Driving down new suburban streets always gets me down. It's not the houses so much. It's the endless stretch of asphalt and concrete, the interminable row of rooftops raw and drab against the sky, and the tiny maple or Bradford pear mocking the woodlands that once grew there.
Call me crazy, but I could never live in a house that's taller than the trees.
I know I'm in the minority. Every year, huge numbers of Memphians move to neighborhoods that have been utterly stripped of all things green. Generations of children, if they go outside at all, grow up playing in unshaded yards. When they come to old parts of Memphis, these kids must think it strange that some of us live where massive oaks line the streets and rise high above the houses. When an acquaintance recently bought a house in Oakland (the irony of that name isn't lost on me), we asked him if he'd be planting an oak in the front yard. No, he told us flatly, he didn't want "the mess." Plus the darn thing would keep the Bermuda from thriving and God knows he can't have that.
How sad that something as glorious as a tree translates, for some, as "mess." Trees do create work and, at times, serious problems. But oh, how they lift the spirits.
At least they do mine. I grew up on a street with a magnificent green canopy and learned the names of trees from my mother, who had learned those names from her father. Many weekends she'd take us kids to Overton Park, where she'd point out specimens I'd never seen, as well as the birds who lived in their branches.
Thank goodness we — and the birds — still have a few public parks, because, even as I write this, majestic green havens on private lands are being bulldozed into heaps. It's impossible to drive through the outer limits of Shelby County, or any county adjacent to it, without seeing evidence of many developers' scraped-earth policy.
In 2001, the city council and county commission passed a "tree preservation ordinance" applicable only to unincorporated Shelby County. And what a useless thing that's turned out to be. The ordinance "encourages" (does not require) tree preservation along the frontages of public roads and along the perimeter boundaries of properties proposed for development. Trees unlucky enough to grow smack in the middle of a planned development are uprooted and ground into pulp or — appalling to me — consumed in a burn pit. That's right, a majestic stand of hardwoods reduced to nothing but ash. True, some local developers make an effort to save trees. Often their efforts are stymied by subdivision regulations that sacrifice nature for wide, straight roads.
Adding to the tree plunder is the Tennessee Valley Authority. Back in August, in well-established yards with healthy old arboreal specimens, TVA workers marched in with their — of all the ridiculous colors — pink ribbons, tagging trees destined for destruction. One Germantown homeowner had seven trees tagged, another had 15. Why? New federal guidelines state that if a tree causes a power outage, TVA will be fined. The targeted victims were near or within the utility's easements that range from 75 feet to 200 feet in width. After homeowners fired off emails to various authorities and agencies, TVA agreed to let them keep some trees near the easement, if they agreed to have them topped or trimmed by a private contractor. However, all fast-growing species within the easement will be clear-cut.
More examples of butchering abound, from the Memphis Zoo cutting 139 trees in Overton Park's old-growth forest, to my neighbor's backyard, where a splendid oak has been lopsided by Memphis Light, Gas & Water's blades. According to a tree expert, this specimen has a disease, caused by unsterilized equipment, that will kill it within the next five to 10 years. Earlier this year, MLGW felled 70 trees on private property near Lakeland's factory outlet mall, where city officials had understood that only eight trees would be removed.
Lakeland, which has been a member of the Tree City USA program for four years, has a tree ordinance with a bit sharper teeth than the county's. It requires that the homeowner must receive a permit before removing a specimen tree, which has certain size and health specifications. According to the town's website, permits are denied if severe erosion would result from the specimen tree's removal or if the homeowner sees the tree simply as a nuisance, as in We won't have those limbs and leaves messing with our Bermuda! At least Lakeland is trying to keep the chainsaws at bay. But their ordinance was no match for MLGW.
I don't want to live without electricity, or without products that come from trees, including (you guessed it) magazines. I do want our leaders and government bureaucrats to consider alternatives to "If it's green and high, it must die." They can start by writing and enforcing tree-friendly subdivision regulations, passing a tree preservation ordinance not riddled with loopholes, finding com-promise for trees in rights of way, and saying no to developers, many of whom never saw a woodland they didn't want to bulldoze.