Knock wood we’ll keep the trees

Posted by on Mar 4, 2016

The present peril of our friends the trees has been haunting me since I read Jim Robbins’ book The Man Who Planted Trees. We have taken trees for granted. Our scientists have only begun to study their mysteries. We have not been told of their genius for keeping us alive and healthy. We continue to act as if trees are expendable rather than precious. As if forests are inexhaustible rather than finite. We are taught at school that forests are a “natural resource” to be harvested for profit. We are not taught the truth: that trees are our life-support system that urgently requires our veneration and protection. And that life on the planet cannot continue without dense, contiguous forests of large sturdy trees. “Forests,” as Jim Robbins writes, “hold the natural world together.”

His book, however, does not harp on these things. The book has a mission, and that is to tell the story of one unlikely tree rescuer, Michigan native David Milarch, and his co-conspirators, one among them, tree whisperer Diana Beresford-Kroeger.

And so I am reminded of the local story of the homeowner who was fined $24,900 for cutting down 17 “towering” trees several years ago. The felled trees, reportedly many mature oaks, were in a protected area on a bluff overlooking the Minnesota River in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Between the previous and the present owner of the $2.5 million property in the exclusive Bell Oaks Estate, a total of 50 trees were illegally cut down.

The good news: a fine was levied, a sign the city takes the conservation easement seriously, and the offender, a software executive named Mitchell Coopet, was required to plant 27 new trees. The bad news: the fine was low—chump change, really, for a guy who can hire the likes of Tom Heffelfinger, former MN U.S. Attorney, to defend him against the city’s charge of illegal tree cutting and negotiate an agreement that absolved Coopet of liability for cutting down the trees.

What should the penalty be for cutting down trees? And should it only be a crime to cut down trees in special protected zones? As recently as 1949, Robert Graves wrote that the acacia tree was still a sacred tree in some places and that “anyone who even breaks off a twig is expected to die within the year.” Or we could use as a guide this 15th century German ordinance describing the penalty for anyone caught stripping the bark off a tree standing in the common woods: “when the law is to be fulfilled, then one is to cut open his stomach at the navel, and pull out a length of the gut. The gut is to be nailed to the tree, and one is to keep going around that tree with the person, so long as he still has any part of the gut left in his body.”

Or we could look to Gaelic law in pre-invasion Ireland, which ranked trees into four groups with corresponding penalties for their unlawful felling. The highest class of trees—the chieftain trees— included the oak, hazel, holly, yew, ash, pine, and apple. The cost of cutting down an oak, as did Mr. Coopet, would have been exceedingly high. This was, after all, a culture in which the priestly class were the Druids, a word, when traced back to its root, means “oak knower.” And Ireland’s first “written” language, Ogham, originally consisted of 20 letters, each associated with a tree. To this day, when we knock or touch wood to avert a reversal of good luck, we continue a practice of the Druids, who would knock on wood—the oak—to summon the protection of the tree spirit.

Today, bur oaks surround the house my great-great Irish grandfather built on the eastern shore of Riley Lake in Eden Prairie. It’s possible these oaks are cousins to the trees Mr. Coopet cut down nearby to “improve” his view. I hope these oaks, and all the trees, will be protected, if not by conservation easements, then by the care of enlightened humans and tree warriors such as Jim Robbins, Diana Beresford-Kroeger, and in Ireland, Andrew St. Leger, founder of the Woodland League. Surely a new Enlightenment is urgently needed. The money paradigm is killing the trees, killing us. We need a new way of perceiving the world that re-sacralises the trees, the land, the water—and our very selves. Jim Robbins’ inspiring book is one good way to begin.


  1. Hello, Jeri:
    I’ve just discovered you and am beyond pleased that I have. Please, if you will, continue writing with such intellect, insight, and passion.
    And thank you!

    • Seth, thank you very much for your kind words. All the best,

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