Speak for the Trees

I remember the moment it occurred to me that trees could be older than me. I was eight years old, in my grandparents’ yard, marveling at a (to me) giant tree that had a swing hung from one of its branches. I’m sorry to say that I don’t know what kind of tree it was, but I remember it had grayish corrugated bark, and it was too big for me to throw my arms around. I had previously considered that adults had seen things that I hadn’t, but that was the first time I imagined a tree living through a different historical era.

Many years later, my husband and I visited Elizabethan Gardens in Roanoke Island, North Carolina, and saw an ancient live Oak that horticulturalists estimate to be over 400 years old. It’s at the back of the Great Lawn, near Roanoke Sound, and of fame because its life intersected with the arrival of the first (and subsequently “lost”) English colonists. Though the gardens are beautiful and tranquil, that ancient Oak is, for me, the highlight. It has witnessed and withstood so much and it reigns over the place where it’s planted.

I’m thinking about all this today because, this weekend, I did some photography work for my realtor husband, and it involved me taking photos of some land for an out-of-country investor client of his.

The land is not far from where we live; it once held a mansion, a carriage house, a pool, a sculpture garden…so many trees. It was the sort of place you could *just* glimpse from the main road and, if you’re a reader, complete a mental picture of by drawing from your exposure to The Secret Garden and The Great Gatsby. I could, anyway.

The mansion was abandoned, fell into disrepair, was looted, flooded… someone bought the land and razed the building. Razed everything, actually. With no care even for the marble statues, which were bulldozed into a heap and left for anyone with access to a backhoe to salvage and sell or transport to their own properties.

This made the place tragic enough for me already, from a distance; my husband, whose work had allowed him to go on-site at various points throughout the estate’s decay, warned me it would get worse.

And it did.

I don’t know how many trees were cut down, exactly. I expect some of them needed to be cut…but I can’t imagine SO MANY of them needed to come down. Maybe 100? It made me angry…and then, it pierced my heart. Towards the back of the property, we saw an enormous Oak stump that was well over 4 feet in diameter. Even a conservative estimate puts its age at around 250 years old; that means that tree was not only older than me, than us…but that it was older than the U.S. itself, and now it has been decimated into nothing.

I don’t know how someone sleeps at night after cutting down, or ordering cut, a tree like that. I don’t believe trees can be haunted…but this stump was morally haunting.

I don’t care if that sounds dramatic.

I know there are plenty of things to decry in the world…and this is still one of them. In the wise words of The Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Planning Trees

Before we built our house, there were two dead Oak trees on the lot that we had to have cut down. They were in the way of where our house was going to sit and seemed like a magnet for lightning. Even knowing that, having them cut down pained me. Now, a dozen years later, we have about 30 trees of different kinds on our third of an acre (arborvitae, Japanese maples, Cleveland pears, smoke trees, a redbud, a flowering crabapple, a maple, an oak, a hydrangea, and a river birch). And this fall, we’re planning to plant more. 

There are so many reasons to plant trees– you only need one to spur you to action. (Incidentally, even if you do it yourself, it’s easier than you might imagine. I speak from the experience of, when our kids were tiny and our daylight hours were super busy, planting a tree by flashlight around 11pm at night.)

Trees purify the air we breathe, exchanging the carbon dioxide we exhale for the oxygen we inhale, and filtering dust and pollutants. They provide habitat for wildlife, each one nourishing and hosting communities of fungi, lichen, insects, birds, and mammals. They help the watershed by capturing rainfall and releasing it back into the atmosphere through evaporation…instead of letting rainfall run off over roads, eroding them, and picking up pollutants before going into streams, rivers, and lakes. Trees offer shade, cool the air, and reduce wind speeds. They reduce noise pollution, transforming the whoosh of traffic into the whisper of leaves in a breeze. As far as making a positive environmental impact, planting a tree (or ten) is probably the easiest, cheapest, and most environmentally significant thing most of us can do in our lifetime.

It’s also a good health decision. Trees help lower blood pressure and heart rate. They improve stress and anxiety, and help lift depression.

And undeniably, they stimulate our imaginations. When I was little, each tree was a castle I could climb into, play under, daydream in…I remember some favorite trees in as much detail as I do former houses. I even have favorite animated trees (the ones from Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro). I still daydream under trees as often as I can (and, honestly, I still climb into one when the opportunity presents itself).

And unapologetically, I hug them.