Tree Rights

Tree roots are bound to the earth; tree tops reach to the heavens, enjoying air rights, operating on an invisible exchange of currency. We inhale trees’ exhalations, and they ours. Wherever a living tree grows and respires  — on public or private property — it benefits the common good.

I first considered these ideas one Thanksgiving, years ago, when Pop recalled his friend Charlie, who had a special talent for proprietary trading, circa 1965. Charlie made a profit entering a store’s dressing room in his old Levi’s, swapping them out for the latest cut, and exiting without dropping a dime. While he had a unique understanding of his social rights in the Men’s department, at least his exchanges obeyed natural limits — he left with only one pair, suiting him just fine. What Charlie lacked was a firm grasp of  social contracts or he chose to ignore them, living as if in the state of nature.

Soon after Pop purchased Sweet Hollow Farm in March of 1968, Charlie visited. Showing his friend around the property, the proud new owner (Pop) pointed out its many beautiful trees. Some, like the arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) in the Little Field and the tall red spruce (Picea rubens) past The Maples were tour stops on Pop’s first visit, Valentine’s Day, February ’68, with former owner Howard Sherman. Perhaps sensing the inherited nature of his tour and the trees, Charlie remarked, “You can’t own these trees.”

In the years since I first heard his comment, I have taken it to mean that trees are a secure stock, mutually beneficial to all, but not up for sale. Certainly, trees pass legally between hands, but they live and die on a higher plane, and their loss is everyone’s misfortune. In the tree department, Charlie got it right, downplaying ownership of nature, elevating trees to the role of functioning citizens, contributing to the collective whole. While I do not condone his pants racket, I’d like to thank him for his philosophy on the rights of trees, helping me see the higher calling in tree planting on Sweet Hollow Farm and elsewhere. Trees planted are promises, gifts to others, yielding greater measures over time, in life and death. Our commitments to them must extend beyond the concept of nature’s commodities or ecological servants — bought, sold, and traded — to entities bearing natural rights and responsibilities, in a different category than Levi’s or any other brand of limb-covers.




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