On Arbor Day, we are encouraged to plant and celebrate trees, one of our most important resources.
When you think about trees, a few things probably come to mind: the bristling of their leaves in the wind, the crunching of their branches when they're on the ground, the feeling you get when you're surrounded by them — which can be rare in a city like Boston. But what does it mean to "speak" for trees?
"I'm a big fan of Dr. Seuss and 'The Lorax.' And in the book 'The Lorax,' the Lorax sort of says at a certain point, 'Stop cutting down my trees. I speak for the trees, for they have no tongues.' He doesn't say because they have no voice. The trees actually do have a voice. They just say things in ways that we don't necessarily hear," said David Meshoulam, executive director and co-founder of the advocacy group Speak for the Trees. "And it's time that we come together, building community around, speaking together in one voice for the trees."
Meshoulam joined several volunteers at Kevin Fitzgerald Park in Mission Hill for a recent clean up ahead of Arbor Day. Last year, the group planted about 20 trees. This year, they came back to mulch, water and check in on those same trees, as well as replace the trees that didn't survive with four new ones.
One volunteer, Rachel, reflected on the healing power of nature as she pulled weeds.
"In the city there are so many cars and never nature," she said. "Being locked up with COVID, you know, no one really got to come out and enjoy. And now we're back out. So this is relaxing."
Mission Hill is home to Northeastern's student population, as well as longstanding Black and Latino communities in the neighborhood. It also has fewer trees than some other neighborhoods.
"Drive from West Roxbury out to Mission Hill and you'll see the difference," Meshoulam explained. "And that is not accidental, right? That is a history of systemic racism. It's a history of redlining, disinvestment."
The city is working to address that historic disinvestment. In September, Boston announced a new forestry division and released its Urban Forest Plan. That analysis states that 27% of Boston is covered by trees, but that varies from neighborhood to neighborhood. Just 7% of East Boston is covered by trees, while 44% is covered in Jamaica Plain. Mission Hill, where this recent cleanup was held, falls about in the middle with 25% tree coverage.
The city council and Meshoulam recognize the importance of centering equity with new efforts, because trees are not just about visual appeal, they also provide health benefits and protection from the changing climate.
"Everyone understands they provide shade, right? On a hot day you want to stand under a tree," Meshoulam said. "But they also absorb air pollutants, right? So they reduce risks of asthma. They mitigate against stormwater flooding, they improve mental health, they reduce violence. They do all these amazing things."
Those issues were illuminated in 2020 when Boston proposed to cut down more than 100 trees lining nearby Melnea Cass Boulevard in Roxbury to widen the roadway. The city scrapped that plan months later, after the organization Friends of Melnea Cass Boulevard pushed back, with the support of Speak for the Trees.
At the same time, tree preservation contends with the city's ever-growing need for development in the form of new housing.
"This is becoming one of the least affordable cities to live in. How do we deal with that crisis? We have people living on the street or who can't afford to stay in the city, right?" Meshoulam said. "And that might involve removing some trees and replanting. But it can't be, I don't know, Paul Bunyan coming through and just cutting down every tree."
Meshoulam also said volunteering provides an opportunity for residents to learn more about their environment and connect with nature. He believes everyone has a story or a memory about a tree.
"I'm Jewish and my parents are from Israel. And there was an effort to plant trees in Israel to connect Jews from abroad back to the home country, as they call them. And when a baby was born, they would often — a grandmother or something would buy a tree for her, for the grandchild," he explained. "So there's a tree for me planted somewhere, somewhere in Israel."
He's never seen it, and doesn't even know if it survived. But he has the memory.
Walking around Fitzgerald Park, he hopes future generations will have their own stories about the pines, plums, redbuds, maples and dogwoods there.
Speak for the Trees is hosting a number of events to celebrate Arbor Day. You can find out more and share your tree story at treeboston.org.