If a tree falls …

The sign of flagrant irresponsibility

If a tree falls, would anyone care? I don’t know if you are among those who, if they see a tree fallen to the ground, you feel your heart sink as though you have lost something dear. You feel sad and sorry for that tree, once so beautiful and resourceful, now it just ends up becoming a burden or a hazard: something to dispose of. Yes, I must confess, I love trees! I grew up always having trees and woodland around me; they nourish me with a deep respect for their value.

Accumoli (a municipality in Lazio) is the hometown of my father’s side of the family. It is surrounded by oak and chestnut trees, and the town has always sought to strike a balance between restricting and conserving the woodland. Today, this balance has given life and prosperity to the surrounding communities. In the 1990s, the first ornamental trees, planted solely to enhance the area, arrived after renovations were made on the streets and square. Previously, the trees in the village were left to grow naturally for centuries. Elsewhere, in the vegetable gardens and in the gardens of villa-houses, fruit trees prevailed. Apart from yielding the fruits for which they had been planted for, they offered shade, refreshed the heart when they blossomed and provided company to people in grief or sorrow like that of a silent friend.

Given the innumerable benefits brought about by the presence of ornamental trees in the city, it is positive to see projects that include such greenery. Yet, it is sad to see trees only being considered as decorative elements, as if they are like any other architectural element inserted into a space to embellish it. Considering how many trees fall or are cut down almost after every storm, windy day or sporadic snowfall in Rome – my current home – I have come to wonder if those who are responsible for the trees still consider trees as living beings. In a city, it is rare that a tree has the opportunity to develop naturally as it would in the forest because it is subjected to the surrounding construction and infrastructures in which it is inserted.

Let us take for example the common pine tree that can reach up to 25 meters. If all goes well, when it is planted in front of some building, pruning will occur to avoid problems with the building’s façade, to deter the deformation of the trunk and to address problems concerning the tree’s roots and surface of the road. A tree can also cause problems when pine cones fall or because of bird nests. Humanity’s intervention is therefore fundamental. People are responsible for the care of the tree and have to recognize its signs of stress such as swelling, excess wood production, rotting or drying, and so sometimes have to quickly intervene so that the tree does not cause any danger. 

This is why I speak of a tree as a living being: the tree interacts with the surrounding environment and responds to stress. It may become structurally weak, as happens to any other living being. Not taking this into account is just as an irresponsible act as chopping down trees in an indifferent manner for the simple reason that is to reduce damage liability. According to the provisions of Article 2051 of the Civil Code “Everyone is responsible for the damage caused by the things they have in their ownership, an unforeseeable event is proved. By the way, it it possible to prove something as an ‘the unforeseeable event’ for which many states of emergency are declared?

It can, and has happened that a tree can fall, cause damage and unfortunately kill an unsuspecting passer-by. It can happen due to a strong wind, an intense storm, because of biological problems such as diseases or other causes, but the above mentioned Article 2051 mentions, the responsibility is that of the person who has ownership of the trees. This responsibility involves planning, projecting and allocating funds. If we consider trees as a important a heritage as the history of our land, I believe that there are no alternatives. As of January 2018, according to the Municipality of Rome, 130,000 trees were present in streets, squares and villas of the capital.

Of these, about 30,000 tree were monitored. The number of trees in parks are not included in the statistic. Including the those in the parks, the number reaches the 400,000 mark and together with the many hectares of land around the Grande Raccordo Anulare (the ‘Great Ring Junction’ of Rome) have earned Rome the title of the greenest capital in Europe (ANSA.it, 5 March 2017). 

Naturally, taking care of such a heritage could and should result in the demand and recruitment of qualified personnel such as gardeners, experts and technicians able to assess and intervene on the health of the trees. A while ago, given the vastness and complexity of this commitment, personnel were trained in a specialised school of excellence in the municipality. Yet, now, it is difficult to get a sense of the current situation. Thankfully, there are some noteworthy articles available online that help provide the bigger picture. One article denounced the decrease in the number of employees in the Public Green area from 1300 in 1995 to 250 in 2016 (roma.corriere.it, 10 June 2016). Another, from 2018, reported that there is a gardener for every two thousand tree (Ilsole24ore.com, 24 February 2019). 

Obviously, the decrease in specialized personnel goes hand in hand with the decrease in the budget allocated for public green spaces. Furthermore, to make up for the shortage of personnel, unqualified companies and workers are called upon to intervene in times of emergency to prune and remove fallen trees, work that leads to closing off entire streets. I think of the stumps left to rot on the avenues, or the pruning that leaves only the trunk, out of which fragile branches will sprout and fall on the roads and sidewalks when it first rains. On numerous occasions, the flowerbeds where a tree once lived become small rubbish dumps, or where asphalt is poured to cover the soil. 

It can be easy to think in terms of efficiency and economy. When a lack of funds are the leitmotiv, the mantra now repeated in the name of a market economy, of income and expenses, to see trees as a cost or an inconvenience. Yet, trees provide more than just spiritual benefits. Green spaces beautify and truth be told, even sell. Cutting down a tree, according to experts, generally costs more than taking care of it month after month. Let us not forget that trees protect us from excessive heat caused by the amount of cement, asphalt and metals in the city. We could be mistaken to think that removing the tree prevents it causing damage. So the chopping down of trees becomes an immediate response to peoples’ fear … a bit like what happens with foreigners or with the excluded in general: there is always a way to create a problem that needs to be fixed, to take the perceived responsibility of someone else’s negligence. Since the birth of humankind there’s always been a scapegoat to blame for every problem. Let’s not make the very trees that help us one of them.

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