For many of us who grew up running free in neighborhoods full of fields, woods, and ponds, trees were among our first friends. They were tall and steadfast, no matter what the weather or the mood of the day. We climbed them, hugged them, built forts beneath them or just leaned against them to read a good book or daydream.
We were children. We didn’t know about oxygen and carbon footprints. We knew trees had leaves and that some leaves turned color in the fall as if painted. We understood that leaves fell and crunched beneath our feet, but we took it on faith that new leaves would grow in the spring.
Becoming friends with trees was easy. They let us talk about silly things, sad things, even the things that made us angry. They never contradicted or corrected us. They simply listened.
One of the first things we learned about trees was that they had many other friends they shared with us. Birds, squirrels, and many insects and spiders lived among their branches or beneath their bark. We learned how to spy holes where woodpeckers lived and nests where baby robins grew and hollered for food. We knew which trees the caterpillars preferred and which might have some excellent spiderwebs hanging from their branches. We learned which grew fruits and which grew nuts. We especially loved the ones with the little double helicopters we could open and stick on our noses or twirl in the air and watch them spin to the ground. We gathered acorns by the bucket and pinecones, too. The acorns we smashed to taste the bitter insides and the pinecones we used for making all sorts of animals with the aid of some pipe cleaners and glue.
Mostly, our love of trees came from belonging, I think. Trees made us feel safe. Many were old, much older than we were, even older than our parents. Some were older yet, having been around when our great- and great-great-grandparents roamed the woods. They didn’t move, they didn’t chase or hurt things. They just stayed where they were planted and grew and grew and grew.
Until one day, they didn’t. Some trees fell in storms. Builders bulldozed and cut down others while little animals and birds screamed at them to stop. Some got sick and died slow deaths before falling to the ground.
I remember vividly when trees behind my childhood home were cut, so a new house could be built. I was nearly hysterical. They were killing my tall, beautiful friends and all the little animal and bird friends that lived in them. I was inconsolable. I couldn’t see why so many hundreds of homes had to be destroyed for one home to be built. It didn’t make sense.
Many years later I would have a huge, beautiful sugar maple that graced the corner of our tiny lot. The electric company hated this tree and sawed away at it until finally, it couldn’t survive another big cut. Yes, I understand that the tree was threatening the wires bringing power to the neighborhood, but I also know that real tree people would have done a better, more humane job that wouldn’t have killed the tree. When that tree came down, I wept and didn’t leave my home for a few days. I couldn’t bear to look at the massive empty spot. Even 10 years later, it upsets me.
Storms came and went, and more trees came down. The electric company hacked away at another old tree, this one a splendid oak, and it, too, succumbed to disease caused by the hacking. This was confirmed by a tree doctor that kept the tree going for another decade but eventually it couldn’t hold on any longer and had to come down. We kept the wood from both trees as firewood, hoping that the use of the wood was a sort of penance.
With each tree death, I think we lose more than just a wooden landscape marker. We lose a living, breathing member of our community. We lose shade and oxygen, homes for the birds and squirrels, a place for children to climb, hide, rest and daydream.
On the day I am writing this, a lot of trees have died. The town and electric company took down seven large, old trees that used to hang over a main road around the corner from my house, making it welcoming and leafy cool. We want new lights and sidewalks, they say. The trees were in the way, they say. No, the town plans were in the way, not the trees. None of our complaints were listened to when the hearing came up. It was a done deal.
On the same day at a place where I teach, dozens of trees were being taken down as I tried to focus on my class and not the horrible sound of saws and chippers. On my way home I passed trucks and policemen supervising the cutting of even more trees. When I got to my house I stared out my window and watched the mockingbirds feed their young who are making a racket in the holly trees that still stand tall and proud in my yard.
We have forgotten that our lives are intertwined with the lives of trees, flowers, birds, butterflies, fish, snakes, rabbits, and deer. We humans are but part of the tapestry of life, not the weavers. I would hope we would stand up and defend a human neighbor whose home was being destroyed without warning. Who stands up for the trees? Losing a tree is not a small or insignificant thing. We need to remember this, now more than ever before.
Losing a tree may seem like a small thing to some, but not to me.
Mary Richmond is an artist, writer, naturalist, and educator who grew up on the Cape and lives in Hyannis. More information at www.capecodartandnature.com.