In Remembrance: Seeing the Forests For the Tree

Yesterday Puget Sound was hit by an unusually powerful storm; unusual that is for late August – this was more typical of a late autumn storm. A warm front brought high winds in the morning (gusts as high as 53 knots [61 mph]), and was followed by a cold front in the evening that brought heavy rains.

The storm resulted in fallen trees and forced closures of major and minor roads throughout the region. And it brought tragedy. A ten-year old girl was killed in Federal Way. And a 36-year old man was killed not more than two miles from my house.

The girl had been in a grassy area behind an apartment where she had been playing with friends when a branch from a single tree fell from approximately 40 feet and killed her. Parents surprised by the intensity of the wind were coming out to order the children in when the tragedy occurred. That’s how quickly the wind came up and how ferocious the wind had been.

I had been outside playing with my dogs in the backyard when the wind came up. At first I only kept a wary eye of the trees and continued tossing the Frisbee, but there was a feel to the wind that said we needed to get in. Ordering the dogs in, we got in just as we were being hit by a a blizzard of fir needles.

That was approximately the same time period when the man was killed. He had been driving his Subaru east bound on Borgen Boulevard – returning home it is assumed after a trip to Costco. A tree crushed him and he was killed instantly. Fortunately, his three-year old daughter in the back seat was not injured.

I was struck by the lack of context of the television visuals of each tragedy. For where tragedy is involved, context is everything. I can’t speak with knowledge of the Federal Way death so I will talk about what I know and that is the death here in Gig Harbor.

The Gig Harbor coverage was a long shot down Borgen Boulevard toward the crushed vehicles. The road appeared heavily forested on each side. Viewers watching and not familiar with the area would not have known the following.

The forest just south of the road (on the side the man was driving) within the last few months had undergone a massive clear-cutting to open up an area for a senior-housing development. West of where the tragedy occurred a large area of the forest had been cut down two years ago for a large open area that remains to be developed. (And south of that another part of the forest was removed for a housing development).

The forest that was taken out over the series of clear cuttings out provided protection for individual trees that bore the brunt of yesterday’s storm – likely including the one that killed the man. A forest protects itself and the trees within it when it is treated as a whole.

An arborist told me when we had him here to look at our trees that he and others in his field call the thin strips of decorative trees left when developments occur “idiot strips”. Look at any new commercial or residential development and you’ll see what he means.

He said the unfortunate thing (now made tragic) is that in the end most of those trees must be taken out as they are unable to face the storms they had in the past when they were part of a whole functioning forest. Such is the hubris of humanity: the belief that we can pick and choose how nature works.

I’m sure the men and women working on the development feel as bad as everyone else. The same with the men and women who purchased the land and made the plans that resulted in the clear-cutting. But it doesn’t matter what they thought then or what they feel now. There was an operating assumption in place that ignored the reality of how natural systems work.

This is the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. And as I write north-central Washington continues to burn with wild land and forest fires. In both of these instances, human assumptions about what could and can be protected (e.g., individual houses in heavily forested areas) and how things should work (e.g., the flood protection system) failed.

Unfortunately, all of the above has been or will soon be forgotten – except to those involved or impacted – due to the next tragedy (in this country likely based on guns), NFL season, or Kardashian sighting.

And yet, at some point we have to face the truth that when it comes to the natural world we are not in charge. Climate change is occurring and its full impacts will not be able to be ignored no matter sports season is occurring or which celebrity is doing what.

But for today, we should hold dear the lives of the young father and child killed yesterday, and share the grief their families feel.

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” John Donne – Meditation XVII


Author: Tom

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