Defenders of the Trees

by Fran Marsh

Trees are like old friends. The curve a limb, the gnarl of a familiar trunk, the patches of shade on oak leaf paths are like campus signposts. But our trees are having a hard time surviving. Aging and attacked by pests, some are threatened by heavy equipment. As budgets dwindle, others suffer from lack of maintenance. Still others are displaced by new buildings. Meanwhile, the campus community increasingly looks to the trees to fulfill a needs for solitude and education, define paths and roads, impart a sense of place and sustain certain ecological systems. Involved faculty, administration and students each have their own ideas about how to manage and maintain our trees. This first of a three part series sets our trees in historical context.

Our Patchwork Landscape Quilt

In the beginning, there were mainly coast live oaks, bays and buckeyes.

Outside the stream banks, campus was more grassy than treed.

The first comprehensive landscape plan by Frederick Law Olmsted, America's foremost landscape architect, dates from 1866. The Olmsted plan sited North (now long gone) and South halls and an esplanade between them on an axis with the distant Golden Gate.

Olmsted is commemorated on a plaque at Piedmont and Bancroft Way, a parkway he also designed as the centerpiece of a "gracious residential community" close beside the College of California. The street later served as a national model for similar parkways.

Walkways lined with pollarded London plane trees we see today leading out and down from the Campanile are the signature of Beaux Arts trained New York architect John Galen Howard, whose landscape plan dates from the turn of the century.

After the '40s, landscape by committees led in 1956 to the first of several long range development plans still under way today.

The landscape we now see is a cobbling together of remaining natural settings, partially realized bits of early grand schemes, individually planted trees and trees planted in connection with construction of new buildings.

A Lineman Gets Jepson's Ire

In 1903, botany professor and famed California naturalist Willis Jepson reported to Berkeley's president on the status of campus oaks.

After listing oaks in various locations and a description of their diseases ("dry rot") and pests (tent caterpillars), Jepson chastises "the Berkeley electric light lineman...(who) cut off one fourth of the crown from an oak at South Hall and cut a hole five by seven feet in the foliage of an oak opposite East Hall.

"The light poles should be raised out of the two mutilated trees (so) new growth may restore their outlines," he concludes.

"University authorities have always been...jealous of the oaks and have shielded them from vandals with remarkable success," Jepson continues.

"But times are rapidly changing. Sunday visitors...mutilate tree trunks. The genus 'Berkeley Small Boy'...has recently injured six of the large trees by cutting the trunks with a cleaver."

Jepson recommends prompt arrest and punishment and systematic planting to ensure a perpetual stand.

"We are planning not merely for today or tomorrow, but for the future."

Professor Appleseed

Robert Cockrell, professor emeritus of forestry, joined the faculty in the mid '30s, coming to Berkeley from Clemson University in South Carolina and Syracuse University. For many years he taught a course in dendrology--the study of trees. Over the years his Clemson students and Syracuse colleagues would send him seeds, and he would collect seeds on trips back East.

In all, Cockrell is credited with planting hundreds of trees on campus and with shepherding many seedlings and saplings through onslaughts by the mower blades of campus gardeners and new building construction.

The first tree Cockrell planted in the '30s, a red cedar at West Circle, is still alive, but "has had some rough treatment," Cockrell says. The latest, a black cherry, planted in 1990 near Hilgard Hall, is thriving.

In the '50s, Cockrell recalls a tree committee discussing the ancient buckeye in Faculty Glade. "They wanted to take it down, but I argued against it," he said.

He prevailed. Forty years later, the buckeye still stands, its trunk a structural marvel.

A most distressing incident occurred during the Free Speech Movement of the '60s. When police threw tear gas at demonstrators, students tossed the canisters back at officers. Then the police decided to ferry the tear gas overhead in a helicopter and spray it from above.

The strategy proved successful for the police, but a prized 80-year-old shellbark hickory in West Circle succumbed from the gassing.

Yet there is something to be learned from everything, and mindful of the need to document the effects of such chemicals on trees, Cockrell wrote an article on the death of the shellbark for a scholarly journal.

The trees continue to give some direct benefits to Cockrell: He takes a leaf extract of the ginkgo biloba, reputed to be an aid to the memory.


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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