Here you see a scene from the 1960s.
It’s a helicopter spraying DDT — you remember the pesticide DDT, subject of Rachel Carson’s justly famous Silent Spring — above elm trees in an American city. Back then, the thought was that DDT would kill the beetles that were transporting the devastating Dutch elm disease from tree to tree.
With a little human ingenuity, it was thought, cities could rescue the American elm, that graceful tree which once shaded streets all over the United States.
A flying machine! A colorless, tasteless, almost odorless chemical synthesized in a laboratory! What amazing technologies!
What could go wrong?
You know what went wrong. But this isn’t a post about the bioaccumulation and biomagnification of toxic chemicals, about species extinctions, about cancer.
No, this is a post about the stories we tell, and how those stories shape the way we think and behave.
In Detroit, back in 1967, city officials were using helicopters to spray DDT. Many elms, already diseased and dying, they were forced to cut down. Their intentions were good, of course. They were simply trying to protect and preserve their urban forest, in the hope of retaining the character of their leafy-green city.
Not everyone saw it that way, however.
The summer of 1967, after all, was when Detroit experienced the most dramatic civil unrest in any American city since the New York draft riots during the Civil War.
And so it’s hardly surprising that some Detroit residents had a different interpretation of the city’s actions.
What some Black residents believed was that the spraying and the cutting were happening so that law enforcement and intelligence agents could better surveil their neighborhoods from helicopters and other high places, after the urban uprising.
Decades later, when a nonprofit organization approached those same people about having trees planted in their neighborhoods, many declined.
Is that so surprising?
As researcher named Christine E. Carmichael put it …
In this case, the women felt that [after the race rebellion] the city just came in and cut down their trees, and now they want to just come in planting trees. But they felt they should have a choice in this since they’ll be the ones caring for the trees and raking up the leaves when the planters leave. They felt that the decisions regarding whether to cut down trees or plant new ones were being made by someone else, and they were going to have to deal with the consequences.
Context, right? She continues, “Residents who wanted greater decision-making power in tree planting assumed they would be responsible for stewardship, reflecting their historical experiences within the city. The organization’s dominant heritage narrative emphasized that residents held misperceptions of trees based on negative past experiences, and required education on benefits of trees.”
To put it more simply: it’s not that African-Americans in Detroit don’t trust trees. It’s that in many cases, they don’t trust their own city.
Redlining, racist policing, the criminalization of poverty — the negative consequences of longstanding injustices reach as far as whether an organization like Trees Atlanta will be truly welcomed into an Atlanta neighborhood. They reach as far as whether a new tree protection ordinance for Atlanta will be looked at with hope or suspicion.
Why? Because there is no adequate substitute for trust. Trust is the bridge by which we find our way to each other. Trust is the glue that makes community possible. Trust is where everything good starts.
In metro Atlanta, for decades and decades, we’ve too often chosen to go our own way: rich and poor, white and black, city and suburbs, Buckhead and Cascade Heights. How is that working out for us? How is it working out for clean air, clean and plentiful water, shady streets?
The virus is telling us we are irrevocably bound to one another. On a much smaller scale, Atlanta’s dwindling urban canopy is telling us that we are irrevocably bound to one another.
A new tree protection ordinance that embraces that truth would be a small, but not insignificant, step in the direction of building the trust we need, if we want a better Atlanta.