It’s no news to any of you that we live in a high desert, meaning trees and water-hungry vegetation are not indigenous at most elevations.
It’s no news, either, that we’ve turned our part of the Big Horn Basin’s desert into a tree-studded Garden of Eden – something no one planned despite all the intricate engineering that resulted in stored water and an effective network of canals.
It seems like a miracle. Our forebearers, mostly with little more than a few dollars and a lot of hope, were lured here to transform the land, which they did with unremitting and back-breaking labor. More than that, their equally hard-working wives (for the most part) brought seeds, rootstock and saplings, planting them in our rocky soil, tending them as they did their families.
The result? Farms and trees transformed the land so much that now, looking out over the settled portions of the Big Horn Basin, I’m reminded of illustrations in my old Bible – croplands spotted with shaded areas where the weary can rest, calm their spirits and find spiritual regeneration
My mother cared for one of those trees. It was just a stick situated outside the front door of our barracks at the Relocation Center. We watched that pathetic creature grow, thanks to the dishwashing rinse water Mom gave it after meals, providing in return a meager bit of shade on a few square feet of rocky ground. But talk about miracles! That tree, while it never grew very tall, is still there, still shading the same gravel. You can see it just a few feet to the east of the WWII monument.
What happened in our towns in just a few generations has been even more startling. Where once the bare walls of houses marched in uninterrupted lines along streets that radiated heat, they now peek from behind networks of branches.
What’s interesting to me is that no one mandated “thou shalt grow a tree” or zoned for planting them or provided tax breaks or incentives for tending them. People just did it ... here and elsewhere. Except in business districts. Those, pretty much everywhere in the world, have remained bare of foliage.
That element of human behavior isn’t just a curiosity, it has become significant in an age of high energy costs added to increasingly serious heat waves.
Why? Because temperatures in business zones during heat waves run some 20 degrees or more hotter than the surrounding tree-shaded suburbs. Belatedly, we are learning two things: 1) the business districts of cities create heat islands; 2) trees can ameliorate that effect.
Fill a city with trees, shade the roofs and streets, and the arbor effect takes over cooling the air not just by providing a barrier to the sun but by a process called evapotranspiration – water evaporating from a leaf surface.
So, when I check my energy bills and note how they are increasing year upon year, I think of shade trees, and (I say with tongue not too far into my cheek) I seriously consider becoming a tree-hugger.