Our mother insisted on trees. She made a little village under the Christmas tree every year, and the village had to be crowded with tiny trees. She was from the Midwest and said, “Believe me, you don’t want to live without trees.” This gave me the notion that the Midwest was a vast and barren Arabia-like wasteland where people moved listlessly, blinded by a burning glob of unfiltered sun. My little brother Michael liked to watch the Christmas village go up, and one year he was allowed to help put in the trees. Every little house had at least two trees, and taller trees were placed behind them, to suggest the nearness of a great forest. My mother said Michael was the best tree placer she had ever seen, and had made the village come alive. The trees, she said, turned plain little houses into snug beautiful homes.
When we went on vacations we would clamber into the station wagon and head to the Calaveras Big Trees or to our aunt and uncle’s cabin in the mountains. When we got there we ran around screaming, hiding, climbing, and having multiple false sightings of bears. We brought our high-pitched childish intoxication to the quiet, tall forest, but in time its grandeur subdued us, and we walked the little trails, waded in the thrilling chill of the river, breathed in the air of pine and fir. When we went home our parents eased our re-entry crisis by letting us camp in the back yard. We looked at the moon through the leaves of the apricot tree and told scary stories. By midnight we were back in the house, having terrified ourselves into seeing ghouls with glittering eyes crouching in the Toniola’s vegetable garden next door.
We knew to value trees. They shaded us, they brought natural beauty to the humblest street, they resided with stately permanence over our hectic comings and goings. We were never to put a nail in one, strip its bark, or let it go thirsty. I didn’t know then that trees filtered the very air for us, but I know it now.
It’s a commonplace but valid observation that you often don’t realize how much you love something until you lose it. We moved away from old, historic East Sac and into the burbs when I was twelve. Our new development had roomy houses and nice neighbors, but no trees. Lawns were being put in and there were numerous sticks with a frail leaf or two attached. Baby trees, my mother said. I asked how long it would take them to grow. Thirty years? I did a bleak calculation. I would be forty-two when the trees turned the stretch of bare houses into an East Sacramento-like street of shaded homes. “I’ll be nearly dead,” I said mournfully. This provoked considerable merriment from my parents who, I thought, were getting too much enjoyment from my sufferings.
The first treeless summer was hard. There was nowhere to hide from the sun. By now I had entered full and histrionic adolescence and become hypersensitive to everything, including the air itself which I claimed stunk like charred fish. I was somewhat right on this one: dust, continued excavation, exhaust, and the treeless void combined to make our suburban air putrid with toxins. It was the start of a life-long battle with asthma. This is one reason I presently feel sorry for people who might live in the McKinley Village basin: they’re going to inhale a bombardment of poisons from auto and train emissions, and the sad stick trees won’t help them.
I moved back to East Sac in my forties, (not so decrepit as I imagined at thirteen) back to the world of large, sheltering, old growth trees. There’s a reason our area is so desirable, and those trees enveloping well-made craftsman and modern architecture houses are it. Yes, super-sized Mac-mansions, overbuilt to a grotesque degree, threaten us, but we have ways to resist. I think we should use them. I think if our shaded streets are preserved, our people will always want to come home. For this reason many East Sacramentans unstintingly support the coalition of citizens who fight to preserve the tree canopy at Capitol Towers. These people know what brings enduring value to this city. I will be proud to join them.