Trees speak for themselves

January 2, 2011


“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Why are those mundane words so poignant, so uplifting? It must be their hint of hope. Brooklyn is crowded, teeming with human beings. But as long as a single tree endures in such a place, all is not lost. Paradise can be regained. At any rate, the celebration of an individual tree indicates the general absence of foliage in Brooklyn.

Where I live, homage to a tree would be laughable, provoking a snort of annoyance. Not just one tree grows out here, but many trees, thorny hedge and locust trees without number. They proliferate with malevolent purpose. Let them go and they take over. Only bulldozers and poisons can keep them in check. An ornamental tree bought from a nursery, on the other hand, will perish at once unless you water it faithfully and pamper it with chemical potions to ward off diseases and pests.

I was in Brooklyn not long ago and couldn’t help smiling at a neighborhood project that was under way. All along the street, parents and children were on their knees, planting flowers in the small plots of earth surrounding newly planted trees. Working with trowels, they opened spaces for the delicate roots and patted the soil back into place, all with tender earnestness and reverence for Mother Nature. It wasn’t merely an effort at beautification, it was a moral and religious act, and I overheard bits of parental wisdom about the miracles of generation and growth. So precious is a tree or a pansy or anything with green leaves in urbanized Brooklyn.

I was vaguely aware that “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” was the title of a novel, but I had to consult Wikipedia to find out that it’s the story of a young Brooklyn woman coming of age in poverty, circa 1900. The eponymous tree is the hardy Tree of Heaven, native of China and Taiwan, which inspired the girl and her family to overcome adversity and survive.

How things change. Brooklyn has become gentrified, a place of million-dollar condos. And the Tree of Heaven is now considered an invasive pest, thriving on vacant lots in New York City. So, this meditation must be revised. The same tree that once inspired a poor, struggling girl has become an emblem for the ecological mischief caused by global trade, the conflict between man and nature and the downside of the miracle of growth. The Tree of Heaven needs to be renamed. Call it the Tree of Satan. It belongs with the Asian carp, the zebra mussel, kudzu, purple loosestrife, sericea lespedeza and other exotic nuisances.

Isn’t that the way it goes? You romanticize some plant or wild creature and nature gives you a nightmare, a Sorcerer’s Apprentice superfluity of them. According to a proverb, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second best time is today.” That proverb, the scourge of procrastinators, ought to be accompanied by a corollary: “Think twice before you plant a tree.”

I recently spotted a bumper sticker in Lawrence that said, “Speak for the Trees.” Pronounced like a true Druid. That kind of anthropomorphic vanity is where our problems with nature begin. What right or business do we have to speak for the trees? The Tree of Heaven, the hedge and the locust trees can speak for themselves.

George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


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