Monster winds have ravaged the South this spring, leaving behind all varieties of loss human and material. The photos often centered on the exposed, tangled root systems of giant trees to illustrate nature on the rampage.
Raleigh, N.C., the "City of Oaks," lost many of its famous trees in the siege. Hundred-year-old oaks are big things. But the tornadoes knocked them down, the News & Observer reported, "like so many bowling pins."
Trees added to the human woes, smashing houses and, in some tragic cases, taking lives. The trees' sudden fall from the sky also ate into people's sense of continuity. Trees play a role in daily existence that we may not register until these steadfast neighbors are gone.
National Arbor Day takes place on the last Friday in April. This Victorian-era observance has fallen under the shadow of all-encompassing Earth Day (April 22). But Arbor Day endures as a reminder to take notice of and protect trees -- and to plant more.
For many bustling Americans, trees fade into the scenic wallpaper. Their presence is felt only when they block roads, crush cars or open the street to a harsh sun.
Hurricane Katrina did not spare the arboreal heritage of New Orleans. "It's like a weed whacker went through here," a resident of the French Quarter remarked in 2005 after Katrina rammed into town. With much of the city's green canopy destroyed, the district's familiar hothouse climate turned (at least temporarily) from steam bath to dry sauna.
Landscapes suddenly cleared of trees jar their inhabitants. A twister laid waste to 20,000 Nashville-area trees in 1998. "I have had three overwhelming emotional moments related to the tornado that ripped through our home and neighborhood last April," Dennis Freeman wrote in a letter to the editor 13 years ago. The first was "driving over and around almost every tree that lined our streets less than 24 hours earlier."
War and political strife also wreak havoc on tree populations. In societies that rely on trees for people's livelihoods, human attacks on these natural reserves take a double toll.
A political coup two years ago in Madagascar scared off the many tourists coming to visit the island's fabulous rain forests, a source of income. The turmoil also opened the door for a timber mafia to steal rare rosewood trees from the African country's national parks and send the logs to China. The criminals paid unemployed locals $2.50 a day to cut down their botanical paradise and then made fortunes shipping it abroad. Government officials were in on it; the police were paid off; and the Chinese buyers looked the other way.
The catastrophic war in Sudan's Darfur region has menaced the economy of already dirt-poor villages dependent on the sap of acacia trees. The trees aren't chopped down for sale by villains but by desperate people seeking firewood.
The acacias produce the sap called gum arabic, widely used in sodas, shampoos and medicines. Sudan traditionally produced two-thirds of the world's supply of gum arabic, which war caused to soar in price. Now, in a region where opportunities are few, people have sacrificed longer-term survival for the most immediate physical needs.
While folks in the American South are still clearing fallen branches and trunks, others little touched by natural calamities can take a moment on Arbor Day today to more calmly celebrate their sylvan heritage. But most will probably ignore the silent sentries they live among.
Because trees can take many years to grow, it is said that man plants them to benefit another generation. Let us extend an extra thanks to those who planted trees to benefit ours.