“I hate this fucking culture.”
–Derrick Jensen (on numerous occasions)
The big news in an individual’s life is rarely big news in the world. Yet, the microscopic and the macroscopic are present in each other; the characteristics of a culture at a given moment are played out in the lives of its citizens, in everyday events (and non-events) and vice versa. Our particular current cultural moment in the USA is marked by brutality, malice and insensitivity. So each of us will find ourselves face to face with these things every day (and sometimes in the mirror). Some days will stand out more than others, naturally, and I had one of those this past Monday, when a particular Ash tree was killed in Portland.
I knew they were cutting down the Ash tree a few days ahead of time, so I arranged my schedule so I would be around for the event.
First, because the tree stood in the middle of a garden that Clarabelle and I had planted and I wanted to monitor the crew to prevent too much collateral damage.
Secondly, I wanted “bear witness,” as they say. On this topic, a friend on social media said: “Bearing witness to the heart-wrenching experience(s) is, and will be, some muscle we’ll all be facing and needing.” That’s for sure. And that’s the experience I had.
I had known the tree for years and had appreciated much about her: the shade she cast in the summer, the pattern of her pinnately-compound leaves fluttering against the sky, the impressive girth of her trunk, the joyful spray of her branches, and the way she was playground, highway and vantage point for so many other creatures, from Squirrel to Possum to Mouse and from Robin to Woodpecker to Crow to Flicker to Sparrow to Thrush. She was also a trellis to a climbing Rose, a Passionflower and some Hops. Her bark hosted several varieties of moss and lichens. Inside the dripline of her canopy, her roots were close to the surface and many plants wouldn’t grow in the thin soil there. But some thrived: Plantago, Lemon Balm, Violets, Columbine, Dandelion, and around her base, Comfrey. [See footnote on my use of the feminine pronoun.]
Clarabelle and I had planted the perennial gardens on this property back in 2012. I had already donated many plants to the place in years previous, but 2012 is when we got serious, took out all the lawn, and filled it up. Except for the stand of Cedars along the rear fence, the Ash tree was the major feature of the back yard. Her presence excluded some plants for consideration but supported others. Over the years, we found out what would work and what wouldn’t. Now, a different mix will emerge, though we won’t be around to see it, having realized that it is time to move on.
When the homeowner announced the imminent removal of the Ash, Clarabelle and I were both quite saddened. We also disagreed with the choice. The arborist warned that branches could break off and damage the roof of the house or the house next door. So, couldn’t one start by removing potentially problematic branches and leave most of the tree intact?
But it was the arborist’s word against ours. I didn’t bother to share my opinion. The arborist is “the expert” after all, and I knew the homeowner well enough to know that’s what was important to her.
Personally, I don’t trust arborists in general. You know how they say that if you’ve got a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail? Well, an arborist is someone who is literally walking around with a saw in their hand. It is not at all figurative that they are looking for things to cut. After all, that’s how they make their money.
As a friend on social media said, in response to a post on this topic: “Consult a surgeon and they will recommend surgery most every time. Consult an arborist and they will recommend chain-saw surgery EVERY time.”
Taking out a full-grown tree, especially in the city—and especially in a city like Portland where so many trees have been tragically lost to “development” in the last few years—is a decision that should not be made lightly. Therefore, it should be made by someone with no financial stake in the matter.
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the Ash tree had to come out; that if not, it would have come crashing down the next day and caused tremendous damage to every human structure within reach.
If this was the case, then we must be conscientious in our approach. What do I mean by that? Let me quote Randy Woodley, a Cherokee man who is both a college instructor and a farmer, as well as a writer and an activist. This is from an interview I had with him last year:
When we’d go out to hunt, we were told if an animal doesn’t give itself to you, then you can ‘t kill it. You have to pray beforehand, do a little ceremony and then wait and watch for an animal to give itself to you. Then you put tobacco down and say a prayer and you thank that animal for giving its life. That even happened when we were farming with our goats and sheep and things like that. We went through whole ceremonies and things to make sure that we thanked the animal, we thanked the earth, we thanked the creator, but most of all to remind ourselves that we’re taking a life here. We do the same thing when we take a plant… or a tree. I’ve gone out looking for tepee poles and we put tobacco down first…
In our Native prayer we’re asking that tree, we’re asking that animal, for forgiveness and saying, “This is something I have to do to feed my family. I apologize. Thank you for giving your life.” We recognize that the spirit is in everything. and life is in everything and so we don’t have a right to just go and haphazardly take it. We have to use wisdom. We have to use ceremony to remind ourselves and to teach our children as well.
My reply to him was: “I think that to most Western people, the idea of being able to recognize when an animal is presenting itself, or of asking a plant and being able to hear the answer—that is incomprehensible to most Westerners.”
Indeed it is.
The way it went down with the Ash tree showed that.
First, I met the crew. It was three young dudes of the brash variety. No sensitivity there. No consciousness that they were about to take a life. No concern that they might upset some people. No idea of the place this tree held in the local ecosystem. And couldn’t give a fuck about any of it.
How do I know this? That’s easy. If you know what to look for, awareness is readily visible. It’s like a light that shines. It’s obvious in the eyes, the face and even the stance. In this culture, it is also exceedingly rare, so it stands out in sharp contrast to the otherwise dull background. And these dudes, they had none of it. That doesn’t make them “bad people.” But it makes it likely that they’ll do bad things.
Nonetheless, I introduced myself to them and accompanied them to the back yard. There, I pointed out the garden beds and the clear markers I had set up, showing them where they shouldn’t walk. Clarabelle did the same on her own time a few minutes later. She also made it clear to them that she didn’t think the tree should be removed. Interestingly, one of the crew agreed with her but explained that it wasn’t his call. (The boss wasn’t there yet.)
“I don’t like to take out a healthy tree,” he told her. But of course that didn’t stop him.
How often do we hear and see that kind of shit? Or say it ourselves? All the damn time. What a bunch of phonies we are (to borrow Holden Caulfield’s term).
The woodchipper the crew parked in the driveway was labeled with the model name “INTIMIDATOR” on the side in 6-inch high letters. Really? Do we need to name things like this? Yeah, you could say it’s just being honest, but isn’t it pathological to take such pride in being destructive? Yeah, it is. And again, that’s just everyday life in the US of freaking A, isn’t it?
Eventually, the boss showed up and they started taking limbs out of the tree. It’s a process that involves some danger. Anytime you’re combining climbing and chainsaws, you need to be careful.
At one point, I happened to be in the bathroom, which is below the tree, when there was an enormous “whump!” that I both felt and heard. The crews’ voices erupted in a way which betrayed that an accident had just occurred. Loud scraping noises followed, accompanied by agitated tones. “Huh,” I said to myself. “I thought we were doing this to avoid having branches crash on the roof. Well fuck that, I guess.”
They started running branches through the chipper, which was very loud and very smelly, and right outside the window of where I was sitting, taking care of some business on the computer. The only thing to be thankful for was that they turned it off between jobs.
Out of necessity, I left the premises to run a couple quick errands. I was back no more than two hours later and the crew was already finishing up. Out front, one was sweeping the driveway and in back another was collecting small branches into a bin. All the limbs up to a certain thickness had been chipped up, and the tree was cut down to a stump. The trunk, including the base of the crown where it divided into its main branches, was lying to the side. I was quite surprised by what I saw. Carved into the trunk was the word, “SLAYER.”
Whoever put it there meant the rock band, which was obvious from the well-known stylizing of the letters. But the dude was also, inadvertently I can only assume, describing himself. Here, on the body of the murdered creature, the killer had scrawled his name, taking gleeful credit for his crime. That’s some adolescent bullshit, conscious and unconscious.
I was pretty furious about the graffiti. After all, they knew that at least one person was unhappy about the tree coming down. With this act, they were openly mocking any such feelings.
And ain’t that “America?” If someone reveals a tender spot, kick it. If they disclose a sensitivity, rough it up. If they uncover a wound, rub in the salt. This is a mean, mean place. I hate it.
(A couple days later, other dudes from the same company arrived to remove the logs. I asked if the boss was coming around and one of them told me no, but did I have a concern? I hesitated, but said yes, and talked to him about the vandalism. I was very very polite and totally unemotional; the opposite of trying to start a fight. He said he would pass along what I told him, but he was smirking the whole time and didn’t even try to hide it. I know this smirk well. It’s the typical default facial expression of most US American dudes when the topic at hand is suggestive of emotional sensitivity. The look translates roughly as, “what a fag.”)
Why is it important to be conscientious of what we kill and how we kill it? What difference does it make?
The answer to that is very clear if we look around. Over the last 11,500 years, most human cultures have abandoned the old ways. Where once we cooperated, now we dominate. Where once we tended, now we extract. Where once we were a part of life, now we are apart from it. The result is an increasingly poisoned and polluted planet, rising rates of extinction, and a climate in crisis.
What we’re doing isn’t fucking working. Not even for the 1% who are accumulating vast financial and material wealth. They’re a bunch of pathological monsters.
But collectively our pathology down here in the 99% is different from theirs only in degree, not in kind. The dude who defaced the Ash tree’s trunk is as sick as Bezos or Buffett. Give him a billion dollars and he’ll figure out a way of leaving his mark in a grander, more grotesque way. His obnoxiousness is limited only by his means.
The difference it makes—that is, between being conscientious or rapacious—is profound for each of us as individuals. It’s not trivial. When we take a life for no good reason—unceremoniously, without seeking permission or making an offering—we are also assaulting something in ourselves. We are gouging out our own compassion, smashing our own sensitivity, crushing our own innate intelligence. Whatever it is that makes us alive, we are attacking it. It’s a vicious, ugly thing.
In our culture it’s also completely normal, totally acceptable, and so conventional it goes unnoticed. Our collective sickness is so pervasive that we cannot even imagine what health would look like. We’re in that deep. (A friend who previewed this article added: “It is required and you will be punished if you don’t participate.”)
Not all of life works like that. Not by a stretch. Our lack of self-awareness is uniquely human. That, too, is quite clear by looking around. Nobody else is destroying everything around them as quickly as they can. Not all humans are, either, so we can’t say we’re incapable of being responsible. We just don’t want to be. As a result, there’s a lot we’re missing out on. Like, most of the experience of living, which is far more expansive than the despicable narrowness we’ve assigned ourselves to.
The Ash tree did not live her life so constrained. Nor did the many creatures who interacted with her, from the racing Squirrel to the clambering Rose to the surveying Crow. Their moments were all present, full, and couldn’t be anything else.
By eliminating her—the Ash—with such callousness, there is less life in this yard, in this city, and in me. I resent that. She wasn’t asked. Her relations were not asked. Nothing was offered for her or to them. She was just heartlessly removed. (Both Clarabelle and I spent time with her, made offerings, and apologized. But that wasn’t enough. Those bearing the weapons needed to do the same.)
Adding insult to injury, her parts were removed from the site only to be mulched, not re-purposed as tools, shelter or warmth, which would at least have given her some honor. We kill and we waste. It’s monstrous.
Is there anything we can do about the tree-killers? A friend on social media made this comment:
You know in the amazon there are cannibals who eat people who kill trees? my brazilian fiance was speaking to one in an anthropological meeting once and had no idea this person was a cannibal till someone notified her after having made good friends with him… so she naturally had some questions about it and he started by telling her “dont worry i wont eat you. you are a person I dont eat people” and she was like what do you mean? And he went on to explain that they only eat people who do things that aren’t human because they aren’t even people. They dont see people who cut down trees to be human so they eat them.
Intriguing, but inapplicable here. We are far less clear about life, death and humanity here than these indigenous people. (If I had a nickel for every time I’ve expressed that sentiment…)
We’re fucked here. It’s in the cultural DNA. The nation was founded on Native American genocide, enriched by African slavery, and imposed on the globe with nuclear blackmail. It’s writ large and writ small. Think globally and act locally? Yeah, we’re good at that. That’s obvious to me, looking at the stump of the beautiful Ash and the ugly graffiti on her corpse.
I hate this fucking culture.
* * *
Clarabelle and I met up today in California, three days after the Ash was felled, and compared notes on our interactions and conversations with the arborist’s crew. We realized, to our horror, that the arborist seems to have been acting under the assumption that the Ash was actually a Tree of Heaven. Trees of Heaven hollow out with age and are famous for dropping branches. Ashes, on the other hand, are solid and much sturdier. They are very different trees and what you would do to one, you wouldn’t necessarily do to the other. In other words, it’s entirely possible that—going by standard silviculture practices—there was no reason to take down the Ash. That it was killed for nothing.
Other than the arborist’s wallet, that is.
* * *
[footnote on my use of the feminine pronoun]:
Yeah, I’m using “she” and “her” for the Ash tree rather than “it.” Not in the botanical sense that the individuals of particular species such as Gingko, Spinach or Cannabis—and Ash—can be technically designated as “male” or “female” due to their dioecious nature; that is, because they bear either male or female flowers.
Nor do I mean it in purely figurative way; that the Ash is like a human woman: i.e., like a maiden, a mother or a crone (though perhaps human women of various life stages might have surely seen themselves in Ash trees).
Though we Westerners often forget it, there are modes of meaning besides the literal and the metaphorical. As with nearly everything else, we’ve divided that sector into a duality of opposites, setting the field for conflict immediately.
No, I call her “she” because that’s what Clarabelle said, and she (Clarabelle) had picked up on something real, something that made sense to me as soon as she said it. It was an experiential thing. You’ve never met this Ash (and now you never will), so you’ll just have to take Clarabelle’s word for it.