Witnessing the trees that sway like dancers from the vantage of my window, I’m reminded anew of my origins as nature’s child. As the trees awake from their winter slumber and the symphony of another spring reaches its crescendo, I am struck by their beauty and wild magnificence. Unlike other flora around us, the trees are our partners in growing old and many will continue to thrive as we fade and weaken.
I think that I shall never see, a poem as lovely as a tree. A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed against the earth’s sweet flowing breast. (Joyce Kilmer)
Who doesn’t love trees? If you grew up in Central Texas during the days when children lived outside as much as in, the trees have always been a part of our world. Good climbing trees were special. They served as measurements of our growth – as our legs grew longer, we could climb higher. The higher we climbed, the more superior we felt to the grown-ups who were stuck to the ground. And what sanctuaries!! We could escape to the skies — alone or with friends — and share space with the squirrels as we plotted the capture of pirate ships or fantasized about tree houses we might build. Passing by a tree for the first time and noticing the trunk with small perpendicular boards serving as ladder-like steps, the desire to climb up and see what was nestled among the branches was irresistible.
I part the out-thrusting branches and come in beneath
the blessed and the blessing trees.
Though I am silent there is singing around me.
Though I am dark there is vision around me.
Though I am heavy there is flight around me. (Wendell Berry)
And on those hot summer days, back before most houses were air-conditioned and our mothers shooed us outside to have peace and quiet in their own personal stuffiness, our trees were a source of shade and relief. We could spread out towels and play dolls in their shade or simply loll against the trunk and pretend to shoot at the predators (a.k.a., squirrels and birds). Some trees were large enough to shield us when we played hide and seek or when avoiding the bully walking down the street.
Distinctive trees have always served as meeting places between friends and witnesses of young love as manifested by initials of a beloved carved into the bark — at least for a season or two. In days of yore, land surveyors used trees to mark corners of the tract, scarring the tree with big Xs or other marks. After all, who could tamper with boundaries marked by a firmly rooted tree, loyally guarding the line?
We grew up in a world where trees were so plentiful, we took them for granted. Now, bulldozers and bobcats wreck their havoc shamelessly everyday, which we hardly notice as we whiz by construction sites. I suppose the operators rationalize their work as the price of progress and the greater good.
Tree, gather up my thoughts like the clouds in your branches.
Draw up my soul like the waters in your root.
In the arteries of your trunk bring me together.
Through your leaves breathe out the sky.
(J. Daniel Beaudry)
Here in Austin, of course, the University of Texas’s interpretation of the greater good is a localized “manifest destiny,” as the entity spreads its reach across the city. Few have survived the University’s push, as those organized to preserve Lions Municipal Golf Course and its lovely canopy of old oaks from UT’s development plans are well aware.
Many of us vividly remember the infamous Chairman of the UT Board of Regents, Frank Erwin, who spearheaded the expansion around Waller Creek and Royal Memorial Stadium in the early 70s. Notorious for getting his way, the Chairman would not be stopped by a bunch of “tree huggers” protesting the removal of the trees along the creek.
As the bulldozer approached to do its damage, the so-called tree huggers took perches in the trees. At the first occupied tree, the bulldozer driver stopped. Someone, called the Chairman, who shortly appeared on the scene and told the bulldozer driver to go ahead, push down the tree. The driver refused to bulldoze a tree with a human attached, so Frank climbed up in the driver’s seat and as soon as the driver had explained how the machine operated, the Chairman gave it the gas and moved toward the trees. The protesters vacated their tree posts quickly and the trees were destroyed. The ghost of Chairman Frank must be thrilled with UT’s new medical school – out with a park, up with a building.
Give me a land of boughs in leaf, A land of trees that stand;
Where trees are fallen there is grief; I love no leafless land. (A.E. Housman)
But in Austin’s history, there is no more horrific example of tree destruction than the deliberate poisoning of Treaty Oak, the last of the Council Oaks, a grove of 14 trees that served as a sacred meeting place for Comanche and Tonkawa Tribes. It’s also said that the tree witnessed the meeting of Stephen F. Austin, the leader of the Austin Colony, with local Native Americans in the 1830s to negotiate and sign Texas’s first boundary treaty after two children and a local judge had been killed in raids. In 1927, Treaty Oak was admitted to the American Forestry Association Hall of Fame for Trees and declared the most perfect specimen of a North American tree. Foresters estimate the Treaty Oak to be about 500 years old with branches that had spread 127 feet.
Yet, in 1989, a deranged individual attempted to poison the tree with enough of the hardwood-herbicide, Velpar, to kill 100 trees, according to lab reports. The community outrage was an impassioned display of love for a tree. Featured in national news stories, the plight of the tree inspired assistance from various sources. Texas industrialist and former presidential candidate, Ross Perot, wrote a “blank check” to fund efforts to save the tree. Children made get-well cards that were displayed on the fence around the park where the tree struggled. Visitors and school children visited the site as if attending a wake, speaking softly and looking mournful. DuPont, the herbicide manufacturer, established a $10,000 reward to capture the perpetrator.
Meanwhile, arborists frantically labored to save Treaty Oak with applications of sugar to the root zone, replacement of soil around its roots and the installation of a system to mist the tree with spring water. Although these experts expected the tree to die, Treaty Oak survived, albeit lopsided, as almost two-thirds of the tree succumbed to the poison and more than half of its crown had to be pruned.
The vandal was apprehended after reportedly bragging about the tree poisoning as a means of casting a spell. Convicted of felony criminal mischief, the man was sentenced to serve nine years in prison. This may be a first for attempted tree murder.
I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines. (Henry David Thoreau)
What makes anyone commit a violent act against a tree — maybe they’ve never climbed a tree, hugged it with both arms, or imagined themselves as Indians smoking peace pipes under the tree boughs as their children played and collected acorns. And maybe they’ve never heard the wind whispering of peace and kindness as it whisks through the trees, cooling and caressing the leaves and branches, the gentlest of lovers.
And when a moon floats on the sky;
They hum a drowsy lullaby
Of sleepy children long ago…
Trees are the kindest things I know. (Harry Behn)