The Politics of Trees

Preserving a town’s arboreal splendor can cause a logjam of complaints from the neighbors.

Illustration by Ileana Soon

Everybody loves trees. They’re beautiful, they provide shade, they can reduce energy bills and they clean the air, taking out poisonous carbon dioxide and emitting fresh oxygen for us to breathe. Everybody loves trees, right? Wrong.

Or so I’ve discovered serving as a member of the Shade Tree Commission in my New Jersey town. The six-member commission, appointed by our mayor, decides on the planting of street trees, which sit on that strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb, or if there’s no sidewalk, within the first four feet of a lawn.

People think they own that land. They are wrong.

An irate neighbor phoned and asked, “You on that damned Shade Tree Commission?”

I told him that I was.

“Well what right do you have planting a tree on my land?”

As courteously as I could, I told him that where we had planted the tree was public land.

“Yeah,” he said, “then how come I have to water and seed and mow it?” I started to tell him that the same was true of his sidewalk, where he was responsible for shoveling off snow even though it was town property, but he’d hung up.

Next time I passed his house I noticed all that remained of that infant tree was a 2-inch stump. Our commission discovered that there was no ordinance making it a crime to cut down a public tree. The Town Council soon changed that, and another tree was planted in front of the man’s house. He no longer speaks to me.

The experience pales in comparison with a run-in I had with another neighbor. She appeared before the Shade Tree Commission demanding that a huge oak tree in front of her house, providing shade to everyone on her street, be taken down so she could build a driveway, thereby increasing the value of her home.

I voted no. I figured saving a great tree was more important than helping a woman make money on a driveway. This is especially true now, because all of the ash trees in our town, and across America, are under deadly attack from the emerald ash borer—a beetle introduced from Japan. For a while, we may be taking down as many trees as we plant, about 80 a year.

But back to that woman and her tree. Some months later, I had purchased a latte in a local coffee shop and, it being a lovely day, decided to enjoy it outside. Two women were seated at a single table there. I asked if I might pull aside one of their unoccupied chairs.

“No, you may not,” one woman said.

I thought she was joking—but when I reached for the chair, the woman screamed, “Don’t touch that chair! You voted against taking down the tree.” Only then did I realize she was the driveway woman.

She wasn’t finished. “All trees in town should be taken down,” she declared. “Trees fall on houses, on cars, on people. They’re a menace.”
I thought of reciting aloud to the woman the first two lines of New Jersey poet Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.”

I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree…

Instead, I improved my spirits by muttering to myself that old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Despite these incidents, I enjoy serving on the Shade Tree Commission. It’s fulfilling, and even the flak I get is as amusing as it is painful. When it happens, I remember that the most engaging politics is local. And what could be more local than planting a tree?

Michael Aaron Rockland teaches American Studies at Rutgers University, writes books and loves to garden.

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