Loss of trees brings community together

Posted Feb. 19, 2010, at 5:36 p.m.

“In winter, you can best observe the habits of trees.” Unless you’re an arborist, or a nature or garden writer, you’ll probably find this statement amusing, perplexing or both. After all, it’s a funny notion to think of a thing that stands still in one place all the time possessing habits of any kind.

If you choose to puzzle the expression out, you will probably feel stumped before you go very far. If trees provide nesting places, and sometimes flowers and seeds in the springtime, shade in summer, and colorful leaf displays and perhaps acorns or other nuts, or berries in the autumn, and they just stand starkly empty of all this in the winter, surely winter must be the worst time to observe any activities or “habits” associated with trees.

But if you know that the word “habit” when applied to a tree actually refers to its overall shape and structure, you will see why wintertime is the best season to observe this. When a tree is bare of foliage we can see the overall shape of the tree and the patterns formed by its network of branches. We may note that some trees’ branches extend upward on sharp angles from their trunks. Others send out large limbs that grow almost parallel to the ground, from which smaller branches rise skyward. Some trees grow in weeping forms, their branches draping groundward.

Whether or not a person has ever heard the expression “the habits of trees,” it is possible to become profoundly passionate about these “habits.” This was evident in Rockland recently when numerous residents attended a forum at Rockland City Hall to express their ardor for the trees that grace their own and their neighbors’ properties, as well as public spaces. Men and women, young and old, longtime residents and newcomers, even renters who stood to lose nothing financially, all stood up, one by one, to sing the praises of trees. They were also there to mourn the severe cutting of many that has been done recently by ABC Tree Service, a company that did the work under contract from Central Maine Power.

As a resident of Rockland, I have never been more proud of my neighbors. And I have never been more fascinated to see the different ways the love of trees can be expressed. A well-spoken man said that when he first purchased his property, he saw himself as a “steward” of the trees that had stood there for more than a century. He said he saw it as his responsibility to take care of them. He was not the only Rockland resident who has spent thousands over the years on having trees maintained by certified arborists.

A renter on Gay Street, which is bare of shade trees, spoke about experiencing stunned outrage at seeing a workers take a chain saw to a sapling, leveling the little thing to the ground. She said she had been waiting for the day — which would clearly be decades in the future — when that tree would shade her view. Another man waxed poetic about how the flower petals that descend from a tree in his yard cover the ground in springtime, providing a snowlike covering that calls Christmas to mind.

Another resident noted how some trees on Rankin Street had been cut so severely that some of them have been halved. Obviously a woman who tries to see the best in things, she wished to envision a day years from now when the trees would branch out again and recover some semblance of their former glory. But this “trees half-full rather than “trees half-empty” approach was destroyed when an expert told her the trees were damaged beyond repair, that the severity of the cutting would leave them open to disease and make them liabilities to property owners and the city in years to come.

As many who spoke at the forum put it, there is no denying that overcutting of our trees is unsightly at best and that it raises questions about future tree health. There is also no doubt that the tragedy that has struck our trees has caused the residents of one city in Maine to learn something very special about one another. They share a common passion. Spurred on by common purpose and new insights about one another, they now are calling for not just more careful cutting but for the establishment of a city tree arborist position, a tree-planting program, and more.

In the meantime, I will never drive down Rankin Street again without thinking of one neighbor who wished so hard to envision the trees growing strong and lush there again. I will never stroll down Gay Street without wondering where that lone sapling grew. And I will dare to hope that Rockland can become a city of more trees than ever — of “trees-ALL-full,” thanks to the ardor of its residents.

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