Do Trees Have Rights?

Do Trees Have Rights?

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Let us consider the non-mobile, those who live at a slower speed than humans, those who conduct many “activities of daily living” underground. I’m talking about trees.

Bound to its place place to a degree that most modern humans cannot comprehend, a tree must make do with only those resources at hand for its entire life. It must attract or find within its reach all that it requires to sustain it. It must be able to re-ingest any waste it produces, because that waste becomes an inescapable part of its environment.

Mature saguaro cacti function as “wildlife hotels,” providing food and shelter for numerous other species, including diverse pollinators and cavity-nesting birds.

Trees have developed elegant strategies for meeting their needs while remaining fixed in their places. These strategies include developing helpful connections with other species. Birds, rodents, and for some unlucky trees, extinct large mammals bring in fertilizer and spread a tree’s seeds (and thus its species) to new locations. Microbes, worms, and other soil dwellers digest fallen leaves and return their nutrients to the tree. Mycorrhizal fungi extend the tree’s reach and amplify its digestive power, channeling water and nutrients to the tree in exchange for sugars and starches secreted by its roots. Because of its many connections, one tree can support an astonishing quantity and variety of other life.

Throughout human history, trees have developed strong ties with us as well.

They are useful, of course, for much more than their wood. Tree crops provide staple foods for many cultures—think of the Middle East and its olive trees, the tropical islands and their coconuts, California and its citrus varieties, the all-important coffee and cocoa beans. Not to mention other types of non-timber products derived from trees: rubber, cork, maple syrup, turpentine, and cinnamon, to name a few.

But aside from their contributions to our survival and comfort, trees have also been appreciated simply for being their magnificent selves. They were part of our cultures and communities in a way that many of us no longer remember. Sacred trees and sacred groves were cared for by people and incorporated into cultural celebrations and rituals. We have some remnants of this connection in various programs that recognize special trees.

Many years ago, I trekked to the “witch tree”—a revered landmark on the shore of Lake Superior—and sprinkled an offering of tobacco, as other people have done for centuries.

Though most children now grow up in cities, a child in a previous generation might have formed a special relationship with a favorite climbing tree or a tree that produced delicious fruits. Mature trees served as landmarks, and new trees were planted to mark an auspicious birth or commemorate the death of a loved one. Pioneers planted “coffin pine” trees in pairs on either side of a new home’s driveway, to be used for constructing the homeowners’ future caskets.

Nowadays, we move so often that we barely notice our trees, let alone knowing their histories and having our own stories intertwine with theirs. Our only chance to live with a mature tree may be if someone else planted one decades ago—and all the intervening landowners cared enough about that tree to allow it to continue to live and thrive.

Indeed, our modern culture tends to regard trees as consumables, or ornaments that we can move or remove at will. It is still too common to drive down a street and see signs of that obsolete practice known as tree-topping. Decades after Joni Mitchell sang about paving paradise, the onward march of development threatens ancient woodlands. Many a tree’s health is compromised by the landowner’s attempts to maintain a healthy lawn under it, applying fertilizers and pesticides, compacting the soil with a riding mower, and raking away leaves.

Fallen osage oranges fruitlessly await wooly mammoths.

These trees are often located on private land. Still, do their potential lives, which may stretch centuries into the future, merit some consideration when making decisions that will affect them?

Suppose we sidestep the fraught discussions of “weed trees,” invasive species, live Christmas trees, and trees that are eclipsing the sun for vegetable growers. Here are several less controversial improvements we could make in how we treat and think of trees when designing and revising our landscapes :

  • modifying a design to accommodate existing trees
  • using trees to reduce stormwater runoff
  • incorporating them into paved areas with structural soil
  • taking extra steps to protect them during construction
  • considering their financial value when evaluating options

The debate about the ethical treatment of trees can be traced back to law professor Christopher Stone’s 1972 landmark essay, “Should Trees Have Standing?“—less than a year after publication of The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Stone’s subsequent book served as the underpinning for Ecuador’s 2008 revision of its constitution, which recognizes the fundamental rights of nature to “exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”

A favorite tree of my childhood was the mature catalpa next to my grandparents’ house. Throughout the year it rained toys, carpeting a vast area with huge white flowers, yellow heart-shaped leaves, and long brown seedpods. Alas, it became “too messy” for Grandma.


Posted by

Evelyn Hadden
on February 19, 2014 at 3:40 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.

    • Andy
    • 28th July 2016

    Trees not only bring color and beauty into our lives they clean our air for us to breathe. Even after their deaths they provide natural habitat for insects and fungi.

    • Evelyn Hadden
    • 27th September 2016

    Yes, they can provide so many valuable services — purifying air and water, helping to control runoff and flooding, recharging groundwater, reduced heating/cooling costs… not to mention food, habitat, and beauty.

    • admin
    • 1st November 2016

    Great post!

    • admin
    • 15th November 2016
    And trees play some important roles in movies!

    • Evelyn Hadden
    • 16th November 2016

    Thanks for the link, Susan. The whomping willow is my favorite!

    • Benjamin Vogt
    • 16th November 2016

    I once read that for every caliper inch of a mature tree, consider $1,000 in value to the property. So, a 12″ tree is worth $12,000. I think that’s a bit high. Several years ago the Swiss court heard a case considering if flowers had rights, and if a willy nilly deadheading in the field was illegal and even unethical. If we had these thoughts about plants — shoot, if we even had them about animals (even all domesticated ones) — we’d be better off environmentally and psychologically. I always advocate hugging a prairie, the most endangered and least protected ecosystem on the planet (77% of the Great Plains will be completely gone by 2100 if not sooner). Hug a plant.

    • Evelyn Hadden
    • 16th November 2016

    I share your love for prairies, Benjamin. Nothing compares with standing in a tallgrass prairie at the peak of the season (early October in the Upper Midwest) and being surrounded by such diversity of lively creatures and plants. They are truly amazing worlds. Of course, moss-and-fern-laden forests are also incredible. And bogs, I really love them. And a tranquil lake. A roaring river… Nature is pretty wonderful.

    • Lisa
    • 16th November 2016

    Catalpa trees are beautiful. Unfortunately most people will not stand for a messy tree. The black walnut that dents my van in my driveway does irritate me. And the old woman who lived here before me swept the driveway several times a day to prevent the staining. The purple bird poo in the spring on my driveway is quite entertaining for my kids. The birds do love my serviceberries. It is unfortunate that people can’t seem to handle a bit more mess in their lives.

    • Evelyn Hadden
    • 17th November 2016

    Heh heh, serviceberries and black walnuts: two other favorites of mine!

    • Karla
    • 17th November 2016

    Back in my days of retail gardening, I remember a customer saying that messy trees should be “illegal.” And she was referring to a flowering cherry that dropped beautiful petals on her deck every morning for a total of what? Maybe a week? Some folks really can’t handle mess!

    • Evelyn Hadden
    • 18th November 2016

    Maybe it’s a statement about how overloaded your customer was in her daily life, that cherry blossoms falling onto her deck would be the final straw. It is crazy-making to apply indoor standards of cleanliness to the outdoors.

    • John
    • 18th November 2016

    I read a post a few months ago on a similar topic and while scrolling through the comments noted that one person said essentially that all trees are walking death traps and should be removed, all of them, from everywhere. For this particular commenter, a tree had fallen on his garage during a thunderstorm years ago and dented his vehicle, an unpardonable crime in his mind. People never seem to be able to recognize the benefits of trees, only focusing on the mess they make, or the potential hazard they represent.

    • Evelyn Hadden
    • 18th November 2016

    Wow, too bad about his car, but that’s a pretty extreme response.

    • Ellen
    • 18th November 2016

    Lack of appreciation for a single type of organism (such as the value of trees and the rights that they have to be here) reminds me of the John Muir quote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

    • The Phytophactor
    • 18th November 2016

    So glad you mentioned Stone’s legal treatise arguing that trees deserve rights; it’s the first thing I thought of when I saw the title of the blog, but then I’m old enough to remember when it was published. The book still resides on my book shelves and it presents a compelling argument and much recommended. For those of you intimidated by “scholarly” books; it’s short.

    • Paul
    • 19th November 2016

    Most of the problems utilities have with trees could be curtailed if people would pay the rates necessary to bury the lines. Line-clearing arborists, or tree butchers as some call them, operate under the goal of maintaining minimum clearance from a utility line.

    • stone
    • 19th November 2016

    I enjoyed the comment about woolly mammoths and osage orange… enough to go searching additional information about this previously unconsidered connection.
    I’m presently reading a document called “The Ghosts Of Evolution”.

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