The following is an essay I wrote when we were living in Calhoun, Georgia . . .
This morning, as every morning, I looked out the kitchen window to get a feeling for the new day before I started my coffee. Living on a North Georgia pond and surrounded by water on three sides, I am often greeted by a variety of wildlife–mallards, Canada geese, blue and green heron.
But this morning, my view of the pond was blocked by a banner of leaves. My God, that’s a huge limb, I thought, assuming it had dropped from the large oak that guards the western shore of our spit of land. I leaned closer to the window in dawning horror. It wasn’t a limb at all, it was another oak, the one that shades the front of our house.
“Oh No!” I cried, giving voice to both my sorrow and shock. My mind was racing. How could it have fallen? There had been no wind last night, no storm. What had caused the death of this mighty oak and why hadn’t I heard it, felt it when it crashed to the earth?
My husband and I went outside to explore. It had fallen so very neatly–missing the birdbath by less than a foot and gently cupping a sapling maple between two of its limbs. Apparently the tree had fallen very slowly. Even the mistletoe and resurrection fern that carpeted its body lay undisturbed.
It appeared as if the tree, which had been close to 100 years old, had died in its sleep. But, an examination of the tree’s roots revealed the cause of its death. Two of the three major roots were dry and spongy. Dry rot? The oak had seemed so healthy. Our 50-year-old pines are slowly succumbing to the ravages of old age and pine beetles but they announce their death with a profusion of pinecones. What had caused the roots on our oak to rot.
Our next door neighbor wandered over to commiserate. “I tried to tell your mother not to build a fire there,” he said to my husband. Build a fire . . . that more than explained it. The only root still living was the one on the opposite side of the tree, the one away from the scorched bark. We could see it now that it was no longer camouflaged with coeleus. She had wanted to burn some brush, we discovered, and had figured that big old oak would be strong enough to take it.
How many plants die each year from our naiveté? Those we forget to water or water overmuch; those that are sensitive to heat or cold and die from exposure; and those that we allow to starve to death. The death of our oak seems a greater symbol to me. My mother-in-law felt that the tree couldn’t be hurt by a mere fire at its base. If she had carried the brush away from the tree and burned it elsewhere, the tree would be alive today. But it was more expedient to burn the brush where it lay. That shortcut cost a 100-year-old tree its life.
It is a similarly shortsighted attitude that causes companies to take shortcuts when it comes to the environment. When short-term profits are put ahead of long-term environmental effects, the outcome can be devastating. If a little fire can’t hurt a 100-year-old oak then surely a little clear-cutting won’t hurt our National Forests. And, what about a little toxic waste? Surely, the earth can take it. After all, she’s more than 4 billion years old. Our atmosphere has been around about as long, how can a little incineration of trash and a few aerosol sprays possibly hurt it that much?
It is true. The earth will recover but will she do so by shaking off the pesky human species first. The earth may well survive by rebuilding itself after we have destroyed the ecosystems that support us.
They say that when a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound. Maybe we should start listening a little harder.