How to Cultivate Joy Out of Thin Air
The gingko tree lesson on changing how you see the world
It was an unusually warm day in Tokyo, and so I decided to walk outside and enjoy the sun. It was a particularly beautiful hour where the sunlight was golden, so I stopped to take a photo when I saw the most peculiar thing.
What is that boy doing?
At first he was walking normally, when suddenly he began hopping around an empty sidewalk, doing a weird dance as he went along. I thought it was an odd place to start playing the game “The Floor is Lava”, especially when you are all alone. Well, kids.
It was only when I continued on walking that I realized: oh, he was not playing the lava game. He was avoiding the ginkgo fruit.
If you have these in your neighborhood, you know what I’m referring to. As beautiful as ginkgo trees become with their curtain of yellow leaves in the fall, the ones that bear fruit are pungent with the smell of old cheese or dirty socks. I suddenly found myself doing a similar stepping dance, avoiding squishing the fallen fruit, and got a bit annoyed.
Why does my neighborhood keep planting these trees? They leave the sidewalks gross, and while they could be considered beautiful from a distance, that rotten smell and mess they leave behind is nothing short of a nuisance. There are dozens of different kinds of urban trees that are equally beautiful in the fall, why don’t we plant those trees instead?
Yes, I was annoyed at the ginkgo tree, but I couldn’t help it. When I got home I Googled, “Why do we keep planting ginkgo trees” and was surprised to find out that I wasn’t the only one wondering this. In fact, ginkgo trees are found globally in cities.
A tree census of NYC neighborhoods found that ginkgos were among the top 10 most common. In Seoul, ginkgo trees account for about 40 percent of all trees. They're also quite popular in cities like London, and can be found along many streets and parks in Tokyo.
Why urban developers love ginkgo trees
To understand why ginkgo trees are so popular, it was also important to understand why trees in general are crucial to urban landscapes.
Trees are the underrated heroes of the community
While we’re not completely sure why, trees are very good for public safety. Neighborhoods with increased vegetation found decreased crime rates, both property crime and violent crime. They have also been shown to help reduce average traffic speed, and this has been correlated with reduced number of motor vehicle accidents.
In addition to protection, trees contribute to the health of urban communities: the presence of trees has been found to increase walkability, which in turn has been linked to lower rates of obesity and higher rates of active citizens. They also help clean the air and reduce pollution, and the presence of trees help increase property values for emerging neighborhoods.
And this is where ginkgo tree comes in: among the many varieties, ginkgo trees are especially well-equipped to survive in a city.
During the 1952 Great Smog of London, coal pollution was killing off trees in masses — the air was so polluted you could feel the smog in the air. Yet among the damage and fallen trees, ginkgo trees continued to survive. In fact, the ginkgo tree might be one of the hardiest trees to exist — six ginkgo trees survived the atomic bombing on the city of Hiroshima in 1945.
Not only do they handle air pollution well, but ginkgo trees are particularly resistant to pests, road salt, the cold, the heat, and continue to grow in places where soil is hard and compact. Humans can throw anything at them and yet, they continue to survive and to serve.
How to be less annoyed by small things
Because ginkgo trees are especially well suited for city survival, urban developers began to plant more of them in the city to help clean, protect, and beautify neighborhoods. They do so much, and suddenly I realized that I may have judged them too hard.
The ginkgo tree in my neighborhood is still there: it still smells and leaves the sidewalk sticky, and I still find myself doing a little stepping dance as I walk by. But for some reason, these days I find myself less annoyed by it than I had before — although nothing had really changed, it seems a bit of gratitude goes a long way in cultivating joy.