I've used this tag line in my biographies several times and although it's metaphorical, it's also true. In my professional capacity over the years as an outdoor educator and professor teaching ecology and environmental science, I've worked alongside volunteers and students planting trees. Together we've planted hundreds of seedlings and bare root mature trees in places such as the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, the City of Syracuse parks, and the nature trail behind the college campus where I teach.
So you can imagine my chagrin when we were approached by the utility company with a request to take down the ash trees that line the front of our house. The Emerald Ash borer is wreaking havoc on ash trees in the Northeastern U.S. and our ash trees are directly under the utility wires. The emerald ash borer beetle lays eggs in the tree's bark and the larvae eat away at the phloem, the inner part of the bark that transports water and nutrients, eventually killing the tree. The borer is not native to the United States and was brought to the states accidentally in 2002 from Asia. Within the decade our trees would be dead so we agreed to let the utility take them down.
We then had to decide whether to take down the magnificent ash tree in our side yard.
This tree was planted long before we arrived, I'm guessing its age at fifty plus years. Its largess allowed it to throw shade on the back deck. Great! Except when you live in Upstate, NY and summers are so short. Half the tree hung over the driveway and in the fall it shed dead limbs and leaves like crazy. We spent hours cleaning up the mess it left on the pavement after a wind storm. So although I loved the tree we decided to take that one down as well. As upsetting as it was to see the hole in the sky when the tree was felled, this summer we've witnessed spectacular sherbet colored sunsets now that the limbs aren't obstructing the view.
It wasn't long however before the gaping hole in the landscape gnawed at me and we went in search of a new tree. I chose a redbud because I love the way their lavender flowers bloom so delicately in the spring. And they don't get that big - maybe twenty-five feet in height.
Even as we were debating whether to take the ash tree down I knew I'd end up planting another in its place; I've spent the past few decades educating and advocating for the natural world. And I'm always rewarded by the look of wonder and accomplishment that passes over people's faces after grubbing around in the dirt, digging holes, putting in a tree, heeling the rich earth back into place.
I remember one day in particular while planting thirty trees with my students in the nature trail behind campus. I was crouched over a dug-out hole, wide enough to handle the bare roots of a red maple. I was working with a student, using a shovel to back-fill the hole with dirt, when the student told me, "I've never planted a tree." He sat back on his haunches sweating and wiping at his brow with the back of his hand. "Well," I told him, "this is something you won't forget." I eyeballed the sky. "And if you do, come back one day to see how much it has grown."
That was almost a decade ago. Now, when I walk the trail I look at the growth of those trees and I'm grateful I was able to make a small difference in the world. The sprawling swamp white oaks are reaching toward the sky and the red maples that survived deer browsing are now over twenty feet tall. I, along with students and colleagues, made that happen.
My calling to improve the world the natural world is what led me to learn as much as I could about the Tree Army - the men of the U.S. Civilian Conservation Corps. During the Depression, the young men of the Corps. planted over a billion trees throughout the national and state parks in the U.S. My interest in their legacy turned into a novel.
It's because of these men we have the infrastructure and healthy forests in the parks we visit. We can all be inspired by the resilience of these hard working men during a difficult era. I can only think that these men, who came from destitute situations (lured in to the Corps so that they could make five dollars a week to send home), found solace in planting trees; ensuring the rebirth of the forests they worked in.
The legacy of the Corps - trees - continue on even as we face uncertain circumstances and a period of national anxiety. Trees remind us that there's always an opportunity for growth and renewal. Even after cutting down the ash tree in our yard, I find seedlings cropping up everywhere. Nature is like that. It doesn't give up. Neither should we.
Note: If you would like to read an excerpt from my novel about the Conservation Corps you can read it here.
Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.