilts and turns toward the light to receive maximum energy from the vibrating electrons beaming down. They perform the magic of photosynthesis day in and day out, creating their own food from carbon dioxide in the air and nutrients of the soil. Connected to the earth by millions of tiny pathways stretching from high atop each tiny leaf, deep down into the unseen, unimaginably complex network below. Their work continues relentlessly, silently, and patiently with a complexity we are only just beginning to understand.
This intricate network draws essential elements from the soil, aided by millions of mycelia, through a superhighway that moves vast quantities of water and nutrients from the ground to the sky and back again, without sound, without visible motion or effort, year after year. Through their twigs, branches, and roots, this work wages on, building an empire before our eyes, over our heads, yet below our awareness. Like the hands on a clock, never seen to move, yet always moving, the life within each tree flows on.
A lifetime on a scale that can span generations. And yet the frailty remains. These giants, so susceptible to change, so dependent on their locale, so little can bring it all to an end. Less water, less sunlight, less air in the soil, toxins seeping in, excavations ripping roots, coverings above the soil, climatic changes, floods, droughts, insects, disease, or sometimes simply time itself can bring about the slow draining of the magical life force that flows within them. When does a tree die? Why does a tree die? What is it that stops this miraculous process? The biology is complex and our understanding remains inadequate. But each tree’s individual success is dependent on a series of tenuous conditions dependent on outside forces. Their natural balance, their evolutionary safeguards, their very defenses, are often overwhelmed when we ask them to live in our created environments. The roadsides, parks, yards, playgrounds, and landscapes of our created landscape compounds the fragility of their being. This urban forest of our making becomes our responsibility. Like goldfish in a bowl, we control this environment. Each tree we plant comes with a responsibility of care. They become members of our community as we ask them to live among us. Remember these gentle giants. Look up into their branches. Feel their power and acknowledge them for all of their beauty and frailty. We live among giants, let’s keep it that way.
The Greenwich Tree Conservancy is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the trees of Greenwich for the benefit of community health and quality of life.
John R. Conte is a Landscape Architect, Arborist of over 40 years, lifelong Greenwich resident and member of the GTC Advisory Board.