Our Pristine Trees

Groves of aspen trees line the popular trails of Colorado, their white bark shining in the midday sun. Hiking alongside one’s peers, at least one person is bound to point out an etching of initials or a heart, stark on the slim trunks, and comment on the horror of such harmful practices. As the popularity of recreation has grown and accessibility to trails has increased, carvings have established a presence on aspen and beech trees across the United States.

Photo Couresy of Marta Sola-Pfeffer

When people practice tree carving today, they intend to immortalize a moment in time, express the connection between two people, or mark a place of importance. The etchers value the ability to create a lasting impression that they and others can come back to time and again; and many see their engravings as a meaningful way to connect with the nature around them.

Recent decades, however, have seen significant growth in the critiques of tree carving. As scientists have learned more about plant biology and the ecosystem interactions in which trees participate, they have found significant issue with tree etching practices. The bark of trees is used as a protective layer to insulate the plant from the dangers of the outside world. Deep cuts into the bark therefore create gateways for pathogens to enter the tree. Girding, the practice of making a deep cut all the way around a tree, endangers the tree further by cutting off the flow of water, sugar, and nutrients from roots to stem. Conservationists concerned with protecting the trees and their ecosystems have worked to raise awareness of the dangers of tree carving.

Beyond the obvious physical harm done by etching into bark, many contend that tree carving upholds harmful ideologies about the human relationship with nature. For centuries, Western thought has espoused human domination over nature. Backed by biblical arguments, humans have encouraged control of the natural environment and created a society built upon exploitation. Tree carving, many argue, continues this abuse of nature and expresses the human desire for domination of the natural world.

Simultaneously, however, this argument maintains the idea that nature, especially in the United States, is pristine and separate from humans. This too is an erroneous and dangerous message to espouse. The idea of separation from an untouched wilderness ignores the indigenous people who lived and interacted with nature long before Europeans came to the Americas. It also fails to account for the relations that every individual has with nature; humans and nature are interdependent pieces. By saying that tree carving is wrong because it fails to respect that division and mutilates the untouched, critics relay an underlying message that nature must be wild and pure, and that any practice which fails to respect that is wrong.

Tree carving is not a new trend practiced only by the disrespectful or ignorant. Engraving trees has been around for centuries, even in the United States; the etchings even have been termed “arborglyphs” by historians. In the U.S., Basque immigrants working as shepherds engaged frequently in the custom. Their carvings on over 20,000 trees across the U.S. reflect the solitude of their lifestyles and desires for the comforts of home. This tradition, as well as other tree carving customs, perhaps do not deserve shame, rather understanding of the cultures that they represent and the way in which people of the time were interacting with the nature around them.

Today, it is undoubtedly important to educate people about the physical harm that engraving can cause to trees. Nevertheless, it may also be important to start understanding the forces that drive people to engage in carving and take a look at the ideologies that shape the aversion of many to the practice.

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