Why I would Go to Jail to Save a Tree

Damian Finn Auckland, New Zealand

When the whalers first came to New Zealand it was not so much for the whales that they hove to on our shores, it was because of the Kauri, a large and ancient tree that reached higher than any other in our bush forests. It was valued by whalers as masts because it grew so straight and strong.

Once discovered, Kauri became so popular the great bulk of it was felled. There is very little left.

In our Northland Province there is a forest that has within it a magnificent example of Kauri, so great is its splendour it is called in Maori, ‘Tane Mahuta’, the God of the Forest. It symbolises for many Europeans the lost grandeur of ‘once’. For the Maori it is ‘Tane’ a living entity and a relation.

New Zealand has large man-made forests. They are investments we are told. They stand in regimented rows growing sturdy just so they can meet with an axe and be felled. As mature growth their serried rows have been labelled, by one tourist, "manicured forests". In amongst them there is a magnificent silence and their distinct, but subtle smell.

Sometimes, at the right time of year, when the wind is right, all the seed pods of the adults will burst in unison and cloud the air with mustard coloured dust. It is a concert.

And while this crop-for-harvest forest has presence it does not possess the character or kudos of natural forest; they do not possess the individuality and soul of those Canadian Forests of West Coast Canada.

As a youngster I used to watch the tugs towing logs up the Burrard Inlet and wondered little about the diminishment of the forests. Why would I, I was a child.

As an adult though, I have wondered often about the destruction of forests just to maintain share dividend in some Company’s stock. And I question the wisdom of continuing the destruction without regard for those very real consequences many with specialist knowledge are warning us about.

As a child watching Chief Mathias Joe carve Totem poles, and smelling that most wonderful aroma of the cedar, I saw a relationship of man and wood as virtuous. Now, I see the wanton felling of trees for profit, and wonder where virtue has gone.

Would I go to jail for trees, or a tree? Yes! Just as I would if it was required to protect any of my loved ones.

In Maori mythology it was Tane who breathed life into the first woman, Hineahuone. The Maori call breath ‘ha’. It is sacred. All trees give us breath; too few trees, not enough for us to breathe. Wise judgement would honour the relationship...


Mike Dickman, Paris, France.

Trees and other plants very carefully choose the place and company in which they feel they can grow. This may sound far–fetched, but it is, in fact, far more obvious than it might seem at first glance.

Plants — like most other living beings — release an enormous amount of seed when seeking to reproduce themselves. This seed falls where it will, on fertile or on barren land, and then, given certain circumstances, will either grow and flourish or whither and die back. Some of these circumstances are, of course, adequate light and water. Some of the lesser known circumstances are literally the other trees and plant–life around it and its subsequent possibilities for availing itself of the soil, light and water on hand. Where access to these is severely limited, for example, the plant will simply not flourish at all. Where access is of a more limited nature but not impossible, the plant will accommodate itself to those around it in such a way as to obtain a more or less adequate share.

And sharing is, indeed, the crux of the matter. Trees that share the same hillside will not mingle their branches or their roots but will grow in such a way as to accommodate those around them. This is neither sheer hazard, nor simple nature in the derogatory sense of that term. It is, in point of fact, a sign of — let us call it — ‘quasi-sentiency’.

Plant–life is, of course, not sentient in the same way that animal–life is, but it is equally demonstrable that it is sensitive, not only to light, but also to other stimuli, positive and negative, as several well–documented experiments have shown.

If we add to this the incontestable fact of the overall usefulness of trees and other plant–life in the production and transformation of certain of the gasses indispensable to our own survival, not to mention their part in the refertilisation of the soil in which they grow and the natural proof against erosion they provide, and then balance this against the quasi–inutility of many of the ‘uses’ to which felled trees are put, it should become fairly clear that the indiscriminate logging of trees is not only dangerous but also criminally irresponsible.

Leaving aside the sheer beauty of be it just a single tree, let alone that of a healthy and flourishing forest, I should be quite prepared to go to prison if I thought I might save a tree — even a single tree — by doing so.

Harriet Wood Yorkshire, England

After a night of insomnia I gave up trying to sleep and went for a walk by the river. I was attracted to a stand of beech trees and used Mike Cohen's technique of asking consent, which came out as the question "may I come and hug you?" to the largest tree. Sensing a welcome I approached and leaned against it, my cheek against its bark. Immediately I had a powerful impulse to turn and put my lips to it. I did, and was overcome with that drowsy glorious feeling one gets after lying awake with the 4 am horrors, that switch in the brain when you know yes now you can sleep.

New age? Typical tree hugging nonsense? Anything reliable and repeatable is worthy of scientific acknowledgment and study.

Many years ago when I had never heard of such an idea I looked upwards walking in the woods and saw the tops of the trees shaking in a wind I hadn't realised was there. I saw the trees as a sort of planetary outer skin, protecting us from the extremes of sun, rain and wind. I said this to my daughter and we both said together "Oh! I want to hug one" and ran to the nearest tree and stood with our arms round it giggling.

So should we not love trees that shelter us, that feed us and give us the air we breathe? And speak to us wordlessly. Imagine the tragedy when we realise yes they are talking to us, and how many of the oldest and wisest we have destroyed. Will anyone weep like that for lack of that new hardwood dinner table? Does it count for nothing that a decision one way is truly irreversible?

King Solomon, in a piece of case law from three of the world's largest religions, recognised the disputed baby belonged to the mother who loved him, who would leave him whole and living. Not the one who by cutting him in pieces would destroy him. Should we not be inspired by this to defend what we love?

Rich Coon, Waukesha

A wide variety of writers, researchers and academics have recently begun to articulate a significant position regarding the psycho-physical health of modernized humanity. One term used to describe this condition is "mismatch." What is being noted by this term is that humans are suffering a wide variety of pathologies due to the inappropriate relationship our present system creates between the social and natural world. Scholars in evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology believe the present pattern of modern life is actually problematic to humans. The well known researcher E.O. Wilson has gone so far as to hypothesize a fundamental relationship between humans and the natural world he terms biophilia -- the love of nature. Paul Ehrlich has suggested that humans need to create a quasi religious attitude toward nature in order to once again form a harmonious balance between the social and natural world. The classic scholar and ecologist Aldo Leopold questioned the application of economic principles as value guides to understanding the human relationship to land. These scholars and many others, understand the primary need for humans to form strong bonds to the natural ecology of the support system that sustains them. It is only the increasingly alienated social system of present consumer society that denies the importance of maintaining natural ecosystems. More and more scholars are calling for a
transformation in the way our economic and social systems work. The fact that concerned citizens would heed such a call and work to guard the natural systems from which all humans arose is not surprising. In fact, as Wilson would have us believe, it is more surprising that more citizens are not participating in such endeavors, which merely shows the power of the consumer society to mask the primary and natural instincts of our species to save itself in the face of ecological disaster.

Betsy Barnum

Trees do not have legal standing in U.S. or Canadian courts, yet many people know them to be living beings that deserve the right to live just as people deserve that right. The philosophy of deep ecology rests on the premise that all living things have inherent value, that is, value apart from their usefulness to humans. An economic system and logging interests that see trees as having value only when they are "harvested" and turned into board feet of lumber is ignoring the inherent value of those trees and trampling on their right to continue growing in the earth and being part of a multi-faceted ecosystem. The system of laws that protects private property at the expense of living beings' inherent value and right to life goes directly against the deeply-held values of people who love trees and understand people's dependence on healthy ecosystems.

Civil disobedience has a long tradition in North American society as a means for people to express their opposition to unjust laws or actions, and to seek to change them. People who sit under or in trees and refuse to move when the state orders them to do so are squarely within this tradition of using civil disobedience to draw attention to the unjustness of a system that allows boards of directors of logging companies to make decisions that destroy trees and living ecosystems, a system that ignores the inherent value of living beings other than humans. Just as people in the southern U.S. were willing to go to jail to protest laws that treated African-Americans as less than fully human and as possessing less rights as people with paler skin, those who are willing to go to jail for the sake of trees are deeply committed to demonstrating the unjustness of laws that ignore the rights and value of trees as living beings.

Robin van Tine Saint Leo University

We, the members of contemporary industrial society suffer individually and collectively from a severe psychopathology characterized by the destruction of our own natural life support system -- the ecosphere. Since we are part of the ecosphere, and totally interdependent with it for every breath of air and each bite of food; since our bodies are made out of the soil and will return to the soil; since we are actually one with the ecosphere, this self-destructive behavior certainly qualifies as psychotic. We also suffer individually and collectively from the pathological denial of this destruction despite its pervasiveness.

Those individuals who choose to go to jail to save trees are aware that we humans are an interdependent part of the web of all existence – and do not suffer from the psychopathological denial of the destruction of our life support systems that characterizes most of our society. The religious principles of some contemporary denominations, such as Unitarian-Universalists include requirements to respect the interdependent web of all existence. Those who would protect the destruction of trees are simply acting with enlightened self-interest for the sake of all human beings and their offspring – as well as for all the other creatures of the ecosphere who are being effected by the wholesale destruction of habitat. Since, according to Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, we are in the midst of the largest extinction event in the history of Earth – caused by our own destruction of habitat – personal moral action to help slow such an event is heroic and benefits all life on Earth – including human life . Those individuals who would go to jail to save trees are also aware, no doubt, that we are in the midst of perhaps the most rapid climate change ever experienced on the Earth – also due to human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels and the removal of trees. Those altruistic individuals who would go to jail to save trees must be extremely scientifically literate, willing to risk their own safety for the sake of others, and should be lumped with the likes of Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi. Future societies likely will consider them heroic figures whose values and willingness to speak truth to power for the sake of humanity and all other creatures of Earth was admirable.

Robert Worcester, Vancouver BC

Trees are powerful symbols in many cultures for the essential nature of the natural world.

The "tree of life" has significance for many of the world’s most ancient religious traditions.

For some it is a potent image of how "earth and sky" are brought together in a living system that reaches underground with its roots and captures air and sunlight in its branches. Most people have vivid memories of trees that sheltered them as children allowing them to climb off the ground for an aerial view of the wider world beyond their backyards. It is not surprising that people would come to have deep emotional attachment to trees and to feel that those who measure them in board feet and dollars have missed something crucial in our relationship with nature. Scientists now confirm that trees grow in complex ecosystems on which many forms of life depend. Forests with salmon spawning streams grow richer than those where returning salmon are blocked. The air we breathe is filtered through the leaves of trees and our water is filtered through their roots. Some trees have stood in place for a thousand years of human history and have witnessed a vast succession of our generations. My father wrote at 80 of a tree he had gone back to visit on the family farm that had grown through four generations of our family and will likely outlive my son. I would go to jail to save that tree and I would honor those who choose to place the sacredness of forest places above the economic interests of a few who have forgotten their connection to these living, breathing beings. There is a law which tells us what is owned by whom but there is a higher law that tells us who we are as people. If jail is the price the lower places on the higher then history is full of those who have paid that price. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King and Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma made that choice when conscience came to conflict with the law. To me it is not so surprising that this choice is made, it is that we construct our laws in such a way as to demand that choice. Surely the "greater good" of preserving the beauty and diversity of these trees and the living systems they support should be recognized by the "greater number" as a higher value than the sale of lumber to benefit the few. Where are the laws to protect the systems that were working for millennia before the charter of our legal system was written? It is the law that should be questioned here, not the conscience of the people who oppose the desecration of their island home.

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