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Archive for Sunday, October 7, 2001

Trees spur feeling of human kinship

October 7, 2001

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The old elm in downtown Lawrence that has provoked so much compassion reminds me of the stately elms that once shaded the street in Kansas City where I grew up.

Those elms of my youth formed a perfect canopy through which stipples of sunlight fell, the haunt of cicadas which raised a deafening chorus on summer evenings when we played kick-the-can. All are gone now, lost to the Dutch Elm disease.

Trees have a powerful claim on our psyches, partly because of their longevity and partly because of their human aura. "A mighty oak has fallen," proclaimed an admirer when Louis XIV died. A tree in flatland, featureless Kansas always has stature and significance.

The tree at Seventh and New Hampshire is remarkable for having escaped the blight that's leveled so many of the country's elms. Its nobility is enhanced by its isolation. It stands there like an exiled god surrounded by ephemeral human works, a witness to history, perhaps a judge.

See how easy it is to get carried away when talking about trees? I imagine that Lawrence's elm is just the sort of tree the Druids made human sacrifices to, the kind the King of the Wood guarded in Frazier's Golden bough. Some locals have embraced it as an anti-capitalist icon, a rebuke to the "corporate culture" that devours nature in pursuit of profits. Opponents of modernity and diverse contrarians in Lawrence meet "under the elm."

Even today, some may attribute magical powers to trees. Who knows what midnight, full moon rites take place beneath that august elm, given Lawrence's many extraordinary denizens? Trees once figured in fertility rites, and I wouldn't be surprised if some mystics worship it that way, offering prayers for vegetable growth and hexes on urban sprawl.

I've always been a nature boy and a Druid at heart. There are sound arguments for misanthropy and sacrificing certain human beings to trees. But moving to the country has given me a different perspective.

I now understand why country dwellers are so obsessive about their lawns. Those trim greenbelts represent a bulwark against nature and its disheveled, unbridled, even terrifying powers of growth.

An axiom I've discovered out here: Any tree we plant will die outright. Any tree we try to eradicate will flourish. All 20 of the plane trees which we planted to line our gravel drive succumbed to drought, in spite of copious watering. The fruit trees have all been nibbled to death by deer, rabbits and rats. ("Every surviving oak is the product either of rabbit negligence or rabbit scarcity," wrote Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac.)

But nothing stops the Osage oranges. They proliferate like the brooms in the Sorcerer's Apprentice. Cut one down, and it springs back to life in a candelabrum of thorny shoots. Attack one with a chain saw, and you return bleeding like a flagellant.

It says something about nature's mystery and perversity that it would create a disease to destroy its lovely elms. Nature seems more like a timber baron or a real estate developer than a nurturing "mother" at times. But nature wouldn't dream of cooking up a blight to thin the Osage oranges.

I've read that we are a "savannah species" and that the first great human expansion involved an alliance between human beings and grasses against trees. Our distant relatives came down from branches in the African jungle and set fires which burned back the thorny acacia trees. Fire stimulated grass growth, grass fed the quadrupeds which our ancestors learned to hunt and eat.

Osage oranges are cousins of the African acacias. When I declare war on them and set fire to my pasture this spring, I will have this brief connection to the first human beings.

It may be hard for city dwellers to imagine being at war with trees. Nature seems like the underdog in town, man the bully. But anything can reproduce to excess, including us. Out in the country, trees can come at you like the Scythian hordes.

The forest was a dark and hostile presence to early human settlements. Dante compared his mid-life spiritual crisis to being lost in a savage woods. The Puritans thought that clearing forests was a religious act. Didn't Ronald Reagan write trees off as polluters?

On the other hand, the first observers of California's giant Sequoias thought they were manifestations of God. The Romantics thought saving forests was a religious act. Ambiguity is the heart of trees.

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is today," according to a Russian proverb, the scourge of procrastinators. This fall we've planted more fruit trees in an optimistic folly. I will guard them with drawn sword like the King of the Wood. Bunnies beware.

The great elm of Lawrence has been spared for now. One day, it will fall, as must we all. The chain saw will bite into its venerable bark. In an eye blink someone will cry, "Timber!," with a mixture of exhilaration and regret. But something will remain. For a while at dusk, as a poet once wrote, "the darkening air will be with many shadows interleaved, and pierced with a bewilderment of birds."




George Gurley, who lives in rural Baldwin, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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