Paperwork: For a moment, imagine writing a love letter – to a tree

Lonny Cain

I will be losing a close, close friend soon. He is hundreds of years old.

I don’t know why he is dying but many of his brittle branches are leafless now. Still he towers over my driveway and easily surveys his small kingdom, this neighborhood where he grew from a tiny acorn. He was here long before our houses and roads and groomed lawns.

I used to think this majestic oak tree would be here long after I have gone. But now I wonder. The logic of trimming lifeless branches becomes clearer after each turn of winter into spring. Trimming leads to the inevitable.

Part of me wants to wait until the last leaf falls and never returns. My old friend might not feel the rip of a chainsaw, but I will. Eventually I will apologize to the old-timer and thank him for decades of shade and beauty and bloom.

Don’t try and tell me I’m being silly or crazy. I have a bond with this tree and an overall respect and friendship with most trees. And that is not unusual.

It’s all part of our need to bond with nature. And we do worship the tree. Many remember the words of poet Joyce Kilmer after he wrote: “I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree.”

Poets and artists have immortalized their love for trees. But let me share an example of how intense that love can be.

In 2012, the city of Melbourne in Australia launched an urban forest project – with a twist. Every city-owned tree was given its own email address so residents could report issues or damage to specific trees.

And the emails started coming in. Love letters actually.

Arron Wood, a Melbourne city councillor, told the media: “An unintended but positive consequence was that instead of reporting problems with trees, people began writing letters about how much they love individual trees in the city.”

“We discovered that once people had emails, they could give trees personalities by pretending the trees could read what was written for them,” said Councillor Rohan Leppert. “It went viral very quickly and created a connection with Melbourne’s urban forest.”

One letter reads: “As I was leaving St. Mary’s College today I was struck, not by a branch, but by your radiant beauty. You must get these messages all the time. You’re such an attractive tree.”

Another reads: “To the tree on the corner of Park Road and Alexandria Avenue and that little street that goes up the side. I’ve always wondered about you ever since my slightly strange driving instructor who always smelled like cat food and peppermints told me that you were his favourite tree.”

And another: “Dear tree number 1517937, I’m confessing something very dear to me. I have fallen in love with tree number 1583182. I also feel guilty for cheating. I honestly feel really bad and I don’t know what to do. Would be really great if you could give me some advice. Regards, tree lover.”

A team of city staff send responses at times, often with a bit of humor.

After more than a decade about three letters a week are still coming in. They also do get important info on trees that need attention.

Melbourne is happy with the results. I’m not sure how this would work in our communities, but I bet we all have our favorites wherever we live.

I do. And ... I might have to write a love letter soon to my aging oak. Then deliver it personally when the time is right.

• Lonny Cain, retired managing editor of The Times in Ottawa, also was a reporter for The Herald-News in Joliet in the 1970s. His PaperWork email is Or mail The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.

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