You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

On the Lifespan of Trees

For a long time now, whenever I've gone to Los Angeles, I've been alarmed by how impossibly tall the palm trees have grown. Whether I'm driving in Santa Monica or Venice, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, or Pasadena, the familiar sight of row after row of palm trees, their thin, fibrous trunks topped by rough-hewn, yet shimmering fronds stretching hundreds of feet into the broad, shadowless light, has come to fill me with gloom. Every time I truly take in their outsized scale--the way the palms now literally dwarf the mansions, bungalows, swimming pools, rose beds, walls of bougainvillea, billboards, lamp posts, traffic signals, and cars that occupy the space at their feet--I cannot help feeling a sense of foreboding. It is not that I fear these slender miracles of nature, aching against gravity, will snap under the force of a rare storm or earthquake; as everyone knows, nature has ingeniously designed them to bend even in hurricanes, although it is hard to imagine what miracle of hydraulics keeps these absurdly aerial things hydrated. No, it is the perfect uniformity of their extreme height that alarms me, for it makes me think that they were all planted together and that surely they cannot continue to grow forever. Yet, when I mention my apprehensions to Angelenos, I am always met with incredulity. Palm trees are such a familiar fixture--they are certainly more ancient and distinctive than any of L.A.'s architecture--that no one there has seemed to notice that the tops of the tallest trees, not just a few, but practically all of them, barely share the world with us.

So when I was in L.A. this past summer, it was something of a shock to have my admittedly idiosyncratic botanical musings confirmed by a headline in the Los Angeles Times: "Palms in Twilight," followed by the smaller headline, "These improbable immigrants came to define the city. Alas, their days here may be numbered." Reading the article, I began to realize that their omnipresence had blinded me to their sheer number: There are 3,000 palm trees in Beverly Hills, 6,000 in Santa Monica, and a truly astounding 75,000 in Los Angeles. Most of these are Mexican fan palms, trees that in the wild grow from 40 to 60 feet, but in the city, for reasons unknown, have reached an incredible 100 to 150 feet. It also turned out that most of them, as I had feared, had been planted at the same time, somewhere between 75 and 100 years ago, and, even worse, that they were coming to the end of their natural lives.

It certainly had never occurred to me, as I was growing up with and among these towering, though not yet impossibly tall, trees, that my youth was coinciding with the middle of their life spans nor that my generation might in the end outlive them. Was it my childhood encounters with the prehistoric California redwoods that had given me the wrong impression that trees live much longer than mere humans? Or more likely, it was not something I ever gave much thought to, taking for granted that, like rocks, water, and air, trees did not have a life span as such.

And so I was pained, indeed, disoriented, by the news that the palm trees of Los Angeles, which I had assumed would be there forever, were as mortal as those who had planted them. And I had a very hard time imagining what the city would soon look like once oaks, jacarandas, and ficuses--trees of great charm, but ones that could never match the palms in their signature breath-taking verticality--are planted in their place. Such is the aesthetic fate of L.A., the article made clear, now that developers in Las Vegas have priced the city out of the market for tall palm trees. Much to my surprise, I suffered this same sense of dislocation when my husband and I visited the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It was early autumn and late in the day, but the sun, low in the sky, was still bright and hot, so we took ourselves over to the magnificent allee of old Norway Maples that tower above the many lovely trees that make up the Cherry esplanade, since the grand Maples, with their dense masses of bright green leaves, can always be counted on for shade. This beautiful, formal arrangement of natural elements in the garden is also a sentimental favorite of ours since the elegant double rows of maples were planted to commemorate the armistice of World War I.

When we have sat beneath their densely packed leaves, their undersides as smooth as marble, my husband and I have often remarked on what a wonderful gift those far-seeing custodians of the garden bequeathed us. Over 80 years ago, those who had lived through that first terrible war sought to bear witness to all the horrors that had passed, but even more, they sought to commemorate the hope that came with the peace. Planting what must have then been tiny saplings, surely they were envisioning these now stately double rows of mature, magnificent trees. By planting them, they were launching the memory and dreams of their own time into ours. And with this act of faith in the future, they were thinking of us. I could hear Whitman's words from "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry":

     What thought you have of me now, I had as much
     of you--I laid in my stores in advance, I considered
     long and seriously of you before you were born.

So it should come as no surprise that words simply failed us when we reached our beloved destination only to find that those old, noble Maples were gone. In their place were rows of new saplings, sparsely leaved and unsymmetrical in shape. A temporary sign at their edge announced, "Removal and Replanting of Norway Maples," followed by the explanation:

     At over 83 years of age, the Norway maples (Acer
     Platanoides "Schewedleri") planted in double rows
     on both sides of the cherry esplanade have reached
     the end of their lives. The remaining two rows of maples
     will be removed this fall and replaced with scarlet oaks
     (Quercus Coccinea), sturdy long-lived native trees with
     brilliant red fall leaf color, in the spring of 2004.

The deed was done and the sign now stood as a reminder of what used to be. And here again was that unsettling talk about trees and their life spans. I wondered aloud if those who had planted them as testimony to their reverence and hopes ever imagined that they would not even outlast the time allotted to their own children, the children who became the parents of my husband's generation and came into the world around the same time as these now-vanished Norway Maples and L.A.'s soon-to-be vanished Mexican Palms. Geneva Victoria, my mother-in-law's lyrical name, resonates with the hopes that this war-tried generation placed on their new-borns. My husband tried to console me with the thought that these scarlet oak saplings would one day be the giant shade trees of future generations of garden-lovers and that they, like us, would feel the cool, damp grass beneath them as they, like us, took refuge under the commodious shade of the trees, which the sign, with an epithet worthy of Homer, had proclaimed "long-lived."

All of which only served to intensify the bittersweetness of my melancholy. We walked a few feet and noticed that the plaque that used to commemorate the armistice was still in its place on a large rock at the foot of the path between the trees. But the words on it, like everything else, had been changed, though we were ill-prepared for what we read:

     Liberty Oak
     May 2002

     These scarlet oaks are dedicated
     in remembrance of the events of
     September 11, 2001
     and to thosewho lost their lives that day.

     The Norway maples that grew as
     the first generation of trees on
     this site were planted in
     November 1918 to commemorate
     the World War I armistice.

It is one thing--and a very bad thing--for the current caretakers of Los Angeles to replace its now-legendary palms, which the first Angelenos had planted haphazardly as standard-issue street trees, with broad-canopied and affordable shade trees. But it is quite another for the current caretakers of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to give over the ground hallowed by the armistice monument to the victims of September 11. No doubt those who erected this new plaque with its ugly politicized title meant to do honor to both. But monuments are distinguished, above all else, by their particularity: By giving a particular material shape to what might otherwise be lost in the onrush of time, they fix the event in public memory as much as in place. So long as the Norway Maples continued to grow in Brooklyn, we could literally see the time that had passed between the end of the Great War and our own moment, and in so doing, feel the presence of our grandparents and great-grandparents who had sent their hopes to us in the shape of a grand allee of trees. Surely it is a sign of the moral ineptitude of our times that this wondrous gift has been thoughtlessly demoted to second billing for no other apparent reason than that the end of their natural lives unluckily coincided with the sudden, awful events of September 11.

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang).

By Rochelle Gurstein