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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 8 (2001)
Trees At Risk:
Reclaiming an Urban Forest, by Evelyn Herwitz. Worcester, MA: Chandler
House Press, Inc (2001), iv, 200 pp.
Evelyn Herwitz has contributed
a major historical work with a strong environmental message in Trees
At Risk: Reclaiming an Urban Forest. The City of Worcester, MA serves
as the focal point for this evolving story of grassroots negligence and
activism. The author is adept at uncovering the societal and industrial
forces that carved a city out of the wilderness, and sometimes molded
a little of the wilderness back into the city.
An ambitious work, the book is a
200-page treasure with 16 pages of color photos, and numerous illustrations
throughout. Nature lovers will also appreciate the occasional botanical
information and illustrations of native trees.
Trees At Risk is both a hopeful
blueprint and a cautionary tale of what cities can do to protect and promote
their urban forests, and what can happen if they do not. Ms. Herwitz is
a skilled historian, but also a masterful wordsmith. For example:
Her work reaches far beyond Worcester
though, in its lessons and implications. She looks at the national picture
of demising urban forests. Statistics abound: "the average life of
a city tree is only 32 years - 13 if planted downtown - far short of the
150-year average life span of trees in rural settings." What's more,
city tree planting and maintenance budgets have been slashed nationwide,
and urban parks are also at risk.
The story of the threat to Worcester's
trees is the story of the relationship between Americans and nature -
at times exploitative, at times romantic, and occasionally reverent. She
gives a clear history of the local native landscape, and its gradual civilization.
And, throughout the work she provides wonderful snippets of historical
significance, like the quote from Genesis that English settlers liked
to use to justify their taking of Native land: "Be fruitful, and
multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it." But, the settlers
proved far more accomplished at subduing than replenishing, as have their
offspring, even to this day.
The sad history of the wasting of
trees, deforestation, and industrial transformation are detailed, as are
early conservation efforts in the mid-eighteenth century, and the first
use of public funds for tree planting, a century later. She follows the
trend of the romantic ideal of pastoral land in rural cemetery design,
through to the "Greening or Worcester" in 1885 with the planting
of 500 trees by the Worcester Grange.
The book traces the urban parks
movement, and the inevitable growing demand for green space as the city
expanded. Then, it chronicles the turn of the century, and the theme of
"Wilderness Squandered". As the Worcester case study continues,
Ms. Herwitz examined politics, the railroad, the Hurricane of "38,
the Great Depression, ethnic politics and public parks, the Chestnut Blight,
and Dutch Elm Disease.
As the 20th century gathered momentum,
the early precursors to land use controls and planned communities are
seen and followed up to current times. As budget cuts and benign neglect
took hold, a legacy was being squandered, and the trend was national.
"A 1991 survey of urban tree care programs in 20 major American cities
by the national conservation group American Forests revealed that nearly
three-fourths of those communities had cut back funding for street trees,
despite the fact that they had collectively planted only abut one tree
for every four needed just to maintain their current tree census."
Thus, the powerful story of an urban
forest, lost and found again and again, teaches us to open our eyes in
our own hometowns. The author then calls us to action, using global numbers
that we have almost grown numb to:
- In the past 50 years, global deforestation and exponential acceleration of fossil fuel consumption and methane gas production have raised the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to about 25 to 30 % above levels that have prevailed for the past 160,000 years, and could double by the 21st century.
It all adds up, or maybe we should
say, it all subtracts, down, down, down.
But, she also provides us with hope.
She points to good stewardship in Milwaukee, and other positive examples
around the country. And, she discusses modern economic forces that are
driven by the pressure of population growth and basic human nature. These
economic forces are then seen as possible sources of support for the future
of our urban forests.
Our suggestion is that our cities
do in fact have the economic and technological resources to grow magnificent
urban forests, but they lack the political will. Further, we would say
that political will, rooted in the minds and hearts of the public, can
be won through education. There is an old Chinese proverb: "Think
one year ahead - plant rice; think ten years ahead - plant trees; think
one-hundred years ahead - educate people."
And, we would finally suggest that
North America's 1200+ nature centers are good places to look to. Nature
centers teach environmental values, and are vital members of their communities.
While school districts may be slow to advocate for social action or conservation,
nature centers are busily doing just that.
The education of all citizens, not
just the young and not-yet-enfranchised, but the adults, the property
owners, the industrial leaders, and our civic representatives - all need
education. However, sending them facts and figures, and even sending them
this wonderful book, will probably not do the trick.
They spend the vast majority of
their lives indoors. They need contact with nature. If you want to educate
someone about the value of trees, take them to an arboretum, or a nature
center, or a fabulous old urban park. Once inspired, Trees At Risk can
help any community organizer understand what mistakes to avoid, what social
forces are in play, and just how much truly is at risk.
Evelyn Herwitz deserves the thanks of all the tree-huggers, tree-lovers, and even those not yet educated and inspired. As a boy, Brent's one great and often expressed fear of growing up was that he might someday no longer want to climb trees. Well, he's 54, and still climbing (every now and then)!