The architecture of trees with Dave Pepler

Stellenbosch’s trees, says Dave Pepler, are the town’s cathedrals, constructed on the same principles as any building of stone. And they have the same capacity to give character to a landscape.

The smooth white trunk and branches of the lemon-scented gum lend it a sculptural quality. This tree is one of several outside the Prima hostel at Paul Roos Gymnasium. They are among South Africa’s champion trees, with the tallest topping 40m. Picture by Enrico and Erna Liebenberg

The crowns of trees are the domain of birds, children and the mad and holy. Like my great-aunt Ella, spinster of Robertson. She and her sister, Susie, lived in a dark house next door to my grandmother Lilly. Ella played the organ for the Salvation Army and drove Ouma to distraction by coming over daily to peer into the pots on her stove. One Sunday, Ouma sent me over to borrow an onion from Aunt Ella. I walked into the gloomy hall and through the kitchen, but Ella was nowhere to be seen.

From the back stoep I shouted “Coo-eee” and from the depths of the garden there came an answering “Coo-eee”. There I found her, in the topmost branches of a naartjie tree, baby sparrow in hand. She was about to restore it to its nest. Tree-climbing was Ella’s forte. The sight of her bloomers under a knitted brown dress haunts me still.

I suspect humans were able to cleave stone before they learnt to cleave wood, since the axe precedes the wedge. The moment when we first exposed wood’s hidden grain was surely one of our greatest intellectual leaps, opening a path to discovery and innovation. Go and read Jacob Bronowski’s lyrical essays on the subject in The Ascent of Man.

Trees take us back to the real beginning of our humanity. Because a thinking being seeks the universal and finds something of it in geometry, trees are something of an enigma. Their design and architecture appear totally chaotic. Lie on your back against a tree trunk and look up. The only recognisable form is the shadow line, which is usually round, but the growth of the trunk and branches is wild. And yet, if you let your eye wander out of focus, patterns and designs gradually begin to emerge from the apparent tangle.

Stand back from the plant and squint – try to see the tree slightly out of focus. If the astonishing Norfolk Island pine in front of the Theology Faculty at the top of Dorp Street is the Eiffel Tower of Stellenbosch, surely the eucalyptus at the bottom of Victoria Street must be our La Sagrada Familia. Our town has some of the oldest and loveliest planted trees in South Africa, especially in the historic core of the village.

Recently, in Borneo, I was attempting to explain the form and function of tropical trees to a guest when it suddenly struck me that trees could be regarded as living architecture. The same forces apply in both structures, with beams and branches constantly in a state of compression or tension, or both. Take a look at some of the ravishing bridges built in recent years, and especially the Millau Viaduct in France. To my mind, this glorious floating structure by Michel Virlogeux and Norman Foster must rank as one of international architecture’s crown jewels – a road hung from concrete trees.

Once you begin to understand the basic principles of architecture, as espoused in the first century AD by Vitruvius, who described good buildings being based on the three principles of firmitas, utilitas and venustas, you quickly realise that exactly the same values hold true for trees. Once planted, a tree should have durability, utility and beauty, obviously if selected with care and forethought. The prudent gardener therefore selects trees not only for his or her lifetime, but also to project future growth and shape into the landscape.

A critical consideration is the tone of the landscape that projected growth and shape will create. Driving towards Paarl, I am constantly delighted, near the turnoff to Muratie, to see how Italian owners, after the Second World War, placed single cypresses in the landscape and transformed this valley into a corner of Tuscany.

Stellenbosch needs trained tree guides who will not only add value for international tourists, but also for our own townspeople. Our trees are the living cathedrals of our town, places of contemplation, places of peace.

Dave Pepler is a landscape ecologist and naturalist interested in the living world and how we interact with the environment. As a humanist, he believes in the inherent goodness of man and holds kindness to be the greatest virtue.