on behalf of the trees

A couple of weeks ago, I took my usual midmorning walk with our dog from the park at the head of Main Street to the viewpoint overlooking downtown Whitehorse.

A couple of weeks ago, I took my usual midmorning walk with our dog from the park at the head of Main Street to the viewpoint overlooking downtown Whitehorse.

To my horror, a number of trees and saplings had been trashed—snapped in half, or bent near the roots by jumping on them. Kids partying in the park, I thought.

This week it happened again, leaving the trail strewn with dying trees and me wondering what to do about it. Call the city? The police? The chances of them catching the culprits in the act seemed remote. Besides, was it a crime? The trees were wild, not planted, and they were along the trail, not in the park. Who was responsible for them?

The city bylaw department referred me to parks and recreation, who confirmed they had responsibility for the trail. Bylaw 92-15, it turns out, governs parks and recreation areas in Whitehorse, including developed trails, and sets out penalties for harming vegetation, whether wild or planted: “No person shall damage or in any way injure any tree, shrub, bush, plant or turf and every person causing such damage shall be liable for the costs of repairing such damage.”

But the only penalty is the cost of repair, if the culprit can be established—a large if. By contrast, someone who damages a public or private building within Whitehorse is liable not only for repairs but also for any penalties assessed (which can run as high as $10,000 if the person is charged under the Criminal Code).

All of which got me thinking about how we rate the severity of an offence. Why is the penalty for damage to a building—an inanimate object—so much higher than the penalty for harming a tree? Trees are, after all, living things. We don’t, as a society, tolerate such abuse to an animal. Why don’t we regard the abuse of trees in the same category?

Let’s imagine, for a moment, a society in which the killing of any living thing is a serious crime—a society in which trees and plants have legal rights. This isn’t as farfetched an idea as you might think. Forty years ago, an American lawyer named Christopher Stone wrote a now-famous essay entitled Should Trees Have Standing? Towards Legal Rights for Natural Objects.

In essence, Stone argued that elements of the natural world—rivers, beaches, valleys, and trees among them—should be protected by our legal system. Natural objects, of course (like animals and children) cannot represent themselves, so Stone suggested that individuals or groups could apply for legal guardianship. The guardian would then have the right to represent that natural object in court—for example, to argue for protection of an endangered species, or to sue a company whose development plans threatened a forest.

“The idea is startling,” says the Nova Scotian writer Silver Donald Cameron, “because we tend to think that some things naturally have rights and others don’t.” But, as he points out, there is nothing “natural” about how we determine rights. A hundred and fifty years ago, a slave was defined in US law as “a thing,” not a person. In Canada, women did not become “persons” under the law (granting them the same rights as Canadian men to hold public office) until 1929, a mere 80 years ago.

Yet nonliving, fictional entities such as governments, corporations, and towns do have legal rights. They can sue another entity or individual, and they can be sued. As Cameron says, “How can it make sense to give legal rights to figments of our collective imagination, at the expense of living things in the real world?”

The fundamental problem lies in how we define what is alive and what isn’t. Stone uses the term “natural objects,” though clearly trees aren’t objects in the same sense that, say, a table is. Yet we place them in the same category, and we refer to both trees and tables as “it.” In effect, we regard trees and plants as inanimate, though they exhibit all seven traits that biologists use to determine life. (Living things are composed of cells, have different levels of organization, use energy, grow, reproduce, respond to their environment, and adapt to it.) And because we regard them as objects, we also regard them as available for human exploitation.

Under the parks bylaw, someone who damages a tree is responsible for the repair costs, but a tree that is cut down cannot be “repaired.” It is fatally injured, and it dies. It can be “replaced,” in the sense that another tree can be planted, but like all living organisms, the dead tree is unique. In other words, the bylaw is not there to protect the rights of trees to continued life in a particular habitat; it is there to protect human rights to trees as property, for esthetic pleasure.

But the categories in this area of law are changing. Last year Spain became the first country in the world to grant limited legal rights to apes. The new law, which forbids harmful experiments on great apes as well as keeping them for circuses, TV commercials, or films, supports the goals of the Great Ape Project, established in 1993 to grant basic legal and moral rights to chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans. Pedro Pozas, the Spanish director of the Great Apes Project, explained that the law would set a precedent that could be extended to other species. “We are seeking to break the species barrier,” he said.

Let’s return, then, to our imagined society in which the killing of any living thing—including trees—is a serious crime. We don’t, in fact, need to imagine such a society, because they already exist. Aboriginal societies around the globe have always considered the natural world, including trees, as sentient, conscious, alive. Respect for that world is central to such societies’ beliefs.

Many Yukon First Nation stories, for example, warn of the harm that will befall an individual who treats any element of the natural world with contempt. The Athapaskan languages, which include Yukon native languages, do not categorize animate and inanimate in the same way that English does. “In Athapaskan languages,” says anthropologist Julie Cruikshank, “you know something is animate if the verb signals that it has the power to act on other things or to move, and actions are often attributed to entities, such as glaciers, that English speakers would define as inanimate.”

It seems to me that we will never fully regain our respect and awe for the world, or our interest in protecting it, until we alter our categories of aliveness in both our laws and our attitudes. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we cannot cut down trees. It does mean that we make such choices more consciously and deliberately, that we more fully acknowledge the fact that other living beings are sacrificed for our benefit.

As for those trees whose end I witnessed, it’s likely their destroyers are as destructive toward themselves as they are toward the world around them. Getting youth at risk to help in removing those dying trees and planting new ones might be a healing start. And a creative writing workshop, emphasizing memory and imagination rather than grammar skills, might be another. The first assignment? Write a piece that begins “I am a tree.”

Whitehorse writer Patricia Robertson’s most recent book is The Goldfish Dancer: Stories and Novellas. Her column appears on the last

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