Eight years ago, Sky & Telescope ran a short piece by a stargazer who had cut down a bunch of trees to get a better view of the sky. It provoked a startling number of outraged letters.Chainsaw astronomy seems to be very controversial, yet the subject arises over and over. Truth be told, in many parts of the world — including my own — trees are the single biggest enemy of stargazing. Sure, light pollution diminishes what you can see, but trees stop it completely. In its natural state, inland New England would have nary a view of the night sky except at the edge of rivers, lakes, and swamps -- and barely even there.
I find myself completely unsympathetic with both extremes of the debate. On the one side, there are people who say they would never cut down a tree just for convenience. On the other, those who say that it's my property, and no tree hugger is going to stop me from doing what I want with it.
I do think that trees demand respect — as does every living thing and even, to some extent, everything inanimate. If you brutalize the world around you, you also brutalize yourself. But I don't view trees as sacred — not as a general rule, anyway. In some ways, that seems just as irresponsible. It's copping out, failing to engage with the concrete reality of individual trees.Mind you, certainly trees are indeed sacred, though it's we who make them so. At my preferred observing site at my country home, the entire northern sky is blocked by a huge sugar maple that was probably planted when the house was built. But cutting it is completely unthinkable. My grandparents preserved it when they bought the house in 1930, and it's my duty to preserve it for my grandchildren — when and if they are born. It goes beyond my own personal likes and dislikes – even beyond my extended family. It's a link to the boys who lived in that same house and loved that same tree before they went off to fight and die in the Civil War.
On the other hand, I'm perfectly willing to cut down the trees at far end of the field that block my view directly to the south, where it matters most. Those trees are barely older than I am; when my father was a child, those woods were sheep pasture as far as you could see. If I don't cut trees down, then the field will slowly, inexorably, grow in from the edges, and there will be no field at all for my grandchildren.
Mind you, even those trees I'm not about to simply slaughter. I won't cut them faster than I can burn them in our fireplace. At the current rate of progress, I figure it will take me a decade or more to get an extra 15 degrees of unblocked horizon. But that's OK. It's foolish to be in a hurry when you're dealing with organisms whose life spans are measured in centuries.
It's sobering to think that the beavers who recently moved into the swamp below our house have killed more trees in three years than I have in my whole life. Then again, it's a full-time occupation for them, and just a hobby for me.