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The Bosky Dell

by Julia Sneden

This morning our local paper printed a letter from an angry reader concerning a developer's plans to bulldoze yet another wooded area into oblivion. I happen to know the area referred to, because there's a small path through it that is just large enough and smooth enough for my mother's wheelchair. She particularly loves to be taken for a stroll in those woods, because getting out and away from people and pavement isn't easy when you're 95 and infirm.

I remember that once when we had paused beside a little creek that meanders through the trees and falls down a small slope, she looked into the gully and said: "My, that is a bosky dell!"

"Bosky?" I asked.

"Bosky," my mother the English teacher said firmly. "It means covered with trees and shrubs. Thickly grown. And a dell is a..."

"I know," I said, falling easily into our mother/teacher, daughter/pupil mode even though I am 66 years old. "A dell is a small valley or hollow, usually secluded."

"Good girl," she said, and we walked on. Readers of this column know that I am not a fan of sprawl (see Dante in the City). I find myself wondering how long it will take people to realize that when we take out trees, we take out the oxygen producers that keep us alive. Humans inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Trees inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. It's that simple.

It's a symbiotic relationship, those trees and us. Anyone who doubts that trees breathe need only do a very simple experiment, one that I used to do with kindergarten children, who understood it easily: tie a clear plastic bag over the leafy end of a twig on a sunny day. Wait for a while, and then check the bag. You will see small water droplets condensed on the inside of the bag, sure evidence of the moist breath of the tree as it exhales the oxygen. With trees, you call it transpiration, not respiration, but I suspect it comes to the same thing. You can't live without either one.

But beyond the life-giving oxygen that they produce, beyond the cooling shade they offer on a hot summer's day, beyond the protection they offer to birds and squirrels and other creatures, trees are just good for the soul. They help us to mark the seasonal changes, and they are beautiful in every season.

The eponymous character in the comic strip Rose is Rose has a favorite tree that she calls her 'Let It Be' tree. When life becomes too frantic or upsetting, she simply goes and leans against the tree, and her problems soon come into perspective. That idea resonates with me, because when I was a child, I was best friends with a California live oak tree.

I loved it not just because it grew near my house, but because I knew it intimately. I climbed it so often that I could have scrambled up it blindfolded. My father hung ropes and a trapeze from its strong limbs, and I used them to swing to branches well out of reach by any other means. There was a tip-top seat formed by small branches (in retrospect, frighteningly small) where I could look out over the whole of the Santa Clara Valley. It was also beyond the reach of my acrophobic older brother, even beyond the reach of the hose when he tried to squirt water at me.

When my feelings were hurt, or when I simply wanted to be alone, I would repair to my heights and think whatever philosophical thoughts an eight-year-old girl can think. I often dream that I am up in its branches. I know that I could still climb the first 6 feet of it from memory. My hands and feet recall exactly how to move to the notches my father cut into the huge trunk, and my right hand would automatically reach for the gall that looked like a saddle horn, to pull me up into the crotch of the tree.

If I could go back there today, I would press myself against the roughly-lichened bark and stand in silent communion with my oak, to salute it as a still-living part of my childhood.

But that oak isn't the only tree that has been special to me. There have been a few others, among them a magnificent sycamore on the lawn outside the library at my college. We were not allowed to climb it, so I had no intimate connection to the tree, just a respect for its size and shapeliness. At the time I wasn't even aware that it made a great impression, but it, too, has appeared often in my dreams, seen from a distance.

At present, I live in a house that sits beside a handsome white oak. It has a double crown, and is a good 70 feet tall. We fight a continuing battle with our neighbor's ivy which wants to climb it, but that's about all the care it requires. This year its acorn production is truly Brobdingnagian. Botanists tell us that the trees in our area are impelled to be especially fertile in response to our four-year drought. That's all very well, but those of us who are enduring the hail of acorns — BANG! Rattle-rattle-rattle as they roll off our roofs — wish they could find another reaction to the weather.

We used to have a brother oak at the other end of our house, but when several of its overhanging limbs became dangerous to our well-being, we regretfully decided to have it taken down. I knew enough to be away from the house on the day the cutters came, but when I returned in late afternoon, they still hadn't finished. They had had to rope all the big limbs to keep them from crashing down on our roof, and that took a long time. What met my eyes was the stripped trunk of the mighty tree, standing tall and naked. It was like watching a slow death by dismemberment, and I have felt guilty ever since.

Beyond even the specific trees that I have loved, there are whole categories of trees that hold my special affections:

  • Redwoods, those silent giants that stand in forests where sounds are muffled and sunlight breaks through in long, mote-filled shafts. It is trite to say that visiting them is like going to church, but it is. Maybe better.
  • Acacias, whose improbable, fuzzy, bright yellow flowers make almost everybody smile, and then sneeze. If there's a clown tree, the acacia is it.
  • Dogwoods, for their charming offerings of flowers, bright red berries and colorful autumn leaves
  • Crab apples just because they are Spring's special gift
  • Fruit trees of all kinds, for their bounty and beauty
  • White birches. When I was a kid, my great uncle often delighted me by writing to me from his Idaho ranch, using the papery bark as a postcard. And anyone who has watched Dr. Zhivago (or, for that matter, vacationed in New England or read Last of the Mohicans) feels the intensely romantic pull of the birch and fern forests of the far north.

The list could go on a lot longer, but the point is made, I think. If you, like me, love trees for any or all of the above reasons, consider joining whatever organization you can find to promote our healthy forests and slow the developers' axes. If you go to a search engine and type in "Tree Preservation" you will find that most of the sites are from England (email address .uk), but they are worth visiting to pick up ideas about where to start. Almost any individual can start a petition for a TPO (Tree Preservation Order).

Another good beginning is to type in "Heritage Trees." Most areas of the country have programs that designate an especially fine example of a tree species as a "Heritage Tree," which protects it. Your local county agricultural agent is also a fine source of information on this subject.

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