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
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
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
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
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.
If, like me, you are saddened and disappointed by this and want to know
what you can do, please contact the following with your questions and
The Wauwatosa Common Council
The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors
The UWM Real Estate Foundation, President David H. Gilbert:
The City of Wauwatosa:
Paulette Enders, Development Director:
William C. Porter, Director of Public Works: