There’s a maple tree-sized hole in my heart. Last winter, despite our protests, our neighbor cut down an old maple tree that sat on the property line, just barely over on his side, to accommodate a parking space that has yet to materialize. That tree had been thriving by our house for the 20+ years we’ve lived here, and who knows how long before that. This spring, the Carolina Wrens who had long nested in there, and who gave us great joy, did not appear. Their absence is heart wrenching. All summer, our house has been hotter due to less shade, and a street light now blazes irritatingly into our back yard at night. While I grieve the grand scale of ecological loss we are experiencing, the unexpected loss of a tree I was so intimate with hurt in a unique way. Missing that tree is now part of the spectrum of blues I carry.
In this petition for including an Urban Forester in the 2019/2020 City of Asheville budget (which did not happen), Karen MacNeil wrote, “In the last 10 years we have lost about 10% (1600 acres) of our tree canopy in Asheville city limits. This is an unsustainable loss, we simply cannot keep losing our trees at this rate. Our tree canopy helps provide cleaner air, cleaner water, lower utility costs, carbon sequestration, reduced flooding and storm water, and enhanced overall well being for our community.” That percent of loss is higher now, as last week almost 200 trees were cut down for a view for the Lee Walker Heights re-development, and a lovely stand of old growth trees on the YWCA property were cut down by Duke Energy by mistake. Painful losses.
For the record, I am an advocate for a “no net loss canopy” policy in Asheville, an Urban Forester, and an Urban Forest Master Plan. We are literally choking ourselves every time we cut down trees in the city, which, looking around, appears to be daily.
That said, my advocacy incorporates the interconnection between ecological and social issues. As many brilliant people have pointed out over the years, the environmental crisis we are facing is directly tied to white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and other forms of oppression. This truth must inform our efforts.
Last week, Sonya Renee Taylor posted a thought-provoking video on Instagram, “White Saviors Won’t Save the Planet.” The description reads, “STOP TALKING ABOUT ‘SAVING’ THE PLANET!!!! UGH!!!! We are on a G5 headed to extinction and white folks’ language remains rooted in Dominance and Control. If your lens around climate change is steeped in power and NOT INTERDEPENDENCE, if you are discussing climate crisis as SEPARATE from white supremacist ideology crisis, ableism crisis, body terrorism as a whole, if you think it is possible to solve the climate issue separately from these other issues and they can wait while we deal with this ‘more pressing’ issue…you might be using a lens of white saviorism. White saviorism is DEADLY!!!”
In that video, Taylor gives us a powerful call to remember that the more-than-human world and the human world are one and the same, even while white supremacy teaches us otherwise. She points out that the planet will be fine, but life as we know it will not unless we get into right relationship with all that sustains us, that fundamentally is us.
Survival requires dismantling narratives of separation and superiority. In addition to critiquing white saviorism, I challenge the Christian belief that God gave humans “dominion over” the earth, and the constant messages that undermine female/femme bodily autonomy. I support liberatory alternatives to the ideas that are killing us. As Taylor states, “we must change the narrative or we will fail to change the course.”
The system’s ongoing extraction and exploitation of natural resources is mirrored in it’s treatment of people of color, who are also disproportionately negatively impacted by pollution, climate change, etc. Indiscriminate cutting down of trees and the indiscriminate arrest and incarceration of Black and brown people are two sides of the same coin – the white supremacist patriarchal ideology of power over instead of power with.
In her excellent June 2019 editorial, “Green from Below,” Scalawag Magazine editor Zaina Alsous points to “the indisputable link between the carceral state and climate change” and states, “…what is required of us in this moment—alongside and in addition to adequate public investment—is the forging of a different kind of relation: one that enables co-dignity with each other and the land. Part of that imagination involves a reckoning with the fact that current dominant political and economic systems fundamentally rely on the idea that there are lives that are, and will be, disposable. This is the key logic and assumption that underlies colonial development—to advance the few at the expense of the many. In breathing opposition to this logic, it is the people we have been taught to most dismiss or despise who have the most to teach us about how we might be able to survive this moment.”
To that end, I am very inspired by Movement Generation, an organization I learned about on this episode of my favorite podcast, How to Survive the End of the World. As their website states, “Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project inspires and engages in transformative action towards the liberation and restoration of land, labor, and culture. We are rooted in vibrant social movements led by low-income communities and communities of color committed to a Just Transition away from profit and pollution and towards healthy, resilient and life-affirming local economies.” Their extensive work includes training and analysis, movement building, and advancing a new narrative. They remind us that while transition is inevitable, justice is not. Check out movementgeneration.org for tools and resources.
As we practice sustainability, may we also practice collective liberation. I grieve that dear maple tree, and I also grieve other losses caused by gentrification in Asheville, the governmental theft of property and ongoing traumas endured by our Black neighbors, a City budget the prioritizes policing over people, and much more. We are part of a web. Let’s create an urban forestry plan and end money bail. Let’s care for the canopy while implementing reparations. Let’s nurture our gardens and each other.
Here’s to trees and getting free.
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