Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Hug 'em while ya got 'em

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I'll never see a tree at all
--Ogden Nash, "The Open Road"
I just read a really cool book called Remarkable Trees of the World, by Thomas Pakenham. The stunning photography and intriguing narratives made a lasting impression on me. Pakenham profiles individual trees around the world that are remarkable for their size, age, and/or cool-nosity. From the mighty baobab and sequoia, down to the wizened four-millennia-old bristlecone pine, he reveals the glory of our leafy friends.

I'm an ecology geek; whenever I see the incredible diversity of flora and fauna (and don't forget fungi!) that this planet displays, I can't help but go, "Gollll-EEE, what a wonderful world."

The sad part was seeing the trees that were once part of great forests, like the kauri tree of New Zealand. When Captain Cook first saw them in 1769, he reportedly said, "The banks of the river were completely clothed with the finest timber my eyes have ever seen...."

That's right: not trees, but timber. He took one look at this magnificent work of God and thought, "Hey, coffee tables!"

Here's a photo of a totara tree left standing after all its neighbors were chopped down. Funny thing is, you can take the tree out of the forest, but you can't take the forest out of the tree. Of course it died, because it was more than just a telephone pole with leaves. It was part of a whole ecosystem, and like all of us, it needed its environment, its community, to survive.

Again and again throughout history, Europeans and their descendants (namely, us) have hacked away at forests until there was nothing left. Only recently have efforts been made to preserve these great ecosystems before they're gone forever (it turns out that the US and Canada are better than anyone at forest conservation). The eastern US has only recently recovered from the massive clearcuts that took place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Anyone like Captain Cook, who can look at a remarkable tree and see it not for what it is but for what it can be used for must have a piece of their soul missing. As in, all of it.

I don't know what was/is wrong with those people. Maybe it goes back to religion. Most religions have (very recently) come around to the fact that we need to be good stewards of the environment. But in the old days it was "Heaven Good, Earth Bad." A lot of people haven't figured out that lie yet.

(You can throw in "Mind Good, Body Bad"; "Male Good, Female Bad"; "Light Good, Dark Bad," especially when it comes to skin color.)

I guess I can't strictly blame religion, since these false dichotomies date back to Plato. But St. Paul and St. Augustine were big-time Platonists, and they've had a lot of influence on Western thought. If you ask me, all three of them spent too much time in their heads.

Where was I? Oh yeah, the book. Remarkable Trees of the World is worth it for the final photo alone: sunset along the Avenue of Baobabs on Madagascar (note: images in links are not Pakenham's, but another talented photographer's). I cried when I saw it, which I think was a cumulative effect of the book as a whole, including Pakenham's story of how he was all set up to take the shot he'd been waiting 19 months for, when a fat Belgian lady suddenly stood in front of his camera. After a moment's panic, he shouted, "S'il vous plait!" in a commanding tone, and she skedaddled.

I love a happy ending.


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Jeri Smith-Ready is a Maryland author of books for teens and adults.

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