April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, was a life altering day for me. I remember as a 7th grader that day we went outside and had discussions on the environment. Suddenly from that day forward everywhere you turned the environment was the hot topic. I even joined an environmental club in high school. How could we not honor the earth, the creatures that roam it, the air, the water. In those days we discussed things that were front and center. Especially anything to do with animals. The slaughter of baby seals and wild mustangs. Water and air pollution, acid rain. These were simple to see and understand. As I became more informed, I learned how important plants are to the earth and especially to humans particularly the trees.
I have always been drawn to trees. The way they flower in spring and turn beautiful colors in fall. The fruits and nuts they provide. The feel of the cool shade and cover they provide when they are in full leaf. The beautiful bark-rough, smooth, peeling. They survive for years,hundreds of years, so tall and majestic. As a child, I loved climbing up trees to see far and wide. One of my favorite books I received as a present when I was just beginning teaching was Shel Silverstein’s, “The Giving Tree”. It sums up how I always have loved trees from childhood to now. Read it if you haven’t lately. And who can forget the words of Dr. Seuss in his 1971 book “The Lorax”. “…the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you know cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
These words resonate with me even today. Our first house was completely surrounded by trees. Hundred foot silver maples, white ash and black walnut trees. Which was the main reason I quickly became a shade gardener. Yes we could of cut down some of these trees, but alas I really could not. It would have been like cutting off a part of myself. After we sold the house, we found out that the people who bought the house did indeed cut down many of the trees . It saddened me so that to this day I can never go back and see the old house. It is too painful. I know it may sound corny to some people, but cutting a tree is like cutting out a piece of the Earth’s heart. In many ancient civilizations, trees were revered. One such civilization I have studied was the Celts. At one time, trees were thick across the land and civilizations like the Celts depended on them for wood, fruit, bark, shelter just to name a few. To these civilizations trees represented life, rebirth, wisdom and longevity. But even they clear cut too many. Now many of these forests are gone and those we have preserved continue to be in danger just so we can make products we just can’t live without.
When we were searching for a new house 5 years ago, we wanted trees. As luck would have it we stumbled across a new development that was not clear cut. It actually had wooded lots and woods that could never be developed. I was in heaven and we quickly bought our land. Many of the trees were left as we wanted so we had trees in the backyard. They are mostly swamp maples and white ash, but they are tall and beautiful. They are home to the birds and provide the wildlife and us shade. We do everything we can to preserve them. One was infested with carpenter ants, but so far (fingers crossed) we have stemmed that infestation and the tree is holding on. It is the oldest and tallest and is front and center in the picture above. One tree did die a couple of years ago. We were never able to determine why, but as a tribute I left the stump in my garden. It is gorgeous backdrop to daffodils in the spring and I hope to use it more in the landscape this year.
But a new threat is upon us-the emerald ash borer. This is a beetle that devastates ashes wherever it goes and right now it is in New York State. I fully expect it to kill all my ashes in the near future, but I will do everything I can to fit it. But I am sometimes a realist and so I have begun making plans to replace them with new trees if the worst happens. Meanwhile I continue to see my neighbors clear cutting their trees. Beautiful, healthy trees many times. But I guess for some beauty is sun and no leaves to clean up in the fall. For me a tree is beauty. It is strong and when I am around them I feel strong. Strong and bending with the wind with roots that run deep and branches that touch the sky. What a feeling to be able to hold a bird or have birds and animals make their home among your branches. I think if there really is such a thing as reincarnation I would love to be a tree. A tree is life-our life. Without them we have no oxygen to breathe. They are also finding that many types of trees are now reducing air pollution. The very pollution that damages trees.
So I have become a sort of Lorax. I do my part to speak for the trees. I lobby, write letters and join groups to support our environment to preserve our trees. To educate people that to kill a tree is in essence like killing yourself. Or as my mother would say, “cutting off your nose to spite your face”. And recently I have come to revere trees even more. They have become a tower of strenth I can draw on to ground me. They symbolize how I can bend against the constant push of stress and still stand upright. How deep my roots really run into the Earth as a gardener. How high my hopes can soar into the sky. And they bring home for me the even harder lesson that like humans when constantly stressed a simple bug can destroy them. I had hoped to have learned this last lesson but a nasty virus hit me with all guns because I let the stress get to me. And if I don’t continue to heed this warning I may end up like the ash trees-destroyed by a small bug. But strength does come from weakness. It comes from within us-by taking baby steps as we grow, we progress, we slide again. We trust in ourselves to make it through so we build our strength like a tree builds rings each year and its trunk grows wider and it becomes stronger still.