A modest proposal for stewarding our forests and trees.
By Cynthia McVay
The family across from me on our state-designated “scenic road” in rural Hudson Valley removed dozens of mature maple, oak, hickory, and tulip trees on their five-acre plot, leaving a scant few. The owner showed me the pile, proud of his conquest, as if it were the head of a lion. His father and brother did the same, completely flattening and denuding their own properties. While plenty of people I know have figured out how to live with and in nature, foraging for oyster mushrooms and striding through forest ferns, there are holdouts. For them, the lawn is king.
They go on to “beautify” their barren yards with ornamental bushes and non-native trees fringed with red-dyed mulch, but mostly a grass monoculture that will thirst for the very water a leafy canopy would have helped to retain. Pesticides are employed to ward off dandelions and clover. These men—almost always they are men—wrangle and tame, spray Roundup, weed-whack, and blow every last leaf off their grass … across the street onto my property. They spend Saturday mornings sitting on their lawn mowers burning fuel and time, leaving stripes like a vacuum cleaner on wall-to-wall carpet. Meanwhile, invasive vines encroach on the newly minted edge of forest.
A few months after seeding his lawn, my cross-street neighbor came to retrieve free foot-tall saplings in a giveaway I participated in as a member of our town’s environmental board. The irony stung.
This has been going on for some time on our (once) scenic road. A while back, the new owners of a vacant perch overlooking the Hudson River lopped off every tree on the steep slope, and then spent years and thousands of dollars erecting concrete retaining walls to keep their house from toppling onto the road below. The razed slope is now covered in brush, vines, and weed trees that block the view more than if they’d pruned the lower branches of the existing maples, say.
Another neighbor recently took down a healthy 50-foot oak whose trunk was three feet in diameter. It fell into a stand of woods onto my property, creating a tangle of branches and toppled trees. I could not begin to understand why he would rather look at that confused mess, when he could instead have enjoyed the significant, cooling shade of a majestic oak which posed no threat to his modest home. But this is the same man who has dumped oil and fish tanks and concrete slabs into my woods over the years. He said the tree was dead—never mind that its core was solid, and its crown full of leaves. A few weeks later, he hacked off every branch hanging along our shared border, leaving a jagged, angry edge.
If I cut down the woods between us, I wonder if my neighbors would be less inclined to denude their own. I suspect they enjoy having the woods separating us, framing their lawns. But they are not willing to live with something half-feral that might have its own mind and agenda—something that might drop acorns.
I understand that some trees need to come down. There’s every reason to cull those that are diseased, hollow, dead, dangerous, or tilting toward a dwelling. Maybe, also, to open a view. But the massacres I describe go well beyond curating a healthy stand—and the views they create are of asphalt and passing cars.
I suspect some version of the white-picket-fence syndrome is at work here, a staking of claim. These guys have pioneering, dominating spirits that won’t give up. Perhaps they seek comfort in the illusion of complete control, and hence fear nature in all its glorious, messy complexity. Yet imposing an unnatural “order” requires an enormous amount of work and produces its own kind of pressurized chaos. I am baffled (and distressed) that someone would choose to purchase five acres of woods only to decimate it, rather than start with a lot that is already cleared—or simply choose to live in the village. Why move into the woods and then remove them?
We owe trees respect for all they do and are. They buffer climate change through carbon sequestration, reduce flooding and erosion, retain moisture, support wildlife, filter our air and produce the oxygen we breathe. Trees offer visual privacy as well as sound barriers from screaming or barking neighbors and droning highways. In city streets, trees have been shown to save money and lives by reducing asthma, crime, and heat—services that also flow from urban parks. As grand as they can be, trees are humanizing and intimate. The very presence of trees creates a neighborhood, a place to rest, pause, hang a hammock, anchor a picnic, lean to read a book.
Many seem to appreciate the magic. But how to explain the open, visible hostility with which some Americans confront trees, nature, and wildlife? Even if they care little about climate change, or aren’t drawn to the bookstore’s nature shelf, how can they not appreciate the sheer majesty of a generous, gnarly sugar maple or the gentle breath of a hemlock?
We will never understand nor accept one another’s approaches. At least, I admit that no amount of listening will help me accept their perspective. But here, nevertheless, is a modest proposal: that the fate of trees be a responsibility we shoulder, at least to some degree, together. Because whether it’s a stand of cedars lining a scenic byway or a row of London planetrees on a city block, trees are, in addition to so many other things, a common good.
My town, like most, requires a landowner to obtain a building permit to put up a fence—but not to clear-cut 150 trees. Some US towns have successfully implemented tree ordinances, requiring landowners to submit proposals to the town board for a certain number, kind, or size of tree. But this is tough for many to stomach. Few want to mandate or even suggest their neighbors make thoughtful, community-based decisions about our shared natural assets—even though we all rely on them, directly or indirectly. American municipalities are more inclined to mandate that residents mow their grass than to keep a healthy tree standing. Landownership agency remains a strong concept in this country of individuals. Those who own their land will do what they want to it. But as part of our futures together on this fragile planet, we need to start thinking about trees and other natural spaces as all of ours, not just the sovereign domain of a property owner who can undo a century’s worth of growth with a $200 chainsaw. On my own land, which I bought and nurtured as a single mother, I consider myself a mere custodian and weigh every move I make to honor and promote its wildlife inhabitants. Do my neighbors assume I’ve taken care of it for all of us?
In 1986, as a program officer for the World Wildlife Fund, I helped establish the Monarch Butterfly Reserve in central Mexico, where, at that time, 140 million monarchs overwintered. Their hibernation requires a specific, delicate microclimate that could be altered by taking down a single Oyamel fir. Doing so could let in the sun and make it too warm, bringing the monarchs out of hibernation (and threatening their ability to return north) or expose them to wind and cold and so freeze them. The local residents, of limited means, had long allowed lumber companies to turn trees into cash. Understanding their needs, we helped to develop alternative income streams, including from the plenitude of tourism that ensued, to take the pressure off logging. Every tree mattered.
I mention it because the people who lived among Mexico’s monarchs had even more reasons to fell (and sell) trees than my neighbors here in the Hudson Valley. A change of attitude and perspective seems eminently possible.
Someone once told me, the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. I submit, the best time is a century ago. Better yet: Why not just leave the ones that are standing?
Cynthia McVay G’88 WG’88 is an artist, writer, and rower based in the Hudson Valley and St. Croix.