Randall Beach: People, let’s stand up for our trees

This copper beach tree at Edgerton Park in New Haven is columnist Randall Beach’s favorite tree.

They are all around us, providing shade, shelter, serenity and helping us to fight global warming, if only we will let them stand.

And yet our trees are under attack from insects, fire, diseases and overzealous utility company crews who “clear cut” (destroy) rows of trees rather than trim the branches.

Yes, I am a tree lover. But I don’t cotton to the “tree hugger” label. I take care of the trees on my small property in New Haven and I have publicized the heroic efforts of tree protectors, such as the Hamden Alliance for Trees.

“HAT believes we need to balance the need to protect the electric grid and power delivery for residences and businesses with the need to preserve the town’s landscape,” the group said in a news release. “None of us wants to experience power outages but we recognize the many economic, environmental and aesthetic services our trees provide to enhance our quality of life.”

The group noted trees reduce air pollution by absorbing carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that causes climate change; trees remove and store the carbon while releasing the oxygen back into the air. Tree also provide habitat and food for birds and other animals. And trees help prevent flooding.

One of the most effective ways to fight global warming is to plant lots of trees, according to the many studies that are regularly released. And so last year, after my wife and I reluctantly asked the city to remove a large tree on city property because it abutted our land and had become ill, threatening to fall on our house, we arranged for the Urban Resources Initiative to plant a new one there. A URI crew came last week and planted a gorgeous Japanese lilac.

Those guys worked hard but finished the job, installing the tree between the street and sidewalk within a half-hour. And they presented us with a “certificate of adoption,” declaring we had “officially adopted and welcomed into the New Haven urban forest” this young lilac. We agreed to water it weekly in certain months of the seasons for the next three years.

URI is a nonprofit partner of Yale’s School of Forestry that for no charge replaces trees lost to storm damage, disease, invasive insects and old age. The URI “planting team” sent me an email message of thanks: “Your tree will provide shade, beauty and a host of environmental benefits to your neighborhood.”

I also like URI because they hire local high school teenagers and former prison inmates to do the plantings.

Those are the heroes. The villains include high officials with utility companies, who should listen to the naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Long ago he told us: “It is worse than boorish, it is criminal to inflict an unnecessary injury on the tree that feeds or shadows us. Old trees are our parents, and our parents’ parents, perchance.”

We saw a savage example of this cruelty to trees last July when the beloved “Door Tree” in Hamden was killed by a man wielding a chainsaw. This Mount Carmel landmark, featured several times in Ripley’s “Believe it or Not,” had been with us at least since 1898. It was a rare natural phenomenon consisting of one tree growing into another, forming that doorway-like arch.

According to a warrant by Regional Water Authority police, the man who cut down the tree, Curtis Pardee, did so because of his “hatred for my brother,” who adored that tree. The defendant has beeen charged with third-degree criminal mischief and third-degree criminal trespassing.

Many times, of course, trees are taken down in legally acceptable fashion on private property. But that doesn’t make it right. I can offer two examples of this happening on my family’s property in Mount Kisco, N.Y., where I was raised and learned to love trees as I roamed that wooded land.

The first “villain” was my father, who developed an irrational dislike for the majestic Japanese ginkgo tree that grew for many decades near our house and driveway. My old man didn’t like the smelly ginkgo berries that fell on the ground every fall. And so one year, over my strenuous objections (I even sent him a copy of the poem “Woodman, Spare that Tree!”), he hired a tree company and had it removed.

The second loss hurt more. Over many years I had kept the vines away from an immense pine tree that anchored our backyard. But after my family sold the house, the new owners apparently thought the tree interfered with their view of the valley and hills beyond. So they killed it. What kind of warped thought process leads somebody to commit such an egocentric act?

Many of us have a favorite tree. My wife, who grew up in Old Lyme, adored a chestnut tree next to the town’s Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library.

Ever since we moved to New Haven, we have enjoyed walking in Edgerton Park, which straddles the Hamden line and offers all visitors a wide range of attractive trees. My favorite is a copper beech tree, for its immense attractiveness. Standing beyond it into a wooded area is a stately row of several more copper beeches. When our kids were young, they liked to play around those big trees.

But within the last week came the deeply troubling news that beech trees are being menaced by a new threat: beech leaf disease. And it’s here in Connecticut. The culprit is a microscopic roundworm, reported Robert Miller in a Hearst Connecticut Newspapers column.

Miller quoted Robert Marra, a forest pathologist for the Connecticut Agricultural Extension Station: “Our forests seem to be under continual assault.”

Literature is full of odes to trees. The most remarkable one I’ve read was “The Overstory,” by Richard Powers; it won the Pulitzer Prize for 2018. I loved that book, although it’s sometimes as dense as an ancient forest. Powers weaves the stories of nine characters linked by their deep affinity for trees: an American chestnut, a mulberry, a fig tree, a Spanish oak and the California Redwoods.

Powers quotes one of his character saying this: “When you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”

I invite you, dear reader, to let me know about your own favorite tree, and why it holds that honor. Perhaps this will lead to another column of praises sung.

Connecticut Media Group