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Tree Experts From Japan Use Century-Old Technique to Save 'Heritage' Tree

by on June 15, 2014 1:45 PM

Outside the Deike building on the Penn State campus, a century-old Japanese maple stands tall and firm, propped up by a slew of new wooden support beams.

It's a bit bizarre looking and it's doubtful you've seen many trees like this one.

To the untrained eye, it looks like a simple fix. Wood supporting wood, nature supporting nature. It's almost as if the posts rose out of the ground to support the weight of old tree.

What you might not realize is that it is the result of a cross-cultural collaboration between a group of university landscape architects and a team of Japanese tree experts who flew to State College to help Penn State save the tree using century old techniques and materials.

"We had never done anything like this before," says Derek Kalp, campus landscape architect and project leader. "We were looking at options. Do we do some sort of steel pole in the center, and ropes? What do we do? And really, it was very simple. This is the ancient technique, very authentic."

After losing a major branch through the center, university tree experts were concerned that the rest of the tree would become brittle. Heavy winds and snow threatened to snap its branches, leaving the maple susceptible to major structural damage.

Planted more than one hundred years ago in front of what used to be the Victorian, Queen Anne style Beta Theta Pi fraternity house, the tree has survived decades of wind, weather, and nearby construction projects. Amazingly, when the Deike building was built in 1963, the tree escaped unharmed. Now, it's earned the distinction of a "heritage tree" on campus, meaning it has cultural and historic value to the university.

The Penn State tree crew and campus arborist came to Kalp with plans for adding supports to the tree, but wanted to make sure it fit in with the layout and aesthetics for that part of campus.

"We wanted to do something that was aesthetically pleasing," says Kalp. "I think structurally the guys could have done something that would have done the job. But I really wanted to add a bit of extra touch to it, and an authenticity to it, and also something that was attractive. So that's where this idea for a Japanese approach came in."

Kalp contacted his friend and fellow landscape architect Ron Henderson for advice, since he had a background in Asian studies, and had spent quite a lot of time teaching in China and traveling in Asia.

It turns out Henderson was friends with a Japanese architect nicknamed Kibo, who had studied at Penn and spent several years in U.S. Through a grant from the university, Kibo and renowned master gardener Fujimoto-san flew to State College to help evaluate the tree and work with Penn State's tree crew and shop carpenter to fabricate supports.

However, before any work could take place, the Japanese gave what Kalp called their "pre-game talk", a presentation aimed to educate the workers on traditional tree preservation methods.

"They had brought some of their traditional materials and tools and passed them around, and we were looking at things and talking," says Kalp. "And they showed slides of cherry trees, which are particularly sacred, that have been preserved for a thousand to fifteen hundred years. It was crazy."

In Japan, Kalp explains, the blossoming of the cherry trees is time for a major pilgrimage throughout the country. More than 100,000 people come out to see the trees bloom, which only happens for two weeks every year. One slide showed the image of a cherry blossom in full bloom outside the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, the site of a catastrophic meltdown in March 2011. To the Japanese, the tree was a symbol of recovery and healing.

They also showed a photo of a dogwood tree that looked to be in bad shape, with crooked, decaying branches. Tons of supports, ropes, and ties covered the tree from end to end, remarkably keeping it alive-and-well to this day. Kalp says Penn State would have cut it down five years ago.

There's a difference in mentality between the two cultures, but Kalp thinks the Japanese caring approach to all living things, and to trees in particular, can be adopted by Penn State.

"They're so highly-regarded, so that's how you get a tree that's fifteen hundred years old," says Kalp. "It's that kind of approach that I think was an eye-opener for us. I think it's going to allow us to think a little harder about holding onto things."

While out in front of Deike building working together, the exchange of ideas continued to grow.

"I remember, our guys have a few different tools that they use, for instance a little throw ball connected to a thin nylon rope that they throw up into the tree to the branches to hook their climbing rope to," Kalp recalls. "The Japanese don't use those. He loved it. He just loved this idea of this throw ball."

Even the language barrier didn't slow down progress. Fujimoto-san didn't know any English, but was able to teach Kalp and the tree crew some basic words.

"The language barrier didn't seem to stop those guys from having fun together," says Kalp. "It was a really good camaraderie."

Moving forward, the rot-resistant black locust posts will remain underneath the tree for the rest of its life. The ropes need to be changed every five years or so, but the posts, harvested by Penn State as part of a forestry research plot, will remain. And that's good news, because according to the Japanese, the tree will continue to grow at even faster rate.

"Trees that have historically had this method used in Japan actually promotes growth," Kalp explains. "It's almost like the tree doesn't need as much energy to support itself, and it will actually promote more growth of the tree."

Looking back on his early days with the university, Kalp remembers a conversation he had with a student on a tree tour through campus. She mentioned that she never paid attention to the landscape, and was really not aware of that part of her environment.

With this unique collaboration resulting in a creative solution, he's confident onlookers will take a closer look at the historic tree and appreciate the effort the university took to keep it healthy for years to come.

"I think what this project in my mind does even more so is elevate our philosophy of tree protection and preservation to another level," says Kalp, "and it does so in a way that is even more visible to the general public, to students."

"Hopefully it gets people to look at that tree twice instead of just passing by it and never noticing, and saying 'Wow, that is an amazing tree.'"

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C.J. Doon is a frequent contributor to Onward State. A Long Island native, Doon is studying print journalism at Penn State.
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