We Speak for the Trees

There are tree people and then there is everyone else.

I was barely twelve when I first cried over a tree. It was a big Elm that towered in front of our house and on hot summer evenings, my sister and I would play volleyball underneath it. The day the city put a green marker on the trunk, my mother was distraught.

“I think they’ve marked our tree,” she announced. “I hope that doesn’t mean they’re cutting it down…”

It took an entire summer but eventually, the city trucks arrived. Men with ropes, chain saws and a chipper pulled up in front of our house. They surrounded our tree, and once my mom saw them, she raced outside.

There she stood, arms crossed, dressed in a muumuu talking to the foreman. She looked angry, but when she turned back towards our house, she just looked sad.

“The foreman tells me our tree has ‘dry rot,'” she said to us as she walked inside. “What the heck is ‘dry rot’? I think he made that up. What the heck is dry rot?” she asked again.

The foreman probably meant Heart Rot. Heart Rot is a fungal disease that can cause a tree to decay at the center of the trunk. Back when Dutch Elm disease was ravaging trees on the South Side of Chicago, every Elm was suspect. At the time, removing them was the only way to stop the spread and in some cases, even healthy Elms got the ax.

We were convinced these guys had the wrong tree. Our Elm was healthy… no brown leaves, no beetles running thru it, nothing that looked suspicious… but we learned, dealing with the foreman who’s cutting down a tree is like dealing with a car mechanic. Unless you really know everything about cars, you have to trust what they tell you. Ah… so many wind shield wipers and air filters that just “had to be replaced” when all I wanted was an oil change…

I thought about that Elm tree for the first time in a long time when my neighbor cut down a Silver Maple that had been in her yard for 75 years. Like our Elm tree, her Maple looked fine to me. It was huge, statuesque and provided shade across not only her backyard, but each of the neighbors’ yards next to and behind it. When I heard she was going to chop it down, I felt just like my mother.

What most people don’t realize is mature, big trees can’t be replaced. You can’t just plant another one in hopes of getting the same benefits back.

The night before the crew came to cut that maple down, I went over to my neighbor’s house to find out why she wanted to remove it. It was raining and seeing she lived two doors away, I didn’t bring an umbrella. I had no intention of staying long and no plan on what I was going to say.

I just felt compelled to ask her if she were cutting it down because it was dying or because it was a nuisance. I’d heard her complain about all the leaves in the past and I guess I wanted to tell her that after it’s gone, her utility bills will increase and the EL train will sound louder every time it passes her house. I thought she should know that without that big tree, her yard will probably flood every time it rains just like so many others on our block.

But she and I have not always seen things the same way and once she saw me coming down the alley, she rushed at me and told me to go home. Every time I tried to speak, she yelled obscenities and threatened to call the police. I left without saying a word, soaking wet and feeling helpless.

She was right to send me away. I had no right to tell her what she could or couldn’t do on her property, but what I was trying to explain was even though that maple was in her yard, it wasn’t just her tree. That tree has been helping our entire block for 75 years and unless it really needed to be cut, she should avoid removing it at all costs.

Climate Change is destroying our trees and all across the country, they’re under attack. California is battling the worst fire season in history. So far, almost 3 million acres have burned and fire is killing everything in its path, including millions of trees. Severe weather across the Midwest is snapping sturdy Oaks in half and flooding on the East Coast is depleting tree roots of oxygen causing them to die. Just like so many other natural elements we’ve taken for granted, trees are critical to our survival. Without them, we don’t stand a chance.

Trees do so much more than look good. In urban areas, trees planted along parkways reduce the temperature by at least five degrees and when grouped together, they create a natural oasis that can lower the temperature by 20 degrees. They filter airborne pollutants and reduce the conditions that cause asthma and other respiratory illnesses. They reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in our air, the main culprit behind Climate Change and the reason why our planet is heating up so fast.

We had to go to school the day they cut our Elm tree down and later that afternoon when we returned our entire block looked different. With no tree to filter it, the afternoon light blared through the windows of our front sun-room and that’s where we found our mom. She was sitting on the piano bench, staring out at the street.

“It cried,” she said. “Those big branches cracked when they started to cut it, and I swear, it sounded just like crying.” We followed her gaze towards the empty parkway, feeling the loss of that big, beautiful, friend.

“I know I sound crazy,” she continued, “and I definitely know those workman thought I was crazy… the whole block thinks I’m nuts for making such a big deal over cutting down a tree, but I really loved it. Look at how different our whole house looks now. Everything feels so stark and empty.”

She was right too. The whole block did think she was crazy but she had a point. Losing that big tree changed everything. Over the next year, almost every Elm in our neighborhood would be cut down. Dutch Elm disease hit the South Side of Chicago hard and beautiful, tree-lined parkways that gave our neighborhood its character turned into stark, barren, and sweltering blocks.

The good news is the last time I passed our old house there were twenty to thirty year old trees running along the parkway and a big oak in the neighbor’s yard that shaded the side of our old house. But those huge, mature, stately trees with the high canopies that framed the streets are gone and it will probably take another 50 years for the ones there now to get to that size.  

 It’s true what they say… we all turn into our parents. I have become that crazy, tree hugger doing whatever I can to protect them, except I’ve never worn a muumuu. You Work-From-Homers reading this in your ‘Nap Dresses’ know I’m missing out.

Like my mom I knew I had no power once that crew came down the alley and parked behind my neighbor’s house. I have no idea why I walked outside and tried to talk them out of it when all I did was make myself look crazy. I guess I felt I had to try because the tree couldn’t speak and my neighbor refused to communicate with me. Just like my mom, I had to be sure cutting it down was the only option.

Some say I had no right to do anything and you’re probably right. I was out of line. As sad as it made me, I know she did the right thing. I know everything dies. The foreman on the job that day told me my neighbor’s tree was sick and just like the Elm tree my mom fought to keep, I couldn’t see it.

I get it. I’m not an Arborist, just a tree lover and if a big tree is more of a danger than a benefit, of course it should come down. Just like people when it’s their time, we must accept that, and I have. But that doesn’t mean we can’t question the process when healthy, mature trees are at risk of getting cut down.

I heard a story on Science Friday (NPR) about David Nowak, the Senior Arborist in New York City who introduced an app called i-tree. I can’t seem to find it on my iPhone yet, but his app is designed to tell you the value of a tree. Stuff like how much carbon-dioxide it absorbs, how much pollution it removes from the air and how much water it keeps from flooding into your home. I love that someone has designed a tool where regular people can see the true value of a tree and I wish like hell I had access to it the night I stood in the rain thinking of something to say to my neighbor… even though it wouldn’t have made any difference.

I might not be proud of how I handled myself the day they cut my neighbor’s tree down but I’m proud that I cared enough to speak up just in case it was being cut for the wrong reasons.

We all need to see the value in our trees. From the Amazon Rainforest being burned for farming to the trees in our backyards, every tree, large and small is at risk right now. We need to protect them all because we desperately need as many as possible to protect us.

Most importantly, we must do everything we can to care for them because just like loyal friends, they do so much to care for all of us.

– Germaine Caprio, MAJAMAS EARTH Company Owner & Designer

Learn more about how trees protect us, donate & help to save our trees at:

One Tree Planted

The National Wildlife Federation

Arbor Day Foundation

Stone Pier Press

The Guardian

Let ME know:

How do you help the trees?

Please share your own thoughts with us – let’s get a conversation started in the comments below!

4 thoughts on “We Speak for the Trees

  1. Thanks for saying it. Thanks for pointing out all of the good things trees do for us. I am also a crazy tree hugger. I feel the same way every time some one cuts down a tree. I have tried to be casual about it, just asking what is going on. I always want to know what is going on with the trees in the neighborhood and in the forests. Thanks for planting the trees for us!

  2. I had a similar experience as a child. Still can feel the anger I had as Bulldozers clear cut a piece of property adjacent to my home. Me and my brother and our neighborhood “gang” protested by hiding and throwing rocks at the workmen and equipment. Not to hurt; but to make our statement that this was not OK. I was 10.
    Now I belong to Trees Atlanta and and a neighborhood group called the Tree Next Door that helps neighbors dispute tree removals. Win some, lose some. We have to speak for the trees and educate those around us.
    Thank you so much for your piece. Hugs from a fellow tree-hugger!


  3. South side born and raised here – we also lost a giant elm tree from in front of our bungalow when I was young. My mom and I were just talking about that tree the other day; everything you described about how different the street looked, how bare the front of the house was, the blazing afternoon sun coming in the front room windows, and losing that beautiful leafy green canopy all the way down the block, once they all had to come down. It was so strange and sad. Thanks for sharing your story.

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