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Pacific Ponderings

A Lament for Lost Trees & Hope for a Greener World

While I was in quarantine, I received an email from a dear friend grieving the loss of trees in our front parking lot. I share her sense of loss. This Pondering is a reflection on a difficult decision, which ironically required felling trees to make a greener campus. At the end, I draw a gospel message.

A Lament for Lost Trees & Hope for a Greener World

As president, I faced a painful dilemma in going solar. To reduce the university’s carbon footprint we had to cut down some lovely trees in the front parking lot. I hated the choice. To go “green” we had to cut down green things. It was a painful calculation, but life often forces difficult trade-offs upon us. In irony’s awful arithmetic, gains sometimes require losses.

I pushed back against the solar power company that required this choice. Could not the panels be located elsewhere? Yes, solar panels would be placed elsewhere on campus, but those on the front parking lot were critical. We went back and forth exploring other options. We did further engineering studies. Nothing worked. The dilemma remained: the cost of a “greener” campus was the loss of some green trees.

I consoled myself that solar panels in the front of campus, though far less lovely than trees, would announce our commitment to renewable energy. Moreover, they too would catch and convert sunlight in way that contributes to the health of the planet, as do trees, and supply campus with less expensive energy. And the panels would provide even more shade than the lost trees.

The company we hired to remove the trees promised to use their precious wood to make objects of enduring beauty. We were also able to save a half-dozen plumeria trees and replant them in the front of campus.

Yet for all this, I still lamented the loss of our lovely trees.

Just as I did the loss of the old banyan tree by the cafeteria. Before removing it, we brought in two local horticulturists, including one from Waimea Botanical Garden. Both confirmed that our banyan tree was incurably sick and dying. They also said it was an invasive species that is being removed all across Hawaii. Still it held great sentimental value for generations of Seasiders. So I asked that the wood be saved for possible use in the new cafeteria. I have seen the milled banyan wood. It is beautiful! But beauty bought by the loss of a living tree.

I hope that in the final tally my administration will have added many more trees to campus than we have had to remove. I am excited about plans for a plaza between the new cafeteria and the Aloha Center. We intend to fill this park-like plaza with shade trees that create inviting tree-lined walks and shady gathering places right in the center of campus. Here is a rendering from our current planning documents:

Graphic rendering of a greenfield lined with trees between buildings (Aloha Center and Cafeteria)

Similarly, I was pleased that, although we had to remove a sick banyan tree on campus, we have exposed to the campus a far more spectacular banyan tree by extending Mikionele Way. The tree is stunning—massive and sprawling like a banyan tree should be. A couple months ago when there was a “supermoon,” I was awed by the sight of an unusually bright, big full moon backlighting our banyan tree. Here is a picture I took:

Light of the moon shining through the branches of a banyan tree on a green hill.

It’s natural to feel sad and nostalgic when a favorite, familiar tree is cut down. We sometimes mourn lost trees as we would old friends. A poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins called “Binsey Poplars” speaks to the special kind of grief we feel for felled trees. Binsey is a little village northwest of Oxford, England, where a row of poplar trees growing along the bank of the Thames were hewn down. Hopkins laments the loss of these beloved trees whose branches like “airy cages” caught “in leaves the leaping sun,” but now are “All felled, felled, are all felled.”

Hopkins’s poem mourning trees cut down in the name of progress reminds me of feelings I had as a freshman at BYU. I lamented the loss of magnificent (elm?) trees just south of the library that had to be removed to make way for a new south wing. Few remember them now; it has been so many years. But I do. I often think of them with regret when I walk that side of campus.

However, my regret is mixed with gratitude for what replaced them. The south wing holds the literature, religion, and philosophy collections. I have spent many happy hours reading books where trees once stood. So my feelings about the elms are complicated by complex calculations of loss and gain.

As I was pondering all this on the Sunday after I learned that the trees in the parking lot had been cut down, my thoughts turned to another felled tree. It is one that I had never thought much about: the tree that was cut down for the cruel purpose of lifting up Christ on a cross.

The New Testament often refers to the cross itself as a tree on which Jesus “was hanged.” (See Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Gal. 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24.) This felled tree is deeply implicated in the Atonement’s cosmic calculus of loss and gain. The Atonement required a terrible death of one perfect man to make possible the inestimable gift of eternal life for us all. From Christ’s death on a dead tree we have the promise of new life and hope for the eternal greening of a world in ruins.

Who knows what sort of tree was hewn down to construct the cross. But Jesus was a carpenter’s son. He knew how to make useful things from rough-hewn lumber, even if wantonly cut down with indifferent or evil intent. So, too, from the cruel tree on which he hung, he fashioned a ladder by which we can ascend to God. Not long after he hung on a felled tree, he explained that he “had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me” so that they might “be lifted up by the Father” (3 Ne. 27:14).

I dislike cutting down living trees, but some losses result in gain. I hope that this will be the case for the lost trees in our parking lot. I know that it is the case for the tree that was felled to fashion the cross. The Master Carpenter, who knew how to make a ladder of a fallen tree, knows how to remake fallen beings in his own image. As Master Gardener who once “planted a garden eastward in Eden,” he also knows how to restore a world polluted by sin to its former paradisiacal glory.