Shade is a commodity both figuratively and materially. With cities heating and electricity ceasing to be cheap, the availability of shade becomes political. Who has access to shade? Who or what provides shade and whose shadows loom over those who are in need of cooling? These questions reach far beyond current ecological crises and reveal social and economic inequality in which trees become more than just objects who block the sun’s rays, but agents of a (possible) future in which shade might become a common good.
Who would have thought that trees were to play a significant role in a labor conflict? In July Hollywood’s struggle between screenwriters, actors and major studios, indeed, came down to trees.
Universal studios were fined for illegally trimming a row of trees that happened to shade the picket line of strikers just before a heat wave was expected to hit Los Angeles. Who would do that? Temperatures over well over 103°F (40°C) are a major threat to humans and the only thing between the relentless rays of the sun and the strikers would have been the leaves of the trees (probably a species of Ficus). Outrage ensued and while the 250$ fine won’t have hurt the studio, it at least acknowledges that you cannot cut trees whenever it suits you.
The LA Times used the opportunity to put out a pun-ridden headline: “Striking writers and actors throw shade over tree trimming at Universal picket line”. The headline is a sad reminder of the difference between the figurative throwing of shade – making someone look bad or disrespecting them – and the literal meaning of shade in a city in which shade is a precious commodity.
Although no one at Universal admitted to having the already sparse canopy cut to inconvenience strikers, the act is reminiscent of sinister battleground tactics. It seems crass, to compare the illegal trimming of city trees to warfare deforestation, but both acts lie on a common spectrum of environmental violence. The cutting or, in a more 20th century ‘fashion’, the defoliation of forests (e.g. by means of chemicals like the infamous “Agent Orange”) serves the purpose of depriving the enemy of cover. Being able to hide in the shadows of a familiar forest is so huge an advantage that even the most sophisticated armies are in severe trouble when a forest is involved. The Varian Disaster (Clades Variana), that is the defeat of the Roman army in the Teutoburg Forest is the stuff of legends and taught the Romans to quickly get rid of forests in which rebellious barbarians could hide. This resonates with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, whose conviction that he will be defeated by a forest comes true (even though it is an army disguised as a forest, but who’s counting). Environmental violence is not an ancient prerogative and, maybe most chillingly, it is not restricted to warfare.
Die Hermannsschlacht (kolorierte Reproduktion),
Gemälde von Friedrich Gunkel, 1862–1864
Robert Pogue Harrison, in his cultural history of the forest, describes how deforestation itself was viewed as an enlightened practice, because it literally brought light into the dark worlds under the canopy. Only much later, it seems, did people realize that they needed the shade as much as the shady environments.
The old stories gain significance in light of the tactics of oil-drilling and mining companies in the Amazon and rainforests all over the world. Once the forest is gone, protest literally loses ground, hence many enterprises, be they illicit or not, create a fait accompli rather than following due process. The fines and punishments, if there are any, often hurt no more than the 250$ that Universal was faced with. War tactics, it seems, still pay off. What remains are dry fields, scorched by the sun. The arboreal dimension of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment leaves behind L.A. sidewalks and deserted rainforests alike.
Ancient Romans did not only establish deforestation as a weapon, but also claimed shadow as a luxury. Preceding the Romans, trees were a domain of gods and kings. The sacred groves of ancient Greece and Persia inspired the landowning nouveau riche in Rome to establish lush parks and gardens in which they invited their guests to lounge in the shade. Claudia Klodt, a classicist at Ruhr-University Bochum, has demonstrated the importance of trees as status symbols in Roman private horti by collecting a truly staggering amount of literary and epistular examples (see Klodt 2020). Owning trees, especially old trees, did not only, according to Klodt, locate the tree-owner within the social hierarchy, but also demonstrated power over nature itself. Most importantly, shade-trees manifested their owners status as a member of the owning classes (if you excuse my Marxist’ anachronism, here). The trees were both symbols and materializations of the leisure their owner was able to afford. A pine or poplar tree afforded the shade in which its guests could pursue leisurely practices such as music and poetry. Both human and arboreal beings were forced to labor like the poor peasants and their fruit trees.
The rich of the Roman empire, like so many in the ruling classes of the following millennia, lounged comfortably in the idea of being like the shepherds in Virgil’s eclogues – that is, simple, idyllic humans enjoying nature and themselves. This powerful fiction depended both on the ability to return home when the tree’s shadow grew too dark and on someone else performing the labor that one’s own wealth is built on.
The freedom and possibility to access and leave shade whenever it suits you is, like leisure itself and the opportunity to pretend to be a poor shepherd as long as it does not become too uncomfortable, is undeniably a privilege. But it is not only a privilege of the ancient roman landowners or the mean capitalists at Universal, it is one that forms the condition to connect with trees beyond necessity. Sure, you care for a fruit tree in order to harvest and you might appreciate its shade, but this kind of care is framed as labor and still not valued as high as the outdoorsy variety of nature lover’s pleasure that is the present equivalent to the “arboreal attachments” of the past. Labor and necessary care seems to taint human-nature relationship and once you need a tree (for food, wood, shade) rather than simply enjoying it, it becomes somewhat impure. At the very least, it depends on your status whether you can afford to sit inside in your climate controlled office or home and laugh at the poor souls who sweat outside and mourn the foliage that provided at least some relief form the scorching sun and the necessity to fight for fair labor conditions.
The history and present of shade distribution is complex and Los Angeles is only one of its prominent battlegrounds. Shade, of course, is not only provided by trees but by architecture and other ‘natural’ features and the amount you need varies from location to location. What seems to be common to most places where shade is necessary to mitigate the impact of hot and heating climates, is that shade has become a commodity. While being able to create comfortable environments has always been a prerogative of the rich, access to shade or lack thereof and, moreover, the ability to provide shade or take it away, is one of the most audacious signs of inequality in modern societies. Retreating into summer houses and seaside resorts while others sweat in increasingly unlivable city environments is an established practice. Watching from air-conditioned rooms while having the little shade cut away that might enable workers to enact their right to strike , seems especially cruel.
It is, however, an opportunity to discuss the potentials of “shade commons” or the possibilities for activism and city planning, to provide shade and help make cities more livable and equitable. But, as journalist Sam Bloch has shown in his article on shade in Places Journal, Los Angeles is one of the cities historically not too keen to provide much comfort outside privately owned property, lest people without the means might enjoy leisure they have “not earned”. The cynical conflation of private property and the impossibility to “make a living” from one’s work is obvious in the challenges to plan a city lush with shade-providing green.
But not only are there many activists fighting for a more sustainable city canopy, the celebration of trees as co-conspirators in the effort to create new commons for livable futures is palpable world-wide. Maybe it is time for trees and people to go on strike together and engage in a common fight for the right to access the means of production not for some abstract kind of profit but for the right to live and breathe where you are and to sit in the shade and do nothing for once. A tree will never do nothing, but I am sure trees appreciate being left alone, too.
Further Reading/Listening on Shade
- The Podcast 99 Percent Invisible created a couple of fascinating episodes on the topic: Shade & Shade Redux
- Sam Bloch’s Article will be expanded into a book to be published with Random House
- A very different perspective on the difference of the shade LA trees throw compared to the live oaks and giant maples in the deep south is provided by Amaud Jamaul Johnson in his Emergence Magazine essay Felling Light
- For a celebration of trees and city canopies read: Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli: Cities and Canopies. Trees in Indian Cities (2019)
Claudia Klodt. “Zu Gast im Garten. Bäume im zweiten Odenbuch des Horaz.” Heimgartner, Stephanie, et al., editors. Baum Und Text: Neue Perspektiven Auf Verzweigte Beziehungen. 1. Auflage, Christian A. Bachmann Verlag, 2020, p. 27-64.
Robert Pogue Harrison. Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. Paperback ed., [Nachdr.], University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Giulia Pacini. “Arboreal Attachments: Interacting with Trees in Early Nineteenth-Century France.” Configurations, vol. 24 no. 2, 2016, p. 173-195. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/con.2016.0015.