The Day I Lost a Tree

That first Thursday of March, I lost a tree. I came home from work to find that my favorite Philippine pine tree had been reduced to a stump. I dialed Dad up to ask what happened. “It had to be done,” he assured me. The tree had been leaning against our house, or something of the sort, and it could have done “serious damage to the roof of our garage.” If only he could see my arm stiffen.

I want to tell you I was sad because of environmental reasons. We lose 47,000 hectares of forest every year in the Philippines alone. Since the start of the Anthropocene, or the period when human activity became the dominant influence on the state of the environment, an estimated three trillion trees have been felled—about half of those that were around before man came along. I’m a conservationist. You’d think crying over trees came with the territory. But I never shed a tear for those three trillion trees. Nothing more than the usual, uneasy feeling of guilt at having been born a human being.

What made me cry was the memory of that beautiful tree. We’d moved to the Philippines a little over a decade ago, and I remember being amazed at having an entire pine tree growing just outside my bedroom window. It was a lot smaller back then, a little nub peeking out above the top of the kitchen roof, but even that early it’s branches were rich and supple. A host of little maya birds sat along its boughs that first morning in the Philippines. I remember watching them for a good while as the sun rose quietly behind.

The years went by and I grew older. So too did my pine tree. It shot right up, from that twee little pine poking its peak above the kitchen roof, to a towering, tapering figure, tall and proud against the golds and oranges of an early morning sky. Birds of all sorts would come and go, pausing for a while on its branches before setting off again. 

Every morning I’d watch them. I would while the first few moments of the day away, a brief respite before continuing again with the rat race. I recall crows and maya, black-naped orioles, one peculiar small one with a little red spot under its eye, and many, many other visitors over the years.

So you can imagine how my heart broke coming home to see that my pine tree was now a stump. I saw red. Save the garage roof, of course, but that pine tree? Heavens no! Dream on! “Be sensible,” Dad told me, after I let him know just how dumb it was to pick the garage roof over an entire tree. Was I really the ridiculous one? You could have easily stood beneath that pine tree on a rainy day, just like any old roof! 

“What about the cars?” asked Dad. 

“What about the cars?” I shot back.

I sat him down and had him explain to me beat by beat what happened. Apparently, the tree really had been propped up against the roof of the garage. In the process of landscaping our garden, someone had chopped off one of its roots, to make way for a little plot of grass and bush. Now the whole thing was leaning to the side, robbed of its anchor. 

My mind exploded. We had really opted to do damage to this beautiful, towering edifice of a tree for some vague approximation of mother nature. 

This tree, grown gargantuan over the years, had been traded out to make way for… a bush? A bit of wall? Some grass? It made no sense to me.

I’ve always wondered how it could be that we have so much climate and environmental science available to us, and yet we’re still so set in our ways of planetary destruction. On a global scale, we still oftentimes choose mines over mineral water, material wealth over the wealth of our living planet. We swap whole fields for cement, forests for shopping malls, paradise for a parking lot, as the old song goes, all under the banner of economic growth, development, of wealth and prestige. At what point do we stop to think about the natural world?

I suspect it’s because we’ve grown so used to our own disconnect from the environment. Many of us live and go about our entire lives within the ugly, drab confines of the big city, hours away from the closest semblance of a forest. Our day-to-day is dusty streets and sweaty commutes, grey walls and deep, deep stress we’ve all but become accustomed to. For many of us, our closest experience with the natural world comes from flashing screens, visible to our blinking eyes but cold and distant. 

We lack an intimate relationship with the planet, and in turn it loses its value to us, no matter the climate science or the environmental facts or the David Attenboroughs and WWF conservationists reminding us that we’re running out of time to save our shared home. And so in our sad attempts to make our surroundings a little more beautiful, we forget the beauty that is nature itself, unspoiled, tall, and true like that pine tree I lost. 

I grew up reading Calvin & Hobbes. I remember this one panel, a single, borderless image of the duo standing before the stump of a felled tree. Calvin’s brow is furrowed, Hobbes’ eyes turned up with sadness. Through his grimace, Calvin mutters, “Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.” I agree. We must be some kind of dumb to cut down something as full of life and as lovely as a tree.

I hope one day we all get over ourselves. I hope our kids get to experience, intimately, the natural world, and I hope they’ll learn to love the planet. I hope their sensibilities include the protection of that most sacred thing this earth has offered, which is life itself, in all shapes and forms. For now, though, what I have left is a hole where my pine tree—my host of birds, my morning friend—used to be.

A Disturbing Lack of Trees

I listen to the birds in our back yard every dawn with my mom. I used to hate getting up early, but ever since spotting a black naped oriole feasting on our fruit trees one morning, I found a new love in waiting for the birds while the sun rose behind our purple roof. It was relaxing. A moment of calm before the chaos of life in Metro Manila.

The fruit trees.

It’s obvious to me now, but back then I’d never really thought of how big a difference trees can make. Where I live there are a lot of trees, and the mornings are always full of bird song. The air is much fresher as well, and the air cooler even in the middle of the day.

Scientists have long since proven the many benefits of filling cities with trees. Each one is its own air purifier and natural air conditioning unit, converting carbon dioxide into fresh oxygen all throughout the day and dropping daytime temperatures by as much as eight degrees Celsius. Their boughs and branches provide shelter for birds, and each one allows natural ecosystems to return to the urban jungle. Plant the right kinds and trees provide an answer to food security, too. The city of Copenhagen announced early last year that they’d be planting fruiting trees along their streets, providing an almost ridiculously easy answer to good urban nutrition.

Beyond their practical benefits, though, trees have almost a spiritual effect on urban communities. Scientists have linked trees to lower blood pressure and reduced amounts of stress. People who live around trees seem almost healthier than those who do not, with improved physical and mental health compared to those from the depths of the urban jungle. Anyone who’s woken up on a sunny Sunday morning to birdsong and the smell of fresh fruits and leaves could probably imagine why.

Having trees around means being close to nature in a place where we would otherwise be very far from it. Only when there are trees can you wake to birdsong in the morning. Only then can you see the sun shine through the leaves and past the branches and cast long lines across the street. All other times it’s the blaring sound of heavy traffic and the murky gloom of tall buildings. Coffee must taste bland when all you’ve got to look at is grey wall and asphalt.

Today almost 2 billion people, myself included, live in bustling cities, disconnected from nature. Like a newborn severed early from its mother’s womb, we are far removed from that which gives them nutrition, both physical and spiritual. Our mornings are stress and dust, each day a sweaty slog and uncomfortable commute before we arrive home, sad and tired and perhaps feeling like something in our life is missing or incomplete.

I think what we’re missing is trees. If we had more trees, maybe life in the city would be a little more tolerable. Let’s plant some more.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind a couple more mango trees. It’d be nice to see more black naped orioles, too.