Where do trees go when they die? Some just stay in place and become their own ghostly markers. Others topple over, sometimes taking along near-neighbor trees or human-made objects or structures with them. They live their lives and end their lives in the same spot, unable to move away from danger.
Two weeks ago, during the surprise of Sandy (now referred to as Superstorm), thousands of trees were lost on the East Coast. Thousands. The kinds of numbers that are all-too-familiarly reported in human casualties during wartime or plagues. Of course, trees have had their plagues, too. But in proportion to the frequent tree damage that occurs in various disease- and storm-related events throughout the seasons, this was huge in scope.
In New York City alone, roughly 10,000 trees succumbed and, also, multiple thousands were felled on Long Island. These shocking numbers were reported by state and city parks administrators. And in New Jersey, utility companies logged more than 113,000 irreparably damaged trees, many of which up until this particular storm had survived a hundred years or more of natural assaults.
I am walking through a trail on the eastern edge of the Catskills, and, let’s remember, it is two weeks after the record-shattering hurricane. It is usually a silent place, entirely wooded by white pines, oaks, birches, hemlock. There is an outdoor cathedral quality about the landscape, with the towering arboreal columns that allow sunlight to ricochet off the trunks, or to glint through the empty spaces as it would through clerestory windows above a cavernous interior space. Filtered light sprinkles through the veil of pine needles above – what is left of them, that is.
In the distance I hear the constant buzz of chain saws. I have been hearing that sound every day since the storm. Sometimes it is loud and close, now it is low and soft. Although it is somewhat like the riling sound that a fly or mosquito makes, an annoying, persistent and alarming noise. The ever-present buzz echoes off the mountains and hovers like fog over the valleys. It could be miles away but its droning is solidly felt. All around, it is the familiar sound of sadness and loss.
In this special place, a heavily wooded parcel of just under 80-acres, this municipally owned land protected by a conservation easement for the town around it, is shocking evidence of the devastation. It feels like wholesale slaughter, a massacre. Trees lying down, feet in the air. Trees splintered off twenty feet above the ground. Trees piled on top of trees, much like Pick-Up Sticks if the game were played with thousand-pound sticks. Trees that now resemble an exploded view of a tree. Many of the victims have now been cut away for the trail by those same persistent chainsaw flies. It is a heart-wrenching sight, both terrifying and mind-boggling.
Everything seems topsy turvy. Trees should not lie horizontally on the ground. Or be split and cut with their innards exposed – their dignity and life removed. Yes, some of the lucky ones still stand, the survivors who look on helplessly at their fallen fellow creatures. Trees are the very thing we need most in this climate-changed world, yet here I am, and you are, standing in a tree graveyard caused by our own selfish interests, unable to comprehend how, in the scheme of things, they are more necessary to the world’s well-being than we are. Look what we have wrought.