Icons I Can’t Quit

In honor of Earth Day, let’s take time to look up to the trees.

I love eucalyptus trees, and not just on Earth Day every April. It’s a long-term commitment. I fell for them a while back during a tree tour around Laguna Beach one soggy Saturday morning. Talk about iconic: Eucalyptus in our town are emblematic of our history and our art colony heritage. Planted by homesteaders eager to take advantage of the Timber Culture Act of 1871—and painted numerous times by early plein-air artists such as William Wendt—dozens now shade our downtown streets, some dating back all the way to our founding.

It’s controversial to be fond of eucalyptus in Laguna—for good reason, given our susceptibility to wildfires. When the oil in their leaves heats up, flammable gas is released, which can turn into a fireball. Sparks blown by the winds—especially Santa Anas—have the potential to ignite and spread flames to structures far and wide. There are many residents who’d like them cut down.

And yet, and yet … overhead power lines buzzing with electricity present similar dangers. But we’ve voted not to underground them. Recent blazes, such as the Emerald Fire, prove that we’re surrounded by plenty of flammable vegetation, much of it native to the area.

That wet weekend day on the tour, I was charmed by the eucalyptus’ smooth baby-cheek branches blushing pink in patches; their minty breath; and trunks that feel like tensed muscle. They’re sensual creatures, once you get to know them. Though it would take a while to meet them all: There are more than 800 varieties.

I like that their elbows, where branch meets trunk, grow wrinkled with time. Yet they seem to fight aging, regularly sloughing off their skin, as though to save their complexions from the unsightly fissures. The reason for the sloughing isn’t vanity, of course, it’s to clean themselves of irritants such as bugs. What you might call germabrasion.

I’ve been thinking lately about our tendency to anthropomorphize trees, particularly those that are iconic to a region. Think about it: How often are “stately” or “regal” applied to palms in Southern California? Though to me, they look more like gawky adolescents with a shock of untidy hair.

The way to tell a King palm from a Queen palm? A local arborist explained it thusly: “The Queen has a shapely trunk; the King has a more erect look, and its nuts hang further below its crown.”

So it’s not just me who likes to humanize our flora.

There’s a tree in the Amazonian rainforest that I particularly loved meeting: a walking palm, or Socratea exorhizza (it’s even named after an ancient philosopher!). As with most of its kind, the tree loves sunlight, but this guy literally makes the right moves to meet its goal. It grows new aboveground roots in the direction it wants to travel, allowing the old roots on the opposite side to rot and die, moving an estimated 7 feet each year.

Then there’s the Cook pine, a living Tower of Pisa, several examples of which grow in Laguna Beach. Both tower and tree bow toward the south—although the tower’s tilt is the result of human error, while the Cook pine is just doing what Cook pines do: They grow up yearning, it seems, for their home, Australia, and crick their woody necks toward the Southern Hemisphere accordingly.

How about trees with knees, the cypress, genuflecting to the swamps in which they grow, Spanish moss drooping like beards from their branches?

The African baobab tree is a particular favorite of mine, though admittedly its night-blooming flowers smell like stinky socks. That aside, it has a lovely prayer-like look, with a thick waist and root-like branches that seem to be imploring the sky to form clouds and rain. Local legend has it that God dropped the baobab upside down from the heavens by mistake.

So many trees are icons of countries and places. The acacia tree—sometimes nibbled on by giraffes—immediately puts one in mind of Africa. See a byzantine banyan tree, think Hawaii. A shot of a picnic beneath a spreading oak: We’re in England.

Orange County’s very name is a reflection of our agricultural past. I’d love to see more of these plump green beauties and their citrus baubles.

There’s the pepper tree outside Laguna Beach City Hall, now a short, shaggy specimen, which is also controversial. A few years back, arborists recommended it be felled because it was old and likely to keel over and hurt someone. But given its long history as a Laguna Beach icon (though it’s actually from Peru), a movement began to save the tree.

Eventually, a compromise was reached to cut it down but not uproot it. The conflict was then over whether it should be shortened to 9 feet or 12. Twelve feet won, and it’s now thriving. Sometimes a guy just needs a trim.

On the tour, mutilated trees that were carelessly pruned saddened me, particularly a devastated melaleuca raising its amputated arms to the sky.

But the saddest of all were trees that had been given cement shoes, perhaps in an effort to avoid lawsuits from people who might trip over exposed roots. I swear I heard a whimper from a young sapling who’d been mafia’d: It was saying “help me!”—or maybe it was only the wind sighing through its few green leaves.

OK, enough of the cute, let’s get real—plants can’t talk. We must talk for them, for the sake of Orange County, for the sake of our health. Trees breathe out the oxygen we breathe in. They help mitigate climate change. They remind us of our rich history and culture. And to quote “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”