A Tree By Any Other Name

Al Kammerer

If you hurry, and if you like performance art, go east on East 4th St. from the Cathedral of our Lady of the Rosary to 7th Ave. and check out the trees. Decorated with children’s pants, onesies, socks, gloves, scarves and ribbons, these trees silently bear signs that plea for their lives.  
In response to street and water line repair requiring their removal, these trees have been turned into sandwich boards forced like ISIS hostages to plea for their lives, but they’re hardly as innocent.  
Area protestors have nailed up signs protesting the city’s plan. Doubling down on our sympathies, they’ve also attached red Valentine hearts.
I’m hoping shamrocks for St. Patrick’s day are next, so we can lament their fate like the old Irish song protesting English oppression: “She’s the most distressful country, that every was to be seen for they’re hangin’ men and women, for the wearin’ of the green.”
The message is clear: these trees must be saved. Children heart them. They’re affordable housing for birds and squirrels. If they go, we may as well rename the street Desolation Row, a companion to Bob Dylan Way.
(Note I do not call the activists tree huggers. I wouldn’t want to encourage hugging these trees, or standing or parking too near.)
If you drive or walk past these trees, you’ll notice many of them are diseased or leaning precariously, buckling the earth and sidewalks. Once their roots are disturbed, it’s anybody guess how long before tragedy strikes.    
City Forester Kelly Fleissner’s initial determination was most would have to go. With due diligence, he contacted the University of Minnesota Forest Department which recommended Manuel Jordan of Heritage Shade Tree Consultants give a second opinion, and he confirmed Fleissner’s diagnosis. They determined only a few can be saved.
Fleissner noted most of the trees are in decline like most others planted at the turn of the century. Nearly all are silver maples, notoriously softer than the harder maples, especially in their dotage.  They were cheap and resist both drought or flood conditions, but even people who are not experts can see the signs of frailty and disease.
The soft wood, and advanced age make their limbs as brittle as Sally Field’s before osteoporosis treatment.
Unlike trees that fall in the forest, crushing only an unlucky hiker or the odd animal, when these monsters fall, the results can be catastrophically frightening.  They threaten the safety of citizens, tourists, and even worse, vehicles and real estate.
In Omaha, NE a man was killed when one fell on him as he passed by. The city, being self-insured as Duluth is, paid a huge settlement because courts noted the tree was overdue for removal.
 Silver maples are something of the punks of maples. Landscape architecture books advise not planting them near sidewalks or pipes, but our surviving specimens stand there ready to commit mayhem and vandalize like senior delinquents.
“We’ve lost 70 percent of these trees, citywide,” Fleissner said, adding the signs of decline are evident.  
What the city will do is remove hazardous trees and replace them with premier trees. There are a few they will save, but with the disturbance of necessary digging, the city would be remiss if it didn’t remove the larger end life specimens.
By planting new trees suggested by arborists to line the streets and sidewalks, Duluth will not only eliminate danger, but also create new vistas and a more charming corridor. The decorative street lamps presently eclipsed by the large trunks will stand out as well.  
In my former hometown, Omaha, NE, I was landscape director of Park East business association.  We planted nearly a hundred trees into squares cut in the wide sidewalks, and within 5 years, they had grown and spread remarkably fast. They are taller than much older, established trees in the Federal Reserve Bank grounds across the way. The key is care and patience mixed with faith in the future.
 The neighbors who oppose the city’s plan should pivot from protesting to placing as much energy into caring for these new trees as they have in sentimentalizing the old ones. Rather than insist upon a dangerous status quo, they may clothe themselves in the opportunity to nurture a gift to the future and improve as well as beautify their neighborhood.