Culture //

Leaf us alone

Max Hall and Sam Langford miss the forest and the trees

Holographic trees. Art: Steph Barahona Holographic trees. Art: Steph Barahona

“As living organisms, trees live, grow and die.”

So reads part 2.4 of the Tree Management Procedures, a freely available Sydney University policy that governs, in 69 pages of excruciating detail, the life of trees across campus.

The document cuts, we think, to the bureaucratic root rot that plagues the modern university. University flora is treated similarly to staff and students – its growth guided by quotas (for canopy cover and drought resistance), and described in the language of commercial concern as “valuable assets” and “green infrastructure”. Indeed, the document spends a fair amount of time justifying the presence of trees on campus in terms of a cost/benefit analysis, ultimately concluding that trees “intercept incoming ultra-violet/cancer-causing radiation”, “engage us” and help us “overcome mental fatigue”.[note]Citations for the latter two benefits aren’t provided, in clear breach of the University’s academic honesty policy.[/note] These leafy superheroes of our sandstone, concrete and glass habitat even “contribute to a safer and stronger community, with reduced crime, violence and aggression”.

If all this cost/benefit sounds too corporate, fear not – the University also demonstrates a rudimentary understanding of the aesthetic benefits of trees, noting that they “have a wide range of intrinsic visual qualities including textures, colours, movement, fragrances, patterns and sounds.” This is the level of aesthetic know-how you’d expect from an administration that seems to have absolutely zero qualms about destroying its art school.

But Tree Management Procedures is also a document crafted with love, a reminder of the University of ages past. Indeed, the Procedures’ best moments are profoundly concerned with learning and thought; with deep ruminations on the passage of time. We are reminded that “the death of any living thing is inevitable”: “A tree that may have survived for 100 years can be irreparably damaged in 5 minutes.”

The policy also contains echoes of a University committed to environmentalism – many trees have survived, including some of the Port Jackson figs that line Parramatta Road and the main driveway, which were planted as part of an “unemployment relief scheme” in the 1890s. When terms like “rootball occupancy” are used, it is in the context of tree care, rather than anti-activist sentiment.

But just as areas of the campus may be overrun with noxious weeds, the oddball delight of Tree Management Procedures is ultimately overrun with the expanding growth of corporatism. This is perhaps best indicated by USyd’s newfound preference for potted plants.

Two years ago, the University swore to Honi that the colourful array of shrubs that lie in the bed adjacent to City Road were a temporary fixture. Yet they remain, and have been joined by the appearance of large, dark concrete planter boxes around campus, most recently on the Jane Foss Russell forecourt.
The boxes feel oddly permanent, as fixed in place on their four squat blocks as their hastily planted contents are not. In these pots, campus plant life becomes transient; plant turnover matching student turnover, uprooted as easily as the odd satellite campus.

We do not plant Jacarandas anymore, but the Tree Management Procedures remind us all too well why we should.