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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 2, 2008

Plant now for future generations

Illustration by Forest Byrd

In my youth, I strapped on my backpack and took a literary journey. I traveled to the western islands of Scotland, to retrace the 18th-Century footsteps of Samuel Johnson and his biographer, and friend, James Boswell. I felt prepared with my pen and blank book, my sleeping bag and tube tent, to lay my perceptions as a 20th-Century American woman against those of an Englishman and Scotsman, the great literary men of their era.

I was, of course, naive and foolhardy. One of my first nights in the stunningly stark landscape of the rain-soaked Hebrides, I discovered the practical value of trees. The tent I carried had no poles (no need for extra weight on a long trek) but was instead to be strung with light rope between two trees. There were none.

As I shivered in my now-wet sleeping bag, and read by flashlight the words of Johnson’s  book, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, the passage about Auchinleck, Boswell’s ancestral home, took on new meaning. Johnson wrote of Boswell’s father, Lord Auchinleck, “It was, with the rest of the country, generally naked, till the present possessor finding, by the growth of some stately trees near his old castle, that the ground was favourable enough to timber, adorned it very diligently with annual plantations.”

Johnson saw Lord Auchinleck as a civilized man because he planted trees that would not benefit him in his own lifetime, but would be an asset to future generations.

I had, until that journey, taken the existence of trees for granted. With my mother, I raked the pine needles from the yard of my Pine Ridge Drive home every fall, piling them in sweet mounds at the corner of our yard. When I tented out on the hill behind our house, I was comforted by the whispering branches of trees. I liked watching the birds that nested there and the squirrels that raced straight up their trunks.

I had a favorite tree, a white pine, that stood majestically on a hill behind Guilderland Elementary School. I liked to climb the tree during recess and read there, undisturbed, with a bird’s-eye view of my classmates playing below.

 This week, Guilderland writer Ellen Zunon has captured the feeling of desolation that came when five huge trees in her carefully tended backyard had to come down. Her backyard habitat had been certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a haven for songbirds and other wild creatures.

“The mock orange behind the birdbath rubbed broken branches next to the wounded hickory,” Zunon writes in our Fall Home and Garden edition.

She decided to replace the felled trees with seedlings from the Arbor Day Foundation, and chronicles with careful detail how she tended the tender shoots. The foundation, she writes, was established in 1972, a century after the first Arbor Day was celebrated on the Nebraska plains. Its mission is a worthwhile one — to inspire people to plant, nurture, and celebrate trees.  We urge individuals and municipalities to follow suit.

The McKownville Neighborhood Improvement Association has a tree-planting program and other neighborhoods could do the same. “I know the economy is crashing and we are probably headed for a depression,” Don Reeb of the McKownville group e-mailed his neighbors this week, “but faith in the future is important and what better way to tell yourself and your family that you have faith and hope and nothing can get you down than to order and plant a tree — something that will not mature for many, many years?”

At the other end of the spectrum — both in location and age — is a gnarled beech tree in Albany, which is more than a century old. The weeping beech, still wearing summer’s green veil, stands next to the grand brick home of the president of the University of Albany.

When reporter Zach Simeone told us he was going to talk to the city forester about the ancient tree, we were a bit incredulous. A forester in a city?

The more we thought about it, the more it made sense. Cities need trees. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and cool paved surfaces. They soften harsh views and add oases of privacy.

Albany’s weeping beech tree has, like the trees planted by Lord Auchinleck, outlived the planter. Named “Old Snarley” by children who played in it, the tree, as Simeone writes, has lived through two world wars, depression, boom, and 21 presidencies.

We realize now that Johnson’s thought was not a new one. Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman statesman and philosopher, wrote that the diligent farmer plants trees for which he himself will never see fruit.

Such tree-planting is an apt metaphor for modern life. In our post-industrialized society, we, as members of the human race, must sow seeds now if our civilization is to continue for future generations.

Planting trees is a small way to start, but it is something real each one of us can do. As the Arbor Day Foundation points out, trees help combat global warming. Shading a house with a tree not only saves on cooling costs but lifts the spirits as well. Plucking fruit in your own backyard not only saves on fuel spent traveling to the store but is satisfying as well. Nothing tastes as sweet or sounds as crisp as biting into an apple just after it’s picked from a tree.

Plant a tree and breathe deeply.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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