December 11, 2023

TEBBUTT | If a Tree Falls on the Slope, It Makes a Sound

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I am lucky enough to live on one of higher education’s most beautiful and unconventional academic quadrangles: Cornell’s Library Slope evinces a gently rolling, manicured arcadia worthy of Capability Brown. Over the years I’ve come to know many of its inhabitants: the groundhog which shuffles around to the south, the deer that graze under the cover of darkness and the red-tailed hawks which glide up above them all. As these colorful personalities come and go with the seasons, the Slope retains its identity largely thanks to the immoveable presence of its iconic trees. Some more than twice as old as the University itself, they remain totems of strength in the face of snowdrifts during the winter, and bright bouquets of joy with the coming of spring.

I therefore shared the widespread sense of dismay when, on beginning my daily ascent to class one morning in October, I noticed immediately that something had changed. Only then did I realize how much I had taken for granted the familiar greeting of the swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor), its leaves’ soft, rounded edges reminding me of the trees of home. Joni Mitchell put this feeling very succinctly in 1970: “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”. Without warning, the towering tree that provided perches for hawks, seclusion for lovers and shade for those determined to battle screen glare in the afternoon sun was gone, cut so low that hardly even a stump remained1. The stone slabs which were my favourite spots to meditate, as the thick canopy framed the lake below, now lay naked and exposed to the western sun. Nestled in an alcove in the historic Uris Library, I used to track the progress of the year against this constant yet changing oak tree, finding in it the same sense of seasonal renewal that inspired Tolstoy’s Prince Andrei. 

Overnight, this meaningful landmark of my time at Cornell had disappeared, with no public explanation even until now, nearly two months later. It persists, however, as a digital ghost both on Google Earth and on Cornell’s tree inventory, where its condition in 2019 was marked as “fair,” with the additional comment of “fungus at base.” Case closed, then: Eaten away by the action of mushrooms, the oak tree became a victim of its own spectacular height. Now a danger to the surrounding people and architecture, the University must have decided it had to come down. But is that really enough? If McGraw Tower was demolished over Fall Break, it probably wouldn’t be left up to students to piece together the reasoning from a few outdated online sources. Judging by contemporary photographs and its impressive 1 meter diameter, this tree has been a part of Cornell’s history for at least as long as the library.

This is also not the first seemingly unannounced felling of trees that held meaning for our academic community. In the summer of 2022 (again during a university break), shocked messages were sent around the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment as a stand of old oaks was removed before the eyes of faculty and graduate students, allegedly (and ironically) to make way for the new sustainability center. Even as I circle the murky realms of the curmudgeon or nimby, I can anticipate and understand the argument that the impacts of such a well-funded, interdisciplinary environmental research facility could far exceed those of a handful of local trees. The issue in each of these cases is, however, not so much the loss of the trees, which may have been justified2, but the lack of apparent consideration for its impact on the community.

This brings to mind September’s news headlines from the UK, which documented the outrage and despair that followed the “vandalism” of the eponymous Sycamore Gap3 tree. My friends and colleagues here on the other side of the Atlantic were quick to ridicule England’s grief at the loss of a single, dubiously “world-famous” tree, which gave the unfortunate impression that this was the last one left on the island. Such schadenfreude is perhaps deserved for a country that had cleared all of its ancient forests by 1150 AD, before getting to work on the rest of the world’s. But it raises an important question: Does the clearance of this single, culturally meaningful hectare matter proportionately more than each of the millions of hectares of forest cleared annually in North America?

For the woodpeckers and squirrels that rely on the trees of those vast forests, probably not: Every tree felled is a home lost for someone. But, living in a world that has been spectacularly slow to assign the concerns of its other-than-human inhabitants significant weight, human meaning might be their next best chance for preservation. To return to the UK: The grassroots protests against the removal of urban trees in the name of insurance and infrastructural development show just how important individual specimens can be to communities, and the lengths they will go to in protecting them.

These attachments to living trees fall under the nebulous ‘cultural values’ category that gets tacked onto the end of scientists’ lists of ‘ecosystem services’. Difficult to quantify, and ranging widely from the recreational to the aesthetic and spiritual, these non-material benefits are too often pushed aside by the prerogatives of economic growth. This is even more prevalent when the cultures for whom these trees hold value are themselves marginalized in the global and national discourse. With reforestation in vogue all over the world, now is an apt moment to ask ourselves whether trees, like dollars, are truly fungible. Is it really all the same to cut one down here and plant another there, and just assume that the communities around them won’t be affected?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins with a sketch in which the Vogons, an unpleasant, bureaucratic alien race, demolish Planet Earth to build an intergalactic highway. When horrified humanity demands to know why they were not informed of this in advance, the response is: “All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display at your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for 50 of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint”. 

I still haven’t seen a public explanation, either prior to or after the removal of my old friend from Libe Slope. Such an act may not quite equal the destruction of earth, but it would have been nice to say goodbye.

1 Perhaps it will merit a commemoration, like the ‘stump’ on Ho Plaza.

2 Would I still assume this if it was taking place at a different institution, or in another part of the world?

3 Fern Gulley, anyone?

Charlie Tebbutt is a third year PhD candidate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. His fortnightly column Rêveries is a collection of musings that wander from the hill, over the Atlantic and out to the beautiful planet that we all share. He can be reached at [email protected].

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