I love trees. Maybe that makes me a kind of an outlier because we Americans seem to hate them, or only want to exploit them for whatever cash we can squeeze. At least it often seems so. Judging our behavior, we relish cutting them down, ripping them up, and clearing where they stood so you can’t tell anything was ever there. I’ve watched tall magnificent oaks, maples, and sycamores cut down and hauled away only to be replaced by a parking lot. Many see trees as a ‘dirty’ nuisance. They have leaves to remove in fall and often litter the yard with twigs and sometimes fallen limbs after storms. Who cares about trees anyway?
How different we might be, not to mention the earth, if we had developed an understanding and appreciation of the value of things surrounding us we take for granted. Our approach to global warming and climate change would be seen from a different perspective. Imagine if we didn’t see the value of land cleared of trees and turned into a pasture or a parking lot as having a higher value than if we left the trees alone. Kurt Vonnegut once suggested what need is a Secretary of the Future whose purpose would be to represent the future of the yet-to-be-born. Think about what that would do to the way we view everything. Unfortunately, the economic paradigm we’ve developed is based upon dominance and giving no value to people, the environment, and no thought about the future. Both people and the earth are seen as being disposable.
The question we have never bothered to ask is what the value of a tree is. At least, until now. Professor T.M. Das of the University of Calcutta decided to try and answer it. Professor Das determined a tree (any variety) living for 50 years generates $31,250 worth of oxygen, provides $62,000 worth of air pollution control, and controls soil erosion and improves soil fertility amounting to $31,250. This partial list does not include the value of any fruits a tree may bear, lumber, or intangibles such as beauty and shade. Das puts the value of an ordinary run of the mill 50-year-old tree at $193,250. Scientists recently noted if we were to engage in a massive restoration of the world’s forest, planting 1.2 trillion trees, we could cancel a decade of CO2 emissions.
Since our current economic models attach no financial worth to the environment, nature, or people we fail to take these values into consideration when we are ripping up and burning down forests to make way for our ‘improvements.’ Our current economic model does not consider a forest or woods to be the highest and best use of the land, and trees, unless they have a commercial value as lumber or produce fruit, nuts, or some extractable product are just something in the way of achieving what we desire.
Trees have always been special to me. It goes back to the early years of my youth when the tall and stately American Elm lined city streets, shaded yards, and filled the forests in the Eastern United States. The woods outside my back door had several large specimens. They had the largest girth and were the biggest trees. Elms were one of the most majestic of our native shade trees, growing tall with a magnificent arching crown. Walking down a street lined with elms was a walk through a tunnel of coolness.
We don’t place a value on most trees, but we know the cost of having to remove the dead ones. Most American elms are gone now, the victim of Dutch Elm disease, brought to this country buried in wood intended for good purposes. The unfolding tragedy reached my hometown in north central Indiana in the middle 1950s. My grandfather had planted two along the side of our house and both were about thirty feet tall when they showed evidence of the fungus spread by elm bark beetles. The trees died and were removed. By the time I entered high school the plague had spread filling every woods you encountered with big dead trees.
Many years passed, and I forgot these elegant trees until one day while I was jogging along the route I liked to take on a quiet street in my neighborhood I spied a magnificent elm standing, tucked away amongst several maples. There it stood untouched by disease and unnoticed by the beetle carrying the plague that emptied the streets and forests of these beautiful trees. The ravages of disease passed over, and while whole streets were stripped bare, this lone specimen was spared and survived.
After that, I took the time to look for survivors. Today, I am always thrilled to discover the lucky ones missed by this insect spread menace. I smile every time one is spotted nestled away shielded by other trees. My neighbor on a lake in northern Indiana has one in his front yard. They appear in places you least expect.
Sadly, we are witnessing this scenario of death once again. A few years ago, the Emerald Ash Boar was introduced from China in shipping crates either improperly or not treated to kill any ash boar larva within. The result was another depopulating of our forests of a treasured shade tree. Ash trees across the East and Midwest are mostly gone and passing woodlands you see lots of dead trees. Thousands of trees lining streets died in a single season. Barren branches required cities to spend thousands of scarce dollars to remove the dead. Area woods vibrant green foliage is punctuated by stands of gray death.
More unsettling was what I observed driving from the Mississippi River to Maine in 2017. I soon became aware as much as half or more of the trees of multiple species in many places showed signs of extreme stress, dying, or were dead. We humans have left our indelible mark on this planet. To date we have been mostly a destructive force in nature, destroying ecosystems and life without restraint in pursuit of our own aims. We, humans, act like adolescents on a drug-induced binge, ripping, extracting, exploiting, consuming and destroying virtually everything in our paths to satisfy our addiction without thought of the consequences.
Our species has been around in our present physical form and mental capacities for at least 50,000 years. Although with our technology we’ve entered the space age, our operating system (our brain structure) is still mired in the stone age. While we have made significant technological gains, the acquisition of wisdom to use it wisely lags woefully behind. We need to apply the insight we possess through our experience to overcome the obsolete brain structure our DNA imposes and see past our immediate need to satisfy our petty appetites and habits of consumption. Learning to live in harmony with nature rather than being at war and pursuing the illusion of our conquest of it is a basic step in being able to live in harmony and within the sustainable limits, the environment allows.
Hopefully, our adolescent attitudes toward nature are a passing phase and we will mature before taking the species off the cliff of ecological consequences. It is a hope, not a certainty. For all our talents and abilities, we are slow to learn. We allow ourselves to get trapped in our own paltriness, our own greed, envy and desire to have and ‘control’ things or others. While people and the environment are considered having no value and are disposable we lust after objects and intangibles the value of which is based almost entirely upon faith. The logic of dominance, the extraction of resources, and the exploitation of others to fulfill our lust reveal us for the monkeys we still are. It’s a fool’s errand, but you can’t tell an adolescent anything; they have to sort it out through the Earth school of experience.
So, we hold our breath, wait, and hope. In the meantime, creating a Secretary for the Future sounds like a good place to begin creating a better tomorrow for us all.