Witness Trees

A couple years ago I hired a tree service to cut down a large, gnarly white oak growing along my driveway. For years the tree would drop hundreds of acorns and squirrels and deer would feast until the nuts were gone. The tree, at least 150 years old was dying. It sprouted around 1871 or thereabouts, and except for a few large pieces of the trunk I could not easily move and split on my own, it produced over a cord of wood and did its part to keep us warm during the following winter. 

Loss of the tree brought to mind Aldo Leopold’s, the Good Oak from A Sand County Almanac, something I first read over 40 years ago. In the essay, Leopold reminds us of certain spiritual dangers, and re-affirms that it’s okay to take what nature provides to fulfill certain needs and wants. But as he recounts history from the action of his saw blade, I also found myself wondering. When is it not okay to take?

The length of my hand across the growth rings of the freshly cut stump easily covered a few decades. Fragments of the past, energy released, now lay on the ground – reduced to sawdust. And without any visible evidence, the saw also cut into the future, changing it forever.

A story out of Ohio recently reported a brother and sister, apparently motivated by money, cutting down an exceptional black walnut tree. The tree was estimated to be 250 years old. It’s first birthday, around 1771, means this tree witnessed the birth of our nation. Its trunk was unusually wide, measuring over five feet. The siblings sold the tree for $2,000, destined to become furniture or gun stocks. Also worth noting, the tree didn’t belong to the people who cut it down, and was, in fact, part of a nature reserve.

Closer to home, a massive burr oak can be found near McBaine in Boone County, Missouri. The state champion tree, now a Boone County Historical Site is estimated to be 350-400 years old. The tree has witnessed the passing of indigenous peoples, passenger pigeons, countless Missouri River floods, and explorers Lewis and Clark. Recently a lightning strike threatened it’s future and the tree has been repeatedly vandalized over many years. It’s expected to live another 100 years or so. Assuming some knucklehead doesn’t come along and find a way to destroy it.

Recently, the Save the Redwoods League purchased and subsequently donated 523-acres to the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a group of 10 Northern California tribal nations focused on environmental and cultural preservation. The donation includes 200 acres of old-growth costal redwoods, second-growth redwoods, Douglas-firs, and habitats which support other species like the spotted owl, steelhead trout, coho salmon, marbled murrelet and yellow-legged frog. The land renamed “Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ” – which means “fish run place” has been put into a conservation easement and will be managed through tribal stewardship.

Down the road from my house is a nearby development – inevitable encroachment. Soon to be an outdoor entertainment venue. The first action by the developer was to log the property of any sellable timber. He then scraped the site clean of every living thing, impounded a small drainage creek, and covered a substantial portion of the site with concrete. Most of the trees taken were well over 150 years old. They fell and were silently trailered away – wooden corpses. Those not removed were bulldozed and burned. I doubt the developer paused to reflect about what he was doing, or even cared. He has bills to pay. The governing authority welcomed the developer with open arms – they like the sound of coins more than birds. 

With deference to Mr. Leopold, there are other spiritual dangers beyond not knowing from where food and heat are derived. Other spiritual dangers include not seeing and not reflecting. The moral danger is not caring.

When I laid a hand upon the stump of my oak, I regretted the loss but appreciated the gain. The tree had a job to do and role to play. It provided shade on hot summer days. Provided food for uncountable numbers of creatures feasting on its acorns. Its branches gave innumerable birds a place to build nests and raise their young. It created air to breathe and held the soil from washing down the hill. And it caused me to pause and consider time and place, and the ephemeral nature of human life.

My tree had no voice in my action and had my oak not gotten sick, I never would’ve cut it down. I wonder if the tree would’ve agreed with my final decision. It’s job certainly was not complete. I imagine it would’ve hung on for another year or two, and then its role would have continued in other ways for a few more decades. Serving countless critters in countless ways, eventually crashing to the ground more or less on its own terms. Returning to the soil everything it had taken, and then some.

Cutting down a tree is an easy decision. Not cutting down trees seems to be more difficult. What considerations should we make before we decide reduce a 200 or 300-year-old living thing to smoke, veneer, pallets, sawdust? 

I pass no judgements or offer any answers to the question. Each story above is a different consideration of time. A witness account. Backward reflection beyond the memories of the living. Consideration of what is lost in the eyes of those standing. Contemplation of the future if allowed to play out on its own. And with gratitude to Aldo, these things I ponder as the woodstove burns.

by Dan Zekor


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