Everything is connected — remember that, and I’ll come back to it in a moment.
I grew up in a small town in rural Georgia. Really small: not even 2,500 people (i.e., about half of Inman Park’s population). In those days and in that part of the world, children spent a lot of time outdoors. Lots and lots of time outdoors.
From an early age, therefore, older people were continually instructing us in the proper evaluation of risk. Mommy and Daddy were not going to be around to protect us from each and every danger: we children had to learn for ourselves how to live a full, active life with an acceptable level of risk.
This is a poisonous snake; that one isn’t. This is poison ivy; that’s Virginia creeper. Don’t you ever point a gun — even an unloaded gun, even a toy gun — at another person. “No” to getting into water until we could swim and swim well. What’s more, we were instructed never to dive headfirst without knowing exactly what was below the surface. We knew to be prompt about cleaning and disinfecting all wounds. We learned deep respect for fire. We were taught that an animal with rabies behaves such-and-such a way …
And so on.
Even so, people were killed and injured in the woods and fields around my hometown, just as they are every week on I-285 and the Downtown Connector. I remember the awe in my father’s voice when he told me about a man who was sitting in his pickup on the shoulder of a road. From behind him, a logging truck came rumbling by. At just the wrong moment, one of the logs rolled off the top of the pile, smashed through the back window of the man’s pickup at 55 mph, and decapitated the unfortunate fellow.
I think about all of that when I encounter neighbors who are afraid of trees growing near their homes.
“It’s just a tree. I’m a human being. My spouse and our children are humans. As far as I’m concerned, there is no level of danger that is acceptable to me. None at all. That tree needs to go. Why should I have to worry about it being blown over onto my house? It’s just a tree.”
That’s what I imagine they’re thinking. And on one view, it’s very hard to argue with that way of thinking.
It’s just a tree, after all, and it’s just one tree.
We live amid danger. Danger from bad drivers. Danger from lightning and flooding. Danger from criminals. Danger from aggressive dogs. Danger from high summer temperatures. Danger of contracting an infectious disease. Danger of getting fired or laid off. Danger of becoming anxious or depressed. Danger of losing a spouse or child. Danger from terrorism and nuclear weapons and unhinged politicians.
Amid so many dangers in life, even I can understand the appeal of eliminating the risk posed by that large tree. And if I make the effort to imagine what it is like not to have grown up learning how to tell the difference between a cottonmouth moccasin and a harmless watersnake, I can manage to be more sympathetic to those neighbors of mine who have a different tolerance of risk with regard to an oak that will fall one day (or a mosquito that may be spreading disease, which is a topic for a different day).
All that said, let me leave you with two thoughts.
First, unlike an animal, which will fight tooth and claw to live, a tree will die without apparent protest, without a sound. And yet you are connected to that tree in profound, complex, essential, and still mysterious ways. I’m not being spiritual here. The clean air you breathe, the clean water you drink? Gifts from our forests. Ponder that, the next time you hear the whine of a chainsaw.
Second, I do get a little angry when I sense that any of my neighbors is insufficiently concerned about the impact of “small-decision effects.” That’s a fancy way of saying that if everyone cuts down all of his or her larger trees, we’re all going to suffer. Which is another way of saying that some people, sadly, are very happy for me to tolerate risk from a large tree, so long as they don’t have to.
Life, in significant part, is one long effort to manage risk, in such a way that we neither die as a consequence of recklessness, nor fail to live fully as a consequence of timidity. We need our urban forest, friends — so please keep making an effort to find that happy medium between unnecessary fretting and blithe unconcern (which, fortunately for us, a good arborist can help us with).