Arborophobia

canker tree

Yesterday’s post prompted some additional recollections from my mother. Sometime during their last fight to save the hollow from being clearcut back in the late 80s, my parents were meeting with the lumberman/owner of the neighboring property in a lawyer’s office in Tyrone (the town adjoining our mountain). Of all the loggers we’ve ever met, this guy was the hardest to come to an agreement with because he viewed his role as divinely ordained: God had put the trees there for Man to use. Forest trees are a crop that needs to be harvested — a not-uncommon view at industry-funded schools of forestry, by the way. He once told me and Dad on a walk through the woods: “These trees are overmature. They want to be cut!” (See my poem about the incident.)

So on this particular day, Dad had to go to work after the meeting, leaving Mom to walk up the hollow. She mentioned this by way of making small talk after the meeting — what a nice day it was for a walk. The lumberman was aghast. “You’re going to walk? Aren’t you afraid of trees falling on you?”

It was a very telling remark, and we couldn’t help wondering how many other loggers suffered from such extreme arborophobia.

Fear of trees isn’t restricted to those against whom the trees might legitimately harbor grudges, however. Not long after we moved in back in 1971, a farm woman in the valley — another neighbor — asked Mom if she wasn’t afraid to be surrounded by trees. “I’d be terrified to live up there. What would you do if there was a forest fire?” Some years later, a writer-friend of Mom’s from State College expressed the same fear, adding by way of explanation that she was claustrophobic.

Well, I can see that. Besides, anyone who watches television with any regularity would be familiar with the raging, canopy-height forest fires that occur annually in many parts of the west. Here in the east, in most forest types including ours, fire really isn’t much of an issue. What forest fires do occur tend to be low-key affairs that scorch a few acres and kill a few fire-intolerant trees (read: trees that are not oaks) before they burn themselves out. It’s only in recently logged-over areas where the dried-out ground is deep in discarded limbs and branches that true conflagrations can occur.

Fear of forests in general is of course pretty widespread — just think about how many horror movies are set in cabins in the woods. It’s not altogether irrational to be afraid of wild places if you don’t know what you’re doing, or if there are aggressive poisonous snakes or grizzly bears about. Our black bears and timber rattlers are pretty hard to piss off, but to the extent that such things keep fools and lumbermen at bay, we could stand to have a lot more of them.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

17 Comments


  1. “You’re going to walk? Aren’t you afraid of trees falling on you?”

    I’d hate to think how he feels about visiting New York now.

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  2. I wonder if perhaps many people’s fear of woodland is not of the trees but of other, malevolent, humans and the cover that woodland affords them. This is especially so where small pockets of woodland exist close to centres of population, not wilderness but kind of feral land. I suppose it goes way back too, outlaws and robbers etc in the greenwood, romanticised yes, but woods were genuinely dangerous to travel through.

    A good friend here is a woman who lives alone on the edge of a small patch of forest attached to a couple of chateaux, near the edge of the (very small) town. She is totally relaxed about it, loves her woody garden, leaves her door open when she goes out, though she keeps a largish dog and has quite close neighbours . I sometimes wonder if I’d feel equally happy about it, partly as I have a vague sense that trees too close might harbour pests and damp, which are always a problem here, but in fact her house is old and solid and has excellent light on the open side.

    But perhaps these worries are rationalising of the more primitive fear you’re talking about. Maybe the loggers’ fears of falling trees is some kind of guilt, that they feel they’ve made enemies of them and there’l be a reckoning!

    About the trees wanting to be cut, people here have said about how the oaks need to be lopped in the excessive way they do, saying things like ‘they’re using up their strength growing too many branches’. The word ’emondage’ which puzzled me for a while, actually means ‘uncrowding’, like they’re doing them a healthy favour by lopping off all their branches.

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    1. Fear of trees and forests has complex cultural roots, I think. In the Western European Middle Ages, forests were largely beyond the rule of ordinary law, reserved for the royal hunt, as well as a place for outlaws as you say. This I imagine made them very frightening indeed to farmer-types who like everything properly bounded and cultivated and put to productive use, under human control. To this day, the idea of an unmanaged forest in anathema to many foresters, as I’ve come to learn.

      France was the first place I encountered heavily pollarded trees. It made quite an impression on me (I was 12).

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  3. Just discovered the blog courtesy of Right Hand Pointing, love the trees and the poems. You must be ten years younger than I am — I graduated from college in 1977, when there were still hippies on the streets. Still writing formal poetry and have a new chapbook, “Sonnets in a Hostile World”, because that’s what it feels like.
    Carry on!

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  4. I love bonsai only as much as it remains a tabletop hobby that doesn’t affect every single tree in the neighborhood being chopped to look like coatracks, which is what Japanese cities look like. No trees are ever allowed to truly put out their leaves. Right outside my window the gingko spends most of the year looking like a skeleton because the landlady keeps having it pruned to perdition. Why even have a tree if you’re going to lop it to pieces?

    Trees were doing just fine for hundreds of millions of years, long, long, long before we came on the scene. Who are we to think we know better how they should grow?

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    1. Yes, but at least the Japanese tend to do more asesthetically interesting things with tortured trees than Western topiary.

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  5. There are country folk who seem to feel that any tree is a threat. Here in Wales we come up against such views all the time. Someone was recently pointing out a spectacular and mature English oak in field not far from us (you’ll have seen it Dave when you were here) solitary and magnificent, remarking that it was all very well to have protection in place for such things, but really it was a hazard as branches might fall on the sheep!!!!!

    I kept my counsel. Fortunately it IS protected, AND prominently positioned, and so it should be safe. But the reasoning behind the words is very worrying.

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    1. I admire your preternatural ability to hold your tongue. I quite sure I would’ve failed the test.

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  6. Such a good post! Trees….do people know they have brains? I’m not exactly how or where, probably in the substrata under the bark, but they do.

    We have reason to fear the dark, dark woods…something bred in the DNA I think, but we also, in the rational mind, have reason to love this species that gobbles up carbon dioxide and puffs out oxygen. Without trees, we would probably die…along with all other land species.

    We are part of the web….and trees are an important connection there.

    Lady Nyo

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    1. Thanks for stopping by. I believe arboreal intelligence, if it exists, is somewhere in the web of entangled rootlets and fungal mycelia that are contantly exchanging energy, nutrients, and chemical signals.

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  7. Great post. Personally my only slight fear of trees here are concerning the very tall trees which are protected by bylaws from being cut down, but when the near hurricane force windstorms come and knock them down on houses, cars and powerlines it gets pretty scary. We had a huge maple behind our house removed before that bylaw took effect as we worried it could come down on our house one night. A similar tree one door over did that over a powerline. The forested mountains north of our city are quite wild and one can get lost if one is foolish – I guess I’d be scared if that happened to me – wouldn’t blame the trees though.

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    1. Yes, there are of course very good reasons to remove trees from around houses. We’ve had to take down several large balm-of-gilead trees over the years, though we did wait until they were dead or nearly so. Why people planted such large, short-lived trees right next to houses I’ll never understand.

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  8. Trees *are* pretty hard on loggers. Helmets are advisable. We’ve a neighbor (it seems like all of our neighbors are loggers) who had his skull fractured by a dropped bough even before he started sawing on the tree. There was a couple of years ago, much discussion of a young logger who’d lost his life in such a manner. Another neighbor never tires telling of having been chased by a timber rattler, which, after having run to his truck for a gun, he *had* to kill.

    Some stone masons also feel in possession of a special confidence that stone exists in the hope that it will be split.

    And you can’t have a conversation about winter without weighing its worth in terms of how many bugs will have cleansed away by spring.

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