Monday, May 25, 2009 By Aaron Brown
Ode to a tree, and also to paper
By Aaron J. Brown
One of our little boys, Doug, has taken to pointing out the window – any window – and shouting “What’s that?” Well, where we live the answer is invariably “trees.” Occasionally we can see a bird, or squirrel or a lumbering passer-by and blurt that word, but usually Doug is pointing at trees. And when we tell him that one tree is, in fact, a tree, he points to the one next to it and says, “What’s that?”
“Kid, they’re all trees! All of them! They’re all pretty much the same kind of trees! We live in a forest. It never ends, not until you get to Nashwauk 15 miles away and they have trees there too!”
But we don’t actually say this because the books say we should encourage curiosity and besides, these trees make him so darn happy. He loves them. It’s probably good for me to hear about the wonder of an individual tree. My habits, location and profession have caused me to see trees in a stark light. Trees are something pretty to look at collectively until they get to the important business of becoming the paper I write on, print and collect in file cabinets, all of which will outlive, through sheer quantity, many successive generations of my family. That, my dear boy, is what trees are. They are pre-paper. And one day the lucky ones will get to be the bedtime stories you like to chew on.
You sometimes hear people use the altruistic wording of the environmental movement ironically, to twist a rhetorical knife.
“I love animals,” one bumper sticker reads. “They’re delicious.”
Ha! And they are, you know. Especially when covered in butter. But there I go again. I am ignoring the fact that animals, like trees, are substantially similar to you and me. Carbon blended into an evolutionary and/or spiritual milkshake. Some milkshakes have caramel, some have chocolate, but they’re all good in their own way.
My problem is that I think too much. I know a lot of other writers can wax poetic onto a sheet of paper about the beauty of a tree without realizing the irony that their multiple drafts and the articles they printed about themselves off Google all cost enough paper to feed that very tree into a chipper.
One of my first jobs was a strange government gig where I’d visit youth worksites across Northeastern Minnesota, ensuring that the children and their supervisors were observing somewhat arbitrary safety regulations that I, the enforcer, was only vaguely aware of. One day, when work was slow, I was given a temporary assignment to help supervise a crew of at risk teenagers who would be planting trees in the woods somewhere north of the Iron Range.
This was one of those hot summer days that started cool but warmed to the point where you had to take off your professional casual golf coat and unbutton the top button of your professional polo shirt almost until the point where you’d need to remove the shirt entirely, demonstrating to the wilderness what white people look like under the worst possible conditions.
On this day, I donned work boots and gloves and, for a glorious day in the sun, with my disinterested crew, planted trees down a long row. Those trees are probably still there today, and in a couple decades they’ll be harvested. In all likelihood, they will become paper. That’s right, paper. On the one day I planted trees in my whole life, I had initiated a course of action that would provide as much paper as I – a writer and teacher – would use in my entire lifetime.
Nevertheless, as I planted each seedling from the tray, I couldn’t help but wonder if each tree was special, like a government worker who was more than a job description.
What’s that? It’s a tree.
Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Contact him or read more at his blog MinnesotaBrown.com. His book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” recently won the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award.