Op-ed: How about some notice before a tree is cut down?

By Ryan Mykita

Ryan Mykita is Principal at More Animal Than Human, an outdoors conservation project launching worldwide in 2015. He is a permanent resident of Berkeley, and an adopted resident of Bogota, Colombia.

Last month a magnificent fruiting tree on the southeast corner of Dwight Way and Grant Street was cut down. Turns out it belonged to the Berkeley City Ballet.

A good guess is that thousands have plucked fruit from this tree, likely without knowing what kind of tree it was, or even if it was OK to eat. Head-height fruit full of flavor within arms’ reach of the sidewalk — this was the kindest tree this side of town, offering an introduction to harvesting edible, urban fruit. She took my fruit-picking virginity, and that of many others.

The abrupt removal of this beautiful tree just as it was bearing fruit was upsetting for local residents. The tree was a highlight of for all who walked by and appreciated the fruit it bore and its beauty —  it is unbelievable that it was cut down.

It also raises questions for me about the overreaching forestry department of the City of Berkeley.

Based on my visual observation, more trees are being cut (necessarily or not) than in past years for apparent safety reasons following a couple of high-profile trees falling during winter wind storms

Why not tag a tree with notice when it is scheduled for removal? If we can display details on building proposals, why not alert the neighborhood publicly of a tree’s last stand? Seems like a graceful, easy thing to do.

If you ask a dying loved one if they’d like you to do anything to save them, they will likely say no, that they simply appreciate your presence. Terminality is better discussed in advance than passed over like the quick pain of a flu shot.

There is a grieving process for the loss of anything living that you have seen and recognized more than once – and it feels healthy to acknowledge that.

It’s just plain unsettling coming home to find a tree missing on your block.

So how about a little advance notice when a tree is scheduled for removal? Could be from the city, or the contracted tree services company. Practically speaking, a business like the Berkeley City Ballet can avoid neighborhood blowback by offering an explanation – most of us are pretty reasonable. It’s a nice gesture for fans of trees who prefer a simple ‘goodbye’ to confrontational tree sits or bulldozer fist fights.

Dying with dignity isn’t exclusively reserved for human death. Being surrounded by loved ones in our last moments is something any of us would wish for – for any living creature.

This was a uniquely productive tree for many years and I am sure hundreds of people will identify it as now missing.

You might say I am over-reacting to the loss of a single tree, but this one happened to be my buddy, my fruity greeter in the morning each spring and summer. I didn’t even think to name her or find out what kind of tree she was. I would have, had I been given some notice of her demise.

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  • Mbfarrel

    If this is true “it belonged to the Berkeley City Ballet” what’s your point? The only City owned tree visible in Google Maps is a small plum on Grant, in which case it belongs(ed?) to the city. In neither case is noticed required.
    Tend your own garden.

  • berkeleyan

    Oh man, you should have seen the day they cut down all the trees on our business’ block of Shattuck. It really blighted the area for quite a while until new trees grew.
    And of course they gave no notice.
    The cutting of the trees alongside Berkeley High on Channing Way over Christmas break was also very disturbing to that neighborhood.
    I do agree, and not only for sentimental reasons: give notice before cutting trees.
    And how about some oversight: what is the REASON for cutting the trees?
    This sort of decision affects everyone in the neighborhood.

  • bgal4

    what kind of fruit tree was this, why all the mystery and religious fervor?

  • Mbfarrel

    I remember when there were no trees in downtown. It wasn’t a bit blighted. Of course there were many stores and few if any street creeps.

  • Heather_W_62

    Tree belonged to Berkeley Ballet and somehow they should have given you notice because of your nostalgia? For all you know, that tree was dying, rotting inside, a danger to a structure. If it was a plum, they do have a lifespan and no, it’s no one’s responsibility to help you hold a vigil for a tree,.

    What ridiculous trifle this is.

  • -mp

    I feel very sad about the loss of the tree. Trees are at the heart of our lives and our environment. Trees in public places belong to everyone, not just the entity who “owns” it. I feel sad for the birds, and bugs, and the loss of green. And also for people who are so bound in concrete that they don’t understand the huge loss. The city should inform the public. It should also plant native trees as replacements instead of those strange choices they come with that don’t sustain local songbirds.

  • guest

    While I think this opinion piece is a little over the top, the determination of ownership of street trees in Berkeley is a real problem.

    On paper the city owns them and is responsible for their care and maintenance, but they do not water, fertilize, or even prune many of the city-owned trees in Berkeley and the city refuses to pay for damage done to sidewalks by the trees that they own.

    I love trees and think they really beautify the areas they’re in (San Pablo between University and Dwight looks great this time of year) but if the city wants to maintain sole ownership over them they need to do a better job of taking responsibility for them.

  • SheTookMyFruitPickingVirginity

    I love trees for lots of reasons but this piece has to most spectacular example of Poe’s law that I’ve ever read.

  • FiatSlug

    I love trees. They are a big part of why Berkeley is livable and inviting. But the simple truth is that in Berkeley, trees are not cut willy-nilly. I have lived in Berkeley for more than 45 years and have seen more trees removed due to death or disease than for aesthetics or because they block a neighbor’s view.

    I think the likely truth is that the City of Berkeley had nothing to do with the tree’s demise. And so, I wonder if Ryan Mykita has a different beef with the CoB’s Forestry Department.

  • Tootie

    I think it’s called a strawberry tree or, as Wikipedia says, Arbutus unedo

  • guest

    Well, the city has come through my West Berkeley block a couple of times in the last 5 or 6 years to prune the street trees, and for the most part did a pretty good job at it.

  • Erica

    Correct, it was a strawberry tree.

    I was sad too to see it go — it was a beautiful tree and seemed in the peak of health (in fact, every time I passed it, I compared its vigor sadly to my own strawberry tree, which is dying).

    But since it belonged to the ballet school, what does this have to do with the City of Berkeley? The tree was not on the strip between the sidewalk and the street; it was next to the building. Probably its roots were getting too big to be so close to the foundation.

  • bgal4

    our the mess the fruit makes became a nuisance for the dance school

  • Heather_W_62

    As to the tree’s health — I had 40 year old plum that seemed to be doing well, continued to fruit, but appeared to need some trimming. Turned out the entire interior core was completely rotten and only the exterior was alive. It would have fallen and done damage to things if I had not had it removed.

    You can’t tell just by looking.

  • guest

    I wish the City wouldn’t cut down trees without warning. On our street they cut limbs housing a nest of baby squirrels (who died), a humming bird’s nest and limbs providing welcome shade. The tree was not sick, it was considered to be in the way of the bus route when the street was repaved. In my opinion, the pruning was overzealous and not needed. Live and let live.

  • rhuberry

    Trees don’t live forever. They have a life span. In a city with sidewalks, streets, building foundations and all the other infrastructure, they don’t remain as healthy as they might if they grew somewhere out in the country. My experience in Berkeley is that many people, at least those walking by my house, don’t understand that eventually troublesome or aging and diseased trees need to be removed. As I was cutting down a DEAD tree in my yard, a family walked by and was sad and upset I was removing a tree. Even after I told them that it was dead, not dying, they still said ”..but it’s a tree!”

    Also I spend a lot of time, effort and money keeping up my property. I don’t appreciate the common Berkeley attitude that whatever people see growing and producing, even on private property, is somehow there (theirs) for the taking. People help themselves to my flowers and avocados on a regular basis as they walk by — sometimes picking them right in front of me.

  • robriel

    It seems to me the issue is that if you were given advance notice you would have tried to stop the tree from being removed. But sadly this is not your decision.

  • Pwl

    I don’t think the issue should be based on “property or legal claim.” You don’t have a legal claim to the property where a house is going to be torn down, or have additions, or whatever, but neighbors are given notice. And it’s very strange to think that we “own” a living being like a tree. I’ve had lots of tree friends that were not on my property. I do think it’s okay to want to say goodbye, and to want to object if there isn’t a good reason for cutting down the tree. And yes, dead trees do need to be removed in an urban environment.

  • Pwl

    And I had not read down to “mirrored”s statement. I’m 71. I’ve lost both my parents, some dear friends. I do understand grief for a human. I have a very similar grief for some beautiful tree friends that I’ve lost. And for the pets I’ve lost over the years.

  • guest

    Down the rabbit hole.

  • mirrored

    Pwl, I imagine the reason you are given notice about a house being torn down or renovated on in your neighborhood is because of the noise and debris factors it is going to cause. In relation to “living” trees, it is not strange to own them. Think about it. Some people own acres and acres of land that has thousands of “living” beings including all sorts of trees, plants, bugs, animals. The bottom line is, if it’s not your property you really don’t have a right to it.

  • mirrored

    I can totally understand how grief for a human is comparable with grief for a pet. For many, pets are family. They give emotion and respond to yours etc. I still can’t even fathom how anyone can equate a tree to a human being. Trying not to sound insulting here, honestly It must be exhausting to expand your grief into trees?

  • guest

    Neighbors had a tree in front of (but not on) their property. They reportedly were upset when they returned from an extended absence and saw that the tree had been removed (by the city from city property.) Maybe nobody told them that the tree had suffered some kind of damage that resulted in it leaning across nearly half of the very narrow road.

    Even though somebody came along and put up a ‘danger’ sign and left an orange cone under the tree (in the road), the tree had to go. The city took a few days to do it, but thankfully they removed the tree. Sorry, neighbors.

  • Whoa Mule

    The tree was planted in the parking strip, which is part of the right-of-way easement established in most subdivision maps in Berkeley. Typically, the easement will include the parking strip, sidewalk and a few feet of your front yard. Under City policy, any tree which is not an ‘official’ street tree is considered an encroachment and is subject to removal. A recent project by the Public Works dept. had all of the public trees in Berkeley photographed and logged into a database.

    The City guards its right-of-way easements very seriously, especially if a City employee takes a dislike to you.

  • frustrated tree lover

    It’s shocking and sad to lose a tree when you have no warning, like a death in the family. But what about when you WANT a tree removed and the city does not remove it? The Chinese Elms on Stannage were never properly trained. The result? Dr Seuss-like “evergreens” with limbs that break at all times of the year. Call the city…they clean up the mess. ICall the city for tree removal? No response. If someone gets hurt, or there is property damage? No problem I guess, the taxpayers pick up the bill!