No urban tree is an accident, environmental historian David-Paul Hedberg would tell us, especially in Stumptown. Someone, at some point, planted most every tree in Portland, imbuing the saplings and the stalwarts with human intentionality and, with it, our flaws, hopes, evolving sense of décor and desire for the occasional do-over.
Portland's trees made for a rich yet accessible topic for NW Documentary's first film anthology, Canopy Stories. Hedberg and Sam Gaty, the nonprofit's executive director, helped craft or consult on the 12 entries, which debuted July 8 and will continue to screen through July 11 at several local theaters.
Of course, this undersells the civic and horticultural depth explored by the 11 volunteer filmmakers who contributed to Canopy Stories. Sparked by one of NW Documentary's DIY filmmaking workshops and a project by James Krzmarzick, whose film 82nd & Verdant is included in the collection, the dozen films bend Portland's history on a centurieslong continuum.
"When you start thinking about [trees]," Gaty says, "they take you hundreds of years into the past but also project hundreds of years into the future."
As for the past, there's an often dark legacy of urban development stored in these trees, like growth rings. The saga of the Eastmoreland neighborhood saving three towering sequoias in 2015 (shown in Giants) echoes the story of the historic Corbett Oak, which barely survived a developer's chain saw in the 1980s (The Activist Tree). Implied, however, in the famous near-misses are the many unknown or forgotten casualties.
"You often hear people say, 'We're just repeating history,'" Hedberg says. "As a historian, I get a little defensive about that. We are making similar mistakes, but it's always a different set of circumstances. A tree falls right in [line with] that. It has a finite life span, but after it's gone, another will likely be there, or nearby. I always see it as the phoenix."
Wearing many hats for the project, Hedberg directs and narrates the opening and closing films of Canopy Stories. The latter work, Heroes and Villains, unpacks the historically problematic personification of native Oregon trees compared with species like the Ailanthus, which originated in China.
"There is a pretty strong contingent of folks all about Northwest natives, and they may be a little perturbed by [the film's] approach," Hedberg says. "But if we're starting to think about trees as long-term investments, maybe planting trees better suited for warmer, drier summers is worth investigating."
Ideas of how we personify plant life run throughout the dozen shorts, as do children (literally and figuratively). That's especially true of No More Dope Parties by Cambria Matlow, whom Gaty calls one of the anthology's "veteran" directors. For her botanical subjects, the director of the 2016 feature Woodsrider selected a pair of sequoias in her neighborhood Glenwood Park for a meditation on motherhood and all its "maddening selflessness" and "hysterical boredom." Matlow's may well be the widest-reaching and most experimental of the entries, a languid, first-person script that touches on everything from the construction of Interstate 205 to Woody Guthrie's 1941 residence in Lents.
Is all that really wrapped up in the two 40-year-old trees Matlow passes while walking her child to kindergarten each day? Yes and no.
"Trees can be ecstatic for us; they can provide refuge; they can be beautiful or unnoticed; they can be rescued," Matlow waxes. But taking a beat, the writer-director points out another indisputable quality of trees—neutrality.
The actual facelessness of the Canopy Stories subjects may sneak up on audiences after all the drone-captured footage of their waving boughs and the placid, protected views from beneath their lowest limbs. But they are neutral. Deeply considered, trees contain enough history and culture for three hours of nonfiction filmmaking. Unconsidered, they haven't changed a bit.
"They're just there," Matlow says, "overseeing all of us."
SEE IT: Canopy Stories Part One screens at Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., cinema21.com, on Wednesday, July 10. 7 pm. $7.50-$10. Part Two screens at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave., nwfilm.org, on Thursday, July 11. 7 pm. $5-$10.