Behind my house the terrain runs in stripes: a stretch of grass, a narrow road, another stretch of grass, a canal, more grass up a slope, the elevated main road into our village, then the local business park. For some time, we and our neighbors have wanted trees between the narrow road and the canal to deaden the traffic noise and soften the view.
The first intimation that that desire had borne fruit (OK, leaves; they’re willows) was the note through our door. Below the drop-shadow title and the tree-and-tulip clip art, it announced that one of our local councilors would be by for a tree-planting at 9:00 in the morning on Saturday, March 15. “We’re asking for your help on the day. Bring a shovel and a wheelbarrow*. There will be journalists and photographers in attendance.”
The trees were delivered during the week and laid out at intervals on the grass. Pairs of waist-high support stakes appeared. The turf was cut and laid aside. I kept expecting to look over the back fence one day and see all but one symbolic tree in place, in preparation for whatever ceremony or photo-op Saturday would bring. When the tiny digger drove from tree site to tree site on Thursday afternoon, I was sure that was the time, but when it left things looked much the same: each tree on its side, two upright stakes, bare soil, piled sod.
We were out in the back garden on other business this morning when we saw some of the community walking toward the back road, shovels in hand. Reassured that we would not be the dorky foreigners who did the wrong thing, we grabbed our own shovels and joined them. The trees were still unplanted.
Because here’s the thing (and, Dutch readers, please bear with me while I talk this through). We weren’t there for a photo-op, or rather, not for the photo-op I thought we were there for. After some introductory chatting, the Guy Who Knew What He Was Doing took us over to a tree site, where a hole had been dug between the supporting stakes. He explained how best to measure the root balls, how deep the holes should be (and why, with details about how the roots would interact with the water table), how to roll the root ball into place, and why they’d chosen that particular manner of planting.
And then he sent us off, two by two, to go dig our holes and plant our trees.
He went from pair to pair and advised on depth and width, lending a hand to get trees into holes and showing people how to firm the earth around the trunks afterward. The local councilor was there, but he had dirt under his nails when he shook hands. We answered the reporter’s questions while tramping down loose dirt around a newly-planted willow.
When I lived in the Edinburgh, if trees were to be planted on public land near our houses, the council would send a couple of laconic workmen to do the deed. A local councilor might come for a photo-op to dedicate the already-planted willows, but whatever audience there was would not have brought shovels. When I lived in the SF Bay Area, I’d have expected about the same, but we would have brought shovels and stood around the trees for the photographs.† (And I am not denigrating either way of dong things! Different cultures do things in different ways. All three systems produce the two inextricable objectives of the exercise: trees and a picture of the councilor in the local paper just before an election.)
The inevitable jokes about saving money by making the locals do the work were made at the closing speech, when we were all thanked for our efforts. But that’s not what it’s about, of course, not when the soil had been pre-loosened by that digger. The point was much more primal: our trees, our planting. We earned those willows by doing not only the social work of politicking for them, but also the physical work of putting them into the ground. The two are linked, word and deed.
Now, I think of myself as a migrant; I’m in this place but not of it. I expect to be changed by the places I live, but I do not expect to change them. I don’t think I have the right, and I don’t want that responsibility, either.
And yet when I look out my back window now and see the spindly branches of the willow over the fence, I see that I have changed this place. A piece of me is planted here now, putting its roots into the soil I meant to only tread lightly upon. And that’s a very Dutch lesson, too, bluntly questioning my personal narrative of non-involvement. The reality of the engineered landscape (and pretty much everywhere we live is engineered, to one degree or another) is that how we live creates the physical world we live in. People and land are as interdependent as politics and work.
There is no footfall so light that it does not leave a print. The best we can do is choose where we walk, and how.
* The Dutch word for wheelbarrow is kruiwagen. The term comes from the verb kruien, which can mean to shovel things, turn a windmill toward the wind, or walk in the peculiar way one does with a wheelbarrow. In other words, it’s a name based on actions rather than appearances. This is, in a complicated way, neatly symmetrical.
† As the youngest rioter for People’s “everybody gets a blister” Park, I should point out that California does have its own tradition of plant-your-own-tree activism. But I should also point out that Ronald Reagan found that kind of activism threatening enough to fight it with tear gas and live ammunition.
Crossposted on Making Light. Comment wherever you like.