Friday, 16 December 2011

Leafy architecture - Hard Times in New York Town

The first time I went to Turin I was a little alarmed.  This is a city we must pass through regularly on our train trips to and from our prospective home in Mondovi.  It seemed gilded yet martial.  Glance sideways and you could imagine Savoyard armies clattering through the squares, almost see their sabres glinting.  I saw a cluster of young soldiers in Piazza Madama, everywhere we saw statues of fierce soldiers and generals.  The endless porticoes seemed dark, the park at the Giardini Reali was disappointing and I took no photographs.

But things have changed a bit.  A friend explained to me that Turin is "the Prussia of Italy", so I felt vindicated.  And I started to recognise some of the particular realities, the history and the successes of this city.  Then, on my last visit, where I had time to walk about and do what I do, which is check out the trees and the plantings, I almost fell in love with it.  Of course I was lucky - it was the Feast of the Immacolata - we had an evening of the most charming celebratory bustle in the streets and finally cracked this apericena business ( aperitif and bits to eat thrown in).  Now, still warlike but more chocolatey, Turin holds no fears for me, although I'm sure it would if I was 18 years old and had to make a life and a beginning.

Before I start on that theme, let's go back to the trees and the plantings.  It's always fascinating to see how trees cope in the apparently impossible conditions of the city.  There are so many problems, below the ground, above the ground, in the air, survival seems impossible, and yet, they struggle on, flattering the architecture as nothing else can do.

Turin has a particularly beautiful street tree to offer - it's celtis australis, an elm relative, also known, oddly enough, as nettle tree.  There has to be a reason.  I have a weakness for elms of course, we all do.  They combine a sweeping elegance with intricately disposed leaves; they're airy but majestic.  But they've met their doom, both in this country (UK) and America, where I know their loss from cities is still deeply mourned by those who remember their graceful height and delicate foliage.  This celtis is so far unthreatened by Dutch elm disease, I'm almost afraid to point it out, so keep it quiet.

To support such loveliness the nettle tree has trunks of silky grey smoothness.  Sculptural pillars, uninterrupted by burgeoning growth from the base like limes and immaculate, like the festival.  The wonderful plane trees of London, and so many other cities bear multi-coloured plaques.  The bark of the nettle tree is a simple grey, with a slight sheen.  I would say that these were pollarded at a certain height, and then let go. Not all have these masses of equal branches.

And. to complete my paeans of praise, here they are in winter, silhouetted supermodels.  Supermodels who cope with exhausting hot summers, droughts and freezing winters. 

It seems to me that city trees are worth their weight in gold.  City farms, parks, community gardens, acres of bright flowers, whether bedding or in the new bee-friendly annual mode - all these are worth a lot.  But it's the street trees with their stored time that can challenge the city and lift us out of ourselves, just as we walk about.  Even the robinia can look fantastic, with its tiny leaves and complex branching against the sky.  Ginkgoes are good, as are silver limes, liquidambers and sophora japonica, in continental climates.  Here's that robinia, in Turin again.

Hard Times in New York Town is a very early Bob Dylan song and I've been listening to it on the Bootleg Series 1 -3.  I've seen it described as tongue-in-cheek.  He does call  New York "a friendly old town" which may be sarcasm or the triumph of hope over experience but, apart from that and some pointed comments about the wealthy and powerful, he seems to draw a concrete and accurate picture of a complex place and its effect on him.  The exaggerated intonation of the country in his voice and the youthful, emphatic energy make light of the difficulties of moneyless city life; he's got his hope and self-belief to see him through.

The verse about the smog of Cali-forn-i-ay and the dust of Oklahoma, the repeated  "from the country" or "in the country" - these make me think of the sweetness of trees in the city, their offering of comfort and kindness, the way they can seem like tall, brave friendly humans amongst the traffic.  Dylan is too excited by his city life to yearn for the country, but the whole song is imbued with it and its contrast to the city.  I salute his cheerfulness and optimism, people move to cities all over the world longing for so much - I wish they could all find what they want and surmount their hard times. 

There are few flowers in Turin and not many shrubs.  Bedding out is undertaken but France is a better place to find successful and amazing public plantings, practised by experienced gardeners. Here's an example from Turin which struck me as a contrast filled with bathos.  Hoping I've used that word appropriately, don't often get the chance.

And here's another, much more successful, but just as unlikely.  I think it's a cloud-pruned camellia Spring Festival.  Quite a horticultural feat, and I saw a few of them outside various monuments.  Piquant contrasts with the warlike gentleman on the horse.

Turin has much more in the way of parks; there is the Parco Valentino down by the river, full of trees and as busy as any beautifully designed and planted central city park could be.  But there's not as much underplanting as I would like to see and the stress of overuse by the massed writhing life of the city shows.   I've caught my photographs unpeopled at lunchtime, when everyone in Italy disappears.  As Dylan  sings, endearingly, or affectedly - take your choice - "There's a mighty many people all millin' all around".  I hope at least some of them draw strength from the trees, living exemplars of coping with hard times.


  1. The gardens here look so, foreign. I love it! Very classy.

    -Samudaworth Tree Service

  2. Thank you for your comment. Thank goodness things for things being different!