Fools Like Me
All of us have our shortcomings, one of mine, contrary to the age old expression, is that I can’t see the trees for the forest. I thought about that on my morning walk today as I was looking at some neighborhood trees. I am 75 inches tall and most of my vision is focused straight ahead about 72 inches off the ground. I tend not to notice my surroundings unless they are in the form of a car bearing down on me.. The medical profession calls this shortcoming a “torpedo”, you give a third year med student instructions and she puts her head down and charges straight to the target, without any variance for any reason, and reeks destruction when she gets to the calculated point of impact.
But unlike most mornings I was noticing the individual trees in my neighborhood. Some are clearly more than a hundred years old and quite majestic. Some bend toward the street, forming a beautiful canopy of shade for those who walk in the morning. Some are dying, some are probably dead. At least one was transplanted in the front yard of one of our more affluent neighbors and looks as if it has been there since it broke through the ground during the Hoover administration. I thought a lot about trees on the walk.
When approaching the subject of trees you must start, if you believe in evolution, as I do, with the fact that you and the tree in your front yard have a common ancestor. You are both a couple of carbon based life forms whose ancestors made decisions about the kind of life they wanted to live and adapted accordingly. If you believe in evolution, like me, you believe that when the tree’s ancestors made their decision it was the most logical decision to make at the time for the long term survival of its species. It no doubt was. For eons, it was clear that trees took the correct turn at that critical Darwinian fork in the road, and the earth, at least the tree’s fellow carbon based life forms, benefited from that decision. Oh, there were occasional issues, the lack of mobility sort of hurt individual tree’s survival chances in any given forest fire, but all in all, it was a happy choice.
Then one day one of the tree’s cousins figured out how to use tools and that was the beginning of the downfall of the trees, both literally and figuratively. It did not take the tree’s cousin very long to understand that there was a great benefit to them from cutting trees down and cutting them up to use in various way for the cousin’s general comfort. Fire, chairs, houses, boats, fences, even antibiotics came from trees if you cut and shaped them properly. Worse than that, the tree’s cousin’s population exploded and more and more of them used trees in more and more varied ways. By the time of the settling of America, “clearing of trees” became synonymous with the advance of civilization and the conquest of nature itself.
After a good deal of the trees in many nations had been cleared, a realization came upon the tree cousins that maybe they had not thought the whole tree thing through. This thought was begun by certain leaders who liked to hunt and realized that a forest was a necessary part of hunting forest animals, so conservation societies were formed and large tracts of land were put off limits from tree murder. Since that time, the tree’s cousins have begun to understand their dependence on trees, at least in some theoretical sense. Most of that thinking has come from countries where most of the trees were already cut down. But wisdom must not be discounted merely because of its late arrival.
When the author was in law school, he studied a case where Justice William O. Douglas, in a dissent, suggested that the trees be appointed guardian ad litems to protect their interests in any law suit involving them. At least in the authors class, 125, mostly liberal, students had a good laugh. These students knew that the tree lacked the one critical component in the hiring of a lawyer for such activity, legal tender. But in some ways the tree has had the last laugh. In many places, including Austin, Texas, people no longer really own the trees which are on their property. You may think you own them, but you don’t. A budding George Washington cannot march out into his own backyard and curt down a cherry tree, not without the permission of the City Arborist, and you better have a pretty good reason to want to do it. One fellow in our town was given several years in jail for the murder of a particularly important tree, and that was only because the citizenry was not allowed to lynch him. The Austin Tree is given more protection than the stray Austin cat or dog, and is much less likely to be put to death by City officials or private citizens.
When I was young ,my father, who loved trees and poetry read me some Joyce Kilmer. He later told me a story of how, as a boy, he had chopped down a tree in his backyard. While this act was not exactly shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die, it bothered him all the same. He said that his conscience began hurting him about halfway through the job. I don’t think that he intentionally ever killed a tree again unless it was the obnoxious banana tree in our back yard and even that was just a case of attempted murder because it grew back every spring, much to his great consternation. Most of us have been sensitized to trees and will do what we can to protect them.
I say most of us, I realized this morning that I almost never look at trees. The ones in my neighborhood were beautiful. I have missed a lot ,walking with my eyes straight ahead, as does the third year medical student. I realized that when you are not looking at trees, you are not seeing birds, and when you are not seeing birds, you are not looking at the sky, and if you are not looking at the sky, you are cutting yourself off from the greater part of the wonder of your existence. So I’m going to start looking at trees. After all, they are part of my family.