Perhaps because they dwarf us as does no other living thing, trees inspire a reverence unmatched in the natural world. And because they outlive us, trees are an ongoing reminder of human finitude.
I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.
— Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”
“Only God,” the poet averred, “can make a tree” — a noble sentiment but one that human science has challenged mightily. Indeed, the complex relationship between humans and the natural world is illustrated as well by trees as by anything.
Trees grow without cultivation, yet certain varieties would not exist without the grafter’s art. Some forests are renewed by fire, yet generations of children have learned from Smokey the Bear that preventing forest fires is a sacred trust. Should we, as much as possible, leave Mother Nature alone, or should we try to help her along? Trees crystallize that dilemma.
Opinion: Tree thoughts
In Genesis the distinguishing feature of deity is the knowledge of good and evil, which is symbolized as a tree. Trees have a long and rich association with wisdom.
Walt Whitman asked, “Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?”
And William Wordsworth famously asserted, “One impulse from a vernal wood / May teach you more of man / Of moral evil and of good / Than all the ages can.”
Conversely, when an artist wants to depict the pernicious effects of human intervention in nature, nothing serves the purpose so forcefully as a landscape of tree stumps.
In “The Kite-Runner,” the Taliban know that breaking a people’s will is greatly aided by breaking off all the trees.
In Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax,” environmental degradation is symbolized by the clear-cutting of Truffula Trees to manufacture the frivolous and ill-defined Thneed. Not content to chop down Truffulas one at a time, the story’s villain — the Once-ler — invents a Super-Axe-Hacker that takes them down four at once.
But if wanton tree cutting represents the human propensity to despoil the earth, tree planting symbolizes the human capacity for altruism. In the words of a Greek proverb, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
To plant a tree is to take the long view, to express optimism, to plant one’s hopes along with a seedling. Planting trees is a quintessentially human endeavor, for it illustrates both the grandiose fallacy that the earth needs our assistance and the humble hope that we can start something which will grow far above and beyond ourselves.
A deep ambivalence runs through Americans’ attitudes toward trees. It’s illustrated by the fact that we have made folk heroes of a man who planted trees — Johnny Appleseed — and one who cut them down — Paul Bunyan.
The efforts of tree cultivators notwithstanding, it seems clear that we benefit far more from trees than they do from us. In Dr. Seuss’s fable, the titular hero, the Lorax, proclaims, “I speak for the trees.” That’s an admirable thought, but in the final analysis the judgment of nature rules otherwise: Trees, like all of the natural world, speak for themselves.