In Berlin, even the trees have numbers Pulp nonfiction: Trees are a passionate concern for Berliners, an attitude that was heightened by the Cold War when West Berlin was cut off from surrounding forests. Berlin's tree bureaucrats are true fanatics.


BERLIN -- The bureaucrat's computer clicks and whirs, and onto the screen comes bad news concerning Tree No. 00018-L0022 in the district of Zehlendorf.

It has been chopped down at the ripe old age of 117, after city workers detected a case of poisoning by "Hundeurin."

Translation: Death by dog urine.

The bureaucrat, Hans-Achim Gottlebe, keeps punching keys, and we learn that five other trees in the district have died this way during the past two years. In each case he can tell you the kind of tree, its age, its size, its street, its fungus problems and even more, if you care to know.

It is all the result of work that began two years ago, when district officials began nailing tiny number plates on every tree on every street, probing and measuring as they went. Already they've tagged and numbered 20,000 trees, with 12,435 to go. That's just in Zehlendorf, one of 23 districts in Berlin where similar records are kept.

The ultimate goal: a unified, citywide system in which each of the city's 386,000 street trees will get its own 18-digit number, encapsulating all its vital statistics.

To the uninitiated, this may seem nothing but another step deeper into minutiae by yet another of the world's governments. But here one could even say it was inevitable.

This, after all, is the country where rules, records and regulations cover everything from what days department stores may hold sales to what hours of a Sunday you're forbidden to be noisy.

It is also a place where a love of the forest is rooted in centuries of lore and legend. Thus has the merger of two national passions begotten the tree bureaucracy of Berlin, now thriving in the full bloom of the computer age.

As big cities go, Berlin is among the world leaders in leafy boulevards, according to Gunter Heitmann of the city department that oversees public spaces and "street trees."

Its most famous promenade, Unter den Linden, beginning at the Brandenburg Gate and passing some of the city's most magnificent buildings, is named for this distinction, meaning literally "under the linden trees."

Berlin comes by its tree fixation naturally, being the past and future capital of a country where, as author William Manchester once wrote, people only began emerging from the dense gloom of the forests only a few millenniums ago, with animal furs on their backs and horns on their head.

Even centuries ago there were laws to protect the foliage. People caught peeling bark off trees had their navels cut out and nailed to the despoiled tree. They were then marched around the tree until they'd disemboweled themselves.

"Even today," Mr. Manchester wrote, give a German a day off and he'll take his family and a rucksack and "vanish into the trees."

Berlin's passion for its trees was put to the test after World War II. Not only had many of the city's half-million street trees been bombed to splinters, thousands more were chopped down for fuel to make up for the lack of electricity, coal and gas.

Planting efforts were redoubled, and over the long years of the Cold War the balance of green tipped west, partly out of necessity. East Berliners in need of some nature could always dart into the countryside. West Berliners were virtually trapped on an island in the middle of enemy territory, surrounded for 28 years by the Berlin Wall.

So they brought the country to the city, not only in their numerous parks and vast urban forests, but along their streets.

From this beginning the birth of the tree bureaucracy came naturally, district by district. But only in the past decade did the system begin its methodical march of numbering.

One reason was simple bureaucratic overkill. Keeping close track of street trees, it seemed, was an efficient if arduous way for a city to fend off lawsuits from people hurt by falling trees and limbs.

It was mostly this aspect that caused the tree numbering system to be adopted citywide once East and West Berlin were reunited in 1990. You'll now find eastern districts such as Friedrichshain -- a gritty, urbanized warren of high-rise apartments and rumbling trolleys -- scrambling just as hard to stay current on pruning schedules, growth rates and outbreaks of fungus as do leafy, suburban, western districts such as Zehlendorf.

"Last year, a tree fell onto a car, and these days people are suing almost the way they do in the States," says Adalbert Maria Klees, Friedrichshain's chief tree bureaucrat. "Our attorney only had to ask for our tree registry, which showed the date of the last time we checked the tree and found it OK, and the people lost their lawsuit. If we wouldn't have had a registry, we would have lost."

Hoping to keep producing results like that, Mr. Klees and his department collectively spend about 416 work days a year compiling, updating, and logging information on 20,000 trees along the district's streets and in its parks.

(In other districts, such as Zehlendorf, park trees are governed by a different bureaucracy. Berlin's forests have their own administrators as well, as with the spacious Grunewald, where few trees are numbered, but forest underbrush is periodically cleared and collected into disconcertingly neat piles stretching mile after mile into the woods.)

Lest any of these bureaucracies grows lax for lack of lawsuits, there are plenty of vigilant tree lovers to keep them on their toes.

"In Zehlendorf, each citizen is a tree expert," grouses Mr. Gott- lebe. "No matter what we do, we do it wrong. There is no biological or botanical street tree, there is only the political street tree. We call ourselves the green district, and the relationship between a resident and a tree is a close one, especially if it's the tree in front of his neighbor's house.

"The tree in front of his own house, of course, needs to be removed so there's more parking space and less leaves to rake, but the tree in front of the the neighbor's house should be kept by all means."

Mr. Klees also deals with a zealous public. "Whenever we have to cut down a tree we get a lot of calls and a lot of trouble," he says. "Some protest politically and then we agree to get an expert opinion from outside our department."

Once the tree goes down, his department posts a notice in its place explaining that, somewhere in the district, a new tree has been planted in compensation, but please call the department if you have any questions.

The process works both ways. If homeowners grow lax with their trees, they'll hear from the city. Limbs from backyard trees that begin spreading over a public sidewalk will bring on a precautionary order for a pruning or, in extreme cases, the whole tree gets the ax.

Don't get the wrong idea, though. Once any tree on private land reaches a certain size and maturity, no one, not even the homeowner, is allowed to chop it down without a special permit from the city. The permits are rarely granted.

Other German cities have similar rules and registries, but none have nearly as many trees as Berlin to worry about, particularly when it comes to street trees.

For the moment, according to records, the city is chopping down about 4,500 trees per year, while planting about 6,300.

Tree bureaucrats hope that, despite a municipal debt crisis of staggering proportions, they'll eventually be able to pick up the pace enough to reach the prewar level of 500,000 street trees in the foreseeable future.

By then, of course, each should have its own number, 18 digits long.

Pub Date: 4/26/96

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