Jim Murphy & Sons

Urban Campfires: I doubt I shall ever see too many trees

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I think that I shall never see
a billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.
– Ogden Nash

One of my favorite quotations is a Chinese proverb, but this isn’t it. My point is that while it seems we have enough billboards in the Ozarks for everyone to have one, we can’t seem to keep our trees.

The tornado that obliterated a third of Joplin wiped out thousands of trees, each one a living, breathing filter for the pollution we belch into the air each day. It is said that just one tree absorbs as much carbon dioxide in a year as a car produces during two years of average driving.

Yet as I write this, someone is cutting down a perfectly good tree because it’s in the way of progress. Let me be clear: Although this magazine is printed on sustainable, harvested trees, selected because they grow quickly for making paper, we’re not without responsibility. I wish we could print on recycled paper, but that’s virtually impossible. Recycled paper must be ordered by the tractor trailer load. There isn’t enough of it to go around, and even if we could buy it reasonably, we would have to get on the waiting list.

That said, I’m concerned about the trees around us, the ones we can do something about that can lower your utility bill in your home by 20 percent.

As I write this, Springfield is counting trees that grow on public property for the first time since 2001. We will be curious to learn the outcome. Yet I can hear it now – someone is thinking we can’t afford to count trees. We can’t afford NOT to count the trees, and to replace them at a far greater pace that we are. That’s a challenge.

Go Green Stamps - Go "Greene" Stamps

This is an urban issue, although as a matter of public policy it affects all of us. In Springfield, we’ve lost 40 percent of the “urban forest” to development, disease, ice storms, and a few among us who don’t like acorns or collecting leaves.

If you had a healthy tree that was appraised at, say, $10,000 added to the value of your home, why would you cut it down? Yet time after time we’ve seen trees cut down for speculative development or because they are inconvenient.

That Chinese proverb is as follows: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time is now.”

The results of the tree census in Springfield should be available in November. No doubt it will be studied and eventually lead to a strategy that will be presented to our leaders for action.

But will that action come? Recently another large grove of trees was eliminated for a low-income apartment project in Springfield. I’m not against development, but I am against a willy-nilly process that excuses developers from being stewards of the land. We’re long past the time when we should be able to do whatever we want with our land (and trees) without regard to the environmental effects.

Dare I say “global warming?” Each time I do, it lights a fire under those who think it isn’t real. Or that at most it is a natural occurrence, beyond the control of you and me. But just as a lightning strike takes down a tree in your yard, or a tornado wipes out a third of a town (Joplin), that doesn’t mean we just accept it and live without trees.

There is little Joplin can do to bring back its mangled urban forest in less than a generation. It was the same after the ice storms of 2007 and 2008 that damaged thousands of trees along the Interstate 44 corridor. Trees take time.

But do we really need another race track like the one is planned for the now-scalded knob being gouged out of the rock near Hollister? Does the nation really need another track anywhere for that matter to just set idle most of the time?

In the 1960s and 70s, Dutch Elm Disease wiped out millions of American Elms. Today there are varieties that are resistant if not immune to the beetles that spread the fungus. (By the way, the Dutch only discovered the blight; they didn’t spread it.)

Thousand Cankers will likely take its toll on our black walnut trees in Missouri, one of our most uniquely profitable nut trees along with the pecan. If we are not vigilant, the emerald ash borer will take its share of ash trees as it moves through Missouri on firewood, ironically transported by campers and those of us who still love a fire in the hearth.

It really is possible to make the air and little cleaner each time we plant a successful tree in the Ozarks. But we also need to educate those who are wiping out rain forests at the rate of a football field per second, and help them find a way to earn a living without destroying their habitat.

When the tree census is complete in Springfield, and when Joplin is ready, let’s plant the right tree in the right place as fast as we can afford it. If you want to help, find the right tree, and lend a hand as you can.

Last, we have a kind word for the U.S. Postal Service, which this spring revealed a new imprint of the “Forever” stamp, reminding Americans to do what we can to live greener and cleaner. One of them urges that we plant a tree. It’s all very nice and we hope they sell a billion or so.

Do what you can, won’t you.

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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