requiem in green

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Alfred Joyce Kilmer

Plane trees are an integral part of the identity of France and the French way of life. There’s nothing more magical on a hot summer’s day than enjoying the shade of magnificent, old Plane trees in a village square or driving beneath their cathedral-like arches on winding country roads. So, it seems fitting to begin this blog with a poem by Alfred Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918) an American who was killed at the Battle of the Marne, the last German offensive on the Western Front during WWI. Curiously, French and American history will forever be entwined, just like the roots of the American Sycamore and the French Plantane Tree. Trees grow alongside generations of people for whom their familiar presence, even the inconvenience of their leaves and pollen, become the cornerstone of home, so that the death of any one tree inexplicably adds to the deterioration of a community’s character, history, and beauty. In a world full of ecological endangerment, Plane trees are dying by the thousands. Sadly, this also marks our fragility.

Plane trees debuted in the Mediterranean at the beginning of the Greek civilization. when they were imported to Rome from Persia. Pliny the Elder noted that it was very unusual for a tree to be appreciated solely for its shade. Over the centuries, the beauty of these mottled, marble-colored trees, which can live for over a thousand years, has not been lost on writers, poets and artists either. Plato included Plane trees as part of his literary scenery,while artists like Van Gogh painted under their dappled shade sheltering him from the scorching, Provençal sun and Paul Valéry wrote poetry about them. There’s a giant Plane tree in the village of Lamanon that is 20m tall, has a circumference of 8m and an impressive shade canopy of 1500m². It was reportedly planted by Catherine de’ Medici on her visit to Nostradamus, who was born in the nearby village of St. Rémy de Provence.

Plane trees were widely planted in France in the early and mid-19th century. Forty-two thousand were first planted on the orders of Napoleon III to reinforce the banks along the 240 km southern route (Carcassonne to the Mediterranean) of the Canal du Midi, originally constructed under the reign of Louis XIV, and to provide shade for the barges and boats that moved along the waterway through the countryside.

When American troops disembarked in Provence in 1944, the carried wooden munitions boxes made from the American Sycamore. Unfortunatley, these boxes were infected with a deadly fungal disease known as Ceratocystis platani, le chancre coloré (colored canker). Local French Plane trees were unable to withstand this invader. For the first 15 years the parasite remains dormant. Even cold weather does nothing to arrest its relentless expansion. Just a few spores introduced into even the most trivial wound is sufficient to entirely infect the tree, which can resist the infection for no longer than 4 – 6 years.

And if this weren’t bad enough, the fungus is extremely contagious, transferring itself via intertwined roots, pruning tools, even mooring ropes. More than fifty-thousand trees have already died, fifteen thousand in the last year alone. The INRA (National Institute of Agronomy Research) has been working on a solution and its scientists have bred a resistant hybrid. By crossing the American Sycamore with the Asian Plane tree they have achieved resistance not only to chancre coloré, but also other fungi, cankers, and bugs, while the hybrid trees retain all of the parent tree’s ornamental features. A 20-year rolling program has begun to cut the diseased 182 year old giants down. Fortunately, they can be replaced, at least in part, by the new resistant variety.

Sadly, it’s too late for the Plane trees lining the Canal du Midi. The effort required to save one majestic, rotting tree might seem absurd when compared with the dizzying scale of global climate change, but these trees are just as tender,and essential as we are.


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