The Trees of Chico

a radio commentary broadcast on Jefferson Public Radio's The Jefferson Daily
Tuesday, June 3, 1997
(c)1997 by Fred Flaxman

HOST: Commentator Fred Flaxman moved out west seven years ago, attracted by the area's natural beauty and mild winter climate. But as gorgeous as the mountains are, he feels many cities leave something to be desired. And he can summarize that "something" in a single word.

FLAXMAN: Trees. That's what most western cities are missing. And the lack thereof makes them uglier, hotter and more polluted than they need to be.

"I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree," Joyce Kilmer wrote. And the more trees, the more lovely a city can be. Especially when they've been around awhile and have grown to maturity.

A few weeks ago my wife and I visited Chico, California, for the first time, and we were struck by what a difference trees can make. Much to our surprise, Chico had avenues of big, beautiful trees in every direction, all over town. If there were ever a city which warranted the designation "Tree City U.S.A." it is surely Chico.

And not only do they have boundless street trees, they also have the third largest park of any U.S. city, and much of that park consists of -- you guessed it -- trees!

We went to Chico quite by accident, seeking a place to spend the night. Not wanting to have our sleep disturbed by traffic passing on Interstate 5, we decided to drive far enough from the freeway to get away from the noise. And thus we happened into Chico.

I had never taken Chico seriously before. Why the very name sounded funny. I guess that's because the only other Chico I had ever heard of was one of the Marx Brothers. You know -- Groucho, Harpo, Chico and the one no one can ever remember.

I had never had any desire to go to Chico. The only thing I knew about it, of course, was that there was a branch of California State University there. If I had done any research in advance of my trip, I might have avoided going there altogether. I didn't know that Chico State had once been ranked by Playboy magazine as the nation's number-one party school. I didn't know that a former CSU President, reacting to the Playboy article, said (quote) "It's nice to be number one at something." (unquote) I didn't know that San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen once called Chico (quote) "the kind of place where you find Velveeta in the gourmet section at the supermarket." (unquote)

But then I also didn't know about the trees. I didn't know that the city's founders, General John Bidwell and his wife, Annie, laid out the city's streets themselves and planted the first trees along side -- a tradition which continues to this day.

Now I know how beautiful a place Chico is. Now I know how much better so many other western towns would look if they only had as many tree-lined streets as Chico.

I'm not going to name any names. The tree-starved cities of southern Oregon and northern California know who they are. It is ironic that many of them are surrounded by forests, while Chico is surrounded by agriculture. Perhaps that's why the people of Chico appreciate trees so much, and the rest of us take them for granted.

This is Fred Flaxman.

HOST: Fred Flaxman writes a column called "Compact Discoveries" for the Jefferson Monthly, Jefferson Public Radio's membership magazine. He is also a regular columnist for the Ashland Lithiagraph.