Do you have a favorite tree? One of mine is the big old mulberry bifurcating broadly at the northwest corner of Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street. That’s also one of my favorite corners — a triangular, cobble-stoned people place with plenty of places to sit and, of all things, a Prairie-style “horse fountain,” adapted to serve as a watering hole for human beings.
The corner serves as a bus hub and an entry to Scoville Park, a remarkably successful green space that sees its share of activity (Sunday summer concerts, Frisbee football) and leisure (sunbathing, schmoozing).
But this corner wouldn’t be nearly so welcoming to passersby and waiters-to-go, especially this time of year, if that mulberry didn’t provide ample blessed shade.
Ah, shade. Summer officially begins today and all the elements are in place: Sun, heat, clouds, formerly green grass (ripening nicely), ice cream, lemonade, water (two public pools, sprinklers obstructing the public right-of-way), American flags, fireworks, hydrangeas, wheels (strollers, bicycles), and trees.
Amblers wear as little clothing as allowed, which can be a beautiful thing — or not. On Sunday mornings, families meander past, posing for the occasional photo. These days, whenever I see families taking a photo, I can’t help thinking it will end up on a poster board at someone’s wake. Must be a function of my advancing age.
It’s also a function of the fact that there are two sides to everything.
In winter and through our long cold springs, the sun is our ally, a promise, an underachiever, an antidote. In summer, it becomes our overlord, an oppressor, an extremist. It can be too much of a good thing.
In winter, shade is cold and forbidding. It sustains snow banks long after winter has relinquished its grip. In summer it is merciful, a safe harbor, natural AC. Sun and shade reverse roles every six months. Interchangeable Yin and Yang.
Trees on the other hand, except when they fall on your house, generally don’t have much of a down side. Mulberries, however, produce massive quantities of berries that cover the sidewalks with rotting fruit. Birds gobble them up and poop purple all over town. Mulberries are almost as bad as biloba-bearing ginkgos.
But the Scoville Park mulberry is long past bearing fruit. Now all it bears is shade. It cradles the sunlight and lets it trickle through, dappling the sidewalk.
In the Western U.S., where there is more sunlight and fewer trees, the sun can be oppressive (and currently in Colorado and New Mexico, a fire hazard). Unabated, it taxes the eyes, washes out color. Shade brings visual contrast to the landscape. It plays with the light, filtering, complementing. It gives the eye needed variety and a rest. It tempers the sun’s intensity.
Shade is our sanctuary, our shelter. The darkness that pools at the base of every tree promises a small drop in temperature and keeps some of the grass green while the exposed lawns and meadows turn into a miniature golden hayfield. Summer grass flees underground, biding its time, waiting for cooler, wetter weather, so it can spring forth again and say, “Fooled ya!”
Better than Frank Lloyd Wright homes, better than Ernest Hemingway and Edgar Rice Burroughs and our train connections to the Loop, better than the Lake Theatre and all our restaurants and schools — best of all, at least this time of year, is our urban forest. Never take trees for granted. Our best feature, our greatest asset, our wealth. And in summer, a more welcome sight than ice cream parlors and lemonade stands.
Oak Park and River Forest offer much, but more than anything else, they offer trees. That’s why it’s hard to see the old elms fall and the green ashes harvested.
Take a walk down any of our streets on a hot summer afternoon, and you may find yourself giving thanks for the good people of these towns, the homeowners who have invested so much in keeping up the housing stock and turning these villages into an open-air house museum, but most of all for those who have seen the forest for the trees these many decades — pruning, planting and diversifying our lavishly leafy inventory.
Our fabulous homes wouldn’t look nearly so lovely if our trees weren’t so decidedly deciduous.
They would certainly be a lot hotter.