I love to visit my friend Liuni’s neighbourhood in Shenzhen China. You wouldn’t know this quiet place exists, tucked inside the high-rise and shopping districts.
Liuni’s father came to Shenzhen from Hainan in the early 80s. The city had called for teachers to teach the children of its workforce. It purpose-built simple solid housing for people who volunteered, and there these folk moved and stayed.
As the years have passed, and Liuni’s parents have grown into retirement, the trees they planted all those years ago have grown up around them. They line the paths and cluster in the small open spaces. In a city whose streets are typically wide hot noisy and dusty, the trees of Liuni’s neighbourhood are a paradise for ordinary people. It is not a rich neighbourhood which can afford landscaping services, or a park to take your Sunday visitors. It is just a place that has grown naturally over time, a comfortable place that nurtures its inhabitants.
Here is the old branch that Liuni climbed on as a child. Here they are, the trees of Liuni’s neighbourhood; ready for you to stand under on an already hot summer morning, to shade you as you take your morning exercise, to watch over you as you eat your breakfast, to fan you through the day, and nod at you when you look out your window at dusk.
There’s not enough living space in the city now, and interested eyes are gazing at the neighbourhood. The buildings are getting old, and some need renovating. There are murmurs that the tree roots have encroached on the foundations…
In these days of sudden weather, I often think about the trees in our cities. We humans can take shelter from the burning sun and harsh wind and rains. In the calm after the heat or storm, we can can venture out unharmed. But the trees suffer. Here trees with leaves flash-burned by 45-degree heat; here trees struck down by high winds, and there a whole grove swept clean off its feet by a landslide.
In the East Asian city where I live, a park gardener told me that 3 very big old trees had been felled by the latest typhoon. I asked him whether they would be planting more, and he said, ‘Ah, that’s not my business, that’s the government’s business.’
I think about the trees, and it seems to me that each day there is always one less; never two more.
And I don’t understand how now, when trees are under such weather stress, we can even think about cutting down those that still stand around us.
In Chinese culture there is a long history of honouring trees. In the town where I live you can buy a map on which is marked the location of every old large tree in the area. Almost every temple in my town has ancient sentinel banyans. In at least one country town close by, the main road takes a special detour around a tree so old and venerable that it has a god-like status for the people of the town.
So, I think of the trees of Liuni’s neighbourhood. And I hope and wonder: surely, surely, there must be some new technology (in these days when we can build earthquake-proof buildings 101 stories tall) or perhaps some method long known to the builders of temples, that will let the trees of Liuni’s neighbourhood continue to flourish and coexist with their human guardians.