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From Boise

Voir la place boisée

Published about 2 months ago • 10 min read

Hello friends. I'm on my work retreat this week. Great news: I've already got it all figured out. Just kidding. But I did buy a giant notepad and a new pack of sharpies, so I am off to a good start. Today's story was first published in early 2021, but it might be new to you. It's about Boise trees, five in particular, and it was written by Amanda Patchin. Most of the photos were taken by Peter Lovera. Enjoy!


Once upon a time, French fur trappers supposedly looked out over the Treasure Valley from Bonneville Point and shouted, “see the trees!” After many miles in the hot high desert, legend says they were delighted by the sylvan beauty of the Boise River flood plain.

Unfortunately, in French “the trees” is “des arbres” and, as much as I would like to live in a city named Arbie, the legendary trappers must have been saying, “see the woods” or, “see the wooded place” or, “voir la place boisée.”

As Boise grew up, it adopted the nickname “City of Trees,” one that it shares with more than a dozen other cities around the US. Placing a high value on this moniker, Boise has an entire chapter of the city code devoted to privileging trees in development and growth.

Together, the trees of Boise are a rich tapestry. Individually, they are avatars of the history of Boise.

The Pittenger Sequoia

Sequoiadendron giganteum. Giant Sequoia. Redwood. Or, according to wordsmith John Muir, “Big Tree”. A species associated with Northern California and only native to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, the Giant Sequoia is quite literally a California transplant in Boise.

While there are a few other sequoias in Boise, the Pittenger Sequoia that stands in front of the Boise Little Theater is the oldest and best known in the valley.

First grown in the yard of a wealthy local surgeon named Pittenger, it eventually became the property of St. Luke’s Hospital. As we humans often do with elements of the natural world, the hospital considered the tree a decorative object and, ill-considering its needs and limitations, paved around it and strung it all over with lights. Repeatedly dragging cords and bulbs along the branches of a tree will obviously damage its needles, small branches, and thinner bark. Paving around a tree creates even more intense damage, as it prevents the absorption of water, leaving a tree thirsty for the water shed by its crown.

Any tree would find this trying but the enormous water needs of a sequoia compounds the problem significantly. Native to a cooler, wetter climate, a tree growing outside its home range requires attentive accommodations to correct for the differences. The Pittenger Sequoia has had a rough go: treated as a decorative object, under-watered, and undernourished, it also had to be dug up and moved.

In 2016, the hospital needed to expand and the tree was in its way. Boise’s regulations require city approval for removing trees in public spaces and no one wanted to cut down a century-old, hundred-foot giant. The Idaho Statesman reported that the cost of moving the tree from its location on Avenue B and Jefferson Street to Fort and 1st Street was an astounding $300,000 and involved enormous engineering challenges. Check out the move in the video below.

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Like most transplants, it needed to be moved with some of its native soil and as many of its roots as could be preserved. Soil make-up has a serious impact on flora health and trees in particular, because of the huge growth and structural needs, require enormous quantities of accessible nutrients. Ordinarily, a forest ecosystem aids this process with a network of fungal life, but in urban environments these cannot develop.

The physicality of the move — the platform and rollers, the two days involved, the sheer weight of the tree — is impressive. However, it is also impressive to consider the tree's trauma inflicted and resilience demonstrated by such a move. Transplantation requires the cutting off of some part of the organism. Anyone who has moved a significant distance knows something of this feeling. The severing of a root or a relationship. The loss of some important connection, some nourishing lifeline.

Today it seems the Pittenger Sequoia is enjoying its new location. New growth is visible above ground and we can assume that it’s roots are stretching out, deepening their hold, making the guy-wires that hold it up redundant, and forging a myriad of new connections with the ecosystem below ground.

As it grows, it will continue to need far more water than our desert climate can provide. Whenever I walk by, I empty my water bottle into the ground, a poor offering but a tribute to the difficulty of thriving in a strange and unfamiliar environment.

The Moon Tree

The Loblolly Pine, also known as the yellow pine, is native to the southeastern United States. Growing most happily in clay-heavy and acidic soils, it is found in large rural stands in swampy lowlands throughout Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

In 1971, on NASA’s third trip to the moon, an astronaut with a background in forestry took hundreds of seeds with him in his personal kit. As a smokejumper, Stuart Roosa had worked to protect forests from wildfire and the idea of taking seeds to the moon and back seemed a way of connecting the excitement of space travel with the love of arboreal life.

From the 400-500 seeds that orbited the moon with him, Roosa’s Forest Service friends were able to grow hundreds of seedlings which they then distributed. Most states received some, as did other countries.

Idaho was given a Loblolly Pine. Of the five species available, including Douglas Fir, Loblolly was probably the worst choice for Boise. It has absolutely not adapted to Southwest Idaho's dry climate and, compared with native species or even the Giant Sequoia, is at an almost insurmountable disadvantage.

Unsurprisingly, our Moon Tree is not doing well at all. It sits at Lowell Elementary in Boise, weeping sap out of its damaged bark.

The Moon Tree experiment came from curiosity of the effects of space travel, delight at the wonder at touching something that has been out of this world, and dreams of new limits. The trees sprouted and showed that seeds and people could travel great lengths from home and come back again. But the failure-to-thrive of Boise’s Moon Tree shows that in some cases, you can be too far from home.

The obscurity of our Moon tree signals how far distant we are from the hope and wonder of those years of space exploration, how unfamiliar we are with what drove us to the moon, how disconnected from a unified sense of national purpose. Revisiting it should remind us of the hopes and limits of wonder divorced from wisdom.


Sponsored by Visit Southwest Idaho

It’s prime hot spring time in Southwest Idaho. Have you been to any of these hot springs?

Roystone Hot Springs is a developed hot spring, RV park & event center in Sweet. There’s a large natural hot spring pool and a jetted hot tub. The pool is by reservation only, so your group has the entire thing to yourselves! You can camp in your RV or trailer right on the property.

The Springs at Idaho City is a hot springs resort about an hour from Boise. You need to make a reservation to soak in the public or private pools. You can make The Springs an overnight trip by booking a room at Inn the Pines, which is a seven room hotel just down the road from the hot springs. When you book a stay here you also get a discounted pass for the hot springs!

Gold Fork Hot Springs is a developed hot spring in Donnelly. There’s six pools formed by natural rock formations with temperatures ranging from 85-110 degrees. You don’t need reservations to soak but admission is by cash or check only. No cards! If you want to make this an overnight trip, there's lots of camping nearby, including Donnelly Campground and SISCRA Campground, or check out the Long Valley Motel in Donnelly.

Trinity Hot Springs is about 2 hours from Boise, in Featherville. I love this area so much. The pool has natural mineral water that is 90-95 degrees. You can also stay the night here by booking a room in the cozy lodge or booking your own cabin, and in the warmer months there is camping available on the property as well. When you stay overnight, you get 24 hour access to the geothermal pool & spa! You need reservations for day soaks and overnight stays.

Hot springs are kind of a must when you visit Idaho, so be sure to put these hot springs on your list!

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The Aged Oak

On North 13th street, in one of Boise’s oldest neighborhoods, an Oak tree bears a plaque declaring its age of 127 years. It stands as tribute, not to the age of our city, but to its youth.

Oak trees can live to enormous age. The United States, despite generations of heavy timber harvesting, still boasts a large number of oak trees that predate the nation’s inception. As the oak does not grow native in the Treasure Valley, the lovely, huge, trunks that grace Boise’s older neighborhoods must be considered evidence of the earliest non-native settlement in the region.

In an age of aggressive marketing and identity-seeking, even a young city feels the urge to brand itself with some sense of enduring selfhood. Founded in 1863 as a mining community seeking silver, Boise compares itself to the port cities of Seattle (1851) and Portland (1845). A 10+ year age difference may not seem significant, however the much slower growth and extreme isolation of Boise has left the city feeling more like a small town than its neighboring coastal metropolises.

Like a great overgrown teenager, Boise tries on identities that may not fit, and seems to try to reject her fundamental stability, fecundity, and potential. Teenage oaks are unimpressive. Spindly, worthless as shade, and bending to every wind, they don’t even offer acorns to hungry squirrels. Mature sagebrush is impressive by comparison despite its dwarfish height and scraggly outline.

Mature oaks, on the other hand, have presence, weight, and productivity to outshine all other trees.

As an oak forest matures, so may a city. The flexibility of youth means that it can develop in any one of many directions but it also means that premature attempts to be fruitful will short circuit that same maturation.

Boise’s 127-year-old Oak breathes out its accelerating venerability as our city wrestles with its coming of age identity crisis.

Unnamed Pine on Broadway Avenue

As I leave home and head to work each day, I drive up Broadway Avenue. Tree-lined, as many streets in Boise are, Broadway also boasts a median with lovely maples springing out of it. Along the west side, however, there are a few pines scattered along old yards fronting the busy road. One of these is a particularly dramatic illustration of the uneasy marriage between a natural and an urban environment.

Civilization and ecosystems are an uneasy pairing. City planners love straight lines, which are unheard of in a natural environment. When the curves and reentrants of fecundity encounter a power line, the power line wins.

A hundred years ago, digging to bury power or sewer lines was regarded as dangerous. People were cautious of disturbing the earth very much out of fear of the noxious fumes they might release. Before the germ theory of disease was widely accepted, the bad odors of swamps, garbage heaps, and rotting carcasses were plausible sources of illness. Digging through the layers of garbage, old sewage, and marshy ground seemed an unnecessary risk.

While we don’t fear digging anymore, the aerial paths of power lines are too well established for cities to endure the expense and inconvenience of burying them. New developments often do go with underground lines, but most power still flows through the city 20 feet overhead. To be a city of trees and a city with a traditional power grid is to be a conflicted city.

We carefully plant and tend our trees. The older a tree is, the more valuable and irreplaceable, and the more we hesitate to remove it. Instead of killing we butcher. The pine I pass each morning on Broadway stands in mute, right-angled and witness to the tragedy of unreconciled ideals.

My Own Maple

While the significance of great trees helps give perspective on the whole city — on Boise and its hopes, dreams, and history — we are not “The City of Trees” without personal connection and investment in them. Emptying my water bottle on the roots of the Pittenger Sequoia acknowledges communal responsibility for caring for our natural environment. Caring for the trees in my own yard extends and complicates that communal responsibility, allowing my understanding of the personal and the public to flow in and out of one another.

In my front yard stands a 30 year old maple. Silver bark, nine-pointed leaves, gently spreading branches, its thickening trunk and growing shade mark the 16+ years I’ve lived in this house. A slender transplant when I first moved in, it is now established, graceful, and familiar.

In the summer the dappled shadow of maple leaves shades my front porch and in the fall the progress from green to palest pink to flaming red marks the season’s descent. As my boys have grown and we have trimmed up the lower branches, their climbing adventures into its height have likewise grown. Perched up high, one of them might surprise me as I carry in groceries; swinging from a low branch, one might show off some gymnastic feat.

I trim wayward branches, eye the shape of the crown and consider its spread, and worry whether it will reach the roof of the porch and suggest a path of escape for one of my restless teens. I imagine decades of growth, hope that a grandchild may one day live here and enjoy yet more shade and more adventure in and under the canopy. I watch each year pass by, anticipating the soft pink carpet as the red leaves lie facedown on the lawn, hoping to see better wisdom in my life and in my city.

All of Boise’s trees offer lessons of care, lessons about ecological conditions, lessons of community and beauty. To be a City of Trees is to be invested in a continuous and various relationship. To be ready to be changed, to challenge convention and to submit to the logic of a natural order standing in uneasy tension with our town.

With love from Boise,

Marissa

This story was written by Amanda Patchin. Amanda has a monthly-ish newsletter where she shares her booklist, selections from her fiction, and updates on what books she has for sale in the Zed Bookshop. Photos by Peter Lovera and Amanda Patchin.

From Boise

by Marissa Lovell

A weekly newsletter & podcast about what's going on in Boise, Idaho. Every week we share stories about people, places, history, and happenings in Boise.

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