Now that the snow has receded and all of the trees that were bent and broken by this past winter’s weather are visible, we are able to turn our attention to humankind’s age-old interest in trees — so long evident in art, literature, folklore and mythology — and how that fascination has grown by leaps and bounds in this age of environmental awareness.
In 1991, a group of concerned citizens founded the non-profit “ReTree Schenectady,” dedicated to caring for this city’s “aging, diseased, or storm-damaged trees.” Part of ReTree Schenectady’s mission statement is to educate “all city residents on the benefits of trees,” and toward that end instructs “tree recipients” and volunteers on tree maintenance when planting on medians, along residential streets and in city parks; after all, the name “Schenectady” practically defines the city’s arboreal history, for in Mohawk it means “pathway through the pines.”
Among the notable figures who have expressed their respect and concerns for the welfare of trees when minimal attention was paid to the issue were Concord, Mass.-born Henry David Thoreau (who died in 1862) and Swiss-born Carl Gustav Jung (who died in 1961).
Two for nature
Thoreau is best known as the author of the classic “Walden,” while Jung is credited as a founder of modern psychology. Although separated by 3,700 miles and a century, both men emphasized the therapeutic benefits of our having a greater intimacy with nature, especially its most common representative, the tree. And as Arbor Day (April 24th) approaches, it becomes more plausible to imagine that both of them would undoubtedly be avid supporters of ReTree Schenectady.
Thoreau and Jung each had a profound love for all of nature’s works. Yet each reserved a special place for trees, whose life cycles, they believed, mirrored our own. In “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” Jung recalled that as a child, trees “seemed to me direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life.”
He pointed out that in many cultures, the tree is not only “the abode of the gods” but also the “maternal, life-giving symbol of the personality and of the self.” Jung suggested in “Symbols of Transformation” that every tree “is alive like a human being, with head, feet, a soul and a voice, and the man shares its fate.”
While Jung saw trees as the living symbol of our psychological makeup, Thoreau came to humanize each tree as our equals, or as he put it, “our distant relation.” In autumn, he noted, trees show “serene courage” as they prepare for “their winter campaigns. . . . I frequently tramped eight or 10 miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.”
Trees “battle with the tempests of the century,” “never adjourn,” “die at their posts” and, as their seeds, roots and branches spread, “acquire new states and territories.” All trees, he insisted, should be treated with the same respect we accord “our parents, and our parents’ parents. . .”
Sense of loss
When Concord’s ancient elm tree was cut down in 1856, Thoreau called the event “the funeral” and even spoke “a few words of eulogy at the grave.” About 2000 of Schenectady’s trees were lost in the December 2008 ice storm, only about 200 of which can be replaced by the city each year. We can only imagine what Thoreau’s reaction would have been had he been here to survey the devastation of so many of Schenectady’s once-majestic trees while listening to the chorus of chain saws removing their remains. Even trees, he observed, sadly, “do not die without a groan.”
Today, Thoreau is rightly considered a founding father of the environmental movement. In addition, both he and Jung are recognized as forerunners in the field of ecopsychology, which proposes that our physical and psychological well-being is dependent upon our essential links to nature.
A village without trees, Thoreau insisted, “has a screw loose” and needs trees “to keep off melancholy and superstition. Show me two villages, one embowered in trees, the other a merely trivial and treeless waste, and I shall be sure that in the latter will be found the most desperate and hardest drinkers . . .” Jung would have concurred: It is not possible to be psychologically healthy, he declared, “without a patch of green or a blossoming tree.” He added in a letter to a friend: “Sometimes a tree tells you more than can be read in books.”
On Sept. 30, 1860, Thoreau was invited to the Middlesex County, Mass., Agricultural Fair to give “An Address on the Succession of Forest Trees,” which contained a warning more relevant today than ever before. We are in danger of “never troubling ourselves about the succession [of trees],” he told his audience, “and do not anticipate when this regular succession will cease and we shall be obliged to plant . . .”
Thoreau would suggest in a separate writing that the best we can do for trees is “to supply them with suitable colleagues as they grow infirm.”
ReTree Schenectady President Betsy Henry recently told me of the environmental benefits of trees, including shade, cooling, wind protection, stormwater management and CO2 sequestration. But, she added, “what speaks to me most clearly is the hope and commitment to neighborhoods that tree planting represents. The sight of small trees thriving in Schenectady neighborhoods makes my day every day.”
So whether we decide to plant trees on our own or with the help and guidance of ReTree Schenectady, we are following the sage advice offered to us by Henry Thoreau and Carl Jung. In the process we might also learn something about ourselves through the benign intercession of these, our most peaceable of neighbors.
Neil B. Yetwin lives in Schenectady. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.