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Trees Of The Urban Forest

Appreciating The Natural Infrastructure

June 11, 2006
By DAVID K. LEFF, Courant Staff Writer

Sometimes we don't see the forest for the trees, but that is not necessarily bad.

Forests in Connecticut conjure up images of big places, thousands of rugged wooded acres. Trees, by contrast, evoke individual oaks, maples, pines and birches growing in our backyards, along our streets or in the parks, cemeteries and vacant lots of our neighborhoods. These are the trees that we climbed as kids, which shade our homes on sweltering August afternoons, and whose color is an autumn inspiration.

Rarely are the trees that grow where we live and work considered to function together as a forest. We think of forests as dense and distant, veined with pristine streams and filled with the sound of colorful songbirds.

Though recognizable as individuals and isolated from wilder natural settings, the trees that we encounter every day collectively constitute an urban or community forest with its own ecology and environmental and social benefits.

That we see the trees immediately around us as individuals rather than as part of a forest is not surprising in a state so closely associated with a single tree - the massive, wide-spreading Charter Oak, which has been venerated as a symbol of American independence for three centuries. When the tree fell in a fierce summer storm in 1856, its wood became akin to a religious relic and was subsequently carved into everything from goblets to pianos.

Its descendants were distributed to celebrate the 200th anniversary of George Washington's birth, the 300th anniversary of Connecticut's Colonial Charter, the 1965 State Constitutional Convention and the American Bicentennial. Its image graces the Connecticut state quarter.

Neighborhood trees need not be ancient nor humongous to become beloved, and efforts to save them from damage or destruction are often newsworthy. In 2004, public outcry saved three trees in front of the Hartford Public Library threatened by construction. Last year, a large weeping hemlock in Branford was carefully monitored when sewers were installed, and the silver maple slated for the ax at West Hartford's Smith School engendered considerable controversy.

Few people realize the variety of trees located within a few blocks of where they live, and a modest walk in any neighborhood beckons with intriguing discoveries. Several years ago, notable tree expert Ed Richardson and I took a stroll near my home in the center of Collinsville, an old mill village. In 10 minutes we had identified more than 30 species or varieties, including five types of maple and three kinds of spruce and oak. Getting to know the trees around us is the first step in valuing and caring about them.

Such sylvan treasures can be found even in the heart of our cities. City parks, cemeteries and institutional grounds can be informal arboretums full of rare, unusually large and exotic trees. Hartford's Bushnell Park is home to a Kentucky coffee tree, a large turkey oak native to Europe, and a Japanese pagoda tree filled with whitish flowers in August. Among common oaks, pines and maples, Cedar Hill Cemetery grows Tanyosho pine, Cripps Hinoki cypress and dawn redwood, a tree thought to be extinct until its sensational discovery in China during the 1940s. The grounds of the Institute of Living contain "perhaps the greatest concentration of historic trees in Connecticut," according to Richardson. Among them are six state or New England champions, including a honey locust with thorns more than 3 inches long and a sweetgum with its trademark star-shaped leaves.

Whether in city centers, suburbs or rural villages, the trees that populate our built environment constitute a forest. This forest is as worthy of our interest and protection as the pristine deep woodlands set aside in preserves by the state, land trusts and towns. Like traditional forests, these trees remove air pollution and protect water quality by slowing stormwater runoff and reducing erosion. Blocking wind and providing shade, they can also lessen energy use and reduce hot summer temperatures caused by heat-absorbing pavement. Trees can reduce noise. They enhance property values.

Beyond such practical benefits, urban and community forests play a significant role in shaping our sense of place and attachment to homes and neighborhoods. They are green infrastructure, as important to daily life as utility lines, bridges, and streets. Yet too few towns have an inventory of their arboreal assets, and fewer still make the ongoing investment in planting, pruning, fertilizing and disease treatment that is as necessary as paving, patching, snow plowing and catch basin cleaning is for roads.

Trees near at hand are embedded in our earliest childhood memories. Their beauty sustains us through the joys and disappointments of adulthood, and, in Connecticut, they are an expression of our highest political ideals. We cannot afford to wait until they are threatened with destruction to care for them.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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