Hearing news about poverty-driven deforestation in Indonesia, I’m struck by thoughts of the unnecessary urban deforestation that’s going on “Right here in River City.”
In my North Hills neighborhood, they’re tearing down houses and building larger, prettier, better ones. The best of these, the ones I gaze at on my walks, are those where the builders (or the owners who hired them) took the trouble to work around trees. Those houses sit back on their lots, private, coddled, sensitive and alive. Mostly, I’m sorry to say, lots are mown down whole cloth, and dwellings built that surely cover more percentage of acreage than should be legal.
I was particularly upset when renovations on E.C. Brooks Elementary School took a certain turn.
I used to walk past the playground, which was graced with a cluster of trees on a hilltop and one huge grandmother oak in the low corner near the road. This oak was multi-trunked with thick-armed branches reaching for the sky rather than spreading wide. Every winter she clung to her dried leaves all the way until spring.
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When they took down the other shade trees in the playground, I was relieved that they left her. I walked past, wondering, would the hill still hold a jungle gym and swings or a building? I sent a silent prayer to the grandmother oak, mourning with her the loss of her sisters. I imagined the shocks that had traveled between their entwined roots; I had learned that trees communicate in this way.
The next day my own rootedness in optimism was shocked when I turned onto Rampart Street, eyes searching and not finding. They’d cut down the giant, old oak. A beautiful, healthy tree, an ancient tree with stories to tell. Surely they could have worked around her, on the edge of the property as she was.
I peered through a rip in the green cloth covering the construction fence. The massive trunk lay in the dirt, all its leafy branches pared away, like Aslan with his mane cut off, only the tree was really dead. The cut face, almost as tall as me, was clean-ringed and perfect, not a sign of rot.
My fury and sorrow was shot through with shame. Was there someone I could have called when I saw the other trees being cut, some way to have protected this one? An Internet search later revealed that concerns were voiced, articles written, petitions signed, but to no avail.
It took the grandmother oak more than 200 years to reach her size; she had a good couple of hundred years left to go. What a wonderful teaching opportunity she could have provided to the children who attend E.C. Brooks. Benches could have ringed her, history lessons about The City of Oaks and beyond set in her context. Celebrations of nature and conservation could have been held in her shade. But she’s gone, the hill flattened.
I’m sure when construction is finished, pavement will cover the low corner where the grandmother oak lived. How beautifully she would have welcomed the students back to their school, how she would have improved the aspect of their days.
I can’t stand to walk past there now, but when I do go by, I send an apology to the after-image of forest, an apology for my part in the human race that demands progress at too great, and often unnecessary, a cost.
Maybe the oaks at E.C. Brooks had to go (though I would argue, not all of them) but what about around the rest of the neighborhood? We shouldn’t be allowed to save a few construction dollars by clearcutting lots. Every tree adds to the canopy that shades important portions of the earth.
There are many city ordinances and guidelines for dealing with trees on various types of properties, but seeing what’s going on in my neighborhood, I think we need more stringent rules than currently exist.
Caring voters need to weigh in with informed opinions. Speak out. I wish I had.
Maybe I could have at least found a way to help save the grandmother oak I so admired.
Virginia Ewing Hudson teaches cello at Meredith College and is a resident of Raleigh’s North Hills neighborhood.