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David Bouchier: A Walk In The Woods

The view from my study window is bleak right now. The small patch of woodland behind the house has been exposed by the falling leaves as a very small patch indeed. 

Autumn may be a pretty season, but the fall of the leaves reveals landscapes of almost unbelievable dreariness. We need those trees, but we are getting rid of them as fast as we can.  It’s a rare day when the buzz of chainsaws can’t be heard somewhere in the neighborhood. Homeowners worry about falling trees that may demolish their houses or cut their power. Developers are nervous about falling profits as the last scraps of land are used up. Trees are an obstacle to the march of suburban progress.

Woods and forests have been vanishing ever since man discovered fire and invented the barbecue. But in the past few centuries it seems that we have been trying to finish the job and create a desert. Long Island was once 90% forest. Most of it has been turned into suburban homes like ours, pine kitchen, and polished wood floors. There are still big oak trees a few feet from my window. But a hundred years ago there was probably one growing exactly where I am sitting now, which is an uncomfortable thought.

It’s more than just a matter of preserving pretty landscapes. Research in the last few decades has revealed more about the qualities of trees as living things that help clean our air, and perhaps even can communicate between themselves in vast, mysterious networks. Woods are part of our culture, magical places outside of civilization. Hansel and Gretel are forever lost in the woods. Shakespeare’s fairies and spirits inhabit them as their own. Robin Hood rode out from the green woods to crusade against income inequality. Every other television mystery you ever saw features characters being pursued through the woods, lost in the woods, burying bodies in the woods. Without the woods there would be no mysteries

We are lucky to have our state parks. But we should also treasure the remaining scraps of woodland that make our suburbs look a little less like those in Arizona. Even these small clusters of trees are full of life. There’s a whole wild menagerie in the patch behind our house: birds and squirrels, bats, mice and rats, voles, moles, rabbits, and an occasional deer passing elegantly through – it’s their natural habitat, their last remaining space in the ever-expanding subdivisions. That’s why a wood, especially at night, can seem so otherworldly and strange. It's haunted by the dark, whispering trees, the busy nocturnal lives of the animals, and all the witches and elfin spirits who have lived there throughout history. Lawns, highways and strip malls are our natural habitat. Woods belong to the other world.

The shriek of the chainsaw is more than just noise pollution, it’s a kind of assassination. Sometimes, reluctantly, we may have to take down a dangerous tree, but it always involves a moral struggle and it’s all our own fault. The trees, after all, were here first.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.