The Forest and the Tree

"They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." Joni Mitchell

I went to visit a friend yesterday. I had been out of town for a while and I really needed to see her.

She's always been there for me: strong, peaceful, and beautiful, with a quiet wisdom. I would go to see her and tell her my troubles, share my sorrows. Somehow she was always able to take them away, silently, just by being there to listen. Even on days when I just felt the need to step away from the noise of daily life, I would go to her and sit with her and somehow that time together fed my soul in a very special and unique way, the way only good friends and loved ones can.

That's why when I went to see her yesterday my heart broke when I found she was gone. Someone somehow had taken her from me, from all of us. Leaving only a small remnant of where she once stood.

She gave the same quiet space and shared her branch -- where I would often sit and think -- freely, cradling me with the strength and gentleness of mother. That's why in that moment when I saw she was gone, it felt much like an unexpected, sudden death of a healthy friend or loved one taken from us too soon.

My friend, "my" tree, stood on a quiet, somewhat secluded path in the Presidio where I am fortunate to live. Obviously she never belonged to me alone, she belonged to everyone and anyone who chose to acknowledge her. I suppose that technically she belonged to the Presidio Trust, the same people who chose to cut her down.

I asked myself (and them) why this choice was made. Why were she and so many other trees being cut down in this urban forest? These weren't sick trees, they weren't obstructing a path. They weren't doing anything but cleaning our air and providing solace and regeneration for the souls who chose to appreciate them.

Trees are alive and when trees breathe they take in carbon dioxide, release oxygen and store carbon in their trunks. Trees lock away carbon in a more permanent way than other plant species due to their size and relatively longer life spans. So when I learned that many trees were being cut down to restore parts of the park to what it was long ago with smaller plants replacing trees, I was not satisfied. Cutting down trees alters carbon storage, releasing carbon dioxide into the air as the wood decays worsening climate change--something we simply cannot afford to do. As I stared at the woodchips and dust that were once towering icons of nature and the now barren landscape, I wept for their loss and for ours.

Full disclosure, I work for an environmental group. Still, neither I nor others would say I'm a traditional "tree-hugger" environmentalist. I drive (probably too much considering I live in the city). I use paper towels. Yes, I use paper towels...sounds silly but that's the one that really got me today filling me with guilt for the many trees who lost their lives for my "convenience" and that got me thinking about connections. Of course I know that paper comes from trees, yet even I, who am exposed to environmental messages daily, hadn't kept the connection present enough to motivate me to make a lasting change.

Here in California we are all extremely worried about the drought. We are seeing the impacts all around us and we are taking action. Yet for years we have acted recklessly, wasting water unnecessarily never stopping to think that it would run out, never mind the fact that we are putting the homes of other animals and plants at risk and, as a result, putting ourselves at risk as well. We've burned forests, coal and oil, depleting our planet, polluting our air, lakes, lungs and rivers and still get caught up in partisan debates over whether or not we should have strong rules in place to fight climate change and limit pollution as if somehow, people who align themselves with one party would somehow be immune to the effects of pollution.

No death should be in vain and the loss of my friend the tree, and the realization that I will never sit on her branch again, I feel a heightened awareness of the importance of remembering our connectedness and the consequences of our actions. It's easy to not care about the ocean if we haven't splashed around in the water or watched the sunset on its horizon. It's easy to leave all the lights on when we don't see the pollution that fossil fuels dump into our air.

There are of course much greater tragedies in our world than the loss of this tree. However, if we fail to see our connectedness to each other and to nature, and how our actions impact us all, we will never make the change we need to keep our planet and ourselves healthy and thriving.

I will keep seeking answers about the loss of the trees in our forest. I am by far not an expert but I am an activist and want to understand the reasons why and let those making the decisions know that I and many others care. It's the least I can do for my friend.