From Alabama to the British Isles, People Rally to Save Trees

It's just an old tree--why get excited? You may think I'm talking about the reaction to the intentional poisoning of historic trees located where Auburn University fans typically celebrate their athletic victories. But I hear this a lot from various people who just don't understand my affinity for trees.

Go ahead, call me a "tree hugger." Is that the best you've got? If the reaction by the Auburn community is any indication, I'm certainly not alone. Since the poisoning was discovered, people have rolled the trees in toilet paper, left gifts of candles and letters, and I even saw one Auburn professor in tears as he spoke about the incident. Sure, the poisoning was an attack against Auburn school pride, and the trees are symbols of that. But people don't cry over symbols, do they? What I see happening is evidence that more and more people see trees as truly living things that have value and are an essential and necessary part of our world; and when they are harmed, humans suffer for it.

I've always thought trees were sacred. I grew up in a relatively rural setting and spent most of my time roaming around the woods in our neighborhood. My friends and I played around the trees, rode our bicycles between them and slept beneath the trees on occasion. And when several acres of land were sold for an apartment complex, I was devastated. It felt like my heart had been ripped out. That loss inspired me to write my first poem. Snicker if you will, but that poem was published and helped launch my writing career.

A few years ago, I moved to a new house, and one of the main reasons I bought it was because of all the trees in the yard. It reminded me of that welcome I felt in the woods as a child; it immediately felt like home. I soon discovered that the house was located next to miles of walking trails and a protected wooded reservoir. Now, each time I walk beneath those trees, it's like I'm transported back to a place of wonder and harmony. Yes, there is something special about trees.

This shouldn't really surprise us, for humans have long thought certain trees to be sacred or holy and worthy of protection and respect. But in our age when a tree is merely a resource to be effectively managed, well, that doesn't exactly nurture a sense of wonder. So it's refreshing to see the reaction in Auburn to this poisoning. Similarly, this past December in Glastonbury, England, vandals cut down a hawthorn tree that had been preserved in some form for centuries. Called the Holy Thorn, it was believed to have been brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea after the crucifixion of Christ. Regardless of whether that detail is true, the tree was of "exceptional spiritual significance," according to the Glastonbury Abbey director, and people were in tears upon seeing its severed trunk.

Certainly, we need trees for the air we breathe, for shade and for lumber to build homes, and for delicious fruits, nuts, spices and more. But there is something beyond that, something about getting lost in the woods, something about sitting against a strong tree trunk; it's difficult to define, but I know deep within me that we need this connection and we need to preserve it.

Speaking of preservation, England's Parliament has now reconsidered its decision to sell off and privatize the country's national forests. The public outcry to the proposal was unexpected and caught the government by surprise. People rallied to save the trees because they see them as important and worth more than the money that might be raised by selling them. They were saying, in effect, we will not sell our British soul.

Right next door, the Irish government is apparently considering a similar plan, and a campaign to save that country's forests is under way. I can only imagine there would be a similar outcry if America's national parks were ever up for sale. Don't think it couldn't happen? While the U.S. government may not be considering something that drastic, the truth is that the Obama administration and Congress are under intense pressure to cut the federal budget, which includes money to operate and maintain our national parks; many state governments are facing similar challenges. It isn't so difficult to imagine a budget crisis so severe that privatizing our parks would make practical sense to some Americans. I pray that never happens.

I suppose it's easy for some people to take trees for granted, until they aren't there. Oddly enough, 2011 is the United Nations' International Year of Forests. Whether you live near a forest or have only one tree in your back yard, take this opportunity to consider your own connection to trees. What memories do you have? Or, maybe you need to reconnect with some trees. Why do some hesitate to get excited about trees? They are an invaluable part of our world; we need them. So go ahead, save one, plant one--even hug one. You might just like it.