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HERB BENHAM: Any shade will do

A friend emailed. He was bereft. No one had died but somebody might as well have.

"Have you seen what's happened at the southeast corner of 19th and B streets? This is your neighborhood. You should not be oblivious to this unfortunate transformation."

Without outing the subject of his disappointment, because I'd rather encourage than vilify, he said that the person who owned the offices "hired a tree service to cut down and haul away two towering Chinese elms that had stood in square cuts in the sidewalks at the property for decades."

"They provided massive amounts of shade, a commodity that is worth much in this arid, desert valley. They gave shelter to mockingbirds, robins and especially hummingbirds that countless times a day crossed B Street to dip their long beaks into the sugar water that waits in feeders at our second-story windows."

He said that residents were mourning the loss of those trees because not only did they provide shade and enclose the immediate neighbors in luxurious green space but they softened the look of the offices across the street.

I've been there. Ricocheted between rage and grief when somebody has cut down big trees. However, maybe there is a teaching and learning moment buried in the sawdust left behind.

In an old neighborhood, and maybe in newer ones too, located on the hot and getting hotter valley floor, neighbors have a proprietary interest in trees. It doesn't matter whether the trees are on their property or not. If they can see them, walk underneath or enjoy their gracious shade, they feel a sense of ownership.

This isn't bad because if enough people in a neighborhood and a town value trees, especially shade trees (you can make a case for ornamentals like crepe myrtles, evergreen pears or the smaller jacarandas but not for shade), then they are more likely to plant them, take care of them and encourage other people to do the same.

Trees belong to the property owner and, of course, he or she can do as they like, but big shade trees, and there is hardly a better variety than a mature Chinese elm, have a communal feel to them. Especially when they shade, cool, delight, frame, improve and beautify.

Years ago, I asked a neighbor across the street if she minded if I planted a Chinese elm in front of her house in the median strip. The house was not long on landscaping and I thought the tree might soften both the look of the house, contribute to the modest greenery out front, improve our viewshed and provide shade for us as the sun moved from east to west.

The tree is huge now and has succeeded in every way I hoped it would. We don't own the tree but it's nice to think that we've done something to improve our corner of the neighborhood.

Chinese elms have wonderful filtered light and are as good a shade tree as any and that includes oaks, sycamores, liquidambars and ash trees. They grow fast and look like they belong here on the valley floor as opposed to redwoods, which always appear slightly bedraggled and as if they are a one heat wave away from giving up the redwood ghost.

The knock on big trees like Chinese elms is that they can be messy, and apparently these two were and required more cleanup than their owner had bargained for. I don't mind messy trees because I like the upside but not everybody has Mr. Natural's largess.

I understand the owner is eager to have the stumps ground down — it's a good time to own a tree service company, they are busy — and plant new trees. Since we are in this together, those of us who love trees and shade, I would encourage planting shade trees (palm trees look great in Santa Monica, Palm Springs, Beverly Hills and Hawaii but are not known as sunblockers).

Buying the boxes holding the larger, more mature trees are expensive but sometimes worth it. I'd throw in seed money. Like a lot of people in this town I am grateful for any shade that our trees can afford.

Herb Benham is a columnist for The Bakersfield Californian and can be reached at or 661-395-7279.