My imagination makes me human
and makes me a fool;
it gives me all the world
and exiles me from it.
--Ursula K. Le Guin
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May, 2006

Memorial Day and I am thinking of trees. Downtown is tomb dead; the bank temp reads 89 degrees, hot for May, but, then, Al Gore, bless his heart, is on the climate change trail again, trying to wake us up. Downtown Knoxville does have more trees than most cities this size but not many of the big kind, the old kind, the kind that give shade and eat pollution and store the most carbon dioxide. One tree, it is estimated, will store up to 600 pounds of carbon dioxide over a 40-year period. But who lets trees hang around forty years when developers get a whiff of a burgeoning condo market.

In addition to indiscriminate cutting of old-growth trees, we have gas-guzzling SUVs and farting cattle. Yes,I read that in a recent NYTimes Book Review of the new book by Princton bioethicist Peter Singer and his co-author Jim Mason, Eat Your Vegetables. The authors claim that "cattle, through burpng and flatulence, are responible for close to one half of the world's methane emissions." Can that be true? Should farmers be adding Beano to cattle feed? Seriously, shouldn't people, as Singer advocates, be eating more vegetables and less meat? Shouldn't they be trading in their SUVs for hybrids, walking more and driving less?

Absolutely, but SUVs and cow flatulence aside, I personally think the increase in tree cutting in our shrinking woodlands should have us mobilized. Clear-cutting has destroyed countless virgin forests, mostly in the pursuit of wood to produce disposable paper products. One of the biggest offendors is the world's largest tissue paper manufacturer, Kimberly-Clark. Only one-fifth of K-C paper products are made from recycled sources. But we can't just point a finger only at the wipe-and-blow crowd. K-C, after all, does operate a paper mill in France producing hemp paper for Bibles and cigarettes. There is irony in there, and also in the fact that the good ole U.S. has made hemp growing a serious Federal crime--even hemp with its narcotic characteristics bred out. Consumers are also to blame for not demanding recycled paper products.

Here in TN and nearby NC and KY, a blind eye is being turned toward the dessimation of forests along the Cumberland Plateau. You don't see it when you drive over the mountains because they are careful to leave a wide swath of trees along the interstate to hide the carnage, but from a small plane the destruction is sickening. Read about The Tennessee Tree Massacre at NRDC's OnEarth website. It is scary--statements like "clearcutting on this scale not seen since in the Amazon 25 years ago"; "annually on the Plateau a holocaust of 3 million trees, 14 million if you count smaller trees and pines"; "the average American consumes about a half a ton of paper a year." I imagine much of that is for glossy catalogs and junk mail. The Pottery Barn catalog that shows up in mailboxes umpteen times a year and is immediately tossed is just a tiny example of consumer culture arrogance.

And clear-cutting goes hand-in-hand with the coal mining industry's practice of mountain-top removal. Paper companies go in first and cut all the trees, then the coal companies blast off the top of the mountain, and not just the mountain but the mountain range. Even closer to home, just 40 miles from Knoxville, Zeb Mountain is being systematically destroyed by National Coal Corporation. You can view aerial shots of Zeb Mountain at United Mountain Defense and read what is being done on a grassroots level to stop it at Mountain Justice. An example of activism on a smaller scale is a local website, Downtown Trees, created to consolidate efforts of local tree advocates, document the unnecessary loss of trees, and raise awareness of the benefits trees provide, especially in an urban environment.

I don't remember my childhood summers in TN and VA being as hot as they are today, at least we didn't have or need air conditioning. But then we had large shade trees around our houses and not nearly so much concrete and asphalt. Trees can lower the temperature in buildings as much as twenty degrees. Today, large trees are not in vogue because a) they are "messy," b) they pose a risk of falling, and c)they are not the darlings of developers who prefer to level the playing field and landscape designers who prefer small ornamentals, and also they love male trees because the females stink a couple weeks out of the year and bear too much fruit. On an NPR story recently a horticulturist said that male only plants are responsible for most of the pollen in the air, but that's another story, another example of disrespect for and ignorance of biology.

Earlier today, I visited Knoxville's old Jewish cemetery, was touched by the Jewish custom of leaving small rocks on the tombstones as memorials instead of flowers. The little cemetery was surrounded by a few large old trees, mostly oaks and a giant magnolia near the center where, from a bench in its canopy of shade, I sat and looked out over the rows of polished granite. There was a breeze, and the temperature seemed considerably less than the 90 degrees I had left in the city.

As a writer, trees are my muse. As an inhabitant of Earth, trees are life-giving partners. As I sat in the cemetery with no sound but birds, I breathed in oxygen and released carbon dioxide. The trees breathed in the carbon dioxide and gave off oxygen. As the trunks were pumping water from the soil and releasing moisture into the air, the leaves were thousands of little fans cooling it. A tree is nothing short of magic.

I was so fortunate to grow up poor in a hollow bound by ridges of ancient woods, to spend hours there playing alone, the deep silence penetrated only by the flights of birds and the slow gestures of trees. It was, I think, a kind of religious experience, the reason I have always felt closer to God among trees than I ever have inside churches.

It seems fitting that I am writing about trees on Memorial Day, words gathered together like stones on tombstones in gratitude for all the trees that have seemed like gifts and friends and in mourning for all that have been so thoughtlessly and needlessly destroyed.