Saturday, December 17, 2011

An Old American Elm Tree Awaits Execution



They live among fools.
The tree grew not far from our house, but a ways back from the main road. It had long grown on a considerable estate, shading a mansion which was taken down before we moved to town in preparation for a college expansion that was never built.
Recently the city bought the land where the tree still grows, shading the earth, cleansing the air, moderating the temperature, absorbing heat through the pulp of its tons of tree-matter. The city also bought a few other neighboring properties and knocked down an empty parochial school that stood on one of them, in preparation for building a needed new middle school. They city, or somebody working for the city, decided the job would be easier if they cut down the century-plus old tree American Elm Tree growing there in defiance of the Dutch elm disease plague that had taken almost all of its cohorts.
And so they said, the city’s spokesmen did, that the tree was dying and would have to be cut down. The tree does not appear to be dying, but perhaps a fool would not know what a healthy tree looks like. It grows a canopy of green leaves in the summer; it sheds them in the fall. In winter it holds its many limbs against the sky, one of nature’s more enduring candelabras of life.
But the city’s spokesmen aren’t really looking at a tree. They are saying what they have been told to say.
Then comes the cover-up. Who determined that the tree is dying and needs to be removed? It’s an obvious question. The answer comes that an arborist hired by someone working for the city said the tree has heart-rot and fungus and is dying.
The next question is also obvious. Who is the arborist? Can we see the report? The spokesmen don’t know. They say they will produce the report.
They produce a document written yesterday or the day before by someone who is not an arborist and does not evidence a professional knowledge of trees. The report does not say the tree is dying, but has some fungus, and is too close to the school and will probably be killed by the construction.
Obviously (again), this document is not the “report” on which a decision taken months ago could have been based. The likely inference is there never was a “report” by an arborist certified by the state of Massachusetts or any other one.
It’s just a story to fend off complaints. Sorry, couldn’t help it, had to cut down the tree. It’s diseased, you know, dying.
It’s a red herring.
The real reason? They want to cut down the tree, which plans show is located is the intended parking lot because it will be in the way when the builders start bringing in their machines. They don’t want to work around it. The real problem is the city doesn’t really have enough land to build this school.
This explanation sounds a little crass. It sounds better to say, too bad about the tree. We’d like to save it, but it’s sick. In fact it’s dying. Nothing can be done. It might fall down on the school. We have report, from an arborist (who? Wait a minnit, I must have the name here somewhere), which says so.
Here’s a poem called “Trees,” by Joyce Kilmer, who died in action during World War I:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

It’s one of the best-loved poems of the American people.
Stylistically, this is greeting card verse. If you analyze its workings, simple da-dum rhythm, end rhymes, breath of vocabulary, it’s nursery rhyme simple. But every red-blooded American has liked this poem since its publication 100 years ago, particularly if they don’t like poetry in general (which was almost every red-blooded American for the last 100 years hasn’t).
Why do we all like it? Because it’s so obviously true. Because it speaks to something deep in us.
But not only are poems made by fools like me, so are political calculations, city hall press releases, building plans, and even needed schools.
For well over a hundred years, perhaps a hundred and fifty, the American Elm on Hancock Street has lived among fools, whom it tries to protect from the excess carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases our fossil-fuel driven society has put into the atmosphere. We overheat the atmosphere. The tree takes CO2 out of the air, which cools it, and releases oxygen, which we breathe. Its roots absorb runoff. It’s shade lowers the temperature. Its beauty raises spirits and, by the way, property values.
Now it is condemned to die among fools who fail to recognize its value.