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James Ferragut, Published June 26 2011

Ferragut: City trees get no respect

“It is not much for its beauty that makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as that quality of air that emanates from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”

– Robert Louis Stevenson

I was born in Duluth, a city unlike any city in the Upper Midwest. It is an international seaport. It is built on wooded, steep hills that spill into the rocky beaches of Lake Superior. The lake is mysterious and lethal. Because of its size, the cliffs and the sheer volume of water, Duluth creates its own weather.

I grew up surrounded by forests, wooded neighborhoods with creeks and streams running through them, tumbling into Superior. My dad was transferred to Minneapolis, where I went to grade school, living in the southwest part of the city. The grade school was surrounded by neighborhoods of wooded hills, creeks and meadows.

When my dad was transferred to Fargo, we left the Minnesota woods for the flat emptiness of the prairie. It was a shock then, and even after all of these years, the prairie doesn’t move my spirit the way the woods can. A few years ago, I worked for a company that had offices all over North Dakota; everyone in the company was a born-and-bred North Dakotan. When the company opened offices in central Minnesota, they would hold manager meetings there.

Almost to a person, the Dakota managers felt claustrophobic by the forests. When the meetings were over, we would drive west and leave the lakes area behind. The ancient shores of Lake Agassiz sloped toward the Red River Valley, and hills and trees gave way to expanses of farmland and shelterbelts. It was only then could the Dakota folks start to breathe again.

Those expanses left me cold. I craved the woods. As a kid, I’d find comfort in the trees and ferns of Lindenwood Park.

This leads me to the column I should have written months ago when I first saw the newest convenience store on 52nd Avenue South and 25th Street, which I had expected to see nestled among that beautiful, ancient grove of trees that had been a farmstead. But no. Hundreds of trees that could have given the new setting a sense of history, character and warmth were clear-cut faster than a bad rumor.

Why? Because the developer and the owners apparently don’t value the special place trees hold in the soul. My guess is that it’s that inbred North Dakota mentality: “If it ain’t prairie, then it ain’t purdy.”

That bleak but functional attitude has reared its ugly scythe again and destroyed the beautiful ash-lined companions on Fifth Street South at the west side of Lindenwood Park. The folks from the neighborhood came home one day to see their park view had been forever changed.

Social humorist Bill Vaughn said: “Suburbia is where the developer bulldozes out the trees, then names the streets after them.” That may not hold true in Duluth, but in Fargo that could be the city’s slogan. What a shame.

Ferragut is a marketing consultant with a Fargo communications agency.