Jewish Journal

The city branches into the Tu B’Shevat business to make L.A. naturally beautiful

by Jane Ulman

Posted on Feb. 1, 2007 at 7:00 pm

Westwood Tu B'Shevat park planting. Photo by Thom Anable

Westwood Tu B'Shevat park planting. Photo by Thom Anable

Kiwi didn't look good. The branches of the 2-year-old African tulip tree were spindly, its leaves sparse and brittle, ready to snap off.

"I think Kiwi hasn't gotten enough water and rich soil to survive. Or maybe it's frozen from the cold," said Alana Billik, 9, as she and her brother Jeremy, 6, poured water around the tree's base. They did the same for Miranda, another African tulip next to Kiwi.

"A year ago both were doing fine, with flowers underneath," said Jeremy, remembering their last visit with the two trees.

Two years ago, the Billik children, along with their parents Shelley and Brad, came from Encino to Venice on a rainy Sunday morning to plant trees in one corner of Glen Alla Park, a small urban tract near the intersection of Culver City Boulevard and the Marina Freeway.

It was the annual planting for Tu B'Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, sponsored by local nonprofit environmental organizations TreePeople and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern California (CoejlSC). Along with about 50 other parents and children, they had dug, planted, staked, mulched and even named approximately 60 trees.

"This goes to show that you have to select the right species for an area and plan for long-term care," said Shelley Billik, noting that the oak trees planted that same day were now thriving.

Trees are serious business.

This is not news to the Jews. As far back as the first century, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai advised, "If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, 'Come quickly, the Messiah is here!' first finish planting the tree and then go greet the Messiah."

Those words still echo loudly 2,000 years later as we celebrate Tu B'Shevat, a holiday with no prescribed mitzvot, that originally marked the start of the fiscal year for Israel's farmers. Today, this minor feast day has been transformed into a Jewish Earth Day that celebrates our vital and visceral connection to the land. It has become a time to reflect on and renew our imperiled environment and to remind ourselves that we are God's partner in creation.

This year, as Jews living in Los Angeles, we are teaming up not only with God but also with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has launched an ambitious drive to plant 1 million new trees in Los Angeles neighborhoods, schoolyards and parks, on both public and private properties, over the next several years.

His Million Tree Initiative kicked off Sept. 30, spearheaded by the Department of Public Works in conjunction with various nonprofit groups. Its goal is to make Los Angeles the "largest, cleanest and greenest" city in the United States.

On Feb. 4, Lisa Lainer Fagan will be doing her part. The Encino resident is bringing not only her family, but also her entire "Living a Jewish Life" Havurah from Valley Beth Shalom -- 10 adults and 27 kids ages 2 to 11 -- to a combined Tu B'Shevat/Million Tree planting sponsored by TreePeople, CoejlSC and the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.

The group has previously conducted Tu B'Shevat seders, a tradition originated by the 16th century kabbalists in Tsfat that incorporates eating various foods from the land of Israel, but this year they decided to get their hands dirty, literally, planting trees.

"It's different when you go out into the real world," Fagan said.

For Fagan's group and for volunteers from Temple Beth Am, Sinai Temple, Nashuva and USC Hillel -- an expected total of about 200 people -- the "real world" this Tu B'Shevat will be Runyon Canyon Park, a 130-acre "urban wilderness" located two blocks north of Hollywood Boulevard, west of the 101 Hollywood Freeway and extending north to Mulholland Drive.

"It needs rehabilitation," TreePeople's Forestry Director Jim Summers said.

He pointed out that Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, which selects the sites, has already organized plantings in Harbor City's Harbor Regional Park and Lake View Terrace's Hansen Dam Recreation Area and is now concentrating on the city's center. This planting will put 300 1-gallon native California oaks and sycamores in the park.

"Tons of work goes into these plantings," said CoejlSC co-founder Lee Wallach, explaining that not only does the location have to be carefully chosen but so does the type of tree and the exact spot where each one is to be planted. It's putting "the right tree in the right place," as environmentalists like to emphasize.

Volunteers for the Feb. 4 event are requested to commit for the entire four hours, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., to give them ample time to learn, plant and participate in the accompanying ceremonies -- and still arrive home before the 3 p.m. Super Bowl kickoff.

"We're asking people not to just go and plop a tree in the ground. We're asking people to take time and think about what they're doing," Wallach said.

The Tu B'Shevat planting, like all plantings facilitated by CoejlSC and TreePeople, begins with 20 minutes of training. Volunteers are supplied with gloves and other necessary equipment, including digging tools to loosen the soil and dibble sticks to compact the soil after the holes have been dug.

They're taught safety, such as holding the shovel down and not slinging it over their shoulders like one of the Seven Dwarfs. They're taught to roll their tree out of the container and gently massage its roots to loosen them up. And they're instructed how to build a berm, or circular ridge, around the tree and fill it with mulch to hold in water.

In many plantings, including this one, they'll also be taught to set their tree inside a specially constructed chicken wire cage, positioning it two inches above the ground, to prevent gophers from eating the roots.

But for TreePeople and CoejlSC, the object isn't just to plant a tree; it's also to connect people personally and spiritually to their tree and to make them aware of nature's splendor and its fragility. "A tree is this living being that is not that dissimilar from them in terms of vulnerability and power," said Andy Lipkis, president and founder of TreePeople.

Another goal is to encourage people to make a commitment to tending their tree, since no tree in Los Angeles can live on its own anymore, Lipkis said. The environment is much too harsh; both drought and humans kill trees.

"We like to say it takes five years to plant a tree," he said. And while TreePeople sends post-planting tree care crews to water, mulch and, where necessary, adjust tree stakes, trees sometimes need even more attention.

To help people make a connection with their tree, each planting group -- usually three people for a one-gallon sycamore or oak -- holds hands and circles the tree after it has been planted. Together they chant, "Trees need people, people need trees," repeating the phrases several times.

For Tu B'Shevat, they add readings or songs from the 15 Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120 to 134) -- such as Psalm 121's "I lift my eyes to the mountains; from where will my help come?" -- which are traditional for this holiday. Lastly, each group names its tree.

"People are much more likely to take care of something they put a name to," said CoejlSC's Wallach, explaining that many trees are given common appellations such as Joe, Fred or Shlomo, often in someone's memory or honor. Sometimes the group picks a more "earthy" name, such as Summer. And occasionally a name like Elmo or Buzz Lightyear wins out.

Additionally, Lipkis said, TreePeople encourages people to put a little piece of themselves, some of their hair or a note, in the hole.

"The tree eats it and they become part of the tree," he said.

But the connection between people and trees is even more basic. In a simple exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, humans breathe in the oxygen that the trees breathe out and breathe out the carbon dioxide that trees take in.

Thus, it's not merely a nice gesture for people to plant trees; it's an imperative, resulting in significant economic and ecological advantages. From reducing global warming to conserving energy to saving water, from providing food to giving shade and beauty to increasing property values, trees help heal the world. Trees replenish resources that we deplete. Trees also replenish the soul.

"Judaism has very agrarian roots. For us, as post-modern Jews who sit at our computers and Treos all day, it's important to get our hands dirty and reconnect with those roots," said Rabbi Susan Leider, who is organizing a group of 20- and 30-somethings from Temple Beth Am to participate in the Runyon Canyon Park planting,

In Los Angeles, more trees are sorely needed. Paula Daniels, current chair of the Million Tree Initiative and Board of Public Works commissioner, said that the goal of the Million Tree Initiative is to increase the tree canopy cover from 18 percent, the city's current average, to 27 percent, which is the national average.

But according to Daniels, the figures don't tell the whole truth. Some of the more prosperous communities, such as Bel Air and Brentwood, have a canopy cover of 37 percent, whereas other areas such as South Los Angeles have only around 5 percent.

And while trees improve the aesthetics of any neighborhood, even more important, they brighten the economic picture. Daniels stressed that every dollar spent on a tree gives a 280 percent return on that investment in terms of improving air quality, water quality and energy savings. Thus, the initiative's projected cost of $70 million, which covers the plants, labor and supplies and initial irrigation, can be expected to bring a return of $196 million.

But it's important to plant the right tree. The Million Tree Initiative, along with the other environmental groups, have identified trees that can thrive in Los Angeles' semiarid climate and not use too much water. Palm trees, classified more as a grass than a tree, did not make the cut. While historic and cultural Los Angeles icons, they are expensive, hard to maintain, prone to disease and, perhaps most importantly, lack the necessary broad canopy.

As the Million Tree Initiative gains momentum, Daniels would like to see every Angeleno involved, planting a tree as a symbolic act of making his or her contribution to the environment and creating a legacy for generations to come.

Every tree counts. Thus people who are planting trees in their yards or in events not sponsored by the Million Tree Initiative can register their tree on the program's Web site. And for those people without any Tu B'Shevat plans, TreePeople's Lipkis suggested they sit down with their family to think, study and "plant the seed of commitment" for a future planting.

"You think that it's so simple," said Shelley Billick, revisiting the trees her family planted two years ago in Glen Alla Park. "But it really has to be done correctly ... and lovingly." Web links: www.coejlsc.org


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