Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Speaking for Trees

The trees we love stand as a symbol of strength, continuity, and memory.

Family dinners in my parents’ house are usually tame. Politics, controversy, and the happenings of the community generally don’t phase us. We’ve been through America’s wars, political turmoil, and crises. Life moves on. But once every few years, linemen from the utility companies come out to ruthlessly prune our oak tree back from phone and power lines. Heads explode, unfriendly calls are made to the offending company, and we collectively mourn the oak as it once was and never shall be again. We can only take solace that it wasn’t cut down like so many others. 

I’m writing about our oak only to make the case that everyone should have a tree. Trees are essential in a backyard, a park, a city sidewalk, or even in a pot. I’m not going to make the conservative case for tree-hugging. I’ll leave it to the “science” to convince you of the environmental merits of trees. The value of shade on a hot August day is self-evident. 

There’s not a recorded age for our tree. Rumor has it that it’s been around since before Rome. More reliable family sources ballpark it at a little over a century old. Regardless, the oak tree is sacred. It’s a symbol of strength, continuity, and memory. In a lot of ways, it is one of the last physical reminders of our past. My great-grandfather smoked a pipe in the shade of the oak. My grandparents and parents grew up in its shadow. My brother and I climbed it as kids. There’s enough sentimentalism about the oak to fill a book.

The case for trees is much more fundamental than mere sentiment, though. Trees define peoples and places in a way no other ubiquitous natural feature can. Four states take their nicknames from their trees. Toomer’s oaks are sacred to Auburn University, and General Sherman still reigns over the redwoods of Northern California. I don’t endorse it, but people have gone to jail for their trees. They understand that Maine would be detached from its sense of place and being without its famous fall foliage. California would be much reduced without the redwoods, and the quiet comfort of a shaded neighborhood block can be stolen by the ruthless drive for efficiency so typical in contemporary life. Another forest gone, another row of tract housing for sale. Little by little, America becomes unremarkable, undefinable, and placeless. 

So bid defiance to the bland and the soulless. Plant a tree, care for a tree, or take up the cause of my family and fight off the utility company. In the end, we’ll all keep a little bit more of what’s ours. I’m not asking you to become a local Lorax, but it’s time some of us start speaking for the trees. After all, they speak volumes for us.