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A tree falls in Sonoma

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Poet Shel Silverstein’s renowned 1964 children’s book, “The Giving Tree” is about a boy who loves a tree and a tree who loves a boy. But, as in life and as in literature, the world ain’t ever as simple as that.

As the boy grows older, he begins putting his personal needs before the tree – eventually taking all its fruit to sell for money, its branches for a home to live in, and its trunk to build a boat to sale around the world.

Through it all, the kid takes and takes; the tree gives and gives. And, as long as the boy returns every few years to take even more, the tree is happy.

The meaning of the 623-word tome is among the most debated in literature – is it about mother-child relationships? The post-industrial-age rape of the environment? An abusive kid and an enabling tree with latent issues of codependency?

The story sprang to mind last week, as Sonoma distressed over the fate of the Plaza ginkgos – the lush, decades-old arbors at the northeast end of the park whose removal was lobbied for last week by city employees and various residents.

In a way, the besieged ginkgos are much like the Giving Tree. That is, if the Giving Tree didn’t give the boy healthful Vitamin C and valuable timber – but rather showered him with liquid feces and stomach bile. (In that version, ending each page with the word “happy” would’ve been a much tougher sell for the late-Silverstein.)

That’s because in the autumn female ginkgos – three of which are the subject of the Plaza discussion – produce and drop pungent-smelling fruit that are slippery, slimy and smell worse than local restrooms after a mouth-watering fill-your-bowl chili fundraiser.

Public works staff, and more than a few community members, agree the female ginkgos were a decades-old mistake to plant in the first place and should be removed and replanted with equally beautiful, but more appropriate trees – ones that don’t recall human discharge. Perhaps semi-mature male ginkgos, which produce a small cone instead of the offending fruit, would be more pleasant.

On Jan. 29, in a narrowly divided compromise vote of 3-2 by the Sonoma City Council – a decision in line with a prior vote by the city Tree Committee – one ginkgo closest to the Plaza northeast corner was condemned.

However, the next day, Mayor Madolyn Agrimonti – the swing vote in favor of axing the tree – added to the intrigue by calling a Feb. 3 community meeting at the site of the doomed arbor at which time current and former council members, public works employees and the tree-curious heard further details about ginkgo maintenance. The suspense over the ginkgo’s fate heightens further with the onset of bird-nesting season when, from mid-February to late August, the removal of trees is essentially a no-no – meaning the ginkgo, known affectionately by the city as Tree B52, would photosynthesize for its final time sometime this week or next.

So, for the time being, to what degree the ginkgos will continue to beautify/besot the Plaza remains to be seen, and smelled.

But, ginkgo B52 notwithstanding, perhaps it’s time Sonoma came to a better level of understanding about under what circumstances it’s OK to remove a public tree. There have been multiple “save the tree” campaigns in recent years – from such schoolyard efforts for the Flowery oak and Adele Harrison fig to the red oaks of Broadway and now the Plaza ginkgos.

Are all trees off limits unless they’re dead or dying? What about problematic trees that were a mistake to plant in the first place (like female ginkgos, most arborists generally agree) – is being firmly established a license to live out one’s days entirely unscathed? That’s a big commitment with a ginkgo – they can live for hundreds, sometime a thousand years.

And perhaps that’s what Sonoma wants. But has it been ratified in the Tree Ordinance? (Is there a tree ordinance? What kind of town has a tree committee, but not a tree ordinance?) So much ginkgo uncertainty remains.

But what’s as clear as canopy shade on a hot a day – is that Sonoma treasures its trees.

In these parts, trees are not the common verdure; they’re more than eye catching landscaping. They live with us, age with us, they remind us of our mortality. They provide comfort in the knowledge that they’re still here, and so are we. They’re part of the furniture; that is, when they haven’t actually become the furniture.

We often don’t think of trees very much. Until the chainsaws start buzzing, that is.

Some trees give more to us than we ever give to them. The odor of bile is a two-way street, after all.

At the close of his maudlin tale, Silverstein describes the lonely tree and the now-elderly “boy” nearing the end of their days, when they meet one last time. The tree has nothing left to give – its fruit, branches and trunk were all taken and wasted by the boy. And then he returns with one last request: a quiet place to sit and rest.

“Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest,” welcomes the tree.

“And the boy did.

“And the tree was happy.”

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.