Hardly a month goes by—perhaps more like once a week—without some new artistic endeavor depicting contemporary life synecdochically through paved surfaces. We can all think of one. Whether the first that comes to mind for you is a song by Joni Mitchell (or maybe David Byrne), a Terry Gilliam movie, or a Kurt Vonnegut novel, the world today has been smeared across by some paving surface—or so they’d have you believe. Granted, most of these examples, by virtue of the fact that they criticize this phenomenon, share a certain political leaning (and, most likely, a dense big city that they call home), but the fact remains that modernity and concrete or asphalt share a loose fungibility: the phrase “paving the way” implies progression, or, at the very least, succession.
Is it justifiable to bemoan the fact that the earth, in totality, is most likely becoming increasingly impervious with each passing second? Even the greatest Luddites can hardly complain over the fact that, a century ago, most roads outside of urban centers in the United States—the nation with the largest road network by far—were dirt or gravel at best. After all, a hard surface that resists most weather patterns is unambiguously superior for travel, and individual mobility is better than ever before, with all evidence that it only stands to improve in the future (even if perhaps at a higher cost per unit traveled). These broad artistic swipes at our increasingly paved future generally achieve satire and a resonant message, more readily than a dire warning of eminent peril. At least they make for a catchy tune or a cult novel/movie. Nonetheless, most people simply do not allow the cement trend to bother them; perhaps they even welcome it as an indicator of improved convenience. And perhaps the fact that so much of the world still remains unpaved—sometimes completely removed from human intervention—that a dystopic future devoid of natural plant growth can only achieve resonance in the topos root of the aforementioned word: we do indeed have a “place” here in the future that is simultaneously the present, but it is hardly so devoid of all that is green and pure to be dys, or “bad”.
Maybe it is legitimate to claim that the world is increasingly paved, but a thousandth of a percentage’s incremental increase still smacks of hyperbole. Even in most urban environments, plant life is abundant—sometimes more so than the unsettled world around it (particularly noticeable in my current home here in Afghanistan, where trees are non-existent except in well established towns). So the collision of the built and the natural ultimately isn’t as bleak as Mitchell and Vonnegut would like us to think it is. Sometimes the harmony between the two is so unexpected that it is particularly charming, as in this eminently suburban streetscape in Gulfport, Mississippi:
Aside from blurring people’s faces to leave them anonymous, I’m not normally one to doctor my own photos. But I couldn’t help but try to capture the serenity of this live oak by at least toning down the ordinariness of the surroundings. So I confess: I “Photoshopped” out some of the signage. Here’s the actual vista of this tree:
There it sits, right in the middle of a grocery store parking lot. The Southern live oak is one of the most emblematic trees of the South. I suspect that only the magnolia surpasses these expansive titans for evoking the ecology of Dixie, particularly in a place like Mississippi—nicknamed the Magnolia State. But the magnolia is the name for a genus, a broader classification than the specific Quercus virginiana of the Southern live oak—not surprisingly, the magnolia family of trees covers a much broader geographic region. (By the same token, the live oak characterizes a broader Quercus genus as well; the Quercus virginiana, or Southern live oak, is the specie of focus here.) The Southern live oak generally thrives in exclusively the coastal Southeast, making it most characteristic of the Deep South, whereas magnolias can endure as far north as Philadelphia. It is common practice—almost a cliché—for artists/filmmakers/photographers to show American “Southern-ness” through a silhouette of a grove of Southern live oak trees, with Spanish moss draped lazily across the horizontally inclined branches. Not surprisingly, Southerners by and large revere these trees, in part for their tremendous canopy, their idiosyncratic evergreen characteristics (they are never without leaves), and their ability to withstand hurricane-force winds. The streets of New Orleans, Savannah, and (prior to Hurricane Ike) Galveston all derive the majority of their canopy from these trees. One of the most prominent old plantation homes in Louisiana is the beloved Oak Alley, featured in many movies, as well as this blog quite some time ago.
So, if these trees are so pervasive, what makes this one so special? As is clear from the photos, it is in what is otherwise a pretty unremarkable parking lot to what seems to be a run-of-the-mill southern grocery store chain.
If the photos have not made it obvious already, this particular Southern live oak is big. Huge.
Though I didn’t take any measurements, I really didn’t need to in order to assert that it’s bigger than most if not all of the Southern live oaks in New Orleans neighborhoods. Thus, it’s safe to assume that, by virtue of its greater size, it’s also older than the 150 year old plantings that line St. Charles Avenue in the Big Easy. In fact, I would venture to guess that this tree is comparable in size to the Southern live oaks in Oak Alley Plantation, which, in turn, were planted over three hundred years ago. Carrying this deduction a step further, I suspect that this tree is of a similar age, which would date it a good 180 years prior to the incorporation of the City of Gulfport in 1898.
And, as gutsy as it may be for me to assert this, this Southern live oak may even pre-date the Winn-Dixie! Most of the development around this part of Gulfport, based on the appearance of the homes, comes from the 1960s through the 1980s, a era when automobile-oriented design and parking lot provision were often at their most generous. Relatively few subdivisions that originate from this time have sidewalks, particularly if they were platted outside of an incorporated area. Developers of commercial plazas focused little on aesthetics or preservation of green space; the biggest amenity of a strip mall was its abundance of free, plainly visible parking.
Yet shifting consumer tastes have elicited a gentle irony: many of these 40-year-old strip malls are now struggling with high vacancy levels, having been replaced by lifestyle centers and other retail typologies that emphasize aesthetics in general—and greenery in particular—much more than in the past. In most municipalities, the inclusion of some form of landscaping is mandated for parking lots over a certain minimum size. The US Green Building Council’s Version 3 of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for New Construction and Major Renovations provides multiple incentives for developers to “break up” an expansive sheet of pavement through trees and landscaping, partly to facilitate stormwater management by reducing impervious surfaces, but also to help minimize the urban heat island effect, largely induced by pavements and other aggregate materials that retain heat. Both of these negative characteristics of conventional parking lots can pose a huge burden and source of discomfort in a hot and rainy climate, such as southern Mississippi in the summer.
But somehow I suspect that ecologically sensitive stormwater management and heat island mitigation were not on the developer’s mind when building this Winn-Dixie. First of all, if this store is as old as most of the housing and commercial establishments in this area, its construction precedes that of city ordinances mandating landscaped islands, LEED certification, and the green building movement altogether. The installation of landscaped islands is hardly consistent throughout this parking lot. Some other angles reveal that most of the rest of the lot is barren and exclusively impervious…
…with the exception of the perimeter, which hosts islands with significantly younger plantings.
These perimeter trees were most likely a private decision and not a public mandate. At any rate, their existence depended on development of this site; obviously they didn’t grow in this pattern by nature. Parking lot landscaping has become particularly prevalent in the last decade, induced by a combination of municipal codes and—perhaps most potently—market forces: developers have found that strip malls/lifestyle centers/shopping plazas attract the eyes of passers-by through their inherently more upscale appearance. Treeless strip malls look old-fashioned, tired, and barren in comparison.
In fact, upon further scrutiny, aesthetics may actually be the single greatest justification for these landscaped islands, because the ecological benefit is increasingly dubious. While they undoubtedly provide at least some shade and relief from the heat island effect that makes Mississippi parking lots so uncomfortable in the summer, the cost of maintenance may outweigh the benefits, particularly if the installation uses landscape or trees that demand a great deal of water or irrigation, further skewing the natural hydrology of a site. A not-so-recent article of Urban Development observed that because so many of these landscaped islands seem like afterthoughts to accompany a stormwater management system of pipes and culverts, the islands do not achieve a great deal of their mitigating effect. In addition, passers-by routinely trample the ground cover, the islands aren’t big enough for the root systems to grow, and catch basins collect much of the water before it permeates the soil for the trees. Thus, the street trees often die within a decade. (These shortcomings are undoubtedly one reason why LEED encourages xeriscaping, or drought resistant plant cultivation, in any stormwater management system, with more emphasis on vigorous, natural landscaping to reduce the need for catch basins.)
Regardless of what inspired these much younger perimeter tree plantings, they do not fit in with the mighty old live oak.
They belong to a different pattern, and the big tree is an exception to this. Were the developers that saved this tree were motivated by something else: a love for this tree in particular? They sacrificed at least four parking spaces for it, but in the process salvaged what almost manages to serve as a landmark for the area. The “island” is more like Australia (or at least Madagascar), providing ample space for the live oak’s sprawling, generally superficial root system. They didn’t try to jam additional landscaping at the ground of the tree, which would most likely not survive for lack of water and sunlight, or it would flourish on its own terms but rob the mighty tree of its nutrients. Whoever conceived this may not have been an expert arborist, but he or she was not likely a mere amateur either.
The titanic tree flourishes thus far, after having been surrounded by asphalt for at least two decades and probably much more. And in all likelihood, it will outlast its much younger cousins, who were given the poorly thought-out treatment that Len Zickler and Duane Dietz rail against in the aforementioned Urban Development article. These smaller trees—also Southern live oaks, I believe—are jammed into much smaller islands, sometimes two at a time. Some rust colored mulch and compost undoubtedly try to endow them with the nutrients they need but otherwise are not receiving. Chances are strong that the will succumb to their poor environment within the next few years. But, if it’s lasted this long, the older cousin will most likely persevere into the distant future.
This anomaly—an old-growth tree in a settlement less than 40 years old—proves that not everything those talking heads (pun intended) satirize about modernity is not entirely fair. The artists who denigrate the paving of America routinely target suburbia in particular—take the examples mentioned at the beginning of this post, or, a much more recent one, Win Butler. And these suburban-critics would have us believe that leaving the city is predicated upon a hostility to both the old (aging architecture) and the natural (the desire to get around everywhere through a gas-guzzling vehicle). But keep in mind that the original inspiration for suburban living was a return to nature, often not by the middle class but by the gentry who could afford the greater travel costs. Today, an overwhelming number of Americans continue to prove by their buying (and foreclosing) patterns that they’d prefer a big yard, even if it means the houses are spaced so far apart that they have to drive ten minutes to buy a can of Coke. Sure, that big green expanse might have the biodiversity squelched through fertilizer and pesticides, but it is a perception that it is far more natural that closely packed urban living. A lawn is certainly not impervious like a tightly packed urban streetscape. And a city park is rarely any more of a realistic, natural ecosystem than a suburbanite’s manicured back yard.
Here, in Gulfport, one can witness veneration for both the old and the natural in this preservation of a long-standing Southern live oak tree. It does happen now and then. The distinctions between between rural and urban—the synthetic and the natural—the modern and the pre-modern—the good and the bad—get hamfisted treatment by both the city artists/intellectuals and the designers of giant new exurban subdivisions. And, long after the polemic ends and the two sides have died of exhaustion, years after some technological advancement renders the Winn-Dixie (and all grocery stores) obsolete, this tree will continue to stand, enjoying increased breathing room amidst the cracked and decaying pavement. It used to be real estate; now it’s only fields and trees.