Friday, May 23, 2008

On trees: not for human consumption

I was driving down American Legion Highway in Boston a few months ago when I was suddenly assaulted by the sun where it hadn’t shone before. I knew immediately something was different and it wasn’t long before I realized that some of the venerable old trees that made that highway a parkway were gone. The road had been under construction for some time (one of those blue pet projects signs boasted “renovations” were being done and credited the Mayor and other officials), but I had not known taking trees was in the plan. I considered calling the city to complain but decided that in this era of greening they couldn’t be planning to take them all. It just wouldn’t make sense.

Day after day more of the 30 or 40 year-old trees disappeared. It was too late to call the city. There was no going back.

That’s the thing about trees. What’s taken half a century to grow can be cut down in half an hour.

They came through after the last frost and popped in a bunch of spindly new saplings (planted them too close together, I’m pretty sure). I’m glad that tree-lined is still a goal, but little tiny trees are in all ways inferior to mature trees. They provide no shade, less in the way of cooling effects due to water content, less carbon abatement, less beauty. And with global overheating, it’s harder to get a young tree to survive its youth. I almost lost the Heritage River birch I planted in our yard last year; it was quite a bit more established than the new highway trees and I had just one to worry about. The city is notorious for planting truckloads of trees and then neglecting them in their hour of drought. Then they come through with another truck and pull out the casualties.

In our consumer culture, new is always ideal. If we aren’t buying new cars, new furniture, new clothes, our economy will suffer (and we might fall out of fashion—God forbid). Economists and our own elected officials are unabashed about encouraging us to buy more junk we’ll soon throw away (See the Story of Stuff in last December’s post). They’ve even arranged this year for us to get checks meant expressly to be wasted on purchases that will stimulate the economy before ending up in a landfill.

But when it comes to trees, old—or at least middle aged-- is the epitome of fashion.

If we’re not too busy renovating, redesigning and renewing, accumulating stuff to replace too soon, we might leave a few trees, and we might realize that the very best has grown up around us all on its own. We need only enjoy the shade.

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