A Tree Hugger Ponders Nature

Trees. They’ve been a theme in my life lately. I recently finished listening to the audio book “A Walk in the Woods; Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail” written by Bill Bryson in 1997; our ginkgo tree dropped all of her leaves; and I read an obituary for a 600 year old tree. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly.

While I admit to not spending as much time outside as I should have recently, these three events made me realize that so many of us have lost touch with just how amazing nature truly is. Sure we all want to save the environment – we recycle, do our best to by sustainable products, use soap that won’t harm wildlife, support mass transit and alternative forms of transportation – but it seems as if so many of us have lost touch with the why behind all of these actions.

Believe me, the irony of my allergic self vs. my tree hugging self is not lost on me. I’m allergic to most of their pollen, yet I love trees. I mean love them – I name them, talk to them, and even understand why one would mourn the loss of a 600 year old tree. (I mean, really, it was estimated to be six HUNDRED years old! The list of things that happened in and around it is astounding.)

The thing that so many of us forget is just how important trees truly are. Sure we know all the facts. We know why it’s critical to stop the fires in the rain forests and California. We know why it’s important to recycle our paper. We understand how long it takes for trees to grow and why there’s a difference between sustainable logging and poor logging practices. But there’s a difference between knowledge and comprehension. I don’t think society’s comprehended the importance of trees quite yet.

One of the passages in Bryson’s book that has stayed with me was about the differences between hiking in parts of Europe vs. hiking in America. In Europe, nature and civilization are not two separate entities, they butt up against one another, trails lead from village to village, people walk to the shops through the woods, nature and civilization coexist. While in America, we want to commercialize and quantify everything.

“In America, alas, beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition–either you ruthlessly subjugate it, as at Tocks Dam and a million other places, or you deify it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart, as along the Appalachian Trail. Seldom would it occur to anyone on either side that people and nature could coexist to their mutual benefit–that, say, a more graceful bridge across the Delaware River might actually set off the grandeur around it, or that the AT might be more interesting and rewarding if it wasn’t all wilderness, if from time to time it purposely took you past grazing cows and till fields.”

― Bill Bryson, “A Walk in the Woods; Rediscovering America on the Appalacian Trail”

This struck a cord with me because of where we live. I enjoy living in town and having 7 trees in our tiny garden. As you can see from the photo above and the ones I’ve shared previously, our yard is an urban jungle – as in it’s overgrown, not covered in concrete, as the term urban jungle usually implies. It’s noisy with wildlife, heaven for rescued dogs, cool and shady in the summer, and a lot of work – we rake a lot of leaves for such a small plot.

Yet, I can walk to the bank, post office, library, our favorite restaurant, and The Goat is able to bike commute to work. The hospital is just a few blocks away. #Charliebrowntheairedale gets a good multi-block walk twice a day. Our neighbors are close and we live in an actual neighborhood. We have access to public transportation.

Cities all over the country are diligently planting street trees, hiring Arborists to save the ones they already have, working on creating more green spaces, and beginning to understand how important plant life is to city life. They’re starting to research the heat sink and heat island phenomenon created by all the concrete of cityscapes. Solar shades are popping up, as are new green spaces.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually love cities. There’s something about the buildings and people condensed into a small space that I see as beautiful. But the areas and cities I love most are the ones where nature peeks through, or survives despite the concrete. I love the hidden world of the back gardens, the street trees changing color against the greys and blues of the concrete and steel, the city parks with trees that are old and imposing against the buildings they sometimes dwarf.

I think that’s where we, in America, have missed out. We don’t want to let nature into our cities and living spaces. But I also think that’s what we’re starting to notice, fix, and appreciate. We don’t need to “go to” nature. It’s always right there, just on the edge, trying to creep in and coexist. We just need to be more accommodating and learn to coexist better.

What would happen if we thought of nature more as a roommate instead of a tenant we need to evict? Solar panels. Hydroplants. Growing our own food. Pasturing animals. Windmills. There are so many ways to coexist. When will we stop thinking we need to dominate it?

Sure, no one wants mice in their pantry. Groundhogs are destructive. So are woodpeckers. Bugs bite. Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac are itchy and burn. Thickets are thorny. Beavers build dams where they best suit them.

But we don’t build a new house when the carpet gets stained. We don’t walk around naked when a knee rips in our jeans. We don’t throw out all the food in the fridge when we burn dinner. Everything in life comes with good and bad bits. Nature is no different.

I’m not saying we ignore all the negatives. I’m suggesting we do our best to better coexist with nature. And maybe, just maybe, we could save the world. Humans can’t survive without nature. It’s where we get all of our food, water, and air. We need to remember just how symbiotic this relationship truly is and examine if we’re really doing our part. After all, in a symbiotic relationship, if one part suffers, struggles, or dies, all parts suffer, struggle, and die..

Links and images related to this post:

Ginko trees drop all of their leaves at once. It’s pretty amazing if you get to witness it. Here’s an article from The Atlantic about it. Below is a video of our tree, George, dropping all of her leaves this year.

If you’d like to read the obituary for the Salem Oak, you can find it here.