Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Paul Bunyon Effect

Some men just have to cut down trees. Whenever they see a tree, they think, "Where's my chainsaw?"

As I noted in my Great American Lawn posting, certain white, middle-aged heterosexual men like to obsess about their lawns. They mow acres and acres, often spending thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars on lawn mowing equipment, fertilizer, weed killer, seed, and the like. And they consume countless hours of time trying to make their homes look like the greensward surrounding an English mansion.

Why, pray tell, on God's green earth would anyone want to do this of their own free will?

In a similar vein, some men love cutting down trees. To them, a tree ruins the perfect lawn - or the perfect view. And in this regard, I have to argue they are dead wrong. In most cases, cutting down all the trees actually ruins a good lawn, a good view, and also can increase your cooling bills.

We live on a lake, and we have a view of the lake from our house and also a cabana on the water. In both cases, some trees obstruct part of the view. Some men, seeing this, get an itchin' for their chainsaw and say, "I can cut those trees down for you and you'd have a prefect view!"

Not so fast there, Paul Bunyon.

The "perfect view" - an unobstructed view of an area, extending 180 degrees, is often actually a less than perfect view. Often, a better view is obtained when your view is framed or partially obstructed. This sounds counter-intuitive, but from a design perspective, it works.

When you see all of an object at once, it removes the mystery and the eye is not drawn toward it. but when you see fleeting glimpses of something, it creates interest for the eye and makes the viewer watch longer.

One reason the average visitor at the Grand Canyon spends only five minutes at the rim is that the view is, well, sort of boring after a while. No, seriously. Once you've seen it, it is like looking at a photo of it. In contrast, we spend a whole afternoon at Dead Horse Point (another amazing canyon) parked by the side of the rim, under the awning of our RV, with the view framed by trees. Same basic view, but more pleasant to look at when "framed".

The other aspect of this is what I call "The ant on the kitchen table" effect. When you have a vast view like that, you tend to feel naked and exposed. Many modern architects don't get this - and design huge buildings with vast, empty plazas surrounding them. In the architect's rendering, there are people lounging around the plaza doing things. But in reality, these vast plazas are always empty of life and people. The space is not intimate, and people crave that sort of intimacy with their space.

Think about that for a minute. Which venue do you prefer to see a performer - an older theater or jazz club, or a huge stadium concert? The latter is hardly enjoyable, and it is not just because the acoustics suck.

So when you chop down all the trees, it removes intimacy and makes you feel exposed, and as a result, you find yourself using the space less and less. Plus the view is not as interesting, as it is bare and obvious.

So a lawn dotted with trees is interesting to look at and fun to walk around in. A lawn that is large and barren is not pleasant to look at and not pleasant to be on.

Trees also help with energy savings. One reason many men give for chopping down trees is that they hate cleaning dead leaves out of gutters. However, this is a small price to pay for enhanced aesthetics as well as lower energy bills.

In the summer, deciduous trees provide shade for your home, reducing your energy bills needed to cool it. In the winter, the leaves fall, exposing the house to the sun, providing free solar heat. It is an automatic shade system that requires little or no maintenance. And yet many men, in the interest of "less maintenance" chop down every tree on a property, until their home is an exposed cube on a blank piece of land.

On our lake property, we have an ancient cottonwood tree growing out of the lake. It shades our cabana, and the limbs cross over the deck. It is like being in a tree house, looking out through the limbs at the lake. The tree conveniently blocks the view of our neighbor's property as well.

Many men have remarked that the view would be "improved" if the tree were cut down. But the result would be a sun-drenched open and exposed space, which would have absolutely no privacy at all.

I am not sure what causes this effect in some men, which I call the "Paul Bunyon Effect" - but they act as though the only good tree is one that has been cut down. And I've seen these men ruin perfectly good properties, cutting everything in sight with their chainsaws, on the premise that they are "improving the view" or "getting rid of those damn leaves in the gutter".

When they get done denuding the property, the result is a space that is "ant on the kitchen table" - hardly inviting, intimate, or attractive. And in the Summer, it is hot as hell.

Before you trim or chop down a tree, particularly on a new property, live with it a while. Think about what the tree does to enhance your life before destroying it.

In some instances, yes, careful pruning or trimming may improve a view - for example, where it it is TOTALLY obstructed and you are living in a dark tunnel of trees. But the solution for such a situation is careful trimming, not clear-cutting the forest.