Kilmer scribbled these words in 1913 as he looked upon a scene of oaks, maples, and birches from an upstairs bedroom window in his New Jersey home. He would have been about 27 years old at the time, but he had only a few more years to live–he was killed fighting in France during the First World War.
One of the ironies of “The Trees” is that Kilmer wrote it down on paper, a product that comes from trees–or, to be specific, from the cellulose found in them. According to one estimate, the average American annually consumes more than 600 pounds of tree, or about six pines that have grown for 30 years.
I don’t know how many trees have gone into printing copies of Kilmer’s 12-line poem, but something tells me there now lies a meadow where there once stood a forest. Overall, the paper industry utilizes more than 12,000 square miles of forest per year.
Everybody loves trees, and you don’t have to be a tree-hugger to admit it. We like how they look, how they offer shade, and how they provide branches for kids to climb. And if their wood didn’t form the skeletons of our homes, perhaps we’d all be living in concrete-block monstrosities. Or maybe in caves.
Even in an age of email and recycling, the demands we place upon trees and forests probably won’t decline. So, doesn’t it make sense to think about how we might increase the supply while protecting the full gamut of beauty and utility forests provide?
Yet again, biotechnology offers a possible solution. Several years ago, researchers at Michigan Tech–nestled in the heavily wooded Upper Peninsula–figured out a way to suppress a gene in aspen. The result was a tree that produces more cellulose and less lignin (which is a binding substance that must be removed from wood before it can become paper).
The enemies of biotechnology of course hate this. It takes a three-second Google search to find one of their Internet petitions calling for a global ban on biotech trees. (And about a minute or two to locate news stories of radical activists destroying trees that biotech researchers are trying to study.)
This astonishes me. Environmentalists are always talking about the ways in which new technologies can lead us toward better living, such as hydrogen fuel cells that provide cleaner energy. Why wouldn’t all of them be for a technology that promises to reduce the pressures we place on trees?
Most of us are environmentalists, and as such, aren’t the kind of people who devote themselves to organizing petitions on the web. We understand that the environment is not “The Environment”–a pristine entity that shouldn’t be touched by the hands of man. Instead, we understand the environment is many interacting things, which includes we humans. Intuitively, we know we’ll make the best and least harmful use of it if we understand our environment as a set of variables. How about we focus on the outcomes we desire and frankly….need?
Biotechnology makes sense because it will allow us to make more paper from fewer trees.
That means more trees for other things, such as the simple pleasure we derive from watching them reach for the sky or their practical necessity in reducing greenhouse gases. The Chinese government is planting biotech trees to prevent the spread of deserts and mitigate the impact of flash floods. For the Chinese people, this represents a way back to Kilmer’s vision and a practical remediation for prior insults to the environment in that region. Our own Department of Energy has suggested that biotech trees may play a role in cleaning up toxic sites. Vibrant forests are the key carbon “sink” in EPA programs for carbon sequestration.
In Scotland, scientists have developed a technique that may halt the spread of Dutch elm disease–an arboreal epidemic that has caused the demise of more than 70 percent of America’s mature elms. The affliction is caused by bark beetles burrowing into twigs and bark, thereby allowing a particular form or fungus to infest the elms that once towered like Gothic vaults over so many neighborhood streets, including the one I live on. Biotechnology has showed us that there’s a way to insert anti-fungal genes into elm trees, offering the hope that someday biotech elms will line our suburban communities once again.
Anybody who opposes such a possibility obviously can’t tell the forest from the trees. I think Joyce Kilmer would agree.
Reg Clause raises cattle, corn and soybeans on a fourth generation family farm in central Iowa.