"The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope." ~ Wendell Berry
It is a cold day on the Milwaukee County Grounds. An icy front pushed through last night. My fingers are numb only minutes after leaving the car. But the tingling in the tips of my fingers, toes and ears is bearable compared to the numbness that afflicts my mind and soul as I behold the chilling operation that is underway.
I thought I was prepared for this. I’ve known something like this was coming for a long time now. There are some things – skydiving, the birth of a first child, going into battle – for which no amount of preparation can account. Is the cutting of a few old trees comparable? No, but the shock of seeing a stately and beloved grove of trees, some over a hundred years old, unceremoniously slaughtered is real. No, I am not prepared.
I take refuge behind my camera. Peering through its viewfinder distances me enough to record the event. My mind reverts to acquired routines: scout for points of view, frame compositions, wait for the action, … shoot. Shoot again. And again.
The action proceeds non-stop, so efficiently that it takes only two workers to level the entire grove before noon. The mechanical efficiency of the operation contributes to my shock. One worker operates the tree cutting machine and the other watches. He watches me. If they didn’t need someone to keep curious spectators away from danger, one worker could do the job.
They needn’t fear for my safety; I don’t want to be close to this.
The hydraulic arm of the tree-cutting machine is tipped with an entirely utilitarian and perfectly hideous combination of claws and spinning blade. The tractor clanks towards the next target. I expect it to jerk like a cinematic robot, but the arm rises smoothly, eases towards the trunk. There is a momentary hesitation; then it pushes straight into the gray bark. With a bright spray of chips the claws clamp onto the suddenly severed trunk and lift the entire tree, still upright, through the air. Like raising a toast!
The tree is released a good fifteen feet off the ground. It tilts slowly and falls. With a great crunch of breaking limbs and a splattering of branches, it collapses onto the earth. Then the machine pivots, moves on and does it again.
I am equal parts appalled and riveted.
The machine approaches a maple tree too large to topple in one swipe. It progresses methodically from limb to limb, lopping and tossing them aside as easily as my infant granddaughter tosses a toy in order to reach for another one.
The next tree, as the blade bites into it, explodes. Branches fly off in every direction and, though I have kept my distance, I am showered with a barrage of wood chips. I turn aside, protecting my eyes and lens from the cloud of dust that follows. When I turn back a flurry of dark, burnt umber oak leaves wafts in the updraft. Through the dissipating dust the machine’s operator sees me, then smiles and waves.
Burning questions bubble up, insistently. “Why?” doesn’t begin to express the inquisition the situation requires. In simple terms, I know the answer: The land has been purchased for its potential as real estate. It is intended to become a campus, a research facility, a business incubator, a privileged residential address. It will mean jobs, taxes, economic development. In the narrowly constrained rationalization that accepts the myth of progress a grove of trees cannot compete with all that.
But the real reason is even simpler: trees, along with uneven, natural contours, increase development costs. The cheapest way to maximize the utility of the land is to clear it and flatten it. This is supposed to be called Innovation Park. Where is the promise implied in the name?
The rotating steel blade catches the sun, gleaming. It spins relentlessly. As it snaps off another hundred-year-old trunk I can’t help feeling that conventional thinking bested innovation on this round.
Why, it must be asked, all of the trees? It is a failure of imagination to suggest that any of the intended uses of the property are inconsistent with the retention of strategically situated, mature, beautiful trees. That the people who one day will work and live in this place would not have benefitted by their healing presence.
Why is the bottom line always so bereft of what is truly valuable?
When will we begin to learn that value accrues to the ineluctable, spiritual qualities of nature as much as to material, economic considerations? When will we understand that by stripping the land of nature we leave ourselves naked?
I look away from my camera, tearing my eyes from the terrible and compelling activity I’ve been shooting with such intensity. I am confronted with a ravaged landscape. A rabbit scurries out of a woodpile, away from the uproar, disappears into another. The Milwaukee County Parks Administration building sits beyond, newly exposed in the bright, wintry light. Atop its pole the flag snaps in the wind. Land of the free….
When there is only one tree left, the spotter walks over to me and tells me he is leaving, perfunctorily warns me not to get too close. He understands that I will not. Then he, like the rabbit, vanishes.
The last oak stands, its lacy tangle of branches stark and black against the sky.
Then there is only sky.
The Wauwatosa Common Council
The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors
The UWM Real Estate Foundation, President David H. Gilbert: -->
The City of Wauwatosa:
Mayor Kathleen Ehley: email@example.com
Paulette Enders, Development Director:
William C. Porter, Director of Public Works: