A Few Random Thoughts About Trees for Arbor Day and Spring

There’s something about trees that makes me feel good without thinking. I might believe I’m as low as the soles of my shoes, worrying about car payments, anxious over diplomatic relations with North Korea, fuming about my flopped soufflé, but let me walk by a spruce, aspen, maple or oak, and that mood starts to dissipate. The day seems sunnier, the air, fresher.

Doesn’t matter the season. Every season brings its own joys and discoveries. Last winter a frost would hit, and leafless trees would be iced with the most delicate coating of crystals. In spring tiny green buds push through the protective scales as if sampling the climate to decide if the temperature warrants further growth. Trees seem to pulse with life itself.

Arbor Day is coming up, the last Friday in April in most states. I remember planting a sapling with great ceremony with my class in elementary school, as well as sporadic similar activities over the years hosted by community groups. Why did we bother? When with typical human irrationality, for centuries we’ve cut down and decimated trees by the millions. England, Scotland, and Ireland used to be covered with forests, but mankind happily thwacked its way down to the earth to use the resources for more urgent needs.

Now Arbor Day, as well as additional activities like the Tree City USA program, are trying to make amends by encouraging natural tree and plant life in this country. However, this is not a global trend. A report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Latin America and the Caribbean is the conversion of forests to other land uses, such as agriculture. In Brazil alone, 78 million acres of rainforest are lost every year! More than 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest is already gone. Perhaps they need a huge horde of elementary school students swarming into the region to plant seedlings.

Unfortunately, do-gooders’ enthusiasm may outstrip scientific knowledge. Planting the wrong type of tree may do more harm than good if we’re discussing global warming. The New York Times reports using conifers where broad-leafed once flourished might increase global warming, while in colder regions, trees absorb more sun heat, again raising ground temperature.

We can’t win, at least until we learn there are no simple answers to complex problems, no matter what the issue. Until we can figure out the solutions for the dilemma of trees and global warming, we can treasure the trees currently in our lives. Parks, thoroughfares, pots, farms, mountains, forests–trees are everywhere. Let’s take note by celebrating the low-key, simple, friendly observance that’s Arbor Day.

 

Is the sky falling, or do trees have spirits? I find out one day.

The huge silver maple in front of our house in the parking strip began shedding sections of trunk and branches. I might have thought the sky was falling, until I saw the entire road blocked by wood. These weren’t a small inconvenience. They blocked the entire road, smashed cars parked underneath, and required emergency (and expensive) removal by tree services.

Needless to say, the city forester told us the entire tree has to come down. We’ve adjusted to this order, but every time I look at the plant, my heart contracts. It’s got to be about 120 years old, 75 feet high, and 15 feet in diameter. It’s kept us cooler in the summer and served as home to birds, squirrels, probably other critters I don’t know.

What I didn’t realize was the amount of affection our neighbors held for our giant. I’ve never met so many residents as I have in the past few weeks. Without exception, they all bemoaned the pending loss. I began to hope the tree is able to receive some of these good feelings as it prepares for termination. It’s given us so much, it deserves to know of our appreciation.

So I began to wonder if trees have consciousness or spirits? When I was a child of about eight, I thought everything had a life-force. Small animals, bugs, flowers, trees, perhaps even rocks and earth. I later learned this is called animism, the belief that all objects and creatures possess a spiritual essence, common in primitive cultures. Little did I know I was dabbling with philosophy and anthropology, but I managed to outgrow the cumbersome compulsion to apologize to every ant I stepped on or insure all my dolls received their bottles. 

However, my animism reactivated toward my tree. I think of what the tree must have been like when it first started growing. Since I live on the plains, prairie was all around, not forests. Did it grow from natural seeding, or did a human coax a sapling into survival? How many parents and children stood in its shade as it grew, thankful for its shelter? Did it feel pain when branches broke in blizzards?

There are religions and spiritual values that believe in the consciousness of all things, or at least living things. Some people who believe plants can feel and react, have systems similar to nervous systems of animals.

One of these was poet Joyce Kilmer. “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree,” he wrote. This classic exposition about a tree contains in its simple lines the entire relationship of living things to one another. “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree,” he finished.*

So when the noisy, violent chainsaws start up outside my house and bite into my maple, I hope on some level it realizes how much it will be missed.

*An interesting aside, Kilmer died in battle during WW I, cutting short his outpouring of poetry and making him one of millions sacrificed throughout the centuries on the altar of human brutality. No tree would put a bullet through a living thing’s life-source.