Thinking of trees

Photo by Angelia Poon

Once, in Vietnam, I saw a house built around a tree. The tree was tall but it did not have a wide girth. It grew through two storeys of this house, the occupants having sawn a neat hole in the middle of the second floor to accommodate its trunk. The top of the tree poked through the roof and remained out of reach of the house’s residents. But the trunk of the tree that threaded the house in the middle of its common spaces had been worn smooth by hands that stroked and brushed it over time in the course and movement of daily living.

This tree in a house and how it was incorporated into the gentle bustle of ordinary human life, growing in its own fashion amicably and sensibly alongside the people in the household, has never ceased to fascinate me. Its existence speaks of a willingness to accommodate nature that we rarely see in pragmatic Singapore where things make way for more things as an internalized matter of routine and rhythm. It made me wonder what Singapore might look like if we sought to place ourselves and our needs in second rather than first place all the time.

The principle of accommodation underlining the preservation of this tree lies at the heart of the ecofeminist collection of essays, Making Kin, that Esther Vincent and I edited. When writing my essay for that collection, I thought of how the neighbourhood of Katong in which I had grown up had been transformed over the years and how many trees had been destroyed in the process. There are the wonderful trees that had grown to such shady heights along Marine Parade Road, for example, cut down several years ago to make way for the extension of the MRT in the east. Overnight, it seemed the place had been irremediably altered. Without the cool green of trees to sooth the eye, houses, pavement, road, and the Marine Parade Community Club suddenly acquired a garish nakedness in the throbbing glare of the hot day.

More recently, some trees, locally known as sea almond trees, along Dunman Road were chopped down. Now I had never been particularly fond of those trees compared to the Rain tree, Flame of the Forest and the Angsana but they had stood there for as long as I could remember, their red and yellow leaves blanketing the road at certain times of the year in a kind of tropical autumn. The fruit of that tree with a seed that tasted like almond often littered the ground, and on rainy days, could cause you to slip if you weren’t careful. Even if I never found them quite as magical and majestic, seeing the trees deconstructed limb by limb and systematically removed still brought on a pang.

These days, I make a mental note of the places where trees have been allowed to grow. At the corner of large intersecting roads in an awkwardly-shaped parcel of land is where you might find a decades-old tree left unmolested. Sometimes, even now, you may stumble upon a place luxurious for the sense of green expansiveness it affords. In a field behind Tanjong Katong Road stands a clutch of Angsana trees with branches that soar upwards fountain-like. They make an arresting sight. A lone sign pitched into the ground there proclaims the area “A Place for Everyone!”.

It is a place worth seeking out.

Angelia Poon

Co-editor, Making Kin: Ecofeminist Essays from Singapore