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GP 1 April 2009: One Tree at a Time: Green Thinking

The Wye Oak.  Back in prehistoric times, when there simply were no super highways, when some pretty roads were called parkways, with little hills that gave bumps to the youngsters in the rear seat if dad went a little too fast, and “motoring” was meant to be a sublime, leisurely experience, we knew the trip down South once or twice a year was to be enjoyed, not endured.  There’d be Howard Johnson’s with fried clams and ice cream sodas, and important games like four-legged animals and license plate poker.  Everything in those tree-lined times was about the quality of the journey, not about getting there.

The most stupendous sight, every trip, was the Wye Oak in Queen Anne’s County, so doughty and huge and old a tree that it was Maryland’s state symbol.  Finally brought low in 2002, it was at its peak one of the many tall, silent types in America that assured us that the United States would be around forever. This was reassuring during the War Years (World War II) when our soldier brothers might be away closing in on Germany or waiting in the Philippines to invade Japan. We’d pause to eat a piece of fruit there, or run after the dog,  and wonder who had done what in the tree’s shadow back in colonial days and before.

In our eyes the oak was of equal importance to the magical, long ferry ride we took down from the head of Chesapeake Bay to the landing place on the Eastern Shore, that mysterious land that clung to a way of life a full century behind the rest of America, where one had pretty cows—Jerseys—instead of the big milk producers we now favor on dairy farms. Even today the Eastern Shore meanders a bit, still agricultural, comprising  1/3 of Maryland’s land area, but only harboring 10% of its population. It is memorialized in the novels of John Barth.  But now you reach the Shore on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, a narrow, endless bridge, without charm, that delivers you to the area around Centerville.  It has brought in a fair amount of flotsam jetsam.

The Cherry Orchard.  In Anton Chekhov’s last play—The Cherry Orchard, we traffic with all the forces of modernity which are so opposed to the bucolic world that harbored Wye Oaks and the estates such as Readbourne and the elaborate duck blinds with liquid refreshment to get hunters through the night that allowed such a pleasant life on the Eastern Shore of old.  In his tragi-comedy (intended as a comedy by Chekhov but often staged as a tragedy), the aristocrats fail to save their country estate.  At the end we hear the sawing of wood as the cherry trees are slaughtered to make way for a brave new world.

When trees are taken down en masse, we are fairly well assured that civilization is in trouble, that mankind has given in to his suicidal impulses, and a sterile wasteland, desolate in its way as the Third Reich after the Dresden bombing, is about to be constructed.  Up to the 1980s, even in the New South and the fast-growing West, developers sometimes would save a few trees as they put together new suburbs.  But facsimile conservation and tree worship was cast aside in the 90s, and the rapaciousness that invaded commerce in other spheres made short work of trees that might have taken a hundred years or better to reach adulthood. At the close of the century, we entered a world that was not friendly to Wye Oaks or to that ‘noble, thrifty tree’ the great regional architect Bernard Maybeck defended on the north side of the Berkeley campus out there in California, a state that has been so profligate with all its natural treasures.

Nature’s Flood Control.  It turns out that trees left standing are not just amusements for tourists and aesthetes, or metaphors for a healthy society.  They are the best flood prevention tool we have: areas of the New South and West that have been stripped of trees are really just disasters waiting to happen, since, without the rooted structure of trees, floods will happen.  If properly dispersed, they work against air pollution as well. The extra-brilliant Freeman Dyson, whose insights seem to mock both sides of the global warming debate, thinks that the excesses of carbon dioxide that stem from this changing climate would meet their match if we planted trees bred to be carbon-eaters. Trees, too, are part of nature’s air conditioning, instruments of shade that could lower utility bills for smart customers. Turns out, we are plumb foolish not to preserve and extend our tree cover, and we need to put special emphasis on long-term hardwoods.

Armadas Don’t Work.  As you will remember, the agile English with their small, darting ships laid waste to the grandiose Spanish Armada.  Grand tree programs don’t work out either:  it is the small bottom-up citizen efforts that are sustainable.  Franklin Roosevelt’s CCC  (Civilian Conservation Corps) was perhaps his most popular New Deal program, but it petered out with the advent of World War II.  Likewise Stalin’s “plan for  the transformation of nature,”  the brainchild of his official biologist Lysenko, involving the planting of vast strips of trees with the hope of altering the very climate of Soviet Asia, came to nothing in the end.  Trees that work out well seem to come from smaller, bottom-up schemes where the planting continues year after year.  In days of yore, some public schools would celebrate Arbor Day every year with pomp and circumstance, closing the ceremonies by putting yet another sapling in the ground.

There are a host of tree renewal efforts around the country which we hint at in “A Noble and Thrifty Tree.”  Quite notable are the efforts of our friend nurseryman Roger Holloway who is putting American Elms back in the ground, hither and thither, including quite a stand in the precincts of the White House.  The American Chestnut Foundation, up in Vermont, is hard at work bringing its cherished tree back into our midst.  Hardy sustained growth that surrounds us with handsome trees depends on individuals, not companies or governments, who can engage likeminded enthusiasts across our land.  Otherwise, the trees that spring up in our midst often consist of stunted second growth forests, such as those that sweep across certain parts of poor Maine, whose forests primeval were ravished by the paper companies. The restoration of our treescapes will depend on lovers, people who cannot do without them, such as the James MacKinnons described in “The Tree Was There First So It Deserved to Stay,” New York Times, March 25, 2009.  Their house and their sycamore are both sights to behold.

Sturdy Financial Institutions.  In fact, the way trees are getting revived in our life show us how we must go about building our next economy.  As our financial system falls apart, the temptation has been to apply band aids, very expensive band aids, to the banking goliaths, with hopes that the past can be reconstructed and our big banks and big investment houses can function as they did before.  Even if Humpty Dumpty could be glued together again, he never did very much for us and he was terribly unstable, terribly constructed. The old financial system stunk.

William Greider, the journalist who has essayed at length on the fatal flaws of our financial system, is just out with a new book Come Home, America. He sees the issues with terrible clarity.  A top-down financial system of big institutions is doomed to fail. Like Chairman Mao, he would “let a hundred flowers bloom,” except that he means it. On Bill Moyers Journal, Greider just laid out his prescription:

At this critical moment what we ought to be seeking, the goal of reform, and government aid, is creating a new financial and banking system, of many more, thousands more, smaller, more diverse, regionally dispersed banks and investment firms. Their first obligation is to serve the economy and serve society. Not the other way around. What the administration's approach may be doing is consecrating too big to fail, for starters. Which, of course, everybody in government denied was the policy until the moment arrived. And secondly, and this will sound extreme to some people, but I came to it reluctantly. I fear what they're doing, not intentionally, but in their design is setting the crown for a corporate state.

Healthy Growth Again.  Suffice to say, we have not had much in the way of trees nor any real growth in our economy for a few decades.  There is ample evidence about that—our growth figures have been over-stated and our inflation under-stated.  Such growth as we have had has been in the financial sector, but its offerings have been shoddy, and the sector has imploded.  We needs thousands of diverse trees and thousands of diverse financial institutions put together by millions of people who have not had a hand in stripping us of our greenery or our wealth.

P.S.  In the consulting and software worlds, we refer to ‘greenfield’ projects, where we tackle new challenges unburdened by old concepts, tired practices, and outdated models. What we discover, however, is that nothing turns out very green, because the managers of a new activity carry huge amounts of beat-up mental baggage which they deposit in every new project.   It is truly green thinking that we need now, whether we are planting trees or recreating our financial institutions.  That’s why we need thousands of attempts not controlled by a central authority to create quality trees or a financial system of many small, scattered institutions that is not self serving and that is not mucked up by the very people who created the mess in the first place.  The investment banking house Goldman Sachs has had a hand in government financial policy for 30 years and was at the table when some of the worst AIG decisions were made.  It’s an unlikely candidate to help reform the system:  the same holds true for the Federal Reserve Governors and the other potentates who brought us low. The same proposition holds true in healthcare, even more so. 

P.P.S.  Tree planting can be a whole lot fun.  Look and listen, for instance, to Acorns of Hope.

P.P.P.S.  Carl Schmitt, superintendent of banks under Jerry Brown as best we can remember, knew what a bank should be about.  He told us that he was just “in the put and take business.”  You put money in and you take it out.  His University National Bank in Palo Alto racked up deposits, lent out money safely to locals, and also did a trust management business.  He gave away Walla Walla onions to his customers every Christmas.  He finally sold out and retired to Walla Walla.  This is the kind of place where each of us would like to have money.

P.P.P.P.S.  We would argue that Teddy Roosevelt was far and away the greatest American president in modern times.  At the beginning of the 20th century, he brought the sundry trusts to heel, understanding that they were a drag on American civilization.  In collaboration with the great Gifford Pinchot, he put a fence around some of America’s great forests, making him our greenest president thus far. 


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