Confessions of a Tree Hugger

I admit it. I am a tree hugger. I've actually hugged trees. I love them, and when I hear about a tree that falls over or dies in some other way, I get really upset about it.

I used to assume that everyone else feels this way. I was wrong. This week, I found out the hard way just how wrong I was. It turns out that living among us in Memphis, there are some people who not only don't love trees, they actually hate them. There are tree haters in our midst!

Hack and Slash

It was people's reactions to a recent storm that made me aware of these tree haters. When i saw all of the trees that had fallen down, the first thought that went through my mind is that Memphis needs more trees, not less. For every tree that died in this last storm, I'd like to see them plant two in its place. No, I don't mean replacing a tall oak tree with a bradford pear or a privet bush, as MLGW is wont to do. I mean planting two oak saplings for every oak that has fallen.

Okay, I need to take a tangent here for just a second, because I really think that it's important to understand that the city of Memphis is using its so-called reforestation program to replace trees with puny shrubbery. Memphis Light, Gas, and Water comes along, chops a huge oak tree down and plants a privet bush in its place, or even worse, a Bradford pear. Bradford pear trees are grotesque hybrids that almost never live longer than 15 years because their tight, overbred branch system acts like a sail in high winds, ripping the tree apart. The first real storm that comes along, you'll find your Bradford pear tree split open like an overcooked hot dog. Compare the life span of these puny nursery plants to that of the oak tree, which lives for hundreds of years. Yes, eventually the oak tree will fall down, but it almost definitely won't be for generations to come.

MLGW goes around town every year and slaughters once-beautiful trees all over the city so that people can receive their electric power and cable television without incovenient interruptions. They say in writing that for every tree that they take down they'll plant a smaller tree in its place. First of all, that's a lie. They've gone through my neighborhood this year, hacking, slashing , digging, leaving trash all over the place, attacking every tree they could get to. Did they replace one single tree that they took down? You bet they didn't.

One thing that really bugs me about MLGW's tree vivisectors is that most of the time they don't actually cut a tree down all the way. No, instead they'll take what used to be a 40 foot tall tree and prune it back until it's just a 12 foot tall stump. I've never seen anything so ridiculous in my life. Imagine a doctor who has a patient with a cold, so the doctor cuts everything off the patient from the knees up! That patient won't have a cold anymore, but won't ever amount to much either. Neither will a 12 foot tall tree with a trunk 4 feet thick. That tree is never going to grow back. Even if it could, MLGW wouldn't let it -- they'd just hack it back. It would be preferable if they just took the whole tree out, but they won't do it because that would take time to do properly and then they would be under the obligation to replace the tree as promised.

This is what I've learned this week: most people just don't care. They don't care that our cities are losing their trees. In fact, they'd like to have more cut down.

...Case in Point

It's true -- take as an example this woman at the office where I used to work. Let's call her Maude. Now, I do my best to get along with Maude, but she's the type of person who's always saying something that just makes your skin crawl. She's the type of person who'll carefully look around to make sure that there aren't any African-Americans withing hearing distance, and then she'll tell me with a straight face that black people don't know how to work and that they think they should get money for nothing. She acts as if it's okay to tell me this, as if I'll understand and agree with her, as if her bigotry won't bother me.

So, the other day we're talking about, for some reason, our yards. She can't stop telling me the problems that she's having with hers. Every week, poor woman, she finds frogs that have jumped into her swimming pool and died there from exposure to the chemicals that she puts in the water. SHe wants to know how she can get rid of them so that she won't have to pick their corpses out of her pool any more. She doesn't seem to understand that because this is spring the frogs are trying to breed and have to use her pool because the real estate developers filled in all the local ponds when they were building her suburban neighborhood.

You may not be very surprised at this point to find out that Maude is a grade-A tree hater. After she was done vilifying the frogs in her back yards, she started in on her trees. She explained that her husband planted a row of sweet gum trees years ago so that they would have privacy from their neighbors. Isn't that a wonderful reason to plant trees, as if the fences weren't enough? Anyway, she says that now she really needs to take them down because they're too messy.

The Meaning of Messy

Now, this took me a long time to figure out. What do people mean when they say that trees are messy? They say that pine trees are messy, ginkgo trees are messy, and oak trees are messy. Sweet gums are accused of being the messiest trees of all. But what do people mean when they say that? Well, it turns out that people call sweet gum trees messy because they produce little fruits that fall down onto the ground. These fruits are actually kind of pretty, little balls with soft spines all over them. My mother used to make Christmas ornaments out of them. To some people, though, they're a mess.

Ask yourself: who's the real mess here? Are we supposed to think of trees as messy because they engage in simple acts of reproduction? Well, if that's the case, the I have to say that humans are much messier than even the messiest of trees. I mean, a sweet gum tree will set flower in the spring and then later in the year will drop its fruit. So, there are just two times of the year that we may notice some aspect of their reproduction. To me, that's downright Puritan of them, not very messy at all. Humans are like bunny rabbits compared to sweet gum trees. So, if we're defining messy as a matter of reproductive habits, then humans out-messy sweet gum trees hands down, so to speak.

To be fair, I'm sure that's not what Maude really meant when she was talking about her sweet gum trees being so messy. She was talking about the fact that every spring she has to go around her yard and pick up the remains of the previous year's fruits. Well, first of all, who says she really has to go pick them up? What would happen if she let them lie? Would they pile up over the years? Is this what happens in sweet gum forests? Do the sweet gum fruits fall every year, just piling up higher and higher until they reach the tops of the trees? Of course not. They decompose and add nutrients to the soil, making their parent trees healthier. Some of the fruits are taken up by animals such as squirrels, which eat them or at least take them to other places and forget about them. There, the seeds within sprout and become new sweet gum trees. Those fruits that do sprout under their parents may grow for a while, but unless their parent trees die, they don't actually get that big. They just wait for an opening in the canopy, and when it appears, they shoot for it. In a residential yard, this means that one doesn't have to worry about too many seedlings coming up in the yard. They'll die back soon from lack of sun, and when that old tree finally dies, if the sweet gum fruits have been left on the ground there will be no need to go out an buy a new tree. There will already be a few saplings growing for free.

Let's be honest. What Maude is really worried about is a mess. For some reason, she thinks that a back yard with a few sweet gum fruits in it for a small part of the year is messier than a lawn. This is, of course, a subjective value judgment. There's nothing inherently messier about sweet gum fruits than there is about grass. Maude has simply chosen to consider a gold-course style lawn to be attractive.

A Match of the Messes

For the sake of argument, let's say that those fruits really are messy. Does Maude really have much of a right to get angry at her trees for making this mess? I don't think so. Let's compare the mess that the sweet gum trees make to the mess that Maude makes.

The sweet gum tree fruits fall only once a year, and they take care of themselves. They rot, becoming organic matter that enriches the soil and helps it to hold moisture, increasing the health of any plants that Maude allows to grow in it.

Maude's mess is a little, well, messier. It includes wasted food, unrecycled paper, metals, plastics and toxic chemicals. Maude's mess actually poses a threat to the health of humans and other forms of life. So, what does Maude do with it? She hides it inside a big green can which she pays other people to take away every week, dumping it inside a big stinking truck that burns fossil fuels and spouts toxic smoke into the air and drips motor oil, ruining the local water supply. This truck takes Maude's mess away to a place where she doesn't have to look at it any more, a dump where it is mixed in with other people's messes. There it sits, taking up valuable space, Maude's mess. Compared to that, the mess of the sweet gum fruits is nothing.

Maude's mess is also quantitatively larger. Let's suppose that Maude didn't pay anyone to take her mess away. If we piled the mess that the sweet gum trees made in one year next to the mess that Maude made in one year, which pile do you think would be higher? Which pile do you think would be uglier? Maude, if you're worried about a mess, don't cut down your sweet gum trees. Cut back the mess you make first.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Now, it turns out that mess isn't the only reason that Maude wants to cut down her grove of sweet gum trees. She also complains that these trees are too tall. Too tall? How can a tree be too tall? I always thought that the taller a tree is, the more beautiful it looks.

Not Maude. Poor thing, some of those sweet gum trees are shading out her swimming pool for a few hours in the afternoon. She get the pool because it's hot in the summer, and she likes to lie out there floating in her pool, getting a tan, staying cool, and picking up dead frogs. The problem is that she can't get a tan in the shade of a sweet gum tree, so she wants to cut her sweet gum trees down.

To me, Maude's reasoning seems a bit confused. On the one hand, Maude wants to get a pool because it's so hot. On the other hand, she wants to cut down her trees so that she can enjoy the warmth of the sun. What Maude isn't counting on is that if she cuts down those trees, she'll have to spend all of her time in the pool because her house and yard will become much hotter than they were before.

This change in temperature will be due to a little thing they call the urban heat island effect. You see, when we cut down trees and lay down concrete, asphalt, glass and metal surfaces in their place to make a city, we create an area which gets very hot very quickly. There's no shade left and all those artificial surfaces heat up and hold the heat very well. There have been studies done which indicate that a city can be as much as ten degrees hotter in the summer than the surrounding countryside. Yes, the heat island effect includes the suburbs, because if there's one thing the suburbs aren't, it's countryside.

Trees help reduce the urban heat island effect in two ways. First, they provide shade so that the rays of the sun never directly reach us in the first place. Second, they increase the rate of evaporation of water. The water comes up from the ground through the roots of the trees, running through the branches to the shading leaves where a huge amount of evaporation takes place every day. So what, you ask? So what is that when water evaporates, it makes use of energy to change from a liquid to a gas. That means that the more water that evaporates into the air, the less heat there is for us to complain about. The more trees there are, the less heat there is. If Maude cuts down her sweet gum trees, her house and yard, and those of her neighbors, will become much hotter.

It All Comes Together

return to irregulartimes.comThis is why I want you to think about all the trees that our cities lose every year. I know that after a big storm like what we had this week, you may want to go out and cut your trees down. You're afraid that they'll fall on your house or your car. Before you get out that chainsaw, think about this: the chances are that your trees won't fall down during your lifetime. Most large trees live hundreds of years, much longer than you.

Practically speaking, those trees are saving you money - 10 or 20 dollars every month on your utilities, depending on your house. That's over a hundred dollars a year. Furthermore the presence of trees improves the value of your property. Houses with trees in their yards consistently sell for higher amounts than houses with nothing but lawn.

Those trees out there are working hard for you. They're cutting back on air pollution, keeping you cool, and saving you money all at the same time? You say you want to cut them down? You ought to be planting more trees instead, so that when those old ones do finally come crashing down years from now there will be new ones there to take their place.

But hey, that's just my opinion. Remember, I'm a tree-hugger.

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