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Sowing Hope, One Tree at a Time

Written by Shannon Finch | Published on March 30, 2015 | Filed under Humane Connection
The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Humane Education website at http://humaneeducation.org/blog/2015/03/30/sowing-hope-tree-time/
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larch tree needles

Image by Shannon Finch

by Shannon Finch

Two summers ago while painting the outside of my house, the sound of chainsaws from the property behind us jolted me from my reverie. My horses ran in panicked circles as a large red cedar crashed to the ground. I somehow caught the horses without getting trampled, and then drove over to my neighbor’s house. From his point of view, I imagine I was quite the sight: a paint-spattered, sputtering-mad treehugger.

He explained that he was maintaining the health of the forest by thinning, but he had it backwards. As forester Joseph McNeel explains, thinning means “take the rest and leave the best.” Taking the most lucrative trees, in forestry terms, is called high-grading. My neighbor thankfully didn’t clearcut the forest, but he definitely made a dent in it.

People certainly have the right (mostly) to use their property as they choose. Moreover, our use of wood products likely won’t diminish anytime soon; trees will be cut. Still, I came home feeling hopeless, angry, and judgmental. (Let me interject here that if hand-wringing was an Olympic sport, I’d be a gold medalist. Bemoaning, complaining and worrying about world problems seduces me into thinking I’m doing something productive.) I felt sick as those trees hit the ground, each massive thud like a physical blow; but what could I do?

The only possible solution was to replace them. I had recently planted more than 200 native trees and shrubs for our pond restoration project, so I was already in the mode. Instead of being a champion hand-wringer, I became a champion for trees, symbolically shaking my fist in defiance, clutching a little seedling. While my neighbor’s trees fell, I planted paper birch, Garry oak (our only native oak, locally rare now), aspen, and grand firs. And yes, cedars too. I carefully transplanted to the back pasture every stray cedar seedling that had popped up in our flower beds.

A cedar is a marvel. It can grow from a tiny seedling to two hundred feet tall and live a thousand years, stoically taking everything nature throws at it, from storms to fires to insects. Practically speaking, all trees provide countless benefits: shade, shelter, and habitat for animals; food, medicine, fuel, and timber for humans. But trees also have a superpower: they store carbon and produce pure oxygen through photosynthesis. It turns out that trees can help us with a little problem called climate change.

As I write this, it is 61 degrees. In Seattle. In January. This is just one in a long line of record high temperatures here. All last summer as I soaked up the heat and sunshine like a lizard, there was a niggling in the back of my mind that this wasn’t right. And it wasn’t. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2014 was “the warmest year across global land and ocean surfaces since records began in 1880.”

I find this worrisome, and it makes my neighbor’s logging even more distressing to me. So I’m getting ready to plant more grand firs and cedars, along with a conifer I just fell in love with, the western larch. Its green needles turn a brilliant gold in fall and then drop off like the leaves of deciduous trees. Amazing, yes?

Planting trees is a supreme exercise in hope, optimism, and delayed gratification. It will take decades for my trees to mature, and many more before they replace what was lost.  I’ll never see them in their full glory. Maybe my efforts are ridiculous, like plugging the leaking dike with a wad of chewing gum. On the other hand, if more people were inspired to plant trees, it’s not such a stretch to feel—dare I say it?—a little more hopeful.

For more information:

Native trees are suited to the local environment, requiring less work and resources to take care of them. Check field guides and native plant nurseries for species that will be happy in your area. You can also contact your local conservation district. Conservation districts work with local landowners on natural resource management, and often have grant money and cost-sharing programs. USDA Cooperative Extension offices are another resource.

Find out how trees can help combat climate change here and here.

And you can read about my pond restoration project on our Black Dog Ranch here.