Trees? I never paid them much mind when I was young and did not think they were beautiful, functional, or valuable. I was a city boy and whether as a toddler, small child, or later as a young adult, in Brooklyn, Manhattan, then the Bronx and Long Island, I must admit that I did not appreciate trees. I did not understand what their purpose was. To me it seemed that they were a nuisance that blocked visibility, dropped leaves and debris in my path, interrupted foot traffic and car door exits, and even occasionally led to something hitting me in the head if not dropping or splatting on my hat.

I remember that at various times I had to draw a tree in class. And parents often have shared with pride tree pictures their children have drawn. Those trees always were full-bodied and impressive, even to someone like me, who could not relate to a tree.

Gradually as a photographer, and then because of an interest in wildlife and my love of Judaism, I started to notice trees for all that they do. As we approach Tu B’Shevat, I feel few people are as well-suited than a self-described “city boy” like me to bring up all the contributions trees make that cannot possibly be considered by those with a “city” upbringing, and by persons for whom the solution to a mild irritation is to “Chop it down!”

There is a beautiful story about a meeting that took place between Rav Abraham Isaac Kook and Reb Aryeh Levine1. They were taking a walk during which Levine absentmindedly plucked a twig. Rav Kook was stunned. “In all my days, I have been careful never to pluck a blade of grass or flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom. You know the teaching of the Sages, that there is not a single blade of grass below, here on earth, which does not have a heavenly force above telling it: ‘Grow!,’” he explained.

I first began appreciating trees when in my early twenties I found that no light was as fine a quality as that which was shaped by the trees providing overhead shelter from the sky, while allowing flattering directional light to reach around to subjects below. Later I used the study of tree barks and leaves as a teaching tool to help photographers learn to see and feel light. As a New York State Licensed wildlife rehabber specializing in the rescue of injured and orphaned squirrels, I have even more appreciation of trees and feel pain and despair at them being axed.

Chopping down trees means the slow killing of those animals who live in the trees, rely on them for safety and shelter, and who will simply not be able to find alternative options in time. Holidays like Tu B’Shevat, should lead us to respect and practice responsible stewardship of our environment.

Perhaps rebbeim could underscore this and use this time to educate communities to appreciate that what trees do is important. Surely some land owners won’t care and just want to clear the whole way in advance, decimating a hundred trees even when only a few are in the way. Is that compassion and responsible stewardship of our environment? I know from speaking to some that they are simply not aware of all the good that trees do and are easily sold a package by landscapers eager to make a killing. And murder it is.

It can take a hundred years to build what a power tool can butcher in a few minutes. That is not what we should be doing unless it is vital to our safety and well-being. And it rarely is, because loss of trees, is indeed a loss.

Trees reduce winds and provide shelter from rain and snow. They retain moisture, produce great amounts of oxygen, and help filter bad chemicals in the air we breathe. They give shelter, home, and food to many animals that Hashem gave us to care for. They reduce our energy costs and according to NY State, promote outdoor activities.

In West Hempstead, hundreds of trees have been chopped down in the last year alone. This is big business for tree removal companies, and they must be doing a lot in the way of stoking fears of falling trees just to build sales.

We have a holiday that is considered the birthday of trees and is “about gratitude to our Creator for the fruits of the trees,” as Aish HaTorah’s website describes it. Yet so many trees are being killed indiscriminately in communities that should care more about not killing them. Perhaps as Rabbi Cohen from Aish HaTorah suggested to me, it is because rabbanim do not consider it a high priority with all the other concerns, like drugs, to deal with.

He did agree with me that how we treat animals says a lot about our society. Kids who grow up with respect for animals by learning that they have feelings and can and do think have a very different trajectory than kids who ignorantly believe the opposite and instead of nurturing smaller lives, choose to practice harm with stones, poisons, and violence.

Children see how their parents either value life or do not. We learn humility and empathy by respecting and feeling for animals and the natural environment those are born to. In my research for this column I stumbled on founded by Yosef Gillers. That organization develops educational Torah garden programs to help us connect to our roots. I wish that rabbis and teachers might spend a few moments to help children of all ages appreciate the value of life all around us. There are many parallels in the cycle of nature and in our own growth as humans.

Since Hurricane Sandy, people are panicking and perfectly healthy, robust and beautiful trees are being massacred at whim, literally for no reason. Trees need a good number of their branches as receptacles of the sun’s energy for the tree to survive. Chopping branches at will can slowly kill a healthy tree and make it unsafe because dead and lifeless limbs will soon dry out, splinter, and fall. Part of a tree can be a danger. It is a safety risk — it can fall and do serious harm to property and injury to persons. Those branches must be trimmed.

Occasionally a tree may grow off balance or not be sufficiently rooted in solid ground. Those few trees may need to be removed, as well as the rare tree that becomes diseased and is untreatable. But these situations are the exception, not the rule. Just as the few branches of a tree that might impact power and communications lines, it rarely warrants the callous heavy-handed and wild way that utility companies usually butcher what were beautifully healthy trees. By respecting trees and what they give us, surgery when required would be approached with reason. If the trees get no respect, then their lives are not considered to have any value until we find them all gone, and greatly missed.

It is a cruel and unthinking action to cut down trees without consideration of the future and the environment, and without an awareness of all the good that trees do. May we practice restraint before ending a 100-plus year life. There should be a balance in our actions between what we need to change and what we must regard as essential conservation of nature.

When our grandchildren one day are asked to draw a tree, what kind of tree will they picture? The ones we drew as children, or those we often see, hacked to death and left to suffer on the side of the roads we travel and pictured here?

  1. Source: (Adapted from A Tzaddik in Our Time by R. Simcha Raz, pp. 108–109. See also Tomer Devorah, chapter 3.)

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