Back to our roots
The best time to plant a tree was when Paul Harris was alive. The second-best time is now
Last summer, Ian H.S. Riseley challenged every Rotarian to plant a tree by Earth Day 2018. On these pages, we trace Rotary’s love of trees from its founder, Paul Harris, to the trees Rotarians are planting today, including the heritage apple tree (opposite) that members in Germany are cultivating. You will also read about the similarities between Rotarians and trees, President Riseley’s thoughts on the primal power of trees, and the ways we honor – and fail to honor – trees.
Earth Day is 22 April. Time to get your grove on!
When is a tree like a Rotarian? All the time
Trees are connected through their root systems – and helping neighbors in times of need is the rule. Sound familiar?
By Peter Wohlleben
When I began my professional career as a forester, I knew as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals. Because it was my job to look at hundreds of trees every day – spruce, beeches, oaks, and pines – to assess their suitability for the lumber mill and their market value, my appreciation of trees was limited to a narrow point of view.
About 20 years ago, as I talked with the many visitors to the forest that I manage – for the tiny village of Hümmel in the Eifel Mountains in western Germany – my perspective began to change. Those visitors were enchanted by crooked, gnarled trees I would previously have dismissed because of their low commercial value. Walking with my visitors, I learned to pay attention to more than just the quality of the trees’ trunks. I began to notice bizarre root shapes, peculiar growth patterns, and mossy cushions on bark. My love of nature was reignited. Suddenly life as a forester became exciting once again.
One day, while in this state of mind, I stumbled across a patch of strange-looking mossy stones in one of the preserves of old beech trees. I stopped to take a good look. The stones were an unusual shape: They were gently curved with hollowed-out areas. Carefully, I lifted the moss on one of the stones. What I found underneath was tree bark. So, these were not stones, after all, but old wood. I was surprised at how hard the “stone” was, because it usually takes only a few years for beechwood lying on damp ground to decompose. But what surprised me most was that I couldn’t lift the wood. It was obviously attached to the ground in some way.
I took out my pocketknife and carefully scraped away some of the bark until I got down to a greenish layer. This color is found only in chlorophyll, which makes new leaves green; reserves of chlorophyll are also stored in the trunks of living trees. That could mean only one thing: This piece of wood was still alive!
Next I noticed that the remaining “stones” formed a distinct pattern: They were arranged in a circle with a diameter of about 5 feet. What I had stumbled upon were the gnarled remains of an enormous ancient tree stump. All that was left were vestiges of the outermost edge. The interior had rotted into humus long ago – an indication that the tree must have been felled at least 400 or 500 years earlier. But how could the remains have clung onto life for so long?
Living cells must have food in the form of sugar; they must breathe, and they must grow, at least a little. But without leaves – and therefore without photosynthesis – that’s impossible. No being on our planet can maintain a centuries-long fast, not even the remains of a tree, and certainly not a stump that has had to survive on its own. Something else was happening with this stump. It must be getting assistance from neighboring trees, specifically from their roots. Scientists investigating similar situations have discovered that assistance may either be delivered remotely by fungal networks around the root tips – which facilitate nutrient exchange between trees – or the roots themselves may be interconnected. In the case of the stump I had stumbled upon, the surrounding beeches were pumping sugar to the stump to keep it alive.
If you look at roadside embankments, you might be able to see how trees connect with each other through their root systems. On these slopes, rain often washes away the soil, leaving the underground networks exposed. Scientists in the Harz Mountains in Germany have discovered that this is a case of interdependence, and most individual trees of the same species growing in the same stand are connected to each other through their root systems. It appears that nutrient exchange and helping neighbors in times of need is the rule, and this leads to the conclusion that forests are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.
Of course, it makes sense to ask whether tree roots are simply wandering around aimlessly underground and connecting up when they happen to bump into roots of their own kind. Once connected, they have no choice but to exchange nutrients. They create what looks like a social network, but what they are experiencing is a purely accidental give and take. In this scenario, chance encounters replace the more emotionally charged image of active support, though even chance encounters offer benefits for the forest ecosystem. But nature is more complicated than that. According to Massimo Maffei from the University of Turin, Italy, plants – and that includes trees – are capable of distinguishing their own roots from the roots of other species and even from the roots of related individuals.
But why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? There are advantages to working together. A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then many of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer.
Every tree, therefore, is valuable to its community. That’s why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. When thick silver-gray beeches behave like this, they remind me of a herd of elephants. Like the herd, they, too, look after their own, and they help their sick and weak back up onto their feet. They are even reluctant to abandon their dead.
Every tree is a member of its community, but there are different levels of membership. For example, most stumps rot away into humus and disappear within a couple of hundred years (which is not very long for a tree). Only a few individuals are kept alive over the centuries, like the mossy “stones” I’ve just described. What’s the difference? Do tree societies have second-class citizens just like human societies? It seems they do, though the idea of “class” doesn’t quite fit. It is rather the degree of connection – or maybe even affection – that decides how helpful a tree’s colleagues will be.
You can check this out by looking up into the forest canopy. The average tree grows its branches out until it encounters the branch tips of a neighboring tree of the same height. It doesn’t grow any wider because the air and better light in this space are already taken. However, it heavily reinforces the branches it has extended, so you get the impression that there’s a shoving match going on up there. But a pair of true friends is careful right from the outset not to grow overly thick branches in each other’s direction. The trees don’t want to take anything away from each other, and so they develop sturdy branches only at the outer edges of their crowns, that is to say, only in the direction of “nonfriends.” Such partners are often so tightly connected at the roots that sometimes they even die together.
What I have learned so far from trees exceeds anything I could ever have dreamed of.
— Adapted from The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben; reprinted with permission from Greystone Books Ltd.
What a tree can do
Last year, Ian H.S. Riseley issued a challenge. He wanted Rotarians to plant 1.2 million trees – one for every Rotarian in the world – between 1 July 2017, when he took office as president of Rotary International, and Earth Day, 22 April 2018. Clubs around the world have embraced that challenge, and in his travels this year, Riseley himself has often been asked to pick up a shovel. Senior editor Hank Sartin sat down with him to talk about the trees he has planted – and how trees fit into Rotary’s mission.
Q: Why tree-planting?
A: Environmental issues have not featured highly on the radar of Rotary International in a corporate sense since 1990-91, when President Paulo Costa’s Preserve Planet Earth program inspired thousands of clubs to carry out environmental projects. I was keen to give Rotarians an incentive – and the opportunity – to show their concern for the environment. It’s important to me and it’s important to many other people.
Why trees? Because anyone can do it, just about. If you can’t plant one yourself, you can still support tree-planting somewhere that needs it. From everything I’ve heard, people inside and outside Rotary have embraced this idea.
Q: Why do you think this idea has inspired such enthusiasm?
A: There’s something about planting a tree that speaks to people in a very primal way. It shows a long-term commitment to the community. Rotary does many wonderful community projects: We build playgrounds and clean up rubbish and many other things. But somehow, planting a tree captures the imagination.
I’ve seen many examples of communities getting involved. The government of Romania heard about the initiative and said, ‘We want to plant trees too, but we don’t have the personnel to plant them.’ The government offered to donate trees that Rotarians would plant all over the country. So Rotarians are planting a million trees there.
Q: How do trees fit into Rotary’s areas of focus?
A: In some way, planting trees speaks to all of the areas of focus. Research has shown that trees are good for economic and community development – they increase property values. Planting a tree promotes peace simply by giving people a place to sit in the shade and contemplate the world. Trees are good for disease prevention and treatment, because the world is a healthier place with more trees to produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide. You can make a case for trees relating to all our areas of focus.
There are parts of the world where deforestation has caused significant damage. It’s not within the bailiwick of Rotary to redress that; we just don’t have the capacity. But we’d like to demonstrate the importance of having trees in our communities and the difference that they make to us.
Q: The imagery of your presidential tie is the golden wattle, Australia’s national flower. Have you always been interested in plants?
A: I’ve been interested in growing native Australian plants since before I was a teenager. My father was keen on propagating plants. When my wife, Juliet, and I bought our first house, I wanted to create a garden that mirrored what used to occur naturally in the area, with plants that are indigenous to that particular part of Australia. When I was thinking about my presidential tie, it was a no-brainer to incorporate the golden wattle. It’s very colorful. I know some Rotary presidential theme ties have been relatively sedate, and I wanted mine to be slightly out there.
Q: You’ve participated in many tree plantings this year. What have been some more memorable ones?
A: In Iceland, we planted a tree in the Friendship Forest, Vinaskógur, where visiting dignitaries and heads of state have planted trees. Queen Elizabeth II planted a tree there. I’d just note that Rotary’s tree is planted just a little bit higher up the slope than hers.
An organization Rotary works with in South America wanted to plant a tree in Antofagasta, Chile, on the edge of the Atacama desert. I asked if it was practical to plant a tree in the desert. They showed me how they had set up a system to take water from the roof of their building when it rains. The tree can survive and thrive if they do it right.
In Northern California, a massive 100-year-old oak tree had come down, and Rotarians wanted to plant something in its place. The tree we planted is a small thing now, of course, just a meter high. People there were talking about the role that trees will have in the restoration of the area where they had the wildfires last year. A forester I spoke to told me that planting trees helps to stabilize the soil so it doesn’t wash away when it rains. It was a strong reminder of the many benefits of trees – not just converting carbon dioxide to oxygen, but also halting erosion, providing habitat for animals, and so many other things.
I’ve helped plant trees in Sardinia, in Latvia, in Australia. Everywhere I go, I get my hands dirty.
Q: Your tree challenge officially ends on Earth Day, on the 22nd of this month. Do you hope that clubs will keep on planting trees?
A: We want everyone to keep going. And it’s not just planting the tree. It’s nurturing the tree to ensure that it thrives. Planting a tree is a commitment to the future.
The tree whisperer
The forests of New England prepared Paul Harris for a lifetime in Rotary
By Geoff Johnson
When he was a boy growing up in Vermont, Paul Harris made a startling discovery: “Trees talk to each other in a language of their own.” How else could they flawlessly orchestrate the brilliant display of color that each fall without fail set New England ablaze? It seemed obvious: In order to dazzle, the trees must first plan, they must plot, they must converse.
“Each tree according to its species is assigned its part,” Harris explained. “The mighty oaks, with such help as the sumacs may give in touching up the low corners, agree to supply the deep wine color admired by all nature lovers; the beech trees, the elms, and the birches supply miles of yellow and red; the maples are never confined to any one color; they are permitted to run riot with everything they have in their paint pots, red, brown, wine color, yellow, green, and what not. All the trees of the forest place their trust in the maples to do the right thing when it comes to painting the forests in the month of October.”
Harris’ arboreal ruminations appear in his autobiography, My Road to Rotary. The book’s title is misleading: Better to look at its subtitle, The Story of a Boy, a Vermont Community, and Rotary, for a clue to the author’s intent. These are the reflections of an old man – the foreword is dated Chicago, October 1945, 15 months before the author’s death – but they are based, as Harris explains, on “observations made through the eyes of a boy.”
The story of that boy occupies nearly two-thirds of the 304-page book. (By contrast, Rotary gets 43 pages.) Harris renders vivid portraits of the grandparents who raised him, of their small town, and of the people who populate it. But he reserves some of his most evocative prose for his description of the New England forests and mountainsides that were his playground. “We lived near to nature in those days,” he recalls. “We were part and parcel of the universe, and in our own quiet enjoyment of things, our lives were fuller than they could have been otherwise.”
Not least among those enjoyments were the trees.
His father’s improvidence may have been the best thing that ever happened to Paul Harris. As a result of his family’s financial woes, Rotary’s founder was delivered into the hands of his paternal grandparents, Howard and Pamela Harris, when he was three years old. The couple lived on a small farm in Wallingford, Vermont. The farm wasn’t much – an extensive garden, a hayfield, a few cows, and a neglected apple orchard – but the surrounding countryside was magnificent. Situated between the Taconic and Green mountains, the Otter Creek Valley was a profusion of rolling hills, bucolic lakes and rivers, and a “bounteous” (Harris’ word) array of trees. A photo of Wallingford that accompanies My Road to Rotary reveals a sliver of Elfin Lake and a vast forest. You literally can’t see the village for the trees.
This was the setting for the boy’s seemingly idyllic childhood, and as the septuagenarian Harris spins his story, each of the trees of Wallingford assumes an identity of its own. The unbending oak, “mightiest of all trees,” and the “majestic” elm; the “picturesque and beautiful” beech; the “chaste and modest” white birch; the willow, swaying “gracefully in the wind” – all occupy a place in Harris’ twilight reverie.
In winter, young Paul took special delight in the cheer offered by the evergreen pines, firs, and cedars. “Some of the recesses of the forest were like great cathedrals,” his elder avatar rhapsodized, “and the tall spruce trees with their branches bent to the ground by their burdens of snow were like titanic vestured monks bowing low.”
Harris doesn’t say as much, but the maple – “a worker of miracles beyond the ken of man” – might have been his favorite tree. It was the most common tree in the valley, and its hard timber and spring sap, the wellspring of Vermont’s “delectable” syrup, made it the most useful. But as a boy, Paul primarily savored the maple’s “autumnal glory” and, in summer, its abundant shade, beneath which he and his friends could “lie on green grass and dream to their heart’s content.”
Harris’ love of trees did not blind him to their utility. In a chapter headed “An Industrious Community,” he noted that “most of the small industrial plants in Wallingford existed by virtue of the supply of usable timber in the nearby mountains.” The pitchfork factory and the snow shovel company made their handles from ash; another shop made wagons from hickory and ash and used “tough oak” for the wheels’ hubs. Pine trees became window sashes and doors, cedars transformed into shingles and posts, and the bark of the hemlock was used to tan hides. And old one-legged Mr. Pratt could rest easy knowing he would never run out of spruce and pine for his ever-in-demand product: coffins.
But when it came to trees, such practical endeavors were not a boy’s concern. Long after he was capable of following his own advice, Harris made the following recommendation: “Anyone desiring a broad view of the surrounding mountains and hills, lakes and ponds, would do well to climb Rattlesnake Mountain near Lake Dunmore, select the highest tree, and from its topmost branches survey the country as far north as the Canadian border.” Presumably young Paul made that ascent and there glimpsed a world beyond Vermont.
The seasonal rhythms of Vermont remained with Harris all his life. When he returned to Wallingford, from Princeton University, for his grandfather’s funeral, it was the dreary, cold winter that welcomed him home. When his grandmother died a few Octobers later, Harris, unable to make the trip back – he was off in the “west” studying law at the University of Iowa – easily conjured the “funeral procession moving slowly down the valley, along lazy, winding Otter Creek, lit up by the flaming colors of the hillsides and mountains.”
At the family plot, Pamela Harris was laid to rest alongside her husband. “Autumn winds have in due course directed to the graves of grandmother and grandfather myriads of maple leaves which also had spent their life courses and needed only a quiet place to lie down and rest.”
After law school and five years of vagabondage, Harris began his career in Chicago, his home for the ensuing 51 years. “At last my life settled down in earnest during the early spring of 1896, when the sap was in the maple trees back in my valley.” He took a “weird fascination” in the city – “America’s un-rivalled metropolis of the Middle West” – but with few friends, he could not shake off a perpetual sense of loneliness. In 1905, the founding of Rotary helped remedy that, as did his 1910 marriage to Jean Thomson.
The couple famously met on a countryside hike with the Prairie Club of Chicago, where Harris was a charter member. He tore his jacket on a barbed-wire fence, Thomson – “a bonnie Scottish lassie” – made a-mends, and a few months later they wed. In 1912 they moved into a house at 10856 S. Longwood Drive, about 15 miles south of the Loop. Harris had discovered the neighborhood, called Morgan Park, shortly before he met his future wife. Hilly (atypical for Chicago), wooded – its developers had planted 11,500 trees on the 480-acre tract – and, on Harris’ first encounter, snow-covered, it reminded him of Vermont. “The picture seemed so true to the New England life I had known and loved that the thought came to me if ever I was to have a home of my own, it would be on the top of the hill on Longwood Drive.”
They called their home Comely Bank, after a street in Edinburgh from Jean’s childhood in Scotland. Just south of them, on 110th Street, lived Silvester Schiele, the coal dealer with whom Harris had first discussed his plans for Rotary. In an earlier book, This Rotarian Age, Harris recalled the trail that connected the two homes, “a well-worn path winding through the oak wood made fragrant in the spring by countless blossoms and radiant in autumn by blazing sumac.”
Harris bemoaned the inevitable changes to the neighborhood, particularly the loss of a stand of crabapple trees across from their house that served as a refuge for birds; tractors dragged the trees out by their roots to make way for an apartment building. Despite his display of equanimity – after all, the new apartment dwellers “had made their escape from the noise and confusion of the city” – it’s easy to imagine a forlorn Harris muttering a lament he knew from Thoreau’s journals: “Thank God, they cannot cut down the clouds!”
The Harrises’ wooded backyard offered a perpetual solace – and soon acquired an international renown. It began with a visit by Walter Drummond, a Rotarian from Melbourne, Australia. Drummond had admired a blue spruce in the Harris yard, and when he returned home, he planted one in his own garden. After Drummond’s death in 1930 at age 40, Harris dedicated the tree to his memory. It was the first friendship tree in what Harris alternately called his goodwill or friendship garden. (Though Harris often mentioned the garden, there’s no record of how many and what kind of trees he planted. And because the house has changed hands several times since his death, no one knows for sure if any of those trees survive.)
In 1935, Harris reflected on the 30 years that had passed since Rotary’s founding. “Within that period, the Walter Drummond blue spruce tree which stands in my garden of friendship, bowing gracefully in gentle breezes to friendly visitors from distant countries, has gained appreciably in stature, but the twin oaks” – presumably on the path to Schiele’s house – “looking condescendingly down on all ephemeral things, are as they were.”
In 1931, Sydney W. Pascall, the first European president of Rotary International, prepared to embark on a world tour with his wife and daughter. Before Pascall left London, Paul Harris proposed an idea that ultimately became a Rotary tradition. As Pascall remembered it, “the revered founder of Rotary . . . suggested that a most appropriate way of symbolizing the Rotary idea would be the planting of trees. I started the observance in the National Botanical Gardens” in Cape Town, South Africa, with the first tree planted by a Rotary president on a presidential trip. Before the tour was over, Pascall had planted more than 30 trees, while his wife, daughter, and “mayors and Rotary leaders” planted 22.
A habitual planter of trees, Harris immediately emulated Pascall’s example. On 17 August 1932, he planted his first tree – a maple – on European soil. Harris thought the site “especially appropriate”: Berlin’s Tempelhofer Feld, a former military parade ground. Fourteen years after the end of World War I, Harris envisioned his maple maturing into a symbol of international peace. “The tree was planted,” he wrote afterward, “with the fervent hope that it would stand for many years as symbolic of the living, growing friendship between the great German people and my own country.” (History, of course, had other plans.)
From Berlin, Harris traveled across Europe, leaving a trail of trees in his wake. Tallinn, Estonia; Helsinki, Finland; Stockholm and Gothenburg, Sweden; and Bergen, Norway – in a span of about three weeks, each of those cities received a Harris tree. In 1934, he visited South Africa, where Port Elizabeth got a Norfolk pine. The following year, Harris planted trees in Australia, New Zealand, Shanghai, and Japan, including one, in Tokyo, on the grounds of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel.
During Paul and Jean’s 1936 tour of Central and South America, Harris planted more than a dozen trees in seven countries. One occasion stood out: In Valparaiso, Chile, during the first Ibero-American Conference of Rotary clubs, Harris arrived for what must have become an almost commonplace ritual. But a surprise awaited. “The [Rotary] delegates from the various countries each brought with him a sack of soil from his own country,” wrote Harris in his Peregrinations III, “and solemnly emptied it in the hole dug for the tree. Could their sympathy have been better expressed?”
The “satisfaction” of that moment imprinted itself on Harris’ mind. “While I have participated in many [tree plantings], I am certain that the ceremony has never been taken so seriously by so large a number.”
Paul and Jean returned from their equatorial sojourn just as another prairie spring enveloped Comely Bank. Henceforth, Harris’ arboreal endeavors were confined to the United States. As late as 1945, he was still at it, planting an oak tree in Tuskegee, Alabama. (Suffering from fungus and the aftereffects of a lightning strike, the tree came down in 2011, though at the time, Rotarian Al Davis, the Tuskegee city manager, reported that gavels for Rotary clubs had been carved from the oak’s remnants.)
A weary, worldly woodland warrior, Harris could justifiably rest on his Laurus nobilis and reflect on his achievements: “I have planted [trees] on all continents of the earth and on islands of the seas.” No brag, just fact – though a tree grows in Antarctica? (Don’t doubt that Harris could make it happen.) “It is my hope that my trees at home and abroad will stand for generations, friends of birds and friends of men . . . living expressions of international peace and goodwill.”
Harris is in a similar mood in “The End of the Journey,” the final chapter of My Road to Rotary. He is enjoying a cup of tea with Jean by the hearth at Comely Bank, and his thoughts travel back to his Vermont boyhood. A life has run its course, and the tone is elegiac. “The leaves of the maple trees are already beginning to show color . . . [and] some night in the not too distant future, when the eyes of the home folks are closed in sleep, mystic winter will creep silently into the valley.”
Harris expresses no regret. It is the natural cycle of things, and in time, spring’s “resurrection” will recur. Besides, he has left a living legacy of trees spread across the globe, including one rare and vital specimen invigorated by his will and his imagination.
“At our fireside scores of friends from all corners of the globe have delighted us by their presence,” recalls Harris, drifting into a nocturnal trance. “They have come as the result of my planting a sapling in 1905. The first Rotary Club was that sapling. It has grown into a mighty tree in whose shade it is delightful to dwell.”
Striking the flag of Chaos
Trees are things of beauty, unless there are other things in them – which is why the author takes arboreal stewardship so seriously
By Ian Frazier
Notice the white plastic bag ensnared in the branches of a tree. It flaps in the wind, making a noise like a luffing sail. If it’s between November and April, the tree’s leafless, and the bag takes on a certain prominence against the sky. I think of it as a flag. Call it the international flag of Chaos.
I started noticing the phenomenon of bags in trees about 25 years ago. The poet Delmore Schwartz titled a short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” The same can be said of bags in trees. Once you notice them, your mind begins to wonder why they’re there, what they signify, and, eventually, whether anything can be done about them. Or else you simply forget about them, and when you look at city landscapes you stop seeing them – and maybe you stop seeing the trees as well.
Which is a sin against trees and our own souls. We like to surround ourselves with trees, because they intervene between us and the wild blue yonder – i.e., eternity. They’re the last stop before heaven. What we put in them, or allow to be put in them, carries great significance. Certain Native American tribes consigned their dead to tree burials, where the forces of nature eventually dispersed the bodies. To show joy and celebration, we string lights and hang ornaments in the branches of trees. When we let other, neglected branches fill up with raggedy, wind-torn plastic bags, we deny the basic sacredness of trees, as well as our species’ long kinship with them.
Not long after the problem of bags in trees first struck me, I invented a device to remove them. With a friend who’s a jeweler, I devised a kind of pruning hook with three short tines extending roughly perpendicular to the hook’s vertical axis. Twist the device and the tines wrap the bag around the base of the hook. Pull down and the hook’s sharp blade cuts the bag free.
The bag-snagger, as we call it, attaches to a fiberglass pole that can be connected to other poles into lengths of 40 feet or more. So assembled, the bag-snagger can reach high into trees and remove bags and other debris deposited there by the wind or, in some cases, by floodwaters.
When we submitted our invention to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, it rejected the application, saying that a fruit-picking device patented in 1868 constituted “prior art.” We tried again, arguing that plastic bags did not exist in 1868. Eventually we received U.S. Patent No. 5,566,538.
To be obsessed with plastic bags is to learn something new every day. Such as: The Irish call plastic bags in trees “witches’ knickers.” After cigarette filters, plastic bags are the most common kind of trash on shorelines and in the oceans. Removing plastic bags from cabbage palms and thorny greenery in the bed of the Los Angeles River is “like getting gum out of dreadlocks” (as a reporter in LA told me). Airline pilots have observed plastic bags floating through the air, while maintenance workers in China use flying flamethrower drones to burn plastic bags off power lines. I could go on, but one final, inexplicable fact: Plastic bags stuck in trees are very common around the epicenter of the AIDS crisis in Africa (or so an aid worker informed me).
I’ve personally taken bags and other debris out of thousands of trees: in all five New York City boroughs and in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Once, while extracting an oddly bulging towel from a tree in Queens, I cut a hole in the towel and a large rat burst out and ran down the pole. A few inches before it reached my hands, it jumped onto a nearby tree (another reason I’m thankful for trees).
I have taken a pair of extra-large green polyester pants from a London plane tree in the square in front of the courthouse steps often featured in the closing scenes of the TV series Law & Order. With my jeweler friend, Tim, and his brother Bill, I have removed debris of considerable size, such as lawn chairs, tractor-tire inner tubes, and, on the banks of the Mississippi River after a major flood, a small compartment or room that had apparently floated off a boat and lodged in the top of a cottonwood tree.
When we started bag-snagging, in the 1990s, a very common item to find in trees was audiocassette tape. There were huge wads of the stuff, fluttering with a fright-wig effect. They gave us fits, because the bag-snagger was not designed for that kind of small-gauge debris. We removed lots of tape nonetheless, and several times we even spliced lengths of it together and played it. Some of it was Tupac Shakur rapping. We did the same with a few of the pieces of videotape we took out. It showed local access programming and a guy explaining his conspiracy theories. But as the years went by, cassette tape and videotape became less common, and today they have disappeared from trees almost entirely – as they have from people’s lives. This makes me favor banning plastic bags as the best way of removing them from trees once and for all.
You meet some nice people taking bags out of trees. Grateful passers-by have given us a dollar or two, of course unasked. In Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza – a whirling vortex of plastic bags in early spring – an elderly woman watched us from her apartment window before coming down and inviting us in for lunch. People often take pictures of us and ask us to remove bags from trees near their buildings or just outside their windows.
Through bag-snagging we met Bette Midler, whose New York Restoration Project, a nonprofit, does environmental work mostly in uptown Manhattan. She acquired some bag-snaggers, and now she has a crew taking bags out of trees during the warmer months. The crew members wear vests that say “Bag Snaggers.” These young arborists are far more professional and skilled than we ever were. Not long ago, watching them rasslin’ plastic bags (and tarps, and bubble wrap, and helium balloons, and bicycle tires) from trees in the traffic meridian on Broadway on the Upper West Side gave me a real thrill – and a sense of pride. I’m a job creator!
More people live in places with trees than in places without. Often when I fly into a major airport, I’m surprised by how many trees I see below. Greater Moscow, for example, appears to be a village in a forest, and from overhead, New York City presents ocean on the one side and seemingly endless trees on the other. Trees are the main flora that most people see every day. Our weather comes to us through them. No major storm is complete without TV images of toppled trees or windblown palms resembling inside-out umbrellas. Humans prefer not to be too far from trees. They are where we evolved primates used to live, and that’s why falling is such a common nightmare.
Treeless places define the concept of “bleak.” Once, in Nome, Alaska, I took a self-guided walking tour laid out by the chamber of commerce. Nome is so near the Arctic Circle that not much in the way of trees grows on the verdure-challenged tundra. At that time, however, Nome did boast two or three trees, and the tour led the tourist to each one. Each tree was given its own number on the tour and a paragraph or two about it. Each stood about 11 feet high. In more hospitable parts of the world, these oppressed willows of the Far North would be considered shrubbery, but Nome’s boosters wanted to show that, by God, they had trees just like any civilized place.
Sometimes when my friends and I are bag-snagging, we cross paths with people who take offense at our wasting time on such an inconsequential (to them) problem. The idea that we would go after such comparative flyspecks when bigger problems loom all around offends them.
Maybe taking bags from trees is a foolish waste of time. It might even be considered selfish: The personal pleasure involved is definitely real. To see a tree benighted and bestrewn with shreds of plastic, and to debag it with our snagger and 20 minutes of effort – that brings great satisfaction. I think of the act as a kind of live-action landscape painting. It’s almost as if we’ve re-created the tree with our own hands. I believe that, quixotic or not, the act of taking bags out of trees improves the ambient morale in general. It strikes the flag of Chaos and restores our own and the trees’ peace of mind – which turned out to be both my responsibility and my dream.
— A staff writer for the New Yorker, Ian Frazier is the author of 13 books, including 2016’s Hogs Wild.
• Read more stories from The Rotarian