People and trees

Last evening, as we were beginning a meeting, a friend told the story of having a large poplar tree on their property cut down yesterday. The tree was dying, its core rotted into a soft mess similar to wet cardboard. It needed to be removed from its place in the yard where it would have caused extensive damage had it been left to fall. It was near power lines and not far from the house. The decay of the tree was affecting other nearby plants, causing the entire yard around it to be in a process of decay and decline. The tree was removed by a professional arborist service, who had a large bucket truck and the proper tools to fell it and cut it into rounds without damaging the power lines or nearby buildings. The process of deciding to remove the tree wasn’t particularly difficult for the couple living in the home. The tree had nearly completed its life cycle. It needed to be removed to prevent catastrophic damage. The hollow core illustrated that they had made a wise choice. All the same, the tree is going to be missed. The couple live in the home where the woman’s grandfather grew up. He remembers that tree as having been there all of his life. Poplar trees are a variety that has a relatively short life span - generally around 50 years - so it probably is actually a bit younger than the grandfather. The rotting core of the tree prevented an accurate ring count at the stump. Still, it was a dramatic moment and the yard looks different than it did before the tree was removed.

Several other participants in the group had stories of trees being removed. A couple of us commented on a large pin oak that was removed from the church grounds last Saturday. The tree was healthy, but was growing in an area where it had become too large for its space. The tiny plot of land contained our children’s garden and the shade of the tree and the falling leaves and other parts of the tree made gardening beneath it a challenge. The main reason the tree was removed at this particular time, however, was to prepare for the installation of solar panels on the church building. It will be replaced with a new tree, a variety that is more suited to the small plot of land. I understand the decision to remove the tree, but there is still a sense of loss about the tree. It grew right outside the window of our office at the church. Its shade is sorely missed as the weather has turned hot in our area. We have been pulling our blinds because our desks face the window. And we were not at the office on the day the tree was removed so we didn’t get a chance to say good bye. We’ve been told that the neighbors gathered as the tree was being removed with lots of conversation about how the tree had become a fixture in the neighborhood and many were sad to see it removed.

A week earlier, some of us had listened to a talk by the German forester and best-selling author Peter Wohlleben. One of the comments he made in his presentation was that the major tool of the profession of forestry is the chain saw. Humans manage forests by making decisions and removing trees. He suggested that healthy forests were thriving on the planet for millennia before humans began “managing” them and that not all of the decisions made by humans in relationship to forests had resulted in more forest health. He suggested that perhaps the wisest stewardship of forests is to do nothing and trust the cycles of life and death of the plants and animals themselves.

Certainly human intervention has, in many cases, had unintended consequences. I grew up in an era and a place of careful fire management in national forests. The strategy was simple. Detect and extinguish fires as soon as possible. Airplanes were used to patrol the forest for fires. Smokejumpers parachuted into remote areas to fight fires when they were detected. When fires grew large, huge amounts of resources poured into the area for a full scale attack on the advancing flames. Only later did researchers discover that the result of such intense fire suppression was that the forests became even more vulnerable to much larger fires. We have seen enormous fires in our national forests that have left behind huge areas of destruction that are the result, in part, of not allowing the natural small fires to burn through the underbrush of the forest. Scientists now recommend allowing some fires to burn naturally and even prescribe controlled burns as a natural forest management technique. Of course controlled burns do not always remain controlled and there are incidents where fires started or allowed to burn have gone out of control and caused damage and destruction to homes and other private property.

The truth is that there is much about the cycles of life in a forest that we do not fully understand. Our cities are filled with non native species. Native trees have been removed and replaced with ornamental plantings. Forests have been harvested for wood for construction and paper production. Many of the heritage forests in this area are not truly old growth forests. Most have been logged at some point within the past couple of hundred years. There are many trees and forest systems on this planet whose natural cycles are much longer than a human life. Unlike the poplar tree that grew from seedling to near collapse in about five decades, some of the trees native to this region have lifespans of a thousand years and more. Human forestry science is, by comparison, a relatively new discovery. We haven’t been studying the health of forests for that long when compared to the life cycles of some of the trees native to this area.

Hopefully we are learning from our choices and their consequences. Hopefully we are keeping records that can be passed down to future generations about the things we have learned so that human knowledge can benefit from experience that is longer than the span of a single life. We do the best we can, making decisions in our own context with the advice of other members of our community. Some of those choices we will life to regret. Others may open the way to healthier forests. Along the way we are collecting the stories of trees and how they enrich our experiences. And, sometimes, we grieve the loss of trees and miss their presence.

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