Do Trees Have Rights?



Yesterday I walked to a friend’s house while a fruit tree was being pruned back quite severely. Had I known this pruning process was still occurring I would have made a choice not to be present because historically whenever I am faced with tree destruction of any kind, the pain the tree experiences ends up in my body. Almost instantly my head started pounding turning into a migraine that lasted for the remainder of the day.


Last night I dreamed that a lawyer was stunned when he formulated a question that had never occurred to him before: Do trees have rights?


This scene was immediately followed by another in which I am standing next to an ancient maple tree rubbing its deeply grooved gray ribbed bark lovingly. This big tree also seems familiar to me…


Do trees have rights I queried when I awakened feeling quite startled? No, they don’t I realized, not having thought about trees in this context before. It is the fact that trees don’t have rights that turned me into a fierce tree advocate… Even though Nature wants each species to develop into its full potential it is not possible for a tree to do that when humans make choices as to how a tree should grow by pruning it, for example, so it will bear more fruit for them. Trees are at the mercy of people who shorten the tree’s life by such practices, not in human terms perhaps, because people don’t live very long, but a healthy tree will live hundreds if not thousands of years. And forcing a tree to work so hard to repair pruning damage each year will shorten its life and make it more vulnerable to drought, disease, and insect infestation. It is also posited that trees experience something akin to human pain when their boughs and trunks are cut. Current scientific research supports these ideas.


Earlier this week I also discovered that my nearest neighbor plans to cut down ‘his’ cottonwoods along the edge of this property. The reason? These trees drop unsightly branches and fall on cars that are left below them. And yes, they sometimes damage cow fences too.


Twice in one week I have been faced with the reality that it isn’t just the logging companies, controlled and uncontrolled forest fires, herbicides and land management folks that are harming trees; my friends, people who genuinely about trees, are doing so too. And my neighbor doesn’t even see his cottonwoods; he just sees a mess.


Mercifully, I have reached the point where I can accept that I can do nothing to change what people think and do. And what a relief to know that it is not my responsibility to carry others un -owned feelings. I may grieve but I have an antidote. I write about my personal experience and then I let it go. How ironic, because it is living with trees that have taught me how to do this. I can’t explain to anyone how they managed to accomplish this feat beyond saying that most of our communication occurs telepathically.


It’s important to note that in the past that I have hurt trees I loved by deliberately removing some, or by acting unknowingly, out of ignorance, or willfulness, so I am culpable too


However, my relationship with trees is an unusual one. I have loved trees since I was a child – climbing them, listening to them, taking refuge in their arms. I think this is why the image of the big maple was so familiar to me in my dream. Trees like him have been supporting me for a long time. The fact that I am touching this old tree suggests to me that we are communicating through our senses. And recently I learned what the child in me has always known – that indeed we are family because we share a genetic code (and probably a morphic field as well). Although we parted ways 1.5 billion years ago, we share 25 percent of our DNA.


What’s wrong with humankind? This is a question I am always asking. Why can’t we see trees for who they are? Trees are the lungs of the earth, providing us with the oxygen we need to breathe, each tree puts a hundred gallons of water into the atmosphere each day, trees are beings who absorb toxic substances, provide us with medicines, sequester deadly carbon, provide us with wood to burn, wood for shelter, furniture, paper towels, paper products – we use trees for everything, and destroy them by the billions… These are ancient beings – 400 million years old – beings who cooperate sharing resources for the good of an entire forest, an entire ecosystem. It took 3 billion years for trees to create enough oxygen to support life as we know it today. Yet we continue to dismiss trees as mere resources.


As I see it, part of the problem seems to hinge on the fact that most westerners seem incapable of imagining a tree as a sentient being. Even though science is breaking down this denial with radical new research we apparently can’t hear what is being said – or don’t want to? The notable exception, of course, is Indigenous peoples who have always known that trees are sentient and sacred, have powerful medicine, provide them with everyday needs too numerous to mention here, and who are honored to have them as relatives.


For westerners the idea of tree sentience taken seriously (if not openly ridiculed as insane nonsense) would turn our lives upside down, forcing us to make radical changes, some of which would be incredibly difficult. If trees are sentient we have to admit that we know virtually nothing about them beyond making the observation that when a forest cooperates above and below the earth behaving like a living organism we end up with something that has intention. And if trees experience pain then they can feel. It follows that if trees are suffering from mistreatment then humans are culpable. Since only 2 – 5 percent of old growth forests remain in this country – the history of their mindless slaughter amounts to a holocaust…And the people who colonized this land in just the past few hundred years are responsible.


I have also learned through painful personal experience that trees also want and need to have relationships with us.


I was 39 when a maple tree on my property was deliberately rammed by a dirty yellow bucket loader as I doubled up in anguish, crying out, begging the men to stop. The men, laughing uproariously, gouged out the tree at its center, as every blow slammed through my gut.


What the hell was happening to me?


I retreated to the house in shock, trying to make sense out of what seemed like bizarre and monstrous physical pain that I continued to experience for the rest of the day. It occurred to me that I might be dying.


I loved that maple. In the fall she was dressed in the most brilliant colors, crimson, bittersweet and gold, and I thought of her as a kind of house guardian along with the ancient apple trees that graced my property. She stood at the end of my driveway, and I had watched her mature from a sapling into a beautiful tree over a period of 27 years. Now she was mortally wounded. As a result of this trauma I made a rash and hasty decision to leave the area and my home…


Little did I know that I would experience worse anguish by moving to the western mountains of Maine. Because I have written about this story elsewhere I won’t repeat the particulars of what happened except to say that I was surrounded by dying trees everywhere, except on my own property. By this time I was ready to surrender recognizing that nature knew what I did not. Consequently, I made the choice to pay attention to what wanted to grow on the land naturally and to support nature’s intentions. What emerged from this effort was a sanctuary for animals and birds, full of diverse deciduous and coniferous trees, shrubs, bushes, and groundcovers that thrived! Thirty – six years later I still make my home in this small mostly wooded oasis that overlooks a brook where wild bears splash around in cold mountain waters.


Occasionally, over the years a tree would fall during the winter, or worse I would have to have one cut down because it was too close to wires or had fallen across my road. How I dreaded the cutting down of any tree. The feelings of loss and the physical pain that I first experienced at 39 continued to engulf me with each tree’s untimely death. I never got used to it, and I never understood why this tree identification was so intense but gradually I came to accept that living with tree pain must be my personal fate.


Often after a tree’s removal I could still feel the tree’s presence – sometimes for months. The trees spoke to me in dreams, warning me of danger, and sometimes they spoke to me by pulsing or using a few words that I experienced as coming from inside and outside my body at the same time. I learned to trust trees implicitly, though I spoke to no one about these experiences until recently.


How did the obvious escape me for so long? The trees and I shared a mind and a body. Somehow we merged into one “tree – person” so that when one suffered the other did too. I wasn’t living some private hell; I was simply living in intimate relationship with all trees.


Today, trees assure me that even if humans accord them no rights or sentience, it is humans that will destroy themselves, and it is the trees that will be around to begin again.