What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Trees?
Climate change has pitted humanity against nature
On August 12, 2020, a derecho, with wind speeds of up to 140 mph tore through my town and left it mangled and broken in so many ways. Two years later, the town is still dealing with the aftermath. As the earth continues to warm, severe climate events are becoming the norm. And how do we adapt and change, in the furious face of nature? This newsletter is about eco-fascism, fear, loss, and trees.
I’ve seen my town destroyed by nature three times. Twice by flood and once by wind.
In the aftermath of each disaster, I’ve seen walls rebuilt, trees replanted, and people left behind. After the first flood, I saw families, their homes destroyed, living out of their cars in the parking lot of the building where I worked. My boss called the police.
After the winds, the hurricane-force winds, that destroyed 70 percent of the tree canopy, I saw people left homeless by the inadequate response. Families were left camping in the street on the hottest nights in August for days because Red Cross shelters weren’t set up. And when I asked why, politicians told me, “We want to look forward, not back.”
Apartment walls ripped off. Women huddled in closets holding their babies. No water. No air conditioning. No food. With the city’s relief efforts unfocused and uncoordinated, people’s needs went unnoticed. I worked at the newspaper then, and I put my cell phone number in the bottom of a column that linked out to various non-profits providing help and relief. For days, I received calls from people who hadn’t had a hot meal in a week, whose insulin supply was getting low, house-bound individuals who didn’t know where to find food.
Last December, when another derecho was in the forecast, I hid in my basement with my dogs and bourbon, texting my ex who had the kids, and crying, remembering each phone call, remembering the desperation, not knowing how we could do it again.
But we will do it again. We will have to. We don’t have a choice. Living in Iowa has always meant living exposed to the brutality and bounty of nature. Our lives and livelihood are tied intimately to the land and the weather. We live oscillating between being destroyed by nature and being restored by it. But these extremes are only getting more dire.
Nature is in crisis. This summer, heat mangled British railroads and killed 2,000 in Portugal and Spain. Lake Mead is drying up, wildfires consume the American West. Writing in a joint essay for The Guardian, Terry Tempest Williams and Rebecca Solnit state, “We are declaring a climate emergency. Everyone can, in whatever place on Earth they call home. No one needs to wait for politicians any more – we have been waiting for them for decades. What history shows us is that when people lead, governments follow. Our power resides in what we are witnessing.”
This disaster has divided us against nature. Humans v. trees.
Eco-fascists argue that the key to fixing the climate is to eradicate humanity. In an article in The Nation, Gaby Del Valle traces the violent rhetoric of environmental nativism that has motivated domestic terrorists, like the mass shooting in El Paso, Buffalo, and the murders at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Each of those murders was motivated by a belief that immigrants were causing harm to the environment. Fox News host Tucker Carlson has echoed this sentiment, that immigrants make America “dirtier.”
But even before that, connecting immigration with the destruction of the planet was influential rhetoric that led to the rise of regressive immigration laws in the 19th century, just as environmentalism began to gain in popularity. Today, del Valle writes, “some on the far right have accepted that climate change poses a threat to human existence—and they’ve decided that the best way to stop it is to not only restrict immigration but also to cull non-white populations by any means necessary.” Del Valle argues that the fringe movement of eco-fascism is poised to take mainstream political significance.
People v. trees. And the people are losing.
In the month before the anniversary of the derecho, I read a book about trees. I switch between reading David George Haskell’s The Song of Trees on my porch and listening to it as I walk my dog through my disaster-scarred neighborhood. It’s been two years, and the twisted knobs of trees still hobble the skyline. Blue tarps still wrap some of my neighbors’ roofs. It’s better now. Sometimes, I imagine it never happened. But then friends tell me about their lawsuits against their insurance companies and their desperation to find help. My own basement leaks in heavy rains and the diagnosis is a problem with the gutters, which I lost in the storm and had to replace. But getting someone to fix this problem has taken still another year, and it’s not done yet.
The human loss still sits heavy with me. A friend who lost her house in the storm — a tree falling into her daughter’s room and crushing the entire house, tells me her children haven’t been the same since. There is a palpable anxiety that lies underneath the crooked mischievous smiles of her nine-year-old. The little neighbor girl won’t go outside in the rain. Last year, she panicked at my house when a small storm blew through, and I had to walk her to her house as she cried because she thought we were going to be destroyed all over again. These losses I understand.
But the loss of the trees, I struggle to quantify.
During the derecho on Aug 12, 2020, Cedar Rapids lost between 65–70% of its tree canopy. Last year, the city launched a $3.4 million public-private partnership to replant the lost trees. It’s a vital and necessary effort. Trees are more than just aesthetically pleasing, they can save human lives. During extreme heat waves, neighborhoods with a tree canopy can be 10 degrees, or more, cooler. Trees trap pollutants making the air safer and easier to breathe. According to the Vibrant Cities Lab, “Violent crimes and crimes against property are both affected by rates of tree canopy.”
Eco-fascists also try to pit human versus nature, but this logic doesn’t hold up because we don’t exist in a binary, we exist in a relationship. There is no us versus them. No us versus nature. We are nature. We are them.
This focused and well-funded effort to replace the city’s trees is good. But last year, when the project was launched, I was frustrated. What about better low-income housing that doesn’t fall apart? What about homelessness? What about our immigrant communities and social services? What about the people I delivered meals to every day for weeks until, one by one, they got power again? What about people? It seems so cruel. People are left homeless. We plant trees. It feels like seeing a child hit by a car and in order to help them, you build a hospital while they sit in the road still bleeding.
In Haskell’s book, I learn not just about trees but how their very survival is intimately connected to other actors in nature, such as birds, fungi, bacteria, and insects. The relationship isn’t harmonious. It is often violent and fraught and sometimes not successful. But it continues and endures and comprises the tenuous fabric of our nervous planet. Haskell writes, “Life is embodied network. These living networks are not places of omnibenevolent Oneness. Instead, they are where ecological and evolutionary tensions between cooperation and conflict are negotiated and resolved. These struggles often result not in the evolution of stronger, more disconnected selves but in the dissolution of the self into relationship. Because life is network, there is no “nature” or “environment,” separate and apart from humans. We are part of the community of life, composed of relationships with ‘others,’ so the human/nature duality that lives near the heart of many philosophies is, from a biological perspective, illusory.”
Haskell’s compassionate understanding of nature reveals that there is a fight between humanity and nature. The loss of a tree and the loss of childhood are the same. My frustration is not fair, because it creates a false binary. Eco-fascists also try to pit human versus nature, this time to destroy humans, but its logic doesn’t hold up because we don’t exist in a binary, we exist in a relationship. There is no us versus them. No us versus nature. We are nature. We are them.
If these two years since the last time my town was destroyed have shown me anything, it’s how dependent we are on one another. How our only salvation is relationship. It is not us against the trees. We are nature. Haskell writes, “With the understanding that humans belong in this world, discernment of the beautiful and good can emerge from human minds networked within the community of life, not human minds peering in from the outside.”
Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, “I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals — and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves...”
The only life is the common life. The only reality is this incarnate one.
What the destruction of my life has shown me is that we don’t only live in relation to one another, we live in relation to the trees and the sky. So, the story of nature isn’t either a human story or climate story, the stories are the same. The climate story is the human story. The human story is a climate story.
Further Reading: This NYT interactive essay on trees and inequality was wonderful and eye-opening.
Yes! This. Recently, lightning hit an old beautiful oak outside my office window, causing it to split. Tree was cut down. I stood there yesterday just staring at the empty spot, feeling this weird sad feeling! (A little embarrassed that I was feeling what I was feeling for a tree!) Your writing is validating. I feel for my friends in the CR area and my hometown of Madrid. It's just so different now.
Trees have become museum pieces. Singly planted. Singly admired.
I live among trees in a damaged redwood forest. Trees too open to hard sun. Too sparse from felling and disease. Underground, I believe, is a multigenerational memory of community. Above ground, it feels like walking on a graveyard.