Hard Candy: The Giving Tree, Skink, and the Lifted Lorax

By Cathy Salustri

There’s this part of the The Giving Tree that always makes me cry. It’s at the end, when the child is an old man, and all the tree can offer him is a place to rest. That final image of a tree stump has done more for making my generation environmentally aware than any other kids book I know, unless it’s the lifted Lorax, speaking for the disappearing Truffula trees.

We all have a short list of books that shaped us. For me, it’s The Giving Tree, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Lorax, Wuthering Heights, Walden, Cross Creek, and pretty much everything Carl Hiaasen’s ever written.

I know, Hiaasen doesn’t seem to fit with Bronte and Thoreau, and yet there he is, insisting we pay attention to how we’re letting politicians muck up Florida. Turns out he serves me well as I watch local government make a perfect mess out of paradise. My favorite character from his novels, Skink, is a former Florida governor who violently avenges anyone who tries to hurt his state. Skink fights for the Everglades, the panther, and the trees. He’ll kill a person before he’ll kill a tree, especially if that person was about to kill a tree. He’s just about perfect.

At Gulfport’s city council meeting last week, two of our council members – the two I would ordinarily call the “greenest” – said “OK by me” to moving an oak tree to make room for a new sign in Clymer Park.

As much as I would like to do so, I’m not about to debate with councilmembers Sam Henderson and Jennifer Salmon why this is a blazingly stupid idea or why an arborist who makes money by moving trees will say whatever his client wants him to say. They can go buy their own copies of The Giving Tree. But instead of cutting down the tree, let’s think about using Clymer Park’s natural assets to the city’s advantage.

I’m not a fan of Clymer Park. First we have the debacle in city hall with the sign in Clymer Park, next we want to rip out a perfectly good oak tree because it blocks the view of the sign, and all the while, we aren’t really using the park as a park at all. It’s more of a green area that sucks money from the city budget. Cut the grass, edge the grass, chemically manipulate the grass. Any Florida gardener will tell you that grass is the least economically sound decision you can make for your landscape. In fact, if we’re talking about removing a living green thing from Clymer Park, let’s start there.

What if, instead of a big strip of grass that the city has to mow on a regular basis, the city turned Clymer Park’s weedy strip of grass into a lush subtropical landscape? What if Gulfport opted to honor the Clymer family name with a mini-botanical garden?

Picture it with me for a minute: fan palms and sturdy oaks lining either side of the park, ringed by spurts of fragrant white jasmine climbing the trunks of the oaks. Alongside the trees pink bouganvillea explode into color alongside clusters of purple crepe myrtles.

Clymer Gardens wouldn’t just have trees and flowers. It could have a bike path and a live tree (just like towns used to have) for the city’s Christmas decorations. People could walk along meandering, shaded pathways, pausing to sketch on a bench. Instead of the money pit with little aesthetic value you see today, you’d see a park – a real one, with all kinds of local flora and fauna – that invited people to stop and check it out. Painting classes could meet there, as could yoga classes and councilwoman Salmon’s organic landscaping classes. The city, with the help of volunteers, could plant a second community garden here. The city could even plant edible landscaping and create habitat for birds and other wildlife. On Halloween, picture a haunted walk through the park, which would be free for residents but cost for nonresidents, so instead of dumping money into the park (after, of course, the initial expense of buying and planting the greenery), the city could make money on it.

I guess I’m picturing a park that everyone could use – and would want to. Sound a little idealistic? Perhaps. But I have a financial motivation, too: while the city pays to mow and maintain the grass that stretches from Gulfport Boulevard to the Catherine Hickman theatre, what I’m describing doesn’t need mowing, fertilizing or irrigation. Even the groundcovers could survive on rainfall.

While we’re all living my verdant fantasy, let’s go to the beach. At last week’s cleanup, the city manager said that if the city didn’t rake the beach every day, the greenery would overtake the sand. While I love a day at the beach, let’s think about that for a minute: what if we removed the grass and added in buff colored sand dunes sprouting saffron and malachite sea oats, purple railroad vines and yellow beach sunflowers? Add in a few more pine trees and we’ve created two things: a spectacular view from across the street and a return to how the waterfront may have looked before we trashed it. Maybe the city could even find the money for a beach walk through the trees.

Of course, it won’t happen. Gulfport city hall has this odd attachment to grass: it’s care is budgeted every year, even when we have to cut other programs and raise taxes. But think about what we could do if we capitalized on all the sunshine, warm temperatures, and rain. Think of what we could do if we took advantage of living in paradise instead of destroying it.

But no, I’m not going to debate with the city council the merits of moving a tree that probably would live another couple of centuries.

I figure we’ve got some real live Skinks out there somewhere, and maybe a few Loraxes. I’ll let them have that argument. After all, someone’s got to speak for the trees.

Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.