Let us consider the non-mobile, those who live at a slower speed than humans, those who conduct many “activities of daily living” underground. I’m talking about trees.
Bound to its place place to a degree that most modern humans cannot comprehend, a tree must make do with only those resources at hand for its entire life. It must attract or find within its reach all that it requires to sustain it. It must be able to re-ingest any waste it produces, because that waste becomes an inescapable part of its environment.
Trees have developed elegant strategies for meeting their needs while remaining fixed in their places. These strategies include developing helpful connections with other species. Birds, rodents, and for some unlucky trees, extinct large mammals bring in fertilizer and spread a tree’s seeds (and thus its species) to new locations. Microbes, worms, and other soil dwellers digest fallen leaves and return their nutrients to the tree. Mycorrhizal fungi extend the tree’s reach and amplify its digestive power, channeling water and nutrients to the tree in exchange for sugars and starches secreted by its roots. Because of its many connections, one tree can support an astonishing quantity and variety of other life.
Throughout human history, trees have developed strong ties with us as well.
They are useful, of course, for much more than their wood. Tree crops provide staple foods for many cultures—think of the Middle East and its olive trees, the tropical islands and their coconuts, California and its citrus varieties, the all-important coffee and cocoa beans. Not to mention other types of non-timber products derived from trees: rubber, cork, maple syrup, turpentine, and cinnamon, to name a few.
But aside from their contributions to our survival and comfort, trees have also been appreciated simply for being their magnificent selves. They were part of our cultures and communities in a way that many of us no longer remember. Sacred trees and sacred groves were cared for by people and incorporated into cultural celebrations and rituals. We have some remnants of this connection in various programs that recognize special trees.
Though most children now grow up in cities, a child in a previous generation might have formed a special relationship with a favorite climbing tree or a tree that produced delicious fruits. Mature trees served as landmarks, and new trees were planted to mark an auspicious birth or commemorate the death of a loved one. Pioneers planted “coffin pine” trees in pairs on either side of a new home’s driveway, to be used for constructing the homeowners’ future caskets.
Nowadays, we move so often that we barely notice our trees, let alone knowing their histories and having our own stories intertwine with theirs. Our only chance to live with a mature tree may be if someone else planted one decades ago—and all the intervening landowners cared enough about that tree to allow it to continue to live and thrive.
Indeed, our modern culture tends to regard trees as consumables, or ornaments that we can move or remove at will. It is still too common to drive down a street and see signs of that obsolete practice known as tree-topping. Decades after Joni Mitchell sang about paving paradise, the onward march of development threatens ancient woodlands. Many a tree’s health is compromised by the landowner’s attempts to maintain a healthy lawn under it, applying fertilizers and pesticides, compacting the soil with a riding mower, and raking away leaves.
These trees are often located on private land. Still, do their potential lives, which may stretch centuries into the future, merit some consideration when making decisions that will affect them?
Suppose we sidestep the fraught discussions of “weed trees,” invasive species, live Christmas trees, and trees that are eclipsing the sun for vegetable growers. Here are several less controversial improvements we could make in how we treat and think of trees when designing and revising our landscapes :
- modifying a design to accommodate existing trees
- using trees to reduce stormwater runoff
- incorporating them into paved areas with structural soil
- taking extra steps to protect them during construction
- considering their financial value when evaluating options
The debate about the ethical treatment of trees can be traced back to law professor Christopher Stone’s 1972 landmark essay, “Should Trees Have Standing?“—less than a year after publication of The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Stone’s subsequent book served as the underpinning for Ecuador’s 2008 revision of its constitution, which recognizes the fundamental rights of nature to “exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”