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Out on a limb 

I noticed them every day on my drive to and from work through rural Durham County. You couldn't miss them--seven ancient, majestic oak trees spread out in a large field close to the road. Their enormous trunks and limbs had a presence. Driving past them on Carpenter Pond Road made me feel content. Truthfully, I didn't think much about them when they were standing. I never stopped to photograph them. Somehow, I thought they would always be there. Until the night I drove by to find them all lying on the ground like a herd of dead elephants.

That night for the first time I stopped my car to get out and actually look. Oak trees can live 200 or more years, with the circumference growing as big as 32 feet. The height can reach up to 100 feet with a canopy of 135 feet or more in diameter. I'm not a botanist and I didn't have a tape measure with me. I only know that it looked like a massacre.

I felt small walking among those seven downed giants. Judging by their massive size, I would guess they were at least 100 years old. I wish now that I had gone home and gotten a tape measure so I could give you the concrete facts. The suddenness, the lack of warning, the efficiency of their downing took me by surprise. A chainsaw can quickly polish off what a hundred years of beetles, fungi and bad weather could not take down.

Soon after the oak trees' demise, rows of identical houses popped up. The entire development was surrounded by a white picket fence and a few spindly young trees that were held up by rubber and wire devices. At Christmastime, I drove around the development at night, and with its lights and decorations it looked like a happy place. An affordable place where people can own their homes, live their lives and maybe start a family.

Still, I wish the developers had left even one oak tree for the new homeowners to enjoy. Just one ancient oak tree so the residents might remember that there are things older and larger than fleeting problems and busy lives.

I grew up in Queens on a block where all the semi-detached houses were small and identical. But there is one difference between my working-class, New York neighborhood of then and the affordable developments of the Triangle now. We had trees.

On the sidewalk in front of my childhood home stood an apple tree. The apples were good for only three things--worms, throwing and my mother's awful homemade wine. Each spring growing up, I watched the apple buds blossom with pink flowers. On summer afternoons, sometimes we would sneak sips of the apple wine as my mother aged it in our basement. Fortunately, after one vinegary sip we seldom wanted to go back for more. In the fall, when the fruit fell to the sidewalk, the neighborhood kids would gather the perfect ammunition for running fights.

Perhaps I could be accused of comparing apples to oaks, but still I think about kids growing up without mature trees in their daily lives. Trees to lean their heads and close their eyes against when they play hide and seek. To run crazy circles and dodge around when they play tag. To climb and lodge tree houses too soon outgrown.

As a child, one of my first deep impressions about people and generosity came from a neighbor's tree. On the corner of my block in Queens stood a cherry tree, and when the fruit ripened, the owner of that house shared the cherries with the entire neighborhood. When I moved there at age 6 after living in the Bronx, I was stunned that unlike at the grocery store, this fruit was free.

"Why doesn't he charge us and make money?" I asked my father.

"Because he wants to share," he explained.

Lately, I think of places like Haiti, which is more than 90 percent deforested. With no tree roots to hold soil on the mountains, the recent torrential rainwaters barreled down, collecting debris that slammed into villages creating disaster and death. However, many people did survive by clinging to the few trees that remained.

That image, of people hanging on to those roots, trunks and branches, desperate to survive, haunts me. Desperate poverty led them to chop down their trees so they would have firewood for cooking. Clearly, our loss of trees won't cause that same type of destruction. Our situation here in the Triangle is different from Haiti, but there is one similarity. In both cases the destruction of trees comes down to economics.

Obviously, leaving a few mature trees in an affordable development would affect a builder's bottom line. It seems only developers of luxury upscale homes can afford to leave full-grown trees, knowing that this landscaping makes new neighborhoods immediately look established. Only residents of pricey new developments or older neighborhoods still enjoy the benefits that trees bring--priceless benefits like waking up to hear birds singing. Residents of the new affordable houses and apartments, however, must settle for scraggly new trees that would tip over if a bird attempted to land.

Today, it is more economical to bulldoze an entire field and start from scratch with new trees, not magnificent oaks such as I saw lying on the ground. Yes, it costs more money to leave even one tree. But years from now will we remember the ancient, enormous trees that once stood in open fields? I don't have the answers, but I do have a question. When we've cleared away the trees and roots from so many yards and so many lives, will we be a richer people?

Maureen Costello is a writer who has lived in the Triangle for 14 years.


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