South Park Self

the roots are long, and the years lie thicker than the leaves

This post should have a really-random-analysis red flag. You have been warned.

Trees generally are a locus of all sorts of things: beauty, dignity, age, a sort of massive calm. Tolkien's Ents are simply a vivid externalisation of the kind of awe a tree should properly engender. But more than that, a tree is a text, a solid confluence of history and context and identity as well as aesthetics.

The plane tree in our garden is an excellent example of its genre, a lovely tree in its own right - it grows tall and straight and huge, unslanted by the fierce Cape winds which push lesser trees over into tilted growth. It's our saviour in summer, shading the entire side of the house, and making the interior blissfully cool on the hottest days. The deep shade severely limits the kinds of plants I can grow in the front garden, but I consider it to be worth it. In winter the plane tree usefully loses all its leaves as well as the fuzzy bobbles of its seed heads, allowing the sunlight in to the house and grass. I am happy to allow it even that, and will cheerfully rake up the brown autumn drifts.

Trees, of course, are also about history. I have no idea how long this one has been here, but even with the relatively fast plane tree growth, it's probably a minimum of fifty or sixty years. I don't know who planted it in the corner of the garden, to provide its peaceable shade in the February heatwaves, but they were clearly a respecter of trees. I find it odd to think of these unidentified individuals experiencing the same summer heat we do, and planting a tree whose welcome dappled cool they will never actually experience. I hope they would be happy to think that we do experience it, and are grateful.

I love this tree, but it's problematical. It's an alien, not native to the Cape; while it's not the water-hog a eucalypt is, nor invasively prone to scatter its offspring everywhere, it shouldn't really be here. The plane tree originates in the northern hemisphere; ours, a stranger to the tip of Africa, is also as far as I can work out a hybrid, a London Plane, which is a cross between the oriental and American strains. I'd never want to remove it, it's a beautiful tree, but if I were to plant something now for shade and beauty, it wouldn't be a plane. Not even trees are exempt from the re-judgements of the New South Africa and the re-assessment of colonial legacies and aesthetics which make a nonsense of local ecologies. I can't look at the plane tree, or touch its strangely smooth grey bark, without feeling a complex constellation of love and guilt and unease.

They may not fling themselves spontaneously far and wide, but plane trees invade in a more conceptual sense: we plant a lot of them. There are new rows all down the road around the corner from our house, and along the main avenue on campus. This picture was taken outside my office today. When I started my undergrad here, I don't think those plane trees had been planted yet; they were put in, as spindly metre-high things, in my first couple of years of study, and my earliest sense of the avenue is as a blisteringly and uncompromisingly open, sunny space. Now we have the start of a shady, tree-lined stretch which is an enormous relief in the summer. The historicity of trees, above anything else in my life, makes me realise that I've been on this campus for over 20 years. It also makes me realise how far, even in this particularly self-consciously political space, the Afrocentric on campus is capable of being undermined by convenience. Plane trees grow quickly and look lovely, but in their leafy green between the ivy-covered stone of the buildings, we ape the English or American university rather than forging an identity of our own.

I cannot regret a tree: their presence and character, once established, make me both respectful and protective, and I will always mourn their destruction. But in this, as in all things, the fatal tendency to think means that love is never simple.
  • Current Mood: contemplative randomly analytical
A lovely meditation, but what struck me in the first paragraph (after the warning) was that only a post-modernist academic would consider a tree a text :)

Re: Texts
Everything's a text. Everything.

I'm glad you enjoyed this. It's one of those posts I wrote for my own pleasure entirely, so it's a bonus if it speaks to anyone else.
Re: Texts
Everything's a text. Everything.

That's the point, rather - that if your life's work revolves around X, sooner or later you'll come to see everything as a kind of X. A historian would call it a history, and mean much the same as you.

Edited at 2010-11-26 05:10 pm (UTC)
Re: Texts
I have a sort of vague conceptual problem with this formulation. The idiomatic equivalent would be to say that if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The implication is that not everything is a nail, and that to see things only in terms of your hammer is to warp their actual nature.

Thing is, when I say everything is a text, I mean everything is a text, not just that I see everything as a text. The recognition is an act of perception that opens up possiblities, not an act of re-classification that closes them.

And history is also a text ;>.
Re: Texts
Everything is also mathematics. These things are not mutually exclusive.

Also, mathematics is a text ;>.

(I could keep this up all day...)
Re: Texts
I don't think that all variations on this theme except the literary/academic one are limiting and overly reductionist. The carpenter's formulation of it may be so, the mathematician's not so much (as we know all arts are just human behaviour, human behaviour is just a special case of biology, biology is a form of chemistry, chemistry can be explained entirely by physics, and physics is a certain set of mathematics, and mathematics is just a human artefact...) and the guys who think that the universe is best modelled as a cellular automaton .. the jury's still out to lunch on that.
Luckily I don't suffer from the fatal tendency to think in such analytical detail as you do, leaving me free to get uncomplicatedly annoyed with non-forward-thinking tree planters, or even worse, non-planters. While we were in JHB, a huge new shopping complex was built. The older side had a fairly typical arrangement, every 3 or 4 parking spaces, a little round hole for a tree, and in the blistering JHB sun, that was great.
Not one single tree was planted in vast openness of the newly built parking lot. Only around the pavements at the very edges did they put trees in. I think that there should be building laws (especially in JHB, the largest urban forest in the world) that require the planting of a certain number of trees per certain number of metres of concrete.