This post should have a really
-random-analysis red flag. You have been warned.
Trees generally are a locus of all sorts of things: beauty, dignity, age, a sort of massive calm. Tolkien's Ents are simply a vivid externalisation of the kind of awe a tree should properly engender. But more than that, a tree is a text, a solid confluence of history and context and identity as well as aesthetics.
The plane tree in our garden is an excellent example of its genre, a lovely tree in its own right - it grows tall and straight and huge, unslanted by the fierce Cape winds which push lesser trees over into tilted growth. It's our saviour in summer, shading the entire side of the house, and making the interior blissfully cool on the hottest days. The deep shade severely limits the kinds of plants I can grow in the front garden, but I consider it to be worth it. In winter the plane tree usefully loses all its leaves as well as the fuzzy bobbles of its seed heads, allowing the sunlight in to the house and grass. I am happy to allow it even that, and will cheerfully rake up the brown autumn drifts.
Trees, of course, are also about history. I have no idea how long this one has been here, but even with the relatively fast plane tree growth, it's probably a minimum of fifty or sixty years. I don't know who planted it in the corner of the garden, to provide its peaceable shade in the February heatwaves, but they were clearly a respecter of trees. I find it odd to think of these unidentified individuals experiencing the same summer heat we do, and planting a tree whose welcome dappled cool they will never actually experience. I hope they would be happy to think that we do experience it, and are grateful.
I love this tree, but it's problematical. It's an alien, not native to the Cape; while it's not the water-hog a eucalypt is, nor invasively prone to scatter its offspring everywhere, it shouldn't really be here. The plane tree originates in the northern hemisphere; ours, a stranger to the tip of Africa, is also as far as I can work out a hybrid, a London Plane, which is a cross between the oriental and American strains. I'd never want to remove it, it's a beautiful tree, but if I were to plant something now for shade and beauty, it wouldn't be a plane. Not even trees are exempt from the re-judgements of the New South Africa and the re-assessment of colonial legacies and aesthetics which make a nonsense of local ecologies. I can't look at the plane tree, or touch its strangely smooth grey bark, without feeling a complex constellation of love and guilt and unease.
They may not fling themselves spontaneously far and wide, but plane trees invade in a more conceptual sense: we plant a lot of them. There are new rows all down the road around the corner from our house, and along the main avenue on campus. This picture was taken outside my office today. When I started my undergrad here, I don't think those plane trees had been planted yet; they were put in, as spindly metre-high things, in my first couple of years of study, and my earliest sense of the avenue is as a blisteringly and uncompromisingly open, sunny space. Now we have the start of a shady, tree-lined stretch which is an enormous relief in the summer. The historicity of trees, above anything else in my life, makes me realise that I've been on this campus for over 20 years. It also makes me realise how far, even in this particularly self-consciously political space, the Afrocentric on campus is capable of being undermined by convenience. Plane trees grow quickly and look lovely, but in their leafy green between the ivy-covered stone of the buildings, we ape the English or American university rather than forging an identity of our own.
I cannot regret a tree: their presence and character, once established, make me both respectful and protective, and I will always mourn their destruction. But in this, as in all things, the fatal tendency to think means that love is never simple.