Polly Campbell: Cultivating our friendships with trees

Strolling through Amberley Green, a former golf course that’s now an informal park,
I noticed a row of several varieties of oak trees. They attracted me with their solid trunks, their graceful branches, the dry leaves that still created motion and gentle noise on a November day. I walked over to one and felt the rough bark and looked up into the branches, right up into the sky.

I checked around me a little furtively. Then I hugged it. I hung on for a while, my arms reaching only a fraction of the whole way around it. It wasn’t comfortable like hugging a person, but I thought
I could imagine the slow hydraulics inside, nutrients running up the xylem and down the phloem, like a heartbeat. I could imagine how far down the roots went, how solid but alive it was; how much activity was probably going on around it, below the earth and up in the branches. 

I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a New Age bumper sticker, but I felt I’d made a friend. 

Polly Campbell
Polly Campbell

On the walk back to the car, I thought about other trees I have hugged. There were two in the backyard where I grew up. One was a tall maple that looked like a child’s drawing, with a straight trunk topped with a big ball of green that turned vivid orange in the fall. My siblings and the neighborhood kids climbed it to competitive heights and hung out in the branches, watching over other people in the yard below who didn’t even know we could see them. There was also a massive black walnut tree with deeply ridged bark where my father stuck jelly beans for Easter egg hunts. He also collected the nuts, hulled and shelled them and then picked the meats out all winter. I think both trees were cut down after we moved to make way for a hideous apartment building. 

There is a Jeffrey pine, near my family’s Sierra cabin, that is impossibly tall, whose top always catches wind even on still days. Warmed in the sun, its jigsaw bark smells of butterscotch, which makes hugging it an extrasensory experience. I thought about it constantly when a forest fire came close to the cabin. 

When I lived in New York City, I worked for an organization that planted trees all over one neighborhood, even though sometimes people, unbelievably, complained. They leave messy leaves or they attract people to hang out by them. Sometimes people would just whack them off a couple feet from the ground, or run cars into them. 

At my house now, there are tall poplars across the street where hawks like to hang out. They are part of a canopy that shades the street in the summer and will take your breath away in the fall. They are so big and old that whenever there’s a storm, we lose big branches, and several times have lost power for a week. Sometimes a whole tree has to get cut down. 

There are so many perils for trees, especially in the city: from development, car collisions, pollution, drought, being planted in the wrong place, power lines, invasive insects, choking invasive plants and deer browsing the saplings. And trees just have to stand there and take it. 

So, considering all they give us, including capturing carbon from the atmosphere and turning it into oxygen, and reducing water run-off and erosion, they need some help from us. We need to protect the trees in our own yards and in public places. We need to keep planting more. More native species, I should specify, since only a native tree will become part of the long-established ecosystem that has evolved to support very particular insects that live on very particular plants and are food for certain birds, and so on. Trees are crucial in that delicate balance. 

There’s a local organization called Taking Root that plants and protects trees. They collaborate with groups on tree planting projects, with a big push on Make a Difference Day. They select certain neighborhoods that need trees to get them, along with advice on how to plant them so their shade helps save energy, and give mini-grants for tree planting projects. They’ve planted trees with CPS school kids, and they sponsor the Great Tree Summit. If you’re a tree-hugger and a hole-digger, they can use you. (www.takingroot.info) 

I’m planning to plant an oak or two in my yard this year. I’ll make sure they’re oaks native to this region, because they support more kinds of other species than any other tree in our ecosystem. Once I really do it, I can go to Taking Root’s Registree, a running tally on their website. It shows how close they’re getting to a goal of 2 million new trees, one for every person in the region. 

That’s a lot of new friends.

Polly Campbell covered restaurants and food for the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1996 until 2020. She lives in Pleasant Ridge with her husband, and since retiring does a lot of reading, cooking and gardening, if that’s what you call pulling weeds.