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The groves were God's first temples. Ere man learned

To hew the shaft, and lay the architrave,

And spread the roof above them,---ere he framed

The lofty vault, to gather and roll back

The sound of anthems; in the darkling wood,

Amidst the cool and silence, he knelt down,

And offered to the Mightiest solemn thanks

And supplication.


-William Cullen Bryant, The Forest Hymn


The coffee is clearly worth the drive over, but what did we drive over to get it? The roads are familiar, but what roots molder beneath them? Miami’s history, rich as our coffee, is sprawling along tributaries of cultures and heydays, chaos and progress, a transitory mythic journey starting at some point in the 1960s, right? We were a swamp or all Everglades before that, right? 


On the way here, we chose to skip the highways and instead meandered up Douglas Road to Coral Way to Miami Avenue and back around, passing laundromats and classy restaurants; pawn shops and hairdressers; bakeries, yoga studios, mansions, townhomes, and juice bars. So many details beneath so many street lights, and all of the majesty of an unhindered sky. We are always in the summer sky when we step from our air conditioners and onto the street.


We drove along Coral way, and a passing inquiry on public radio caught us: “What was the last tree you deliberately saw?”


Coral Way has a median up the downtown route with regiments of ficus trees flowing like petrified waterfalls and manufacturing a shaded canopy dome across both directions. Miami’s most natural castle fortresses, vines akimbo, and trunks a remarkable and unpredictable mess. A solid tree that somehow undulates. The perfect Miami metaphor: they develop, they sprawl their roots and dominate the ground with a shallow grip, and the slightest hurricane wind knocks the whole affair over like a domino. Prop it back up, tie some bits down, and let its nature manage its own recovery.


And the radio asks: “When you think of the trees you see with the most regularity, do you think of rows of palms along US-1, that Gumbo Limbo in just the right spot in the park, that line of ficus along Old Cutler or Coral Way or at Merrie Christmas Park? Isn’t it intriguing how deliberate they grow? And how deliberately they grow south of Downtown, but not so much north? When was the last time you realized how thankful you were for their shade? Our trees have adapted to getting knocked down in storms, so they grow fast, and they blot the sun, but in a place where growth happens so easy, why is the magnificent growth only so particular to neighborhood and placement?”


By the time we turned off Coral way, we were surrounded by Miami’s other growth: condos, law offices, international banks, garages—a peek of bay water edging between the cracks with the slightest inclination of mangroves, a vague green in the distance.


And the radio says: “Here we do as development does, and that includes our nature. How many cranes do you see growing buildings compared to the amount of natural growth just growing itself? When trees are planted so deliberately, what can we truly call ‘nature’? Just because it thrives doesn’t mean it’s a tree doing tree things.”


We’ve stopped at four red lights since Coral Way and couldn’t help but note the dashboard’s thermometer ticking up degree by degree by degree, and when was the last time we saw a tree? Not a sidewalk shrub, but a mighty dome that blocks the sun. A tree doing tree things.


Back home, growing up in Kendall, it was lines of mango trees on undeveloped lots- those are now single-family homes, six-bedroom-seven-bathroom-two-car-and-a-pool-with-cabana, occupied eight months a year. It was a palm-lined walkway around a lake in college, jogging on a modest sidewalk with modest trees-trunks small enough to bear hug. As young professionals, it was El Portal, then Brickell, each tree a partitioned choice, perfect for aesthetic, likely to survive, diminutive reminders of things other than concrete and paying the bills. And when we’d made it, it was Coconut Grove, where we arrived just at the tail-end of a historical and sentimental season of the tree, as resident holdouts from bygone times grapple with a Great Flattening, modern residencies, above-ground bunkers seemingly dropping from the sky and onto the greenery. Perfect, symmetrical, identical pragmatic rows designed for effectiveness like the landscaped palms along beach walks and median strips everywhere else.


The radio affirms: “The next time you feel like 90-degree heat in February is maybe a little too wrong, try to find the nearest tree to escape the sun. If you can’t find it, you see the issue. The next time you pass through a neighborhood—or series of neighborhoods or your own neighborhood—and see an imbalance between all the concrete reflecting the sun in your face and the amount of greenery to soak it up for you, you are experiencing the issue. We take trees for granted because when we don’t use them for growing things or beautifying things, they are just more structures in the landscape, and we tend to ignore the structures we see often. Or remove them because they become obstacles. There is a direct correlation between the way we shape the landscape in our image, and the seemingly uncontrollable and solutionless ways it comes around to get back at us.”


While subconsciously reaching to dial down the air conditioner, we blew right past the turn, but there’s always another intersection. Under the overpass and into Overtown, the only green around is from grassy lots where former tenements wait to be tomorrow’s lofts. Vague spindly sidewalk planters show some growth just a few feet overhead and some older plantings on the other sides of a fence. It’s not comparable or nearly as effective to the arching extensions five miles and ten degrees ago. We double back around toward Downtown, and the radio interviewer thanks the Dade Heritage Trust for coming in and discussing its Canopy Coalition and partnership with the Miami Foundation. Gratitude is given for their work to educate and advocate for preserving and restoring tree growth so we all can breathe a little freer, a little cooler. 


And while some sponsors get some plugs, we found a parking space and walked a block in the sun to find our seat in a shaded arcade below some overhang. We contemplated peacefully about how we want our coffee—yours is con leche; mine is iced. The menu pages are printed on rough and weathered paper with a mug print ring here and there. 


Trees can gradually develop for centuries, but some other things grow in just a few decades while they trounce the slow and the steady.


Even now, sipping coffee and looking up from the page, what’s the nearest tree we can see? Spot anyone and assign it three adjectives. 

Written by: Adam Schachner, who was inspired by Dade Heritage Trust, a Miami-based non-profit focusing on architectural, environmental, and cultural preservation.

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