On cutting down trees

This is one of those weeks where you know winter has set in for real. I spent last night wrapping plastic around my camellias – including the one I featured in last week’s post, now not looking so pretty with browning petals – and several other tender plants that I didn’t want harmed by the deep freeze.

I ventured outside this morning for an obligatory dog walk but waited to go back out for a run until the temperature was closer to the freezing mark. I was able to take off my gloves partway through the run, but the wind still had a bitter chill to it.

Yep. It’s winter. Best just to curl up with a cup of tea and a good book.

I’ve just started a book called American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation by Eric Rutkow. Re-started might be more correct. I tried reading this book a few months ago but set it aside after bursting into tears during the introduction, where Rutkow describes the killing of the oldest tree ever found (likely more than 5,000 years old), a bristlecone pine tree that a graduate student cut down so he could see how old it was. You read that right. He cut down the tree to count its rings. To his credit, he realized he had gone too far and became a conservationist as a result.

Knowing what to expect, I made it though the introduction a second time without any tears. But reading again about this tree called Prometheus (yes, some trees have names), got me to thinking about our relationship with trees.

I’m still early in the book, and if you’ll recall, nonfiction books aren’t my favorite, especially ones that are thinly-veiled history lessons. But the premise of this book – how trees shaped the forming of the United States –  appeals to me on many levels. Though it may take me longer than usual to get through this book, I’m looking forward to reading how 400 years of relationship with nature and trees in some ways helped determine where we are as a country today.

I look around my own city and see what seems like an unceasing war on trees. Swaths of trees young and old cut down to build an unnecessary sidewalk; large, stately oaks felled to build bigger houses in established neighborhoods; whole areas of pine trees cleared to build yet another office park.

I know trees sometimes have to be cut down, like when they’re completely dead or when they pose a risk of falling on people or property. I was relieved when a city maintenance crew cut down this completely dead tree late last fall:

A tree stump I pass almost daily while out running or walking

A tree stump I pass almost daily while out running or walking

I’m reminded of a residential development not too far from me where the developer wanted to keep the grand old trees on the property and build around them, but the city wouldn’t issue the necessary permits and demanded he remove the trees. He planted new trees after the building was done, but at what cost to the city’s moral compass? Sometimes, there’s simply no way to replace what is lost.

I’m not completely naive. I know there are no easy answers about which trees stay and which trees go, but I do wish we as a collective community would be more circumspect about taking out perfectly healthy trees in the name of “progress” and convenience.


I wonder at all the changes this tree saw during its life.

Have any of you read American Canopy? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Any of you ever see the bristlecone pines in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park? I hope to visit someday and would love hearing the highlights of your visit there.

As for balancing development with the environment? At least the bristlecones are protected now. But what can we do in our own communities to ensure that trees are appropriately protected and valued? How far is a step too far, and do we always have to take that step before realizing we’ve gone too far?

4 thoughts on “On cutting down trees

  1. Pingback: Studying and fighting for champion trees | The Flourishing Tree

  2. Pingback: On cutting down trees, again | The Flourishing Tree

    • Thanks for your comment, Tricia. I’m reminded of how much I enjoyed your recent post about your children up in a tree settling an argument they had.

      How true that trees inspire us in so many ways, even when we need a little shelter to make peace with one another.

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