As a photographer and writer who has been involved with trees for many years, I find my ever-growing collection of tree books to be a fascinating and, in some ways, disturbing phenomenon (I say “disturbing” even though I myself have contributed to it). One positive conclusion I can draw is that publishers and booksellers remain confident in trees as a topic that appeals to readers. Apparently, there will always be a market for field guides to trees, histories of tree species, celebrations of the effects of trees on the well-being of humans, scientific or memoiristic accounts of the ecological importance of trees and forests, volumes of poetry about trees, photography books about trees, ruminations on the symbolism of trees in cultures and religions, reports on trees and climate change, novels and children’s books featuring trees, and the many other unclassifiable but incredibly important specialty books published each year about trees and language, trees and social justice, and other topics. And it is not just books but articles in magazines, newspapers, and online journals, tailored both to the layperson and the specialist, that describe, analyze, tell stories about, philosophize on, and generally make the case for respecting trees as growing, living things in our midst. What is one to make of all this rapidly accumulating knowledge about trees?
I am reminded, first of all, of how widespread the interest in trees really is. I notice this all the time when speaking with neighbors in Upstate New York and New York City. From what I have gathered, in my state at least, people care about trees whether they are Democrats or Republicans, men or women, liberals or conservatives, or dwellers in cities or in the countryside. Their interest in trees crosses the boundaries of race, socioeconomic class, and religion. This is not to say that everyone cares for trees for the same reasons or that they would always opt in favor of trees over something else if required to make a choice. But I would hazard that out of every hundred people in New York, eighty would say they care for trees; and I wonder if the figure is not the same in other states as well.
What this suggests to me is that whatever differences people might ascribe to each other in this country, there is a broader constituency in support of trees than is usually acknowledged or discussed. The logger or the hunter is as invested in trees as the ecologist or the Greenpeace activist. The former might label the latter as a “tree hugger,” but neither would disagree with being called a “tree person.”
Given this broad interest and the growing body of published wisdom on trees, it’s all the more troubling to me how backward public policy on trees continues to be. In New York City, tree policy is virtually the same today as it was when I first took an interest in the subject thirty-five years ago. That trees are a static infrastructure, like a sidewalk or a parking sign, that can be evaluated by formula and replaced with no consequence is a philosophy on which the laws not just of New York but of most cities and towns are based—despite all the evidence that removing and replacing trees carries much greater consequences than anyone had previously understood.
From a legal standpoint, why has so little changed in all this time? From what I have observed, the problem is not that people don’t care about trees but that they assume trees must be sacrificed to meet other priorities and needs. In New York City, problems like the lack of affordable housing or the need to address flood risks seem to conflict with regulations to protect trees, just as around the country the need for lumber and wood pulp seems to conflict with proposals to protect ancient forests and wilderness areas. I say “seems” because in all of these cases viable alternative plans or protocols would solve the problems in question while ensuring the safety of threatened trees.
Other impediments to the passage of stronger tree protections are a rote adherence to laissez-faire principles in business and an understandable wariness about trying out untested solutions. But I would argue that another part of the problem might also be in the tree books themselves, which are often long on general facts and ideas but short on practical recommendations. “The problem,” as Wendell Berry wrote, “is that decisions all have to do with the future, and all the actual knowledge we have is of the past.” Writers on trees—and I include myself as one—find it easy to describe trees and their benefits, but except in a few cases—like the health-based universal tree protections in Cambridge, MA, or the municipal tree board approach of Nashville, TN—the gap between the rapidly accumulating knowledge about trees and its application in municipal law remains as wide as ever.
It’s true that helping readers view the world from an arboreal angle can help to create an even broader constituency to support protections for trees. This seems to be the hope of authors who lay out a problem with incision and depth, or bring us through a fascinating history, but conclude only with a general statement of how they hope their findings “will prove useful to future decision-makers.” With so many books being published about trees, the bigger issue for me is not whether there is such a constituency (because someone must be buying and reading all of this material) but that this constituency and the decision-makers it can influence don’t have an agenda concrete enough to enact or debate. How are lawmakers to know what we want if we don’t tell them?
By way of concluding this post, which is really a confession of my own regret at my past diffidence on the subject, I will list some of my current ideas to protect the trees of New York City. No doubt some who know the city’s longstanding rules and practices will find these ideas quixotic or even wrong-headed, but that is fine by me. Not until ideas are put into words can debate on them begin.
1. Healthy trees greater than 6" in diameter on public and private property within the five boroughs of New York City may not be removed without a permit. Fees for permits will be determined by the diameter or diameters of the tree(s) to be removed and the number of replacement trees planted (here, I would follow roughly the procedures of The City of Cambridge, MA.)
2. Healthy trees greater than 20" in diameter, or groups of ten or more trees less than 20" in diameter, on public or private property may not be removed without a determination by an independent Tree Board that their removal would be in the public interest.
3. As vacancies become available the city council will review nominations for members of a seven-person Tree Board, and vote on them. Members of the Tree Board will be elected for ten-year terms. The Tree Board will be responsible for arbitrating questions of proposed tree removals—specifically, removals of one or more healthy trees of which as few as one are greater than 20" in diameter, or any group of ten trees or more whose diameters are less than 20".
4. The Tree Board will ensure that, in cases of construction and development projects on public and private land, existing healthy trees will be accommodated in designs and protected during construction rather than removed and replaced afterwards.
5. The New York City Parks Department will create on its website a comprehensive, publicly accessible and searchable database that contains information about and maps of all ongoing, upcoming, and proposed tree work on public and private property, including work that is part of city-sanctioned capital projects.
6. To enable the agency to maintain the city’s existing trees and provide information about them more effectively, the Parks Department’s share of the city budget will increase to 1%.
Benjamin Swett is a writer and photographer whose books include Route 22 (Quantuck Lane Press, 2007) and New York City of Trees (Quantuck Lane, 2013), winner of the New York City Book Award for Photography. His recent essays have appeared in Salmagundi, Orion, AGNI, Arnoldia, Prism International, and Fiction. His photographs are in private and public collections, including The Museum of the City of New York. “The Beauty of the Camera,” in AGNI 97, will appear in Swett’s forthcoming collection The Picture Not Taken, to be published by New York Review Books in Fall 2024. He teaches undergraduate creative writing at The City College of New York. (updated 1/2024)