Decade of the tree – meditation on trees and tree planting – includes related article

Decade of the tree – meditation on trees and tree planting – includes related article – Cover Story

Norah Deakin Davis


Guilt was what led me to plant my first tree. The year was 1969. Silent Spring was history, Earth Day’70 was fast approaching, and I was just settling into married life. It was my husband who suggested we buy a living tree that Christmas-I think it was a white pine-and plant it afterwards on the lawn of our new home. The idea struck a chord in my awakening environmental conscience.

Recently I’ve been talking with others about why they plant trees, what it is that trees mean to them, why they care so much about seeing that our planet stays green.

The more people I talk with, the more complicated the answer seems. Trees exert a mysterious power on the human psyche that leads people to hug them, plant them, nourish them, cherish them, worship them-and even proffer Band-aids and chicken soup when a beloved oak is poisoned (see AMERICAN FORESTS, September/October 1989).

The power of trees seems to grow the more urbanized we become, as the craving for an absent nature intensifies. In fact, planting trees is arguably the heart of this decade’s environmental movement. Earth Day’90 inaugurated the decade with the planting of hundreds of thousands of saplings. Three years ago, on the threshold of the 90s, AFA launched the Global ReLeaf crusade to plant 100 million trees in towns across America by 1992. President Bush’s ambitious goal is 10 billion in communities and countryside by the year 2000.

The people I talked with invariably harked back to the trees of their childhood. What emerged from their recollections was a universality of experience that surprised me at first, but not after I thought about it. One woman mentioned crabapple fights, for example, and immediately brought to mind similar skirmishes under a neighbor’s apple tree. Sometimes they were in fun, sometimes in anger. The latter suggests that we had tasted of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, one of the many archetypal symbols trees have taken on in our collective unconscious.

Another woman and several men reminisced about tree climbing, which “gives a kid a magical kind of power … to go where no man can go … and see forever.” (See AMERICAN FORESTS, September/October 1990.) Here in our attempt to gain the perspective enjoyed by birds is the tree as a symbol of adventure and freedom.

This sense of adventure is also what catalyzes the hunters of big trees who, together with those who collect seeds from historic trees (see “America’s Historic Forests” on page 36), retain from childhood that spirit of fun they identified with trees. So too do people in tree groups who join hands in planting, often discovering the special reward of their communal undertaking is that they have a hell of a good time.

The mention of tree climbing reawakened a special childhood yearning of mine-never fulfilled-for a tree house. Here as a symbol of shelter is one of the tree’s most potent and natural associations. AFA director Donald Willeke once wrote, “In the plains of Africa where man is said to have originated, home was where the trees were.” From time immemorial, boughs overhead formed our first refuge from storms. Maybe this is why trees have such “bower power” (forgive me) over humans. Nor is it surprising that I remember with fondness the horsechestnut in our yard that served as “home-free” in our games of hide-and-go-seek.

One tree lover-Marcia Bansley of Trees Atlanta-spoke of schoolyard trees where she and her chums created doll houses among the surface roots. That one really took me back. For one entire summer my friends and I did the same thing around two old oaks. In a child’s mind a tree can be anything-a castle, a ship, a friendly giant. No wonder trees star so often in crayon drawings. And that they are so good to lean against on a dreamy afternoon.

Great writers and artists are those fortunates who are able to retain the child’s sense of wonder. In the mind of a poet, a tree is Longfellow’s spreading chestnut or Stephen Vincent Benet’s street trees-aged giants “used to’ living with people. ” In the watercolors of Piet Mondrian, they become abstractions. To a romantic like Thomas Cole, they serve to symbolize melancholy solitude and the transience of life. This only scratches the surface when it comes to symbolism. We could mention the tree of life, the Liberty Tree, the tree of wisdom. In fact, trees evoke every one of the five seminal concepts identified by philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: beauty, art, adventure, truth, and peace. Especially peace-I lost count of how many spoke of the sense of serenity they feel in the presence of trees. One or two mentioned the fact that trees are phallic symbols, as well as living embodiments of strength, permanence, stability, endurance, dignity …

Here’s a confession: I am not a born tree person. Unlike the lucky elite who have a natural affinity for the leafy world, I took trees for granted as a child except for special favorites like that horsechestnut or the sycamores that line many of my hometown’s boulevards. Three years of summer camp in the Ozarks instilled a love of forests-a need for wilderness as a place of escape-but not an appreciation of individual trees. That came later.

What I felt was certainly not hostility. Hard as it is to believe, there are treephobics who have been known to voice such atrocities as, “Once you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all” (Ronald Reagan). Some hate trees for such prosaic reasons as pollen or leaves. “The optimist sees a leaf and thinks of shade; the pessimist sees a leaf and thinks of a rake.” Indeed, some whole cultures have adopted the same kind of negative stance, either from a fear of tree spirits lurking in the forests or from a belief that wilderness is an obstacle to be eliminated so that civilization can advance.

Like many others, I was not antagonistic-just neutral. I had to be taught to be a green person, and my husband, Dick, was my tree mentor.

The first time he hugged a humongous tulip poplar on a hike in the Smoky Mountains, it embarrassed me. But conversion came quickly. Dick was always stopping on the trail and pulling out his field guide, and I began to learn my trees by osmosis.

We had a piece of land in the foothills of the Smokies-the deed read “40 acres more or less”-and when we discovered an orchard suffocating under honeysuckle, he bought a copy of the Forestry Handbook and a pruning manual, and we set to work. Saving those pears and apples became an obsession.

Years later, in Maine, we planted another orchard, and I set out 100 white pines by myself, so hooked was I by then. Now I live in an apartment, and I have a maple seedling growing on my balcony. It’s one from a Global ReLeaf campaign sponsored by McDonald’s, and it started as a single twig with two barely visible buds. Now it’s grown five branches and 38 leaves, and I can’t bring myself to let go and find it a permanent home.

People get that way about trees. Possessive, affectionate. Dona Chambers, whose TREES FOR HOUSTON group does planting projects in neighborhoods and along thoroughfares, gives an example of how far this can go. “In a neighborhood project if we go out to tighten the stakes,” she says, referring to the fact that the trees are staked to protect them from hurricanes, “someone will invariably come out and demand, What are you doing to my tree?” Five days before that, they may not have even known the tree was coming. People connect with trees the way they take to puppies. They’re something young growing for the future.”

Planting for the future-the need to leave something behind for the next generation-was a recurring theme among those I interviewed. A 30-year-old manager for an Atlantic phone systems company, Vicky Bell, put it like this: “My dad’s a Johnny Appleseed. He planted 20 or 30 apples, plums, and two pine trees -one for my brother and one for me. I drove by last year, and those pines are two times taller than the house. I like to think that my kids will have the same thing someday. “

In addition to planting trees for her children, Vicky Bell gives dogwood trees as wedding presents. It’s an apt gift since the long lifespans of trees have always symbolized permanence to lovers, some of whom feel the need to carve their initials in tree trunks in hopes that their love will last as long as the vandalized tree.

When we hear of a bristlecone pine that was alive 2,700 years before Christ, we find it awesome. Likewise, Aldo Leopold’s “good oak,” which lived a mere four score, evokes respect. Even more, it links us to the past and future. Ron Gosnell, a forester for the state of Colorado, says that when he flies over the plains and “comes on a ranch or a farmstead with rows and rows of trees, it’s like an oasis in a sea of prairie. They’ve made their own little worlds inside those trees, passed down from generation to generation.”

The next most common reason tree planters gave was their desire to beautify their communities. There’s a story about William Faulkner that epitomizes this feeling. It seems that one spring evening the writer invited a woman friend to come see “a bride in her wedding dress. ” Driving over back roads, Faulkner finally turned off into a meadow, where he killed the headlights and drove forward cautiously. He stopped, announced the bride was in front of them, and switched on the lights. There in the beam stood an apple tree in full blossom.

Spring, summer, fall, and even winter, trees bring beauty into our lives. Perhaps it is an atavistic need for nature that compels us to plant trees in our communities, but we also do it simply to soften the hard lines of concrete-“to blot out,” writes Don Willeke, “the starkness, the irregularities, the trashiness, the jarring contrasts. ” Think of Paris without its chestnuts, London without its planetrees, and you get the idea. Little wonder that our ancestors named so many streets after trees: Elm Street, Oak Lane, Maple Avenue.

Atonement for the ecosins of our twentieth-century lifestyle surfaces as a reason now and then. One man of conscience-Karl Peter Hasenkamp from Mettman, Germany-figured out how much carbon dioxide he and his family produce by driving their automobile, heating their home, and purchasing today’s energy-intensive products-then sent a donation to Global ReLeaf to plant enough trees to scrub the air of a compensatory amount of CO,. Hasenkamp was applying a sophisticated version of the sense of environmental responsibility that led to my first planting.

Now and then, a planter of trees talks of the utilitarian value of the products that come from trees. Where would we be without the wooden wheel (to start at the beginning of time). Fuelwood? Paper? Wooden ships? The violin? One Japanese master carpenter says that trees live on through the things we create. A finely crafted walnut table retains the living feel of the tree, eliciting in author Eric Sloane, for one, a feeling of reverence. Woodcraft is one of the few instances in which pragmatics and aesthetics come together in American culture.

Timber products are just one side of the tree. Who knows what gifts are yet to come from the hidden, mossy side? The bark of the lowly yew was found just recently to cure several kinds of cancer. Nontimber products like the Brazil nuts in Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream are being ballyhooed-with good reason-as the salvation of the rainforests. Pragmatists talk about physical benefits as well. Leaves cleanse the air of smog-a prime reason TreePeople Andy and Katie Lipkis of Los Angeles give for planting trees. Others concerned about global warming and urban heat islands mention shade for city pavements and evaporation of water from leaves, both providing a non-polluting form of air conditioning.

Other physical benefits are well known. A vital link in the hydrologic cycle, trees help protect the quality of our water. Their roots control erosion and aerate the soil. They slow wind velocity and thus the rate of transpiration from crops, thereby reducing the need for irrigation. They constitute the last fortification against desertification-the increasing risk of turning our planet into a Mars. They provide noise barriers and screens to shield us from automobile dumps and other eyesores.

In Colorado, says Gosnell, wild plum thickets protect rabbits and ringnecks from predation by hawks and coyotes. Wildlife habitat provided by trees even extends to dead logs, which serve as homes for beetles, spiders, and other necessary creatures.

To o some, the psychological benefits take equal billing with the physical. Could you imagine life without the joyous color of redbuds and cherry blossoms? I for one would not want to live in a world without the fragrance of pine needles.

My husband’s cousin, Barbara Anderson, finds comfort in the swaying of trees, which gives life to the landscape. She missed it sorely one winter when she lived in a northern city where the branches froze solid. Dick’s sister Sandra Phillips (the whole family are tree people) loves the sounds the leaves make. Shakespeare said trees have tongues, and Rutherford Platt wrote of the “tattoo of rain on leaves, the burring of tree limbs as they rub together.” The trees in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings whispered to each other, “passing news and plots along in an unintelligible language.”

Studies show that patients in hospitals recover more quickly if they can view greenery from their windows. Dick’s nephew, Jimmy, is retarded and autistic, and pine trees have always seemed to exert an uncanny calming effect on him. His mother helped him plant a pine when he was eight. “It was $1.99 from the grocery store,” she says, “and really kind of pathetic. I used to tie it up and spray it with a mister-I was scared to death it would die. Now it’s 10 feet tall, and every time you talk to Jimmy, he asks, `How’s the pine tree?’ “

In Atlanta, a city losing trees at the rate of 30 acres a day to urban sprawl, Marcia Bansley feels that her people plant trees in an effort to “make the world the way it used to be. ” Many of the businessmen who contribute to Trees Atlanta have rural backgrounds and miss the trees they grew up with.

Hard-nosed, they also know that a green downtown will compete better in the convention industry. They also appreciate trees for raising property values. Here we are-back to the practical.

Houston’s Dona Chambers tells of one car dealer “who laughed at the idea of planting trees, so we put them across the street from him. Six months later, he called and said, I think I need some of your trees.’ I asked why he’d changed his mind, and he said, ‘I’ve been looking out my windows and see everybody looking at your trees. I’ve got to keep up my image. ” The dealer not only planted trees; he put up new awnings and painted-and ended up winning an award for Most Improved Dealership.

All these are good reasons for becoming a tree planter, but somehow it seems like the appeal of trees wells up from something deeper. Perhaps it is the annual cycle of buds, leaves, and autumn colors-a continual and fascinating reminder of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. “One of the pains of advancing years is the declining circle of one’s friends,” wrote J. Russell Smith in Tree Crops. “One by one they leave the earth, and the desolating loneliness of old age is felt by the survivors. But the man who loves trees finds that this group of friends stays with him. “

The cyclic affirmation of life is one basis for the religious symbolism persistently attached to the arboreal world. Another is the way trees reach for the heavens like the spires of a cathedral. No accident is it that William Cullen Bryant wrote, “The groves were God’s first temple. “

Some claim that the worship of trees permeates early Judaism (“The tree of life”-Genesis 2:9) and Christianity (” ‘Twas on a tree they slew Him.”Sidney Lanier). Tree worship was perhaps more obvious in ancient Greece with its oracular oak groves and Rome with its sacred fig tree. Almost a cliche of this genre are the Druid tree cults of the Celtic lands. A legacy are the names of the letters of the Irish alphabet-eadha (white poplar) for e, idho (yew) for i, saille (willow) for s . . .

In The Golden Bough Fraser writes, “How serious that worship was in former times may be gathered from the ferocious penalty appointed by the old German laws for such as dared to peel the bark of a standing tree. The culprit’s navel was to be cut out and nailed to the part of the tree which he had peeled, and he was to be driven round and round the tree till all his guts were wound about its trunk.” A life for a life.

The American Indians’ arboreal sensibilities were of a kinder and gentler bent. Said Chief Seattle in 1854: “The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family.”

To most of us today, fellowship with the animal world comes more easily than kinship with the world of plants. Yet some go so far as to risk their lives for trees. The women of the Chipko movement in India embrace the trunks even as loggers approach with their chainsaws. Since the assassination of Chico Mendes in 1988, the rubber tappers of Brazil know that to stand on the side of trees is to put their lives at stake.

Self-interest is usually invoked to explain this altruism for the sake of trees. The Chipko women and the rubber trappers know their way of life is doomed without the forests. Yet self-interest is an oversimplification.

As infants aware only of our own solipsistic universe, our ethical sphere is limited to self-interest. As we mature, moral responsibility widens to encompass parents, siblings, friends, community, nation, and, for those not confined by tribal chauvinism, the rest of humanity. When philosophers seek a metaphysical underpinning for this broadening of moral responsibility, they usually invoke reciprocal self-interest. In other words, we do unto others as we’d like them to do unto us.

But if we make the additional moral leap to acknowledging our responsibilities to future generations, how can there be reciprocity? We plant an oak even though we know that we’ll probably move to a new home in 10 or 20 years, and the child someday who builds doll houses among the roots of that oak will never know whom to thank. Likewise, how can reciprocal self-interest explain our feelings of kinship with trees and the rest of the nonhuman world?

My husband was a professor of philosophy and held that actions in our own self-interest are essentially acts to benefit a being in the future, a being that does not yet exist. Self-interest is thus a chimera unless we recognize that our connection to our own future self is of the same metaphysical fabric -equally intrinsic-as our connection to trees and future generations. As Chief Seattle put it, “All things are connected.”

Maybe it will sound corny, but the way I see it, once we internalize the belief that we are all one, we’ve risen to the metaphysical and moral level where we can love that horsechestnut or those sycamores-or this earth-as we love our selves. Perhaps we’ve come to the real reason people dig those holes: Planting and caring for a tree is an act of love-for our selves, for others, for trees, and for Earth.

Excuse me a minute, I need to go hug a tree.

One Man Speaks

“Personal tree calamities are what brought many of our members to Friends of Trees, ” according to Richard Seidman, president of FOT, a tree group in Portland, Oregon. “A lot of them were in mourning for trees lost to street widening, and they transformed their grief and anger in a positive direction. “

As for himself, Seidman says that he felt that something was deeply out of tune about our civilization. As I searched for a vehicle to express my concern, I heard about Global ReLeaf. Planting a tree is something very tangible. The political process doesn’t appeal to me. I needed something tangible.

Seidman writes in FOT’s newsletter that he also likes the fact that trees give people of diverse political views a way to come together in a non-polarizing, unifying way. It can bring neighborhoods together. He finds that people become involved partly for the sociability of planting trees together. “People are hungering for a sense of community. Planting trees is a way to become more connected, “

Pride in your neighborhood or town is the bottom line for tree groups. Corporations have even reaped this benefit on occasion. During a tree planting by volunteers in Colorado, employees-from Texaco were so proud of their tree efforts that they embellished the site with a rock outline of the Texaco star.

Tree planting can also be “an entryway to environmental stewardship,” Seidman writes. When you plant and care for a tree, you can begin to feel an affinity with all trees, and also with all the people around the world who are planting trees.”

COPYRIGHT 1991 American Forests

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group