In the Trees

For someone with acrophobia, I spent an awful lot of time as a child a story or more off the ground in trees. We had a treehouse for a few years that was worth the climb up the rope ladder. I spent uncounted hours reading in weeping willows, having juggled a book and usually an apple in my climb. I’d ignore the discomforts of my irregular perch for the privilege of reading uninterrupted, just me and the tree. No one ever looked up.

That wasn’t my first close association with willows, either. When I was two, we moved into a real house, and one of the first things we did was plant a willow in the front yard. I named her Alice. She came down just a few years ago, having lived a good, long life for such a weedy type of tree.

I’ve always lived among trees and gone to the woods for quiet, but it took a change of scenery to discover just how much trees mean to me. I was in my early twenties when I went to Arizona with my mother to visit my grandparents. I chalked the tension up to too much family in too small a space and tried to ignore it as it built over a couple of days.

My mother and I took a side trip north to Flagstaff, to spend a few days seeing the sights in and around the Navajo Nation and, of course, the Grand Canyon. (It’s, um, big. Dangerously icy in February too. The ravens, however, are charming and like peanuts more than I do.) As we drove north out of Phoenix, I wasn’t really looking forward to more time in constant proximity to family.

Then we started to climb out of the desert and hit an elevation where there were trees. Stubby little piñon pines, but still the first trees I’d seen in days. And I relaxed. Turns out that trees are pretty important to me.

So it makes me sad, and nervous, and grumpy to watch the parade of threats against our local trees over the last several years. Cuts in city budgets have meant less consistent enthusiasm for removing elms infected with Dutch Elm Disease at the first sign of infection, which has allowed the disease to spread more quickly in Minneapolis (10,000 trees lost in 2004, just in the city). Droughts have made our pine forests susceptible to winter damage and pine bark beetles. The emerald ash borer is now on the scene in the state.

But the threat that has me the most disturbed is twofold and not limited to a single type of tree. They’ll attack most hardwoods. I’m talking about gypsy moths and forest tent caterpillars. The two creatures are similar, with masses of caterpillars building webbed homes in trees and stripping them bare. The differences are mostly in the direction the threat is coming from and whether there is a local predator that might keep the population down.

Turns out that there isn’t anything local that will effectively battle the gypsy moths. If we don’t do it ourselves, nothing else is going to take care of it. We’ll start to look like Wisconsin did on the road trip we took across it in May, trees bare of any green, filled only with white, webby masses crawling with dark little bodies.

Of course, we are fighting all these threats to our trees. Individual cities, the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Agriculture, all are facing off against at least one pest. However, all these entities are facing reduced funding from Governor Pawlenty’s unallotment, on top of other budget cuts.

When the choice comes down, as it must, on what to fund, where do you think the trees will fall? Behind the needy citizens and the crumbling streets for the cities. Behind the sport programs that pay part of their own way for the DNR. Behind agribusiness for the MDA. All reasonable choices, but all choices with consequences to the trees.

This is what our tax policies have brought. While we’ve been sitting still, these pests have been on the move. So when you look out on the stumps where trees once stood, when you see browning pines and empty branches, know that all that green went somewhere, in the form of lighter taxes for those already well off.

When we decide it’s a virtue for money to be collected in the hands of a few, never forget that we all lose. It isn’t always immediately obvious how, but it always happens. Just ask the trees.

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11 Responses to “In the Trees”

  1. June 19th, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    Jason Thibeault says:

    I spent a sizeable chunk of university reading my Eng.Lit books up a tree next to the arts centre.

    People laughed at the tree huggers. Then it turned out that you need trees to survive, and we’re destroying more of them through direct action, or inaction like you’ve described, than we should if we want to keep the biosphere human-friendly. What a species we are.

  2. June 19th, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    becca says:

    Maybe I’ll give up on humanity and go cure tree diseases…

  3. June 19th, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    Dan J says:

    Investment for national infrastructure? How about putting a few thousand people to work in the national and state forest services? There’s nothing quite like the feeling of hiking through a towering forest. Now you’ve gone and done it… I want to get out to a forest this weekend, and I can’t because I have to work on the car. Well, maybe in a couple of weeks.

  4. June 20th, 2009 at 7:47 am

    Greg Laden says:

    I just want to put in a plug for the dead trees. Obviously, you can’t leave a dead tree standing in the city (and if you’ve got dead elm wood as firewood you are inviolation of an ordinance most likely and being really unethical). But where it is possible to leave a dead tre standing do so. To a majority of svanna/parkland (wooded prairie), woodland, and forest species, live trees are like cookies in the oven, and a dead tree is the cookies on a platter next to a nice tall glass of cold milk.

    (Have I gone too far with this analogy?)

    And yes, by “species” maybe I do mean nematids and fungi, but birds and mammals as well. One of the reasons osprey have become rare in many areas is the lack of the tall dead trees in which they nest. (I think they don’t nest in live treas because the young are thus more suseptible to predation, probably by owls. … my personal pet hypothesis, so don’t take that to the bank.)

    So don’t kill the tree. But if you do, leave it’s magnificant corpse standing please. (Unless you can’t. It’s complicated.)

  5. June 20th, 2009 at 11:27 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Jason, we didn’t have any trees appropriate for climbing anywhere student-friendly at our school, or I might have done the same. I’d probably have been reading Dostoevsky, though.

    Becca, don’t you dare. Malaria needs foes too.

    Sorry, Dan. All the sorrier because I’m sitting someplace where I can’t look out a window without seeing several trees.

    Yes, Greg, but cookies are a sometimes food.

  6. June 20th, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    On the East Side of St,. Paul there is a small stand of wood and wetland (just north of Maryland and just east of Hazelwood.) The three acre patch is left alone by the city park and rec department, so that as trees die and fall they are left to decay and house fungi and beetles. I used to take the kids back there to show them how the cycle of life works, peeling back the bark to show them all of the life in the dead trees.

    I never saw them as cookies good enough to eat, Greg, but I think the beetles were satisfied.

  7. June 22nd, 2009 at 11:42 am

    GaryB says:

    My city originally had no naturally planted trees, they were all planted by hand, the vast majority of them elms. When Dutch Elm disease made its first appearance about 10 years ago the city instituted a program of replacement. Every year since then because of infection we have had to remove several trees, some of them close to 100 years old. While they are quickly replaced by willows, and the overall number of trees doesn’t diminish, it is really quite sad to see such majestic trees slowly disappear.

  8. June 22nd, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    It is very sad to see, and I say that as someone who spends a fair chunk of every spring pulling up elm saplings.

  9. June 23rd, 2009 at 7:51 am

    a daughter's mother says:

    Speaking as someone who hangs a pair of suet feeders all winter to keep our local population of downy, hairy, red-headed and pileated woodpeckers happy, I will also speak up for leaving dead trees in place. This is not to be confused with any kind of preference for having them die in the first place, because I’m also speaking as someone who turned a lot where nothing taller than weeds and grass grew into one holding dozens of trees of several varieties after the house went up.

    But dead buggy trees bring in woodpeckers. When a badly split willow came down a few years ago, we lazily left trunk pieces stacked in the back corner rather than industriously splitting them for burning. When we did finally start clearing them out, we discovered a woodpecker nest from a previous season in one section – one we’d never realized existed that close to the house.

    Tree monoculture in urban areas is a problem waiting to happen, First it was all elms, loved for the way their tall branches arched over city streets. After Dutch elm, it was either ash or maples. Perhaps buying in bulk is cheaper for cities than using a little thought and adding oaks, lindens, pines, spruce, alder, locust, birch, ginko, etc. Concentrate a food supply and pests come in to dine and reproduce.

    And do they all have to be tall trees? How about lilacs, chokecherries, honeysuckle, cherries, cranberries, hazelnuts, apples, mulberries, elderberries, dogwoods, apricots, serviceberries……? Oh, and let’s not get me started on a rant about this country’s insane love affair with lawn grass!

  10. June 23rd, 2009 at 9:38 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Right – lawn grass with shallow roots means fast runoff with lots of fertilizer and dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. It also leads to green lakes in the Twin Cities. Ramsey County has programs (at least for now) to provide grants for people who wish to plant native ground covering with deeper roots and no need for fertilizer.

  11. June 27th, 2009 at 6:55 am

    a daughter's mother says:

    Mike, my “lawn” needs no grants. It’s full of dandelions, daisies and violets. Other than the violets, which my son collects the pods from and scatters further, all are volunteers. And any grass that manages to survive my version of lawn care gets tolerated. Not sure whether any of them are natives, but they don’t require water, fertilizer, or frequent mowing. But for the ambitious out there, since that kind of project takes start-up work, that kind of grant sounds like just the thing – provided it survives Pawlenty’s unallotment fallout.

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