Wednesday, April 24, 2024

A contributed photo shows the felling of three mature oak trees Friday at the Tobin School and Vassal Lane Upper School campus.

I’ve been thinking about my relationship with trees to try to understand why the removal Friday of three very large oaks behind a nearby school has caused me such strong feelings of loss, even grief. I realize that these feelings, shared by a good number of my neighbors, may seem disproportionate or misplaced to many other people. With all the human suffering in the world and the clearcutting of old-growth forests in the Amazon and Indonesia, why waste my tears on a trio of old trees? Why is the loss of these three trees such a powerful emotional trigger for me?

Trees have figured prominently in my life for as long as I can remember. My childhood home in Florida was shaded by a thick canopy of live oaks and palm trees, making it stand out from the newer houses in the area planted on treeless lots. Some of my fondest memories are of the hours I spent sitting in the crook of a large oak in our front yard – the perfect climbing tree for a small child. A distinctive feature of our backyard was a palm tree that grew horizontally, having toppled in a storm with its root ball partially above ground but still healthy. The palm’s trunk could be straddled like a pony or walked like a balance beam or pirate’s plank, and my playmates and I posed for many photos perched on it like birds on a wire.

In elementary school, I vividly remember slamming headlong into a pine tree while looking over my shoulder during a vigorous game of tag; after I came to and vomited, the school nurse pronounced me concussed and sent me home early. The campus centerpiece of the school I attended from middle school on was a majestic oak whose hydralike limbs spread wide and sagged low. When the extent of the rot inside the “Great Oak” made it a liability and it had to be removed in 2014, the tree was estimated to have been more than 300 years old. In 2019, before an historic red oak on the campus of Harvard Divinity School was scheduled to be cut down to make room for a building addition, I was among those who gathered around its monumental base for a solemn memorial service.

Trees have taken root in my imagination, too. The removal of a large diseased hemlock tree set in motion the plot of a novel for children that I wrote 20 summers ago; an egg from a crow’s nest in the tree is rescued from the tree and incubated to hatch the title character. This summer, I grew fixated on a robin’s nest in the kousa dogwood outside my kitchen window. The robin parents dutifully ferried worms to three yawning mouths, and during Tropical Storm Ida one parent stoically endured hours of lashing rain with its wings spread wide to shelter the babies. They survived the storm, but none lived long enough to fledge.

We grow up with trees and some of them outlive us. I’ve reached the age when I know I will die before the maturity of the trees planted to replace the 50-year-old ones removed at the school. Assuming they survive the extremes of a changing climate to thrive like their predecessors – no guarantee of that. I sometimes wonder if my own fate is to be taken out by a tree. It nearly happened on a clear windless morning this summer when a large limb crashed down about 15 feet in front of me as I jogged along the path I take every day at about the same time. Had I begun my run a few seconds earlier, would the limb has fallen directly on me? Was it large enough to have killed me, or would I have escaped with only a concussion?

The morning that the neighborhood school trees were to be removed, I watched as a line of birds flew back and forth to their branches, unaware of the imminent devastation of their familiar habitat. I could not bear to watch – or hear – the sound of the saws that dismembered the trees or the chippers that consumed their wood, so I left my house for the day. This morning, as I set out for my run and looked in the direction where their canopy had dominated the view, it was hard to believe they were ever there at all.

The world can change forever in an instant, as we are reminded each Sept. 11. Today’s “severe clear” blue sky evokes the unreality of that tragic morning. Later, I will take a walk and remember to look up at the sky and trees above me, grateful to be alive and aware that nothing is forever. 

Jan Devereux is a former city councillor and vice mayor.