I am kneeling on a sidewalk in Noe Valley pruning away the dieback on three cotoneasters caused by a legacy of dog traffic. Caustic smells drift from the warming pavement. The dieback is confined to the outermost edges of the shrubs and to the lower branches. I’m surprised there is not more damage, considering the procession over the years. As I snip away, I intermittently wonder whether I should leave well enough alone, since this outer fringe may be serving as a line of defense.
I planted these three cotoneasters in their ten-inch-square holes in the concrete ten years ago. I didn’t have high expectations, given their confinement, but they’ve done well. Red berries spot the arching branches which, as I prune doggedly, reveal a handsome structure when juxtaposed with the lax leaves of the ivory phormiums planted between them. (I wish I’d kept track of what species this cotoneaster is. C. horizontalis? C. congestus?) I’m not going to get attached to this new, improved look. By afternoon, when the wind has revved up, scraps of sycamore leaves and napkins and potato chip bags will be lodged in the twiggy branches.
Litter and dogs; if that’s the worst of it, I’ll be happy. Across the street, the hakea I planted near the curb gets flattened every six weeks by a back tire. Amazingly it is alive, blithely adding new growth. I prop it back up. It gets smooshed again.
Back tires, bicycles, recycling bins, psychopaths, oil spills, paint, roto-rooters, drought, dentists who spend their day off pruning—for curbside plants, it’s a dog’s life. And if mindless and accidental abuse weren’t enough, how about downright disrespect? Pruning a bottlebrush tree on Precita Avenue I found settled in its sooty branches a tire, a loafer, a deflated basketball, a lunch bucket, a pink plastic purse, and a Princess phone.
“Everything but a gun,” Danny, also a gardener, tells me of his discoveries in the boxed ficuses on Minna Street, “syringes, wallets, old luggage, used condoms, even a bag of crack.” I try on the thought that these are the urban equivalent of epiphytes growing on rain forest giants, but it doesn’t quite fit.
There are miracles. Walking down Folsom Street on my way to yoga, I pass under elms towering above us humans and our sketchy behavior. Ulmus parvifolia ‘Sempervirens.’ Whoever had the foresight, or naïvete, to plant them years ago should be given appropriate accolades. I say an unbeliever’s prayer for the saplings, vulnerable as newborn calves, planted by the Friends of the Urban Forest (bless them, too) to fill gaps overhead. One of the saplings has already met its doom, snapped off at ground level. I wouldn’t give the other five a chance but the swaying green canopy refutes pessimism.
Lately someone has painted swaths of some of the trunks brown, I’m guessing to cover the tags of gang members, the human equivalent of doggy squirts. It’s touching; someone cares. You don’t notice the paint at first because the shade of brown is a surprisingly good match for the trunk’s natural color, at least one of the colors. The actual colors are a chromoscape of umber, sienna, ochre, orange, and related tones, in infinitely subtle and varied arrangements. You’ll never see anything more beautiful nor more ordinary.