"We are the children of our landscape; it
dictates behavior and even thought in the
measure to which we are responsive to it."

—Lawrence Durrell

My arboriculture professor once confided in me that he believed his best students were raised in either the city or in the country, but not in between, that is, not in the suburbs. He reasoned that conditions in the city equipped city kids with a toughness and street smartness demanded by the physically challenging skills of the arborist. Country kids, he explained, having been raised tinkering with machinery, roaming the woods, and otherwise engaging in arboriculture-related activities, were even better prepared for a career in urban forestry. But suburban kids, he went on, tended to lack the hands-on, common sense skills requisite in production work in the tree care industry. While I’m sure this a broad generalization, and I'm sure many excellent arborists have hailed from the suburbs, I think there is a kernel of truth in my professor's  observations.

I’m often reminded of this when I visit various suburban areas that skirt the City of Syracuse where I live. Suburban sprawl in Syracuse follows the familiar pattern where development creeps away from a city’s core more or less in the path of least resistance. They still function as bedroom communities isolated from commercial and government centers, and since their rise in the 1950s they have changed only in that the houses are bigger, the lawns are more expansive, and there are more curvilinear streets (sidewalkless) and cul-de-sacs. This pattern, while dull and unimaginative, nonetheless seems to impart a sense of serenity and peacefulness. You feel safe there. But amid these safe and peaceful surroundings there is something palpably missing. There is no sense of specialness there; they lack a spirit of the place, a genius loci.

There is much to criticize about the suburban paradigm, but I’ll confine myself to the trees and shrubs that grow there, or lack thereof. In the front yard of a typical suburban house grow shrubs with a most impressive array of colors. These jelly bean-like specimens compete with one another over who will assail our eyes the loudest. In gaudy and garish suburbia, the ultimate in landscaping is a front-yard cocktail of Lemon Thread Japanese Falsecypresses, Gold Flame Spireas,  Aurea Nana Oriental Arborvitaes, and Golden Nugget Barberries. That plants show off their bright colors naturally during the brief interlude between the yellows and greens of summer and the whites and grays of winter is not enough—the onlooker must now suffer a ghastly riot of colors throughout the growing season. Are landscape designers to blame for this assault on the hapless onlooker? After all, aren’t they just satisfying the demand of the customer? Maybe the nurseries share some of the blame. Arborists aren’t completely blameless, either. Whoever's to blame, I find an interesting parallel between today’s in-your-face landscaping and modern television. The overriding theme of both is a shameless appeal to shock value.

If we haven't become cataleptic from a frenzy of bright colors, then we will surely become bewildered by any number of bizarre grotesqueries masquerading as shrubs unleashed by local nursuries. Anyone can appreciate an occasional deformed Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick or Weeping Oriental Cherry as an accent, but for some reason suburbanites aren’t happy till they’ve festooned their front yard with every dwarfed, variegated, witches-broomed, corkscrewed, mushroomed, or pearl-on-a-stringed malformation that the nurseryman can concoct or mother nature has had the misfortune to mutate. Every time I come by a conifer tortured into one of those ludicrous looking “pompoms,” I fight to resist the urge put it out of its misery with a chainsaw. We’ve transformed the wolf into a poodle, and now the bush has become a “poodle puff.”

Of course the composition of our landscapes is the result of Humankind’s determination to manipulate and control nature. There's nothing wrong with manipulation in itself, but to what end? It is now almost a dictum that suburban landscapes must, at all costs, be safe, low maintenance, and aesthetically pleasing. Aesthetically pleasing to whom?

Compare the suburban landscape with the structured chaos of woods, swamps, and meadows, and with the unruly vacant lots of the city. The obvious difference is the suburban landscape is much tidier. But there is a more subtle distinction, one that is readily discernible to observers closely attuned to their surroundings. Many of the strategies that a plant or animal has developed over eons of evolution—whether to allure the benefactor, or to repel the enemy—that ensure that its genetic material reaches the next generation, have been stricken from the suburban landscape. Trees are stunted, de-clawed, emasculated, or otherwise hamstrung in order to achieve a utopian goal of a safe, low maintenance landscape. But at what cost? The cost to us is we miss out on the real stories that real nature can tell us, not make-believe stories by make-believe trees. The cost to the trees is, indulging Bob Wulkowitz’s projection of human attributes to trees, the stripping away of the tree’s character and dignity.

Yesterday I spotted a Honeylocust growing in the backyard of a house down the street. Its lower branches were pruned away, and out of the old wounds grew thorns that would give Attila the Hun pause. Growing in profusion, and pointing in all directions, these stout, six-inch long needle-sharp spears would deter even the hungriest and best-armored climbing predators. I wondered how these vicious weapons, which were once harmless stems, might have evolved. Was it a single large mutation, or a series of small mutations whereby selective pressure gradually chiseled the tip of the thorn to a point. A nearby Buckthorn tree was also armored with thorns (spines, actually) but they were relatively dull. Perhaps, going with the many small mutations hypothesis, the buckthorn twig is on its way to becoming needle-sharp like the Honeylocust. Both the Honeylocust and the Buckthorn, however, are trespassers in the suburban landscape, so we may never get the chance to ponder this. Of course de-thorned and de-fruited versions of Honeylocusts are tolerated. An arborist reading must think I'm crazy for defending the dreaded species Honeylocust because somebody has remove it eventually. Well, somebody will do it, for the right price. I’ll take this opportunity to defend another tree often scorned by the arborist for its armorment—the Black Locust. The Black Locust has a great look, especially in winter. It's one gnarly tree.

Another tree banished from the suburban milieu is the Cottonwood. Growing up in a house beneath these giant, towering trees, I used to enjoy listening to their leaves quake on a breezy summer’s night. The Cottonwood, like the Silver Maple, is one of the few trees that we can plant and watch grow into a large, stately specimen during our lifetime. In late spring the female tree sends its tiny seeds, adorned with fleecy white hairs, aloft into the slightest breeze as if it were snowing, revealing the Willow family’s signature reproductive strategy as an opportunist. If enough female trees are around, the cottony seeds can lay a thick carpet of white on the ground like freshly fallen snow.

What city dweller hasn’t noticed the prowess with which the Tree of Heaven disseminates its seeds. I swear one of these ubiquitous seeds had once found its way into a box of cereal in my cupboard!  An example of the opposite reproductive strategy, the “keep-all-your-eggs-in-one-basket” strategy, might be illustrated by the butternut tree, which invests a lot of energy in just a few fruits. Of course, in the sterile suburban landscape, such a scattering of debris willy-nilly throughout the landscape is tantamount to pollution, and is not tolerated.

I read somewhere of an arborist who was paid to climb a female Ginkgo tree and remove, one-by-one, the smelly fruits. Many earthy odors that some people find repugnant, others find powerfully evocative. I’ve never whiffed of the Ginkgo fruit, but it can’t be much worse than the odor of cow manure, which I find strangely appealing. I have a particularly perverse fondness for the odor of the decaying leaves of the Wild Raisin (Viburnum cassinoides), which has been described as a “putrid stench.” The sweet, aromatic scent of the Balsam Poplar tree ranks first on my list of tree smells. Last year I found a lone specimen growing in a housing development. When I looked for it this year it was gone. While it probably doesn’t belong on suburbia’s growing list of nuisance, pestiferous, weedy, invasive exotic, or otherwise undesirable plants, it nonetheless failed to meet suburbia’s strict standard for aesthetics and cleanliness, which, or course, doesn't account for the finer, more subtle attributes of trees. It got sawed down.

The maximum safety and low maintenance standard for the modern suburbia is leading its landscape toward an ideal of soullessness and sterility. Lollipop landscaping and grotesquery showcasing strips plants of their dignity and removes them from their proper place within the plant community. In the suburban ideal, plants are selected for their visual appeal only, neglecting a wide range of sensuous attributes that plants possess. I’ll take the sweet fragrance of an Old Garden Rose anytime over an eye-catching, but almost scentless Hybrid Tea.

"Every plant has its fitness and must be placed
in its proper surroundings so as to bring out its
full beauty. Therein lies the art of landscaping.”

—Jens Jensen

Steve Daniels


North Country