Trees as Diachronic Indicators

One can conceive the passage of time by noting the various stages of growth in trees. As Pascal points out, inconstancy is innate to human life. This flux makes time difficult to perceive if not rigidly quantified. Trees, however, are fairly constant and unless tampered with or felled offer context for displaying the age of other objects in their vicinity. I find diachronic indicators like these especially fascinating in the realm of film and photography. Feast your imagination on this pair of pictures of Old Main on the University of Colorado campus:

When pioneers first came to the Front Range of Colorado, there were no trees, just short grass right up to the foot of the mountains. I always find it striking to see photographs of Boulder from the 19th century. The place is barren.

The picture below of W. Arthur Avenue in Rogers Park, Chicago, was taken in the 1920’s when the neighborhood was first built. The source where I found it (splendid blog full of interesting images) mistakenly calls this a suburb. It isn’t at all. It looks that way to us now because these days we understand mass development as being a strictly suburban phenomenon. At the beginning of the 20th century, American cities would have had huge tracts of dense urban development like this, which someday would grow in to the well-worn neighborhoods that we know today.

I used to live just five blocks from where this photo was taken. The little saplings you see in front of each bungalow are now big and bushy. They form a dense canopy over the entire street. The houses themselves all have different landscaping and other ornamentation, making them look much more distinct from one another. But most of the trees are still right where we find them in this picture. They have persisted for almost a century.

One wonders what today’s bland, soulless suburban subdivisions will look at the next turn of the century, after a procession of generations has left behind a complex of histories in each dwelling.

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