Like cemetery, trees demand the long view

If you haven’t felt insignificant for a while, tarry for an hour up at Port Blakely Cemetery.

Hewn from the towering firs of another age, it is a world of impossibly long shadows, literal and otherwise.

The setting demands that one take the long view of things, creating as it does a seamless thematic blend of our personal physical mortality, our shared island history, and the natural world into which both are so intertwined.

Some of those magnificent trees, contemplated and admired by so many generations before us, are coming down. As reported elsewhere in this issue, disease has set in amongst some in the stand, while three acres worth of lesser arboreal specimens to the north of the property will be cleared so that more among us might pass eternity in the serene grounds. The tree-clearing appears to be generating little public interest, perhaps owing to the solemnity of the project or the cemetery board’s long-time, excellent stewardship of the property.

By happenstance, today’s edition also carries news of community concern over the incremental loss of tree cover in downtown Winslow. Damage to the roots of several trees in Waterfront Park during construction of a new playground has caused consternation among nearby residents, who fear the trees have been compromised and will come down. Council members, meanwhile, are weighing the need for more tree protection in our downtown core -- an area, paradoxically, that is earmarked for more intensive growth and redevelopment in the coming years.

We islanders tend to take a proprietary view of trees, even when they’re technically not our own. Our city codes reinforce this notion by setting various standards for tree retention – in buffers around new developments, usually – to screen construction or protect streams and wetlands. As we’ve seen countless times, the loss of just a single tree – even when they’re diseased and failing – can elicit a visceral response.

We share the concern over the apparently needless root damage to trees in Waterfront Park. At the same time, no review of our city’s “tree policies” would be complete without considering whether the city is doing enough to promote the planting of new -- and larger – trees on an ongoing basis, not just when a few are damaged or felled.

The city planning department cites the municipal code in saying that trees planted to fulfill development’s landscaping requirements must be four to six feet tall (conifers) or 2 inches in caliper at the root collar (deciduous). We might ask arborists: Are these the largest specimens that can be planted with reasonable expectation of growth and success? Mightn’t we hasten the restoration of mature tree cover around town with larger specimens?

We don’t like the loss of trees any more than most islanders, for all the same reasons. Yet we deny the cycle of life if we are blinded by a personal, temporal perspective on trees we happen to find significant. Successive generations will graft their own significance, their own meaning to the trees we put in the earth ourselves; as much as protecting today’s trees, we need to be planting more of them, year after year after year.

We are, as individuals, on the planet for a short period of time. The Blakely Cemetery trees show the real long view of things, and as we are reminded, even they pass.

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