I admit it: I am a tree-hugger. I have hugged a tree or two in my life — usually when no one was looking. I confess: I love trees, not just for their practical value, but because of their otherness.
But my love for trees, like my love for whales, does little to save them.
How many trees have I witnessed being literally ripped from the ground? How many times on Route 6 have I followed huge trucks lumbering along with the carcasses of trees as cargo? How many giant yellow earth-chewing machines have I seen at construction-destruction sites? The sound of a chain saw and the roar of a wood chipper chills my blood.
And yet it is never enough. There is always another project. Some trees are sacrificed for yet another McMansion, others for more worthy projects — affordable housing and police stations included. Our former DPW Director Rich Waldo was quoted recently lamenting the “huge swaths” of protected land in Provincetown. He said, “If we could just scab off a little piece somewhere…,” it would be great for housing.
The committees that plan these projects always pledge to mitigate the loss of trees with new plantings. But saplings are no replacement for mature trees in terms of carbon sequestration, flood and erosion control, water storage, or wildlife habitat. Development, it seems, must go on: there is always a need for an additional this or an additional that.
Ever since the dawn of civilization and the first glimmerings of agriculture, of settlements, cities, and states, there has been development. Even hunter-gatherers developed their habitats. The prevailing notion that the earliest occupants of this continent lived lightly on the earth is true only in comparison to our own depredations. Native Americans greatly influenced the landscape with fire and killed off some of the existing megafauna by overhunting; some groups built earthenware constructions, causeways, dikes, canals, ball courts, and raised agricultural fields, especially in Meso-America.
And then came the Europeans. Game over.
In the last 400 years, almost 70 percent of our forests have been destroyed (although New England forests have seen a comeback) and roughly half of our wetlands have been filled in; every major airport in the country is built on fill, including Boston’s Logan. Our predecessors may be forgiven for their ignorance of the limits of the land; the doctrine of Manifest Destiny preached that there was no end to our resources, which were our God-given right to exploit. There was always more down the road: “Go West, young man!”
Our capitalist system is based on ever-expanding markets and development. Long ago, Jefferson’s concept of an agricultural republic gave way to Hamilton’s dreams of banks, commerce, and food as a commodity to be traded, bought, and sold.
Drive across country and see our cities: rows and rows of houses, buildings, parking lots, and beyond them factories, shopping malls, and endless acres of farms. Where could the wildlife have gone? Locally, it is the same. If a bird flying over the Cape had the lifespan of a sequoia, it would not recognize the terrain beneath it. We have all benefited. My own house was most likely built on an isolated vegetated wetland.
Every development represents a compromise between human need and the natural world, and every time it is the natural world that does almost all the compromising. Move over, fauna and flora: make way for Homo sapiens. As a member of the Provincetown Conservation Commission for 12 years, I oversaw those compromises. We did the best we could. We championed balance, arguing that the best development is re-development.
It is not the environment I am crying for; it is us: we need those trees. We need our funky, mosquito-ridden environs to reach our full human potential. This environment we are desecrating is the same one that sustained our evolution. How do we repay it? Chain saws and wood chippers, herbicides and driveways.
Be advised: all these trees, or something like them, will survive us. Incomprehensible as it seems, long after we as a species are gone, there will be an environment. It may not be anything we care to think about, but it will be there. When we lobby and fight for the environment we have now, it is for us — humanity — and the material and spiritual benefits that accrue from our relationships with trees and the rest of Nature.
They may yet save us, if we give them a chance.