Abenteuer Stadtnatur
Storytelling Journey | May 2017

Tree Stories

Juanita Schläpfer-Miller, Zurich-Basel Plant Science Center
Christoph Kueffer, ETH Zurich, HSR Rapperswil

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Bones of the Trees by Janeth Berrettini, gouache on newspaper. Image by J. Schlaepfer

Christoph tells the story of the London plane tree – which is not from London at all. Image by J. Schlaepfer

Juanita Schläpfer – Recent hurricanes in the United States were not only physical events but also storms of information. Some may have hoped that they would help to changing how people and politicians think about climate change; probably they didn’t. At least not immediately. This is typical of many environmental problems. There is a vast amount of scientific data, but it remains difficult to form a consensus and see how action can spring from all the information. This is because information is often incomplete, difficult to understand, abstract or even contradictory.

In recent years scientists have started to collaborate more intensively with humanities scholars and artists to develop new ways of synthesizing and visualizing scientific information in ways that are more tangible to the public. One such strategy is to tell stories.

Storytelling engages people with an environmental issue through dialogue, for example the recent Tree Stories storytelling journey through Zürich organized by the group Environmental Humanities Switzerland in May 2017.

The future of urban trees
Trees in a city such as Zurich have become a contested topic. They disappear where urban densification competes for their space, yet people love them and fight for them. They are increasingly also seen as a magic bullet against the negative effects of a warming climate in the already hot and dry heat islands of cities. But even if we agree to have lots of trees in Zurich, things don’t get easier.

Some want native trees to support native biodiversity, while others argue that only alien trees introduced from elsewhere can survive, especially when considering other pressures such as a lack of healthy soils and the emergence of new pests and diseases. There is no lack of scientific data to support any of these arguments. But will statistics alone help citizens of Zurich to envision their future green city?

The trees of the world for a multicultural city
Instead of discussing data, we asked a group of artists and ecologists, hailing from all over the world, to tell their stories about a particular tree during an evening walk through the old city of Zürich as part of the Abenteuer StadtNatur festival.

Trees have long been symbols of cultural identity, representing belonging to a place, or indeed loss of place. We wondered what trees in Zurich mean for people living in Zurich but originating from elsewhere.

Do they feel at home when they encounter a tree they knew from their country? Do they form new relationships with Swiss tree species, or indeed with a tree from still another corner of the world? What does it mean to be a native or alien citizen or tree in the global city of Zurich? By talking about personal relationships and stories we hoped to find a common ground to think about the arboretum and ecosystem of Zurich in a more engaging way. Our identities formed by gender, class, ethnicity, memory, economics, politics are as important as scientific species names and physiological characteristics of trees for our ecological relationships with the urban environment.

Zurich storyteller Andrea Fischer-Schulthess elucidates on the mysterious yew. Image by J. Schlaepfer

The stories we told
The Venezuelan artist Janeth Berrettini told of arriving in Zürich in the winter, pregnant, knowing no one but her partner. Her loneliness was balmed by the big city trees whose bare branches astounded her, having never seen deciduous trees before. She painted the skeletal outlines with thick black paint on old newspapers, covering the words she did not yet understand with the “bones of the trees”.

The environmental historian Drew Keeling chose the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) next to the Zwingli monument at the Wasserkirche. As a Californian, he relates to these giants, planted so far from home as a botanical folly for the villa owners of 19th century Zurich. He sang a song reminding him of his earlier life in California, and told the story of the tree. It took European settlers centuries to cross the American continent and to discover the huge sequoia trees in the Sierra Nevada.

But only decades after discovery the first sequoias were already planted in Zurich, brought here by an efficient plant trade. Nevertheless, the sequoias of Zurich with their ca. 150 years are still youngsters, in the wild they can be several 100 years old and reach a height as tall as the towers of Grossmünster that can be seen from afar as a landmark of Zurich.

The storyteller Andrea Fischer-Schulthess from Zurich, chose a children’s playground shaded by old yew trees to tell a fairy tale related to the poisonous and somewhat mystical red berries of yews. Participants of the walk were invited to try a red berry soaked in liquor. Not everyone did.

The tour ended with the queen of urban trees: the London plane (Platanus x hispanica).

A long-time Zurich resident, originally from London read a poem about this tree in her home city and explained how it helped her with home sickness during her early days in Zurich. Botanically it is not the most native of British trees. In the Tertiary more than 3 million years ago, Platanus species grew together with many other of today’s Zurich trees in the evergreen moist forests that covered the area of Switzerland, including Gingko, Magnolias, Tulip trees, Thuja, Laurel trees, and even Sequoias. Thereafter frequent climatic changes made life difficult for many trees in Europe.

One Platanus species escaped to Southeastern Europe (Platanus orientalis) while another species survived in North America (Platanus occidentalis). In the 17th century humans brought the two species in Europe in contact where they hybridized and formed a new species: the London plane or the Hispanic plane (Platanus x hispanica) depending on who you ask. Even botanists can get personal when it comes to trees.

Which urban trees for future cities – stories matter as much as facts
If, as we would argue, part of our human identity is formed by our relationship to, and memories of trees, it is important that cultural stories inform the dialog between ecologists, politicians and citizens. As we are buffeted by storms of information, storytelling can help us envision our future green city.