On Earth Day week, remembering the trees we grew up with and the ones we’ve lost
I came upon the behemoth during a run in the Arnold Arboretum, the morning after an epic wind storm this spring. The ground was strewn with branches, mostly young, lithe, little ones, and the smell was intoxicating. Fresh and woody, verdant and crisp.
Melancholy, too, hung in the air. Because how else are you supposed to feel about a loss that looms so large? I’m speaking literally: The downed Finnish Pine was approximately 60 feet tall and weighed between 20-25,000 pounds. It was 118 years old, planted in 1901. The fact that it was a natural loss -- and not a human one -- seems beside the point.
I know the tree’s vitals because I checked with the Arboretum’s head arborist, John DelRosso, a few days later, and I confessed my sadness over it.
“What happens? I mean, as your crew is hauling this giant tree away… Does anyone say good-bye?” I bumbled. I couldn’t fathom something alive and sturdy for so long, and then what? Mulch? Maybe it’s the former Catholic in me, but I wanted a ritual. Some kind of last rites.
“I don’t know what anyone says to themselves privately…” DelRosso said with a gentle laugh. He saves pieces of wood from trees like that, to adorn his mantel someday.
But the real insight I got came when I posted a photo of the felled tree on social media and asked if anyone could relate. Had they ever felt connected to a certain tree in their lifetimes?
The responses were swift and heartfelt, each comment more moving than the last.
One woman recalled saying good night and good morning each day to the giant tree outside her bedroom as a child. She had grown up in the South, and the tree was a treasured Southern Live Oak. Meanwhile, a group of neighbors in the South End wept when the water company removed a gold chain tree that one of them planted along Tremont Street in the 1980s. A Somerville resident explained that in Judaism, there are specific words expressed upon learning of a person’s death. She thought trees deserved a kind of equivalent phrase.
“They’re the intersection of nature and history, alive for so much longer than we can imagine,” she said.
The most poignant comment merged the loss of a tree and that of a loved one. “There was this huge oak tree outside the window of my parent’s kitchen that was always home to pairs of different birds. It died the same winter as my father, and the house feels especially empty losing them both,” she shared.
It wasn’t just me and my melancholy. Trees mark time; they are extensions of home and family, outgrowths of all the ages we’ve been in their presence and the people who were with us along the way.
Not to mention the ample scientific evidence of the importance of trees to our mental and physical health. Besides the obvious fact that we owe our ability to breathe unpolluted air to trees, there’s evidence that planting more trees and increasing green space in urban areas helps decrease violence. Patients recover faster when the hospital maintains a healing garden or natural space, as is the case at Children’s Hospital Boston.
“All other things being equal, patients with bedside windows looking out on leafy trees healed, on average, a day faster, needed significantly less pain medication and had fewer postsurgical complications than patients who instead saw a brick wall,” Environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich explains of his much cited study in the journal Science.
Trees succumb to weather all the time -- the ones we love dearly and the ones that scarcely register for their ordinariness, gone as a result of age or epic storms and fires. And yet, it’s no secret that weather around the world is getting more extreme because of climate change, our present reality, no longer just a future plausibility.
Knowing what we now know, I keep thinking, on this Earth Day week, that there will be no last rites for the environment. We won’t be posting photos on social media reminiscing about the dazzling natural world squandered on our watch. Or maybe we will, since being outdoors will be unbearable.
When that Finnish pine in the Arboretum was planted 118 years ago, plastic and commercial air travel did not yet exist. Most of the planet’s warming has occurred not only within the tree’s lifetime, but within my own. The warmest years on record have occurred since 2010.
As a kid, Earth Day felt celebratory. One year, my grammar school handed out seedlings that we all planted. My brother’s stands in the front yard of my parents’ home, now towering over all of us. This year, instead of celebrating, many kids protested, spoke up, and begged us not to see their concern for the planet as something happy and hopeful.
“I don’t want you to be hopeful, I want you to panic,” 16-year old climate activist Greta Thunberg told attendees at Davos in January. “Yes, we are failing, but there is still time to turn everything around.”
There may not be a word to properly capture the loss of one special tree -- the one we climbed as kids or took family photos beneath each season -- let alone a word to capture the destruction due to climate change. We may be well past the time for words anyway.
The first time my toddler-aged daughter said the word dirt, we were in the Arboretum, atop Peter’s Hill, as she poked a stick into the mud. We’d moved to the area just a few weeks prior and from the hill, I could see our old neighborhood bordering downtown. It was hardly momentous. What is plainer than dirt?
But this week I also think: What is more precious?