Sunday, April 19, 2009

Worth Saving?

photo by Griff Wigley (source)

At their next meeting, the Northfield City Council will vote on a motion to approve the final plat for a proposed commercial development south of town called Bridgewater Commons. The proposal before the council calls for taking every possible step to preserve a 100-year old bur oak on the property. On the Locally Grown blog ("LoGoNo"), Griff asks: "Is this bur oak worth saving?"

Griff's opinion: "I love oak trees like [this] one but it seems pointless to go to such lengths to keep it when the whole south section of Highway 3 from Woodley/246 to Cty Rd. 1 is mostly a commercial strip with little thought to aesthetics/nature."

David L., king of the ideological non sequitur, chimes in with this: "Since when, and why, do trees get more protection than human fetuses?" Peter M. agrees, asking why we should worry about protecting "a stupid tree" when babies are being killed.

I've been training myself not to be drawn into these long circular discussions on LoGroNo, with their frequent ideological hijackings and dialogical dead-ends, but faithful readers of this blog know that I love bur oaks, and I finally couldn't resist posting this comment:
A more generous respect for all life, for the place of each organism in a biotic community, of each tree in a landscape, would go further than a continual reduction of everything to the question of abortion. David L. and Peter, like you I would not want to see abortion resorted to simply as a matter of convenience. But you are willing to cut down a 100-year old tree as a matter of convenience to developers. That attitude, it seems to me, is part of the culture of convenience that, unfortunately, is stronger than the “culture of life” in this day and age. If we want to foster a respect for life, we need to start making difficult choices about trees and other living things, not just about the young of our own species. We need to preserve or create landscapes that reflect our respect for life, not just our appetite for convenience. I think the world is more beautiful, more worth living in, more worth bringing children into, when there are bur oaks and prairies: when there is a natural landscape to balance the landscape of development.

It may be a “stupid tree,” Peter, but it says something about the strength of our character if we can find a way to preserve and protect something so old, so vulnerable, so much at our mercy.

Every year at this time, when the pasqueflowers are blooming and the trout lilies are pushing their mottled leaves up through the soil, I think of the late Paul Gruchow, a writer of wonderful, observant, and passionate essays and books about the natural world.

I only met Paul once. He invited me for coffee at his house in Northfield, and we talked about writing and about our shared understanding of "homemaking." I was a stay-at-home father at the time, and the experience of being a "homemaker" made me reflect on the ways in which "home" extends beyond the walls of our houses, into the environment around us.

Paul had just contributed an essay—the final essay in the collection—to an anthology titled Sacred Ground: Writings About Home, edited by my friend Barbara Bonner and published by Milkweed Editions. In his essay, Paul asked why we should care about the Minnesota dwarf trout lilies, an endangered species endemic to southeastern Minnesota. Here is part of Paul's answer:

Dwarf trout lilies persist only because the forests of the Cannon River watershed exist. If they are destroyed, it will be because their habitat, which is a kind of organism, has been destroyed. Dwarf trout lilies represent the health of the organism; they are one of its rarest and most sensitive points of pressure.

Think of that organism as a home. A home, of course, is not just a house. Habitation makes a house a home. The well-being of a home, therefore, depends upon the welfare of its residents. It is the responsibility of the keepers of the house, if they would make it a home, to tend to the prosperity of those who live there. Every householder who withers or dies as a result of the neglect of the keepers of the house not only diminishes the potential of that house to become a home, but also represents a judgment upon its keepers.

As a stay-at-home father, I was always thinking of the health and well-being of my children, and this led me to think more about the health and well-being of the world in which they would continue to live and grow. Being a father and a "homemaker" made me think of home in a wider sense, as a system of interrelationships in which we—ourselves and our children—are dependent parts. Our care for the dwarf trout lilies or the bur oaks represents, in a very real way, our care for ourselves—our respect for the life we share with those other members of our wider household.


Shan said...

Hear, hear! I'm with you 100%, and these thoughtful, lovely comments are such a wonderful breath of fresh air in a world that, as you note, so often resorts to convenience and disposability. It makes me sad to know and see how much developing Northfield has already done. I have fallen in love with our landscapes around here, with the rural scene outside my door and with our community's small-town feel, and yet it seems that it is already half-gone.

Richard Stafursky said...


"I think the world is more beautiful, more worth living in, more worth bringing children into, when there are bur oaks and prairies: when there is a natural landscape to balance the landscape of development."

"balance?" No such thing. It is a battle between the natural landscape and the cultural landscape. They cannot coexist.

Dick Stafursky
Brattleboro, Vt USA

Rob Hardy said...

The natural and cultural landscapes cannot coexist? That's going a bit far. For one thing, many of our "natural" landscapes are products of human culture. Visit England. That landscape, even the most natural-looking areas, is shaped by centuries of human presence. Here in the Midwest,the oak savanna in its pre-settlement "natural" state was the result of periodic fires set by humans. All animals alter their habitat (even birds make nests); humans just need to figure out a balanced, respectful, sustainable way of creating their built habitat.

Jim H. said...

David L.'s remark is beyond absurd. Even so, I can't get very excited about saving a lone tree in that particular location. That end of Highway 3 is already a wasteland. The battle has been lost.

Christopher Tassava said...

You know where I stand on this debate, Rob, so here I'll just thank you for your eloquent and convincing post. I did write a comment over at the post on Locally Grown...

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .