Street Trees Treat Eco-Anxiety

Sat, 02/12/2022 - 2:00pm

About this blog:

  • Sarah Miller

    I’m Sarah Miller, a semi-retired international energy and business journalist and editor, and now a Camden resident. Having spent a career learning about old energy, I’ve turned to new energy in recent years. In doing so, I’ve come to see how important fossil fuels and the way they work were to the structure of 19th and 20th Century economies and societies. I’ve also started to imagine what cleaner, more distributed energy forms could mean for the structure of 21st Century economies and societies. The climate crisis is frightening, but the energy and social transitions that accompany it can bring us a better world -- if communities like ours here on the Midcoast work in a bottom-up, “distributed” way to make it so. That’s what Tales from the Transition is all about.

    I am active in the community through the Camden Energy and Sustainability Committee, the Camden Philosophical Society, the board of Bay Chamber Concerts and Music School, and the climate activist group Climate Matters Maine. I am a former president of the Camden Conference. The views expressed in this blog, however, are strictly my own.

Like T.S. Eliot, who declares at the beginning of his great “Dry Salvages” poem that he does “not know very much about Gods,” I do not know very much about trees. But also like Eliot, who nonetheless thinks the River – presumably the Missouri/Mississippi confluence for this child of St. Louis – is a “strong brown god,” I think trees are among the strongest means we have for relieving both the climate- and broader eco-crises that afflict the planet and the anxiety those crises create in so many of us.

There is no shortage of appropriate responses to climate change and global pollution: Walking instead of driving, insulating your house, trading your leaf blower in for a rake. You can doubtless think of many more for yourself.

But planting a shade tree along your street, preferably in your own front yard or, if there isn’t room or you don’t have a front yard, as part of a neighborhood or town campaign to get trees elsewhere along nearby streets is a great gesture toward planetary salvation that’s too often ignored. Luckily, the town of Camden has a program to help us do just that.

Saving a large, existing shade tree is better still, if you know of any that are at risk.

The benefits of trees close to homes are multiple. “Street trees,” those planted in public rights of way, absorb as much carbon as other trees – what’s known as mitigation in the convoluted language of climate conferences. But the benefits don’t stop there. Such trees also cancel out some of the blistering radiant heating effects of pavement and help cool sidewalks, houses and other buildings that are beneath them – an “adaptation” measure that will become increasingly important as the planet warms in the years ahead.

The cooling effect is as great as 20º-45° F, according to US government studies, and major energy savings can result from reduced use of air-conditioning.  

Just as important, trees are beautiful and help bring a sense of calm and well-being to the increasingly instable and agitated worlds we inhabit. Indeed, this may be the most important thing of all. Trees like the giant elm pictured at the top of this article, located behind St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church in Camden, once lined Elm Streets in towns across America, including Camden. They mostly died from Dutch Elm disease in the decades after the Second World War.

Replacing the Replacements

Other trees were planted in their place, not initially as large and elegant as the ones they replaced, of course, but many have grown to be very beautiful in their own non-elm-like ways. Those trees are now themselves aging and, sadly, many either have diseases of their own, are stressed by changing climatic conditions, or are simply viewed as being “in the way” by the owners or by many towns and electric utilities.

Many of these could and should be saved. More than 20 years ago, Camden adopted an ordinance requiring that anyone wanting to cut down or even prune a “shade tree” in the public right of way along streets and roads must first get the consent of the town’s tree warden. At the moment, that’s Rick Seibel.   

Many states, cities and towns in this country have similar laws designed to help save street trees, and shade trees more generally. More of our towns in Midcoast Maine should have such laws or if, like Camden, they already have legislation of this type, should consider whether a stronger law and stronger enforcement might be appropriate.

If the trees are terminally ill, though, they have to be cut. And many have already been downed. What is needed in their place are not small ornamental trees. Those are lovely and can grace our lives from further back in yards and other places where we want sunshine. But not along sidewalks, where we want to encourage more walking and biking. There we need large, leafy shade trees that will cool our streets for decades to come.

Maine is relatively cool by US standards, but even so, those who have walked around the town in summer will know how welcome the shade and graceful beauty provided by a canopy of leaves high above you can be. The Camden Garden Club, at times the town Conservation Committee, and other groups have long worked to provide small new trees for planting along our streets when old ones die. A heightened campaign is underway to do more of this, instigated in no small part by town activists and strongly supported by Select Board members and the town government.

The town will help pay for and plant shade trees in appropriate spots for just $75 from the property owner, and guarantee for a year all trees that are watered and properly taken care of. It’s an offer more of us should gratefully accept, with benefits not just to ourselves but our neighbors and summer visitors to Camden. It’s amazing how much difference shade can make.