Are Some Trees Civilized?

To attribute civilization to a tree would appear to strain even poetic license. We think of the forest as wild. Our pioneers cut and burned the original timber to make way for farms and cities. The tree has ever been the symbol of the primitive state. And yet, in Cleveland, Ohio, there has been going on, throughout the last twenty years, a reforestation that gives rise to an interesting speculation as to the nature and habits of certain trees.

Once Cleveland was known as the Forest City. Its great elms and maples helped to make Euclid Avenue one of the show streets of the world. There were, too, oak and ash and whitewood and beech, and many others, some of them relics of the old forest. The elms and maples had been planted along the streets in the early days. They were, of course, native tothe locality, and rose high and wide, lending a dignity and elegance to the city.

Then came industrialism and expansion.

Real-estate men, opening new subdivisions, sought trees that would grow rapidly. They hit first upon the Lombardy poplar, the tree that grows straight up, like a church spire, and planted whole streets with those leafy telegraph poles, as shade trees! Residents upon the streets sought, to change the habits of the Lombardy by trimming it down every year, in an effort to persuade it to branch out; but the Lombardy has eyes only for the sky, and straight up all those trees went, trim or no trim. At the same time, their roots pried open so many drains and water pipes that they had to be taken out finally, roots and all.

In the meanwhile the next crop of allotment adventurers had discovered the Carolina poplar, a compromise between the native cottonwood — whose branches grow horizontally — and the Lombardy. The Carolina poplar branches at an angle of about forty-five degrees, and, though it begins to shed its leaves almost before spring is over, it is nevertheless a prodigious grower and does afford some shade. In spite of the fact that it too has a propensity toward sewer exploration, the Carolina poplar has remained.

That stage passed; and nurserymen, allotment owners, and the city forestry department began to plant elms and maples and oaks, with an eye toward permanent beautification. But in the meantime industrialism boomed, smoke and gases poured into Cleveland’s air, and the problem became, not one of planting new trees, but of saving old ones.

The oaks died outright. So did the sugar maples and most of the elms. The soft maples lingered along, dying not so much from the smoke itself as from various parasites, such as the cotton moth, which took advantage of their weakened condition. The trees on the Public Square went first; then out Euclid Avenue, block by block, crept the slowly blasting tide of industrialism until by 1917 little was left of the grand old trees save a few pitiful branches, still trying to shelter the trimmed and blackened stubs from which they sprang. The decay and death of the old trees was well-nigh universal throughout all of Cleveland that lay within the smoke-covered area. True, thousands of the old-timers are alive to-day, but, save in May, they are sick and ugly, and those that do remain are swiftly dying..

Failing in conservation, in spite of spraying and trimming, forestry men and landscape gardeners sought to find trees that would grow in the smoke and gas. The first successful experiment, perhaps, was with the catalpa. It is a common sight in Cleveland, in July, to see a catalpa in vigorous growth and full bloom standing beside a soft maple whose leaves are already rustyred and crinkled, and which has but a few more years to live.

The European sycamore also proved an exceptionally good smoke grower. Whole streets were planted to these sycamores a number of years ago, and to-day they are magnificent. Their mottled white-and-brown bark, their broad horizontal leaves, and their widespreading branches make them highly ornamental, and they shade as thoroughly as does the sugar maple. But with European sycamore and catalpa the venture of the planters stopped. Foresters at last practically gave up conservation of the old trees in the downtown section, and transferred their attention to outlying parks and streets where pin oaks, Norway maples, and elms would thrive.

And then, downtown, began an amazing natural reforestation.

Whoever first brought the ailanthus to Cleveland, I do not know. It is a pithy, rapidly growing tree, with great compound leaves sometimes three feet long — a sort of glorified sumac. The ailanthus adopted downtown Cleveland. It spread by self-seeding, and with incredible rapidity. The thicker the tenements and the population, the thicker the ailanthus. Where smoke and dust and grime and gases seem most vile, there the ailanthus flourishes prodigiously.

Old Erie Street cemetery, where the ancient élite of the city lie forgotten beneath a layer of coal soot, is reforested entirely by these trees. The colored section of the city, along Thirtieth Street near Scoville and Woodland, has grown up solidly to ailanthus. The trees spring up in one-by-two-foot plots, next to cellar windows, behind sheds, beneath porches, sometimes even in cracks in the stones. A growth of three feet a year is common. Where people tramp and youngsters play, where not a blade of grass will grow, the ailanthus germinates and prospers. It sprawls over houses and garages; it shelters tiny porches from the sun on the red-hot summer days; it hugs upstairs windows; it appropriates to itself every nook and cranny of soil. A large vacant lot on Euclid Avenue, near the downtown business section, is grown thickly with ailanthus, the trees standing about as far apart as is the case in any normal second-growth wood lot on an Ohio farm.

The ailanthus loves smoky sections where humanity swarms, but it seldom ventures into the bare slag piles, the cinder banks, and the city dumps. There the white poplar has taken hold. Beneath Central Viaduct, next to a switchyard, in the dirtiest place in all Cleveland, a grove of white poplars has flourished for some years; and those trees have now begun to seed themselves along the ash-covered banks of Cleveland’s ugly industrial ravines, concealing the tin cans and factory refuse. Gases from the blast furnaces kill almost every other form of vegetation, but the white poplars turn the silvery bottoms of their leaves to the wind and breathe.

Along the lowlands of our downtown gullies, where former brooks have become carriers for factory waste, crack willows grow rank. In the steel section, where even the grass is seared, weeping willows have spread in abundance, rising in humble back yards and brushing foundry walls.

This, mind you, is not man-made reforestation. It just happened.

So to-day a survey of the healthy trees in the smoke-covered areas of Cleveland reveals the following: —

European sycamores on the Public Square and along certain residential sections

Catalpas on the Public Square and in scattered localities

Ailanthus throughout the entire district of the downtown, poorer-class, crowded homes

Carolina poplars along downtown streets that are still residential

Weeping willows in the steel districts

Crack willows along the refuse drains of the industrial ravines

White poplars along the slag and cinder banks

Pear and ginkgo still flourishing here and there upon the remains of old downtown estates

I do not mean that other trees, such as elm, maple, and whitewood, may not be found alive in smokier Cleveland. Thousands of them do still leaf; but, with the exception of isolated cases in which special care has preserved them, they are dying, and dying rapidly. The above list includes all the trees that really grow and prosper, and within another ten years this list will constitute the complete arboreal catalogue of downtown Cleveland. Of this list, the catalpa, European sycamore, and Carolina poplar have been knowingly planted; the pear and the ginkgo have successfully survived; the ailanthus, weeping willow, crack willow, and white poplar have sown themselves. By far the most numerous and aggressive is the ailanthus.

Now to the point which leads to speculation. Not a single one of the trees on the above list is native.

I am not an historian of trees, and am forced to rely upon textbook accounts of their origins; but I do know our native trees, every one, and these city dwellers are strangers. The nurserymen call the city sycamore a European sycamore. Whether it came from Europe in its present form or is a hybrid between a European tree and our native sycamore, I cannot say. My old Latin professor used to say that the sycamore was the ‘plane tree’ of which the Romans spoke so often. It is possible that the catalpa is a native of the southern part of this country, but it comes probably from China or the West Indies. The ailanthus is a native of China, where it is called the ‘Tree of Heaven.’ It was introduced into England by Jesuit missionaries, and came thence to this country. The Carolina poplar shows the influence of its ancestor, the Lombardy poplar, which, according to good report, originated in Afghanistan and is common in Europe, where it often borders the highways. The weeping willow grew first in the valley of the Euphrates, and is popular in China. The crack willow comes from Europe. The white poplar is a native of Asia and Europe, and was early introduced into this country as an ornamental tree. How long the pear tree has been associated with mankind may only be surmised. The ginkgo came from China, by way of Japan and England.

Thus are we led back to Asia and Asia Minor, to the days of clay tablets, of Sanskrit, and of Chinese dynasties that rose and fell ere history — as we know it—began. These trees that to-day alone survive where men throng thickest shaded the cradles of the race. For countless thousands of years they have acclimated themselves to the goings and comings and buildings and crowdings of humanity.

Have they, perhaps, become civilized ? Is it possible that they thrive in down-town Cleveland to-day, not in spite of urban congestion, but because of it?

The catalpa, pear, ginkgo, sycamore, and Carolina poplar were deliberately planted, it is true; but what of the white poplar, crack willow, weeping willow, and ailanthus, which have of their own accord reforested the most grimy, desolate, and crowded districts? The ailanthus, mind you, practically never occurs outside of the tenement quarters. Why does it not seed itself in the better, cleaner, residential sections? Why, with its prodigious powers of reproduction and growth, does it not emigrate to the country, and crowd out our native trees?

The ailanthus does not flourish in the country. I know of only one ailanthus that grows outside Cleveland’s city limits, and that was planted there years ago. The clearer the air, the more frequent the open spaces, the thinner the population, the fewer are the numbers of ailanthus. It is a veritable English sparrow among trees —a follower of mankind. The ailanthus bears large wingèd seeds, which no doubt are carried far into the suburbs, yet in the outlying vacant lots, where young elms and oaks and maples appear, the ailanthus is not seen. It would seem that what are ideal growing conditions for our native trees are unhealthy for the ailanthus, and that the very trampling of thousands of human feet, which kills the elm and the maple, makes the ailanthus feel at home and among friends. The ailanthus is native to mankind.

Perhaps it is not merely because the ailanthus can successfully combat the smoke and gases that it has reforested downtown Cleveland. Smoke and gas are products of the last twenty-five years, but this tree has been with man through the ages. It is far more pleasant to conceive that the ailanthus, like man, has adapted its physical mechanism to the exigencies of industrialism. If civilized man can live in an atmosphere of soot and cinders, should not also a civilized tree?

Mark you, this tree is not cultivated, in the same sense as are our garden shrubs and flowers. Those are pampered. With few exceptions, they need not only quite pure air but diligent attention. The ailanthus grows, not because of direct human aid, but in the face of all factors ordinarily considered fatal to vegetable life.

It is indeed a delightful speculation to imagine this ailanthus, this Tree of Heaven, gracing the pagodas of Chinese nobility ere Khufu built his pyramid; to fancy weeping willows lamenting over the follies of Babylon; to dream of the poplars of old Asia, which first set their leaves quivering to the gusts rising from man-made fire below; and to believe that these trees —civilized, if you please —have followed the fortunes of mankind down through the centuries and follow them to this very day, faithful in spite of steel, gasoline, pavements, tenements, railroads, sulphur dioxide, and slag.