The trouble with trees is that… they’re irreplaceable, really

… whether we know the actual reason for this, however, is another question altogether

All that's left of the Mosta trees, which are set to be transplanted to the Santa Margerita area (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
All that's left of the Mosta trees, which are set to be transplanted to the Santa Margerita area (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

I’m sure you’re all familiar with that Internet meme, which juxtaposes two images of similar urban streetscapes – one shaded by foliage; and the other with no tree-cover at all – and invites us to compare the precise temperatures, in both.

Just in case, however, I’m reproducing that meme (or one of many similar ones, anyway) here on this page. So take a good look for yourselves, and… well, decide which of those two streets you’d rather be on, at noon on any August day: either walking; or waiting for a bus; or sitting on a bench… or even just driving through in your diesel-guzzling, exhaust-belching ‘Sports Utility Vehicle’ (and giving Greta Thunberg the good old middle finger, while you’re at it…)

I don’t know about you, of course; but personally, I’d much rather do any of those things in ‘26 degrees Celsius’, instead of ‘50’. You can probably imagine, then, how’d enthusiastically I’d be performing those activities… in an all-too-near future, when ‘50 degrees Celsius’ might actually refer to one of the COOLEST days of summer (a season which will probably end up lasting for around nine months of the year: from April, to December…)

THAT, I fear, is when the loss of all those mature Ficus trees, in Mosta’s Rotunda Square, will be most keenly felt… only by Mosta’s human residents, this time. (Let’s face it: Mosta’s White Wagtail population has already borne the full brunt, of this sudden - and judging by the online videos, terribly ‘traumatic’ - loss of their natural habitat. They will probably no longer even be around, by then…)

And Mosta, of course, is far from being the only Maltese locality to have suffered what can only be described as a deliberate, systematic – and increasingly inhumane, if you ask me – ‘urban deforestation’, on a truly industrial scale.

Which brings me to a teenie-little question that I have long been meaning to ask (and probably already have, several times over). Why is this country so hell-bent on destroying its already meagre ‘arboreal flora’ – that’s ‘TREES’, to you and me – when we are supposed to be:

    a) Governed by a ‘National Trees and Woodlands Strategy Action Plan’, which intends to “assist in the implementation of actions favouring GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE [my emphasis] and recreational areas linked with trees and woodlands, also acting as a means of adaptation and MITIGATION TO CLIMATE CHANGE ISSUES [ditto]”;

    b) Committed to international targets of achieving both ‘Full Carbon Neutrality’ AND ‘Zero Emissions’, by 2050 (and in case the government hasn’t noticed yet: the same ‘trees’ that we’re cutting down today, just happen to be our only natural ‘allies’ against climate change); and lastly,

    c) Under a Labour government which, once upon a time – little over a year ago, as I recall - promised us that it would ‘invest more in green spaces’, because (and I quote from an article by Energy Minister Miriam Dalli): “Creating green spaces in urban areas is essential for the wellbeing of residents, not only because green spaces absorb greenhouse gases and improve air quality, but also because they have a positive impact on our mental health…”?

Erm… sorry to have to repeat that question once more, but: it wasn’t exactly ‘rhetorical’, you know. It is one thing, I suppose, to ‘renege on an electoral promise’, because it proved too ‘expensive’ (or otherwise ‘unrealistic’) to actually keep.  But to simply ‘promise one thing, today’… and then ‘deliver the TOTAL OPPOSITE of your promise’, the next day…  without even bothering to offer us so much as an EXPLANATION, for the U-turn in policy-direction?

It’s kind of ‘a little too much’, don’t you think?

But back to that meme. Naturally, I myself have never undertaken to ‘fact-check’ the scientific claim it’s making – i.e., that ‘tree-shade’ automatically reduces nearby temperature by almost exactly HALF – because…  let’s face it, the precise ‘temperature-reduction statistics’ hardly matter, in the long run.

We’ve all experienced the ‘shade of a tree’,  haven’t we? And we’ve all certainly experienced the merciless heat of the Malta summer sun (a good deal more, I would imagine). We all likewise know (also from experience) that the shade cast by trees is far more effective – not to mention pleasant - than any artificial shading known to man...

… whether we know the actual reason for this, however, is another question altogether.

In fact, this would be the ideal moment for me to humbly hand over the mic to a qualified Botanist, to do all the explaining for us; but seeing as Botanists are in short supply, right now (who would have ever guessed, in a country which systematically kills all its plants before they have a chance to study them?)… I’m afraid you’re just going to have to make do with… ME.

Why do trees cast such pleasant, effective shade, you ask? I’d say it has something to do ‘photosynthesis’: which – apart from being a natural process that (to the best of my knowledge)  ‘cannot be replicated by artificial, laboratory means’ – has the multiple effects of:

    a) Extracting Hydrogen atoms from the water molecules in which they were trapped (thus releasing Oxygen into the atmosphere, as useless excreta);

    b)  Absorbing Carbon Dioxide from the surrounding atmosphere;

    c) Using energy directly from sunlight, to transform all that into sustenance for itself (in the form of sugars...)

Oh, OK, I got most of that from Wikipedia. Fact remains, however, that ‘trees cast shade’, not merely because they’re ‘getting in the way of the sun’ (which, incidentally, is the most that can be said of any other ‘artificial shading’)… no, they also actually ‘absorb heat (and humidity, by the way) from the surrounding atmosphere’.

In other words: trees functions as ‘natural air-conditioning units’… only without any of the associated energy costs; and above all, without any ‘pollution’ whatsoever, except Oxygen (which we require to… erm… ‘BREATHE’, FFS!!)

I mean, honestly though: how much more ‘beneficial’ does something have to even be, before we finally get round to the idea that… hey, who knows? Maybe ‘preserving them’, might be a better idea than just bloody ‘DESTROYING them’, at every single opportunity’?

Just a thought…

Meanwhile, however, we are no closer to answering that question I asked earlier. Because while no real ‘explanation’ has ever been offered, for the removal of those Ficus trees from Mosta – the ‘excuses’, inter alia, were as follows:

    1) “It’s OK, because we’re going to transplant these trees – the ones that survive the transplantation process, anyway – to another part of Mosta” (ERA);

    2) “For every tree we uproot in Mosta, we promise to replant a trillion, trillion ‘Znuber saplings’, somewhere else (like, um, ‘Wied Znuber’)” (Labour government);

    3) (Quoting the project architect this time, from an August 23 article): “I believe you cannot have seating areas without the shading of trees, so that is why we incorporated all the benches with trees. On the other hand, in a square like this one, we were restricted because there is not enough space under the surface to create sufficient soil depths that can sustain large trees. We therefore had to limit landscaping to smaller trees and plants.”

Got that, folks? It seems that there just isn’t enough ‘soil-depth’, under the surface of Mosta square, to ‘sustain large trees’… even if, weirdly enough, the same square somehow DID manage to sustain quite a large number of ‘large trees’, until just the other day! (The ones that have just been chopped down, remember?)

But in any case: what was the architect’s ‘solution’, exactly, to this (let’s face it: entirely ‘non-existent’) problem? Why, “remove all the ‘large trees’ that already exist”, of course; and “replace them with ‘smaller ones’” (which, by definition, will only cast ‘less shade’; ‘absorb less CO2’, etc., etc., etc.)…

See what I mean? What sense was that even supposed to make, anyway…?

It gets a lot worse, however, when you consider that some people out there (including, but not limited to, the ‘people of Mosta’) happen to have had other reasons for wanting those trees to remain exactly where they were.

After all, this is not just about ‘climate change’; this is also – as Miriam Dalli correctly noted, a few months ago – about ‘preserving our national mental state of health’, no less!

And just as I can’t properly explain the biological reasons, why trees manage to reduce heat so effectively… nor can I explain the precise cultural, sociological factors that cause certain people to attach so much ‘value’, to the trees in their own environment (so much more than they do the ‘nettles’, and the ‘weeds’, and the other examples of ‘typical Maltese flora’...)

What I can safely say, however, is this. Part of this ‘arboreal attraction’ – this ‘tree-hugging’ sentiment, if you will (to use a term I personally DETEST) – stems from entirely ‘practical’ considerations, you know.

Just as anyone in his right mind would prefer walking in 26C, to 50C… no one is ever going to be consoled, for the loss of sorely needed tree-shade in their own neighbourhood, by being told either:

    a) “It’s OK, folks! All Mosta’s tree-shade is now to be found in Santa Margherita Street, instead of Pjazza Rotunda… so… well, just go and wait for the bus there!”;


    b) “Too bad! But hey, you’ll be happy to know that - thanks to all our national tree-planting efforts – the temperature has now dropped by over HALF… in Wied Znuber…”

Sorry, but: it just doesn’t work like that, in practice. You can’t simply ‘replace a tree’…