The Beauty of Trees

Olive trees in the village Metaxata, Cephalonia, Greece. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos.

City of Trees

I live in Claremont, California. On May 20, 2019, I walked to Sprouts Farmers Market grocery store. On the southern corner of the streets Mountain and Foothill, I saw workers and giant machinery cutting down trees. These are trees the City of Claremont tried to eliminate in 2008.

The absurd reason then was that some California department had funded Claremont to modernize Foothill Blvd. This meant cutting down all trees at the edge of the street in order to widen a strip of cement for people on wheelchairs.

I was then renting a house just behind this thin green zone of trees separating my house and those of my neighbors from the busy and dangerous Foothill Blvd, which resembles a highway. Cars zoom fast in both lanes and both directions day and night.

I talked to the neighbors and together we convinced the City Council to abandon that crazy project. Now, more than ten years later, Claremont, “the City of Trees,” is back at it.

I wrote to the Mayor of Claremont, Corey Calaycay, expressing my concerns. The Mayor responded immediately saying: “The trees being removed are mainly volunteer trees, such as the Shamel Ash, which are not compatible with overhead wires. The improvements for this project include a bike lane and bio-swales.”

Putting a bike lane in a busy and car-speeding street is not a good idea. And cutting down trees because the electric company says so is even worse. Claremont should have demanded the company bury the wires.

I have known superficially the mayor of Claremont for about ten years. He is Republican who is avoiding his party’s extreme ideology. He is always wearing a suit, but he is friendly, polite and wants to do well. Yet, like the vast number of American politicians, Republican and Democrat, is not willing to accept the responsibilities of living and governing at a time of ecological emergency.

Why are trees important

Cutting down trees is the equivalent of willfully undermining our fragile health and endangering the precarious health of the natural world. There you have millennial life expressions of nature, trees, that give us oxygen, absolutely essential to life, while absorbing carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. But instead of protecting the life-giving trees, we, like barbarians, pretend we know better than Nature: we often “trim” trees and sometimes cut them down.

The trees also give us comfort by slightly lowering the temperature and giving us shadow and unparalleled beauty. They also give us fruit and provide life-shaving food and protection to wildlife.

Some trees like the olive trees are gifts of the gods. They are essential to life itself. Goddess Athena gave the olive tree to the Athenians. Olive trees are all over Greece and the Mediterranean. They even flourish in California. I cannot see how Greeks could have survived without the olive tree, which grows nearly everywhere, giving wood and olive oil for soap, food and cooking.

This does not mean you can never cut down a tree.

In Claremont, the City Council needs to legislate the protection of trees. At least, no home owner or home association can cut down a tree without permission from a committee educated in the benefits of trees and the protection of trees. This is an urgent task now that we are living the hazardous climate consequences of irresponsible national and international policies.


We are decimating the planet with torrents of pollution. Corporations are mining land and seas for anything of value. Logging of forests brings warfare to the trees and all life depended on the trees and the forest.

Overfishing devastates life in the waters of the world. The mentality of industrial fishers must be that of miners, seeing all animals in the oceans as lifeless, stuff for making money. This is a behavior that defies our human bragging about science. It’s perpetual atrocities. A few days ago, people found hundreds of dead sharks washing up in a beach in Wales, UK.

Industrialized agriculture is no less dangerous than industrial fishing. It is threatening our clean water while lacing conventional food with neurotoxins and carcinogens. In addition, this form of “food production” is a volcano of gases heating the Earth.

So, I understand the anguish and anger of Maria and Emilia Trakovsky, residents of Claremont, bemoaning in the Claremont Courier (May 17, 2019) the aggressive policy of home owners association cutting down “beautiful mature trees.”

This should never happen among civilized people. Either governments protect trees and the natural world or we replace those governments.

I am writing this essay in the Honnold Library of Claremont Colleges. The library is surrounded by beautiful mature trees. My house in Claremont is also surrounded by beautiful mature trees. I could not live otherwise. Take the trees away and you have very little of value left to sustain life.

Old growth trees

I remember 1988-1989, the year I taught at Humboldt State University in Northern California. This college is in the midst of old growth forest, some of the trees dating back to the building of the Parthenon. I jogged in the serenity and beauty of the old giant trees. To me, this was paradise on Earth.

However, Humboldt County was a territory under occupation. Logging companies had been looting the land of most of its magnificent trees. In fact, I could observe trucks full of trees for export to Japan nearly every day. This plunder had become so “normal” that, at the university, professors spoke thoughtlessly about the “harvesting of trees.”

I explained to my students no human being, much less timber companies, had the right to cut down or “harvest” the ancient trees of Humboldt County. Those trees came from a world much older than our own. They carried biology and wisdom of enormous utility for us and the planet. They were sentinels of another epoch and civilization.

The students listened carefully. They guided me to areas of violence, where timber companies had indulged in the clear cutting of giant trees. The land looked like war. Everything was blasted to pieces.

Bill Devall, one of the few professors at Humboldt State that shared my concerns, would expand my education by inviting me for further explorations of that beautiful if abused old growth region of North America.

These thoughts flash in my mind each time I see workers “trimming” or cutting down trees.

There must be a less violent way in our coexistence with the natural world. It’s not merely the oxygen, the shadow, the shelter for wildlife, the fruit they give us that speak eloquently on behalf of our trees. It’s their mere presence and beauty that gives us confidence we, too, can find our place on Earth.


Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.